Grammar lessons renamed ‘understanding language’

Should grammar lessons be renamed “Understanding Language”?

Some of the country’s most eminent linguists came together for English Grammar Day, presented by UCL and Oxford University in association with the British Library, last week. With talks from grammarians including David Crystal and Dick Hudson, the event served as a crash course in the history, prevalence and importance of grammar. The main focus, however, was on the problems with how grammar is taught in schools. Should grammar lessons be renamed “Understanding Language” after all?

How things have to improve was made clear: we need to embrace grammar, teach it in context and uphold its importance within the education system. One answer is to call it something else. Lindsey Thomas, school improvement consultant at Buckinghamshire Learning Trust, suggested that teachers replace the word “grammar” with “understanding language”.

Using the word “grammar”, she said, can conjure off-putting images of an old-fashioned classroom. It makes it sound like a secret you’re not let in on, and has associations of “right” or “wrong”. On the other hand, “understanding” or “knowledge about language” make it sound more positive.

Crystal said: “You have to put the notion of grammar in the background. It’s about meaning and clarity. Clarity unites us. I’m not afraid to use the word grammar, but I can see why people would be.”

It’s not just grammar’s name that’s the problem. In addition to its unshakeable, unhelpful reputation, there are deeper issues. The government’s Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG) tests were repeatedly mentioned as the main barrier to children’s learning, and Crystal was probably the most vehement in his criticism.

“Grammar needs context,” he said. “With the new SPaG tests children get marks for underlining a noun. It seems like all the fresh thinking has gone and the clocks have been turned back. There’s no room for creativity with the SPaG tests because they’re about identifying, not understanding.”

Crystal said the work being done in classrooms across the UK to tackle such problems, and the people behind it, had shaped his own outlook and approach towards teaching grammar. He says it’s all about involving children in enjoyable grammar exercises, showing them, and asking them “why” and “what if?”

He has been working with Thomas on the Buckinghamshire Grammar Project. “I don’t understand why this sort of thing isn’t happening in more schools,” he said. His sentence trailed off with the word “expensive”.

There may be a glimmer of hope in the curriculum. Hudson, who is the government’s adviser on…


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Photo credit | Murdo Macleod

Posted on August 18, 2014 in English grammar

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