There has been much debate about how grammar should be taught and what age is the best age to study it. Before reading the text, consider these questions:
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Most pupils will be unaware that parents, teachers, policymakers, researchers and critics have been wrangling over what kind of grammar should be taught; when it should be taught; how students should be graded and, in particular, how they should be tested. After an overhaul several years ago, the “Key Stage 2” tests given to 11-year-olds have been particularly controversial. Critics say that the terminology is too advanced for 11-year-olds. They also say that the teachers are unprepared themselves, since grammar teaching went out of fashion for decades in the English-speaking world. And the terminology they are expected to know has changed since the days when those who were lucky enough to study grammar did so in the mid and late 20th century.
No one disputes that children need to be able to write. But do 11-year-olds need the skill of identifying—by name—a “relative clause” (eg, the house that I live in), “modal verb” (eg, can and must) and “determiner” (a term better known to linguists than schoolteachers, including a, the, each, every and some)? The tests aren’t finding out whether youngsters can use these things, but whether they can “tick one box to show which part of the sentence is a relative clause,” or “circle all the determiners in the sentence below.”
Michael Rosen, a radio presenter, children’s author and himself a teacher at Goldsmiths (part of the University of London), points out that in the question asking “Which of these sentences is a command?” all four are instructions to do something, but only one of them (“Before you go out, ask your mother for a shopping list.”) has a grammatical imperative. The others say things like “I want you to clean out the playhouse this afternoon.” Students are to know that this is not a “command” on the test—even if it certainly is a command when their parents say it.
Deliberate study never killed anyone. But does this help kids write? Surely a curriculum would be introduced only after research indicated that it did — except that there is no evidence of that. One large meta-study (which looks at a host of previous studies) concluded that, of the teaching strategies designed to get kids writing better, nearly all had a positive effect—except for this kind of grammar teaching, which had a slightly negative one.
At “English Grammar Day”, an event at the British Library this summer, Bas Aarts, a syntactician at University College London, eloquently defended explicit grammar teaching. It prepares students for learning a foreign language, when metalinguistic thinking will be useful. It trains certain useful abstract concepts. And since language is one of the most intricate and astonishing capacities of the human mind itself, studying it is a rich exercise all on its own. Mr Aarts is sceptical of any pedagogical philosophy based on pure utility, rightly noting that arts, history and other subjects will quickly be out the window if schools narrowly test only what will make a more efficient worker-bee.
He is right. But 11 is too young for this work. At that age, kids are just beginning to read for pleasure in earnest. Good reading is probably more essential to good writing than any other activity; students can produce effective English only by consuming great quantities of it first, finding their rhythm, and absorbing the grammar of the written page by reading, much as they learn the spoken language when they are younger by listening. Of course, many annoying elements of English, like the fact that it’s is not a possessive or that their, they’re and there are different, need to be explicitly taught. But that teaching will stick best with good, curious and frequent readers.
Explicit and overly abstract grammar teaching before the age of 11 is a bit like throwing seeds, that one hopes will turn into healthy plants, onto thawing early-spring ground yet to be ploughed. At this young age, spelling and punctuation—which are necessary but straightforward memorisable drudgery—can be introduced. But to expect the teaching of the modal verb and the determiner to make good writers out of young students is not “raising standards”. It is making a category error: writing and explaining syntax are related but not identical. Young children should read, then they should write, write and read again. The formal terms can wait for a later age.