LINGUIST List 8.792

Wed May 28 1997

Disc: Grammar in UK Schools -- a response

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  1. Geoffrey Sampson, Grammar in UK Schools -- a response

Message 1: Grammar in UK Schools -- a response

Date: Tue, 27 May 97 10:51 BST
From: Geoffrey Sampson <geoffscogs.susx.ac.uk>
Subject: Grammar in UK Schools -- a response


Grammar in UK Schools -- a response

(re LINGUIST 8-694)


Prof. Cameron's article appears to argue against the whole role of
grammar in the National Curriculum, on the basis of one test question
which she rightly describes as ill-thought-out. I would not defend
that question; but it seems to me that teaching correct usage, the
standard terminology for elements of grammar and punctuation, and the
ability to remedy formal errors in faulty prose are exactly the kinds
of thing that need to be taught in this area at secondary-school
level. To say that school pupils should be taught to engage in
"explicit, systematic reflection on what it is that we are doing when
we use language" strikes me as akin to suggesting that teachers of
French should forget about teaching the past participle of "vivre" in
favour of getting their pupils to develop considered opinions about
the theories of Derrida. Even assuming this type of cognitive
achievement is worthwhile in principle, it is quite impractical for
the average secondary-school class to attain it. In practice, the end
result of that attitude to the schooling process is the kind of
content-free education exposed in Melanie Phillips's recent book _All
Must Have Prizes_.

People need to learn to write their national language accurately
because much of modern life depends on complex written communication,
and prose that is full of unsystematic deviations from the conventions
interferes with successful communication, as dirty windows interfere
with successful vision -- the message gets lost amid problems with the
medium. People need a terminology for talking about the bits and
pieces of language, as a car mechanic needs to know the names of the
parts of a motor, in order to provide an apparatus for thinking out
what has gone wrong and how to cure it when prose doesn't "work". It
is a very familiar scenario to me nowadays that an undergraduate hands
in written work full of sprawly "sentences" that never actually manage
to say anything, and if I try to help by explaining "Look, this
conjunct begins with a subordinate clause which is never followed by a
main verb", he stares at me as if I were discussing Attic correption.
Yet without the terminology, saying "Well, these kinds of words aren't
enough without other words" doesn't help him.

Beyond that, though, teaching orthography and grammar at school level
has a much broader educational value. One of the lessons we all have
to learn is that nothing big and worthwhile is ever achieved in this
life without careful attention to endless tedious and often arbitrary
details. I can't see a better domain for learning this lesson than
the orthography and grammar of one's national language: it contains
the tedious details, but it relates to material which surrounds the
child in his everyday life. If schoolteachers in effect say to pupils
"There are rules about this stuff, but nobody really expects you to
learn them" -- which is what they appear to have been saying during
much of my adult life -- they are creating a mentality of
underachievement which offers a very bleak outlook for the future of
British civilization.

Professor Cameron would be better employed helping SCAA to devise more
efficient ways of teaching and testing schoolchildren's knowledge of
the adjective, rather than carping at the entire enterprise, as her
newspaper article appears to do.


Geoffrey Sampson

School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, GB

e-mail geoffscogs.susx.ac.uk
tel. +44 1273 678525
fax +44 1273 671320
Web site http://www.grs.u-net.com
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