LINGUIST List 9.1693

Tue Dec 1 1998

Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Editor for this issue: Jody Huellmantel <>


  1. Geoffrey Sampson, Re: 9.1629, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Message 1: Re: 9.1629, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Date: Wed, 18 Nov 1998 11:15:15 +0000
From: Geoffrey Sampson <>
Subject: Re: 9.1629, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

I hadn't caught up with this development, but purely on the basis of
Anthea Fraser Gupta's presentation of it I would like to suggest that
it may be more laudable than she would have us think. In my
experience of dealing with the written output of undergraduate and
postgraduate students in recent years, a substantial proportion of
British students now are really incapable of producing clear,
meaningful prose dealing with moderately complex topics -- a skill
which is likely to be highly relevant in the careers to which many of
the same people aspire; and it appears to me that one of the problems
in helping them overcome this failing is that they often have no
vocabulary or conceptual apparatus for thinking about the mechanics of
well-formed prose. If one tries to help by pointing to a "sentence"
and saying something like "Well, you aren't actually saying anything
in this sentence, you know. because its main clause doesn't contain
any verb", their eyes glaze over as if one had switched to speaking in
Albanian; and the problem is not that "main clause" or "verb" are
drawn from a traditional vocabulary whereas students nowadays are used
to some more modern terminology, the truth is that they have _no_
terms for describing these things and no experience in thinking about
them. State primary and secondary schools in Britain in the 1970s
largely abandoned all teaching of English structure; the fashion in
the teaching profession seemed to be to believe that since the
youngsters could speak conversational English fluently, that ability
ought to suffice for understanding and composing written English prose
dealing with demanding topics. In practice this just doesn't seem to
be true.

In this situation it seems to me far more important to get the school
system to revert to teaching _some_ system of conceptual categories
for thinking about language structure, and preferably a system couched
in terminology that is widely recognized and used in dictionaries,
style manuals, and similar general-interest publications, than to
worry too much about whether all the details of the system taught are
fully in line with recent linguistic theorizing. The aim of the
exercise is to give youngsters a framework for thinking about their
writing and what works and doesn't work -- not to put them in a
position where they could contribute to a debate in the pages of
_Language_ or the _Journal of Linguistics_. Compare, say, the case of
a practitioner of herbal medicine who was training a young assistant
to gather the various specimens needed to manufacture a stock of
remedies. If all the assistant knows about is "flowers" and "weeds",
it will be an uphill struggle, but if he can recognize and name plants
and flowers using the traditional terminology such as "St John's
wort", "tormentil", etc., then it really won't matter that he isn't
familiar with the scientific Latin binomial terms -- these might
actually confuse the picture, since they classify in terms of
evolutionary relationships rather than concrete similarities and
differences in the here and now (and fewer people are qualified to
help reinforce a newcomer's learning, in the case of the Latin

I myself, in my early schooldays, was taught the old wives' tale about
the apostrophe-s ending being an abbreviation of "his". I know now
that it is wrong; but I really can't see that it did either me, or my
schoolmates who did not become linguistic professionals, any harm to
be taught it. Ideally untruths should never be taught, but the
linguistics profession would do the next generation of Britons a very
large disservice if it caused the initiative described by Anthea Gupta
to founder by unleashing a barrage of criticism relating to minutiae
which really don't matter. That doesn't mean that linguists should
not contribute to this initiative, but if we do so I would hope that
it would be in a positive spirit, helping to suggest modifications of
detail that would improve the initiative without robbing it of its
force. My fear is that Anthea Gupta's message heralds a campaign of
negative carping whose net effect is to leave the current, fairly
disastrous situation unchanged.

In the list we are shown of terminology proposed to be taught in the
first year of schooling, paradoxically the ones I would cut out would
be the ones derived from scientific linguistics: grapheme, phoneme,
onset. In their native context of discourse these are good, useful
terms, but I can't see what a primary schoolchild could do with them.
He or she can use the concept of rhyme, because children enjoy simple
poetry and play with rhymes spontaneously; by contrast the onset of a
syllable seems to be an abstraction which they could hardly relate to
any concrete activity -- and all these terms are words which the
parents of the schoolchildren would find mysterious, so that we would
have a situation akin to the "New Maths" movement of the 1960s where
children were taught things that were opaque to almost all the people
they interacted with outside school.

As a university teacher I often confront the paradox that the written
English of overseas students, for whom English is a second language,
is frequently far better than that of our own students. This relates
to a survey which Dick Hudson of University College London carried
out, a year or two ago, in which he enquired about schoolteaching
practices relating to the structure of the respective national
language in countries throughout the world. The pattern of responses
was very clearcut, and quite instructive. In the English-speaking
nations, this area of teaching has been largely abandoned; in
countries speaking other languages, it remains an important component
of schooling. It is understandable, I suppose, that a fashion in
schoolteaching practice should have spread through the territories
speaking one particular language and failed to cross into the
non-anglophone world, but this is one case where I believe the
foreigners are right and we English-speakers have got things badly

Geoffrey Sampson

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

tel. +44 1273 678525
fax +44 1273 671320
Web site
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