Are you ready to go boldly?
Teachers are being called upon to teach a subject that, in many cases, terrifies them. TES investigates whether teachers are ready to fall in love with the finer points of the semicolon
For a long time, Cat Shepherd struggled with Jesus. Or, more accurately, she struggled with the idea that anything might belong to Jesus.
“Words ending in ‘s’?” she says. “Jesus’? Jesus’s? Oh God, not a clue.”
Thirty-six-year-old Shepherd grew up in an era when schools could choose how - or, indeed, whether - they taught grammar. “We were told that nouns were naming words,” she says. “So I always thought a noun had to be something like James, Jack, John. That it had to be a name.
“Apostrophes were something we were just supposed to pick up. When you had your work back, the teacher might say ‘put ’ here’.” She indicates a written mark; her teachers shied away from even the most basic technical terms. “But they never explained why. We were never taught about possessive apostrophes, apostrophes for omission.
“We were encouraged to use a thesaurus to extend our vocabulary. Having a massive vocabulary was very sought after. But using it properly? Starting sentences with adverbs? Construction? Never discussed. Never discussed at all.”
This is all changing. In its draft for a new primary curriculum, the government announced that pupils were to be presented with - and expected to memorise and use - an intimidating array of grammatical terms. Released this summer, the proposals revealed that 10-year-olds will be tested on the correct use of a modal verb, a determiner and a relative pronoun. Eleven-year-olds, meanwhile, will be expected to write in the active and passive voices on demand, and to use the semicolon correctly.
This return to old-fashioned sentence parsing, however, has highlighted a black hole of grammatical ignorance, not only among those 10-year-olds unable to determine anything other than their own lack of interest in the subject but also among their syntactically illiterate seniors. Many teachers raised during the linguistic free-for-all of the late 20th century spent their own school years being encouraged to express themselves richly and imaginatively (“There’s a tree - write about it,” Shepherd says), but not necessarily grammatically.
“For years GCSE specifications gave very little reward for technicalities,” says Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English. “Provided you did a really good piece of creative writing, you could get a really top award and still not know the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.
“Schools have been doing everything they can to get the highest grades possible. Therefore, if things like that aren’t rewarded, they won’t concentrate on them. The current administration has gone some way towards trying to address that. But it’s taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.”
Indeed, confronted with the need to define a fronted adverbial or an expanded noun phrase, members of grammar’s lost generation are finding their careers transformed into a live-action version of the old joke about a man struggling with a task, whose friend scoffs: “It’s so simple even a seven-year-old child could do it.” A pause. Then, in unison: “Quick! Somebody find a seven-year-old child.”
“Everywhere you go, grammar has a bit of a tendency to strike fear into the hearts of teachers,” says Debra Myhill, professor of education at the University of Exeter. “These are very, very good teachers. But there’s a gap, because curriculum expectations change, and their own education didn’t prepare them for it.”
Forty-year-old Henry Fowler, for example, was taught only the very basics during his own years at school. (This is a pseudonym: he feared that a full admission of grammatical ignorance might undermine his authority as head of English at a secondary in the North East of England.) “I was taught nouns, verbs, adjectives and nothing else,” he says. “And nothing whatsoever towards the end of my secondary career.”
Shepherd, too, spent her primary school years learning that nouns were “naming words”, verbs “doing words” and adjectives “describing words”. “We recognised verbs because we were told they had ‘-ing’ on the end,” she says. “But if another word ends in ‘-ing’ - what’s going on there?”
This is at once the problem with and the joy of the English language. The word “hunting”, for example, looks at first glance like a verb, because of its “-ing” ending. But, depending on its place in a sentence, it could also be a noun (I like hunting) or an adjective (my hunting gloves). Meanwhile, in a sentence such as “I like to hunt”, many assume that “to hunt” is the main verb, because there is more doing involved in hunting than in liking.
Those teachers who graduated from the “doing words”, “naming words” school of syntax, therefore, have been left to work out the rules for themselves. “What we can’t do is a crash course in grammar,” says Myhill, of the training course she runs for would-be English teachers. “There just isn’t time. My main goal is to win their hearts and minds, so that they don’t feel negative about grammar. So that they feel enthusiastic.”
Calling on Dickens
Because English splits into two separate qualifications - language and literature - from GCSE onwards, many pupils choose to study only one at A level. The vast majority of trainees who join Myhill’s English PGCE at Exeter are literature specialists.
Working on the assumption that these prospective English teachers are far more confident when confronted with a page of literature than with a sentence to deconstruct, she uses literary texts to teach them grammar. For example, she looks at the opening of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which describes a thick London fog. For roughly a page, none of Dickens’ sentences includes an active verb: “Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.” The impression is of lack of activity: of a world frozen in time.
“Suddenly you see how it’s working,” Myhill says. “The literary things that teachers would normally say are reinforced by the structure. It’s ridiculous to separate the two. But if you don’t have grammar in your background, you don’t know to bring it out.”
Now an advanced skills English teacher at Sandwell Academy in the West Midlands, Shepherd advocates a similar strategy with pupils. “No kid is going to wet their pants over learning about exclamation marks,” she says. Pause. “‘Exclamation mark’.
“A lot of kids fear punctuation. You have specific grammar lessons and kids groan. Who the hell is interested in talking about full stops or commas or semicolons?” (The question mark on the end of this sentence is left unverbalised.)
Now she, too, teaches grammar in context: “You look at how a writer uses the semicolon to move the story on, rather than having a whole lesson on the semicolon and boring them to death.”
In the US, such lessons are referred to as “rhetorical grammar”. For example, a class might look at traditional fairy tales and their formulaic expanded noun phrases: “wicked stepmother”; “enchanted forest”. Bureaucratic writing, by contrast, relies heavily on cross-pollination between verbs and nouns: “to impact”; “to potentialise”.
“Why would you ever want to teach about expanded noun phrases out of context?” Myhill says. “Teach them in context and you’re showing children how texts really work.
“People often counterpoint creativity and grammar. Creativity is all about freedom; grammar is all about rules. But that manipulation of the sentence for effect is at the heart of being a meaning-maker.”
Confidence is the key
However, teaching grammar in this way requires confidence. And it is here that grammar’s lost generation falls down. Many of them were forced to piece together an understanding of complex syntactical rules, using nothing more than other people’s writing, a computer grammar check and their own wits. “Certain terms, such as ‘clause’ or ‘subordinate clause’, I had never heard. Never,” says Shepherd. “I thought a subordinate clause was an underground movement by Father Christmas.”
She had, however, always been an enthusiastic reader. And, though she qualifies this with warnings, the green admonishments of her electronic grammar check eventually taught her that a standalone clause had to include a verb.
She thought that this knowledge might be sufficient. Then, following an undergraduate degree in theatre design, she was required to write a formal essay in order to secure a place on a teacher training course. The admissions tutor told her that the points she had made were extremely perceptive, but that she had no idea how to put them across effectively.
“And I thought: exactly right,” she says. “I’m friends with so many of my school friends on Facebook and they can’t punctuate for shit. It’s shocking. Clearly not everybody came out of the other end of the tunnel smiling.”
Shepherd was therefore forced to relearn her own subject during her PGCE year. Thirty trainee English teachers were made to work their way through paragraphs of text, circling nouns, adjectives and pronouns. They then moved on to proper nouns, abstract nouns and adverbial nouns.
Henry Fowler, meanwhile, worked out his own understanding of English grammar by transferring the skills necessary for his master’s in comparative literature. “I studied French and German, which helped me hugely,” he says. “It gave me the nomenclature for the different tenses, the different circumstances and ways in which you might employ language. In French and German, you have to look at it a bit more analytically.”
Asked to teach English language A level, he says, “I literally went back to the textbooks. I went back to basics. Things started coming back to me. You think, hang on, I did this in French and German, and this applies to English. But I had never really looked at the language in that way before.”
Because grammar does not come instinctively in a foreign language, it must be taught, in all its indefinite-article-in-the-accusative-case minutiae. This is as true today as it was in Fowler’s youth.
“Grammar is really hammered home in French and Spanish,” says Shepherd. “Personal pronouns. Definite articles. But the kids don’t seem able to carry those terms over into English.”
Pupils, it appears, have little concept of the transferable skill. In their minds, terms learned in French, German or Spanish lessons apply purely to French, German or Spanish.
Equally, grammar terms learned in standalone grammar lessons apply solely to the purpose for which they have been learned: the grammar test. “There aren’t many areas of research where the same results come up again and again,” says Myhill. “But if you just drill children on grammar, all you get are children who can answer grammar questions.”
Again, she questions the value of teaching technical terminology: “Every teacher of punctuation knows that they can give endless tests on the exclamation mark and the full stop, and children will get it right. But, in their next piece of writing, the exclamation mark and the full stop will be all over the place.”
Tim Sherriff, head of Westfield Community Primary School in Wigan, has seen this, too. “To be honest, I’m not sure how useful technical terms are,” he says. “The worry is that it becomes a memory test: can you describe what a subordinate clause is? It’s knowing how to use them that’s important.
“We do use technical terms with children. We don’t avoid them. But it’s always within a context.”
Minimising technical terminology also helps to lessen English teachers’ fear of their own subject. Called on to teach English language A level for the first time, Fowler was terrified that a pupil would pluck out a technical term from the textbook and throw it at him, purely in order to catch him out.
“Throw any question at me in literature and I’ll be able to answer it,” he says. “I don’t feel like that about language. Year 12 language was all right. But Year 13 was a big step again, and it always made me uncomfortable. I don’t think I did them any harm - some of them got A grades. But, candidly, I always felt that they could have done with someone better teaching them.
“You’ve got the old cliche about teachers learning just enough to stay ahead of the kids, but it wasn’t that at all. I was miles - leaps and bounds - ahead of the kids. So it was all about confidence. You’re still thinking, ‘I’m not quite as confident in this as I could be.’ You don’t feel entirely secure. You feel like a bit of an impostor.”
This is something that Myhill hears repeatedly from her trainees. “In grammar, teachers can feel they’re being constantly caught out, because there’s a right or wrong answer. That’s intimidating. They can feel as if they’re being exposed.”
Secondary English teachers, however, at least have the advantage of subject-specific training. Not so primary teachers. “The thing is, for any successful lesson, the teacher needs to have secure subject knowledge,” says Sherriff. “I would expect all my staff to have the required level of understanding of the subject. But it’s probably true to say that there’s quite a spread of experience in terms of what teachers have been taught and not taught.
“I don’t think grammar comes in and out of fashion. It has always been there. I think what’s changing is the subject knowledge around technical phrases. And further up the school, that’s highlighted more.”
When French lessons were introduced at his school, several members of staff admitted that they had not studied the language during their own school years. Sherriff therefore brought in a French specialist to ensure that they were up to standard. “You could draw a parallel with grammar,” he says. “We provide training for those teachers. We provide support for those teachers. We bring specialists in.”
Ian McNeilly agrees that this kind of support is vital if teachers are to avoid being overwhelmed by subordinate clauses and fronted adverbials. “I wouldn’t expect a primary teacher to be able to deliver the grammar strand of the new curriculum without some form of training or retraining,” he says. “If you were someone who had taught biology for 10 years, and then were suddenly landed with a chemistry class, you would go and look it up. You have to constantly update your technical skills.”
Still, though, there remains a vast amount of scepticism about the value of displays of punctuation pyrotechnics. “Grammatically accurate writing can be really bad writing,” says Myhill. “Good grammar is necessary for good writing, but it’s not sufficient.”
Told that an adjective is a “describing word”, for example, children will often load their sentences with unnecessary, multisyllabic, ever-more- flowery adjectives. In fact, a well-chosen noun would be far more effective.
Shepherd puts it slightly differently. “My mother takes particular pride in her O levels,” she says. “She thinks that GCSEs are similar to cycling proficiency tests. She had to learn swathes of Shakespeare and sit grammar tests.
“But I say, ‘So, you’ve got an O level and you can punctuate well. Your point is …?’ Because, actually, I’m a much better writer than she is.”
HELP IN A FLASH
Teachers wishing to brush up on their grammar knowledge will find no shortage of free guides online or more extensive manuals in bookshops. However, these can be difficult to refer to in the classroom, where you are expected to have all the answers to pupils’ questions.
To help, TES has put together a series of “desk drawer” flash cards that cover four key areas of grammar: punctuation, tenses, word types and parts of a sentence.
The cards offer simple definitions and clear examples of correct usage. They are ideal for jogging your memory in the middle of a lesson and provide a template for communicating aspects of grammar to your class.