LINGUIST List 9.1720

Fri Dec 4 1998

Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. Anthea Fallen-Bailey, Re: 9.1694, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy
  2. Damon Allen Davison, RE: 9.1694, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy
  3. Lance Nathan, Re: 9.1694, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy
  4. A.F. GUPTA, Re: 9.1693, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Message 1: Re: 9.1694, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Date: Wed, 2 Dec 1998 13:07:19 -0800
From: Anthea Fallen-Bailey <>
Subject: Re: 9.1694, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Dear colleagues,

I have read with interest the recent exchanges on literacy strategies in
Britain, a situation which saddens me greatly, as I learned my English
grammar skills in an English school (1960s/'70s), and I have no doubt at
all that that education anchored in me a firm understanding, interest and
skill in language. It also helped me learn four additional languages.

I am a British citizen, but happen to be expatriate in the U.S., where I
have been officially resident for the last 11 years (almost all of it spent
in acadaemia in Oregon -- nice place!). While I was also born outside the
U.K., all my secondary education was based on the English curriculum, and
from age 11 until "O" levels, I attended a small boarding school (now
closed down) in Berkshire. I clearly remember the way I was taught English
grammar, and it served me very well then and since. We would be given
sentences (varying in length and complexity, depending on our learning
level) and asked to identify one or any of the following: verbs,
adjectives, pro/nouns, definite/indefinite articles, adverbs, plurals,
possessives, interrogatives, etc. *and* show their relationship to other
parts of the sentence. The *way* we identified them is what sticks in my
mind most strongly: we used coloured pencils to underline the relevant
category, then draw an arching arrow, in the same colour we underlined the
category, from the word we underlined to the word(s) being referred to, or
"acted upon" by the underlined word. This sounds complicated when
explained in words, but is very simple in practice. For example, a verb
was underlined in red, with a red arrow arching over to a noun/pronoun;
nouns were underlined in blue, with blue arrows arching over to the verb
(if the noun is affecting number in the verb, as in these sentences:
(There is one cat. There are five cats.), and whatever else the noun is
"acting on". Adverbs were yellow pencil, adjectives were green, I think
interrogatives were purple, and so on.

The pictoral end result of the analysis (which is what is was, essentially)
could be a mass of lines going in each direction -- which was clever,
actually, because it impressed on us (the students) how inter-connected
were all parts of the sentence, and that in turn helped us to pay more
attention to understanding, *and applying* currently correct grammatical
constructions. The information we learned in grammar class was also
incorporated into our literature classes -- asking students how or why we
know something about a character in a novel encourages/forces the student
to pay attention to how the novel was written (in terms of grammar, choice
of vocabulary, etc.) -- and into writing papers for homework assignments
for other classes, such as geography, history, and so on. Our grammar was
ALWAYS corrected in the work we turned in, no matter what the discipline;
I have never forgotten receiving a mark of 99% on an English test because I
decided to put the title "Grammer" (quite unnecessarily!) at the start of
my written replies! When I offered a (mild) protest to the teacher, she
smiled and said that the spelling was wrong, so she had to deduct a mark.
As she kindly pointed out, she had not requested a heading on the written
paper, and if I hadn't added that, I would have receive full marks....I
definitely learned my spelling lesson on that occasion!

You can see what kind of impression this visual and incorporative system
made on me, because 30 years later I can still remember it!! The grammar
method may seem a somewhat childish (?) way to learn/teach grammar, but if
it works, why refuse it? I was already 11 years plus when this method was
taught to me; would it also work at younger ages? Probably. It occurs to
me that the modern young generations are *so* visually biased that this
method to teach grammar would probably be highly appropriate!

Well, this message will not contribute to any pedagogical theory, but it
was not intended to. I often have the feeling that we tend to make
secondary education too complicated by devising theories and then trying to
apply them in the classroom, which seems to be putting the cart before the
horse! Some "technical" terms are clearly necessary to introduce early
(verb, noun, adjective, etc.) because they are fundamental to talking about
the parts of a sentence, but other terms really are not necessary at the
secondary level of education -- I never heard the word "grapheme" until I
began studying linguistics at university, but that didn't stop me from
knowing the difference between a "letter" and a "word" (as they apply in
English, of course, which is the language under discussion here). Please,
don't complicate or confuse the material more than it is already! If these
personal experiences help somehow in the present situation, then it has
served a purpose to share them with you.

Regards to you,
Anthea Fallen-Bailey.

Anthea Fallen-Bailey (Ms.)
Editor, "Langscape", the newsletter of
Terralingua: Partnerships for Linguistic and Biological Diversity 

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: RE: 9.1694, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Date: Wed, 2 Dec 1998 22:40:34 +0100
From: Damon Allen Davison <>
Subject: RE: 9.1694, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

I feel the example of Mr. Mills' doctoral student's work is a
wonderful example of what can be accomplished by someone who is
sufficiently excited about his field of study to infect others with
his enthusiasm. It has also been my experience that many people,
children in particular, show interest in language if it is presented
to them properly. Instead of asking "Why is the sky blue?", they ask
"Why do some people say 'It's I.' and other people say 'It's me.'?".

I also agree with both Mr. Sampson (Disc 9.1693) and Mr. Mills that a
system is better than no system at all. We should still keep in mind
that in the UK they have a chance to have not only a system, but a
good system to boot. (That was the idea behind educational reform.)
Surely enough time remains in order to fix the NLS before it becomes a
matter of educational policy throughout the UK - and it is not
difficult to imagine such policies being implemented in other
Anglophone countries as well.

The discussion has been principally about native English speakers, but
Mr. Sampson did mention his experience with foreign students at his
university. From personal experience, I agree with him that foreign
students from many other countries know more about language in general
than British and American students, but I believe that many of these
students' mother countries prevent any but an intellectual elite from
attending university, and that without even considering the
difficulties many other students have financing their study abroad.

But of course many of the problems American students have with
language have simply to do with the lack of academic challenges in
school. I recall my classmates and myself complaining when my Tenth
Grade English teacher cracked the whip and forced us to (finally)
learn English grammar. If I remember correctly, she was one of only
two teachers who really taught grammar, above and beyond the State
Curriculum, which did not demand much from us at all. (Matters of
school curriculum are determined by the State government in the US,
not the Federal government.) But we should all be grateful to our
Tenth Grade English teacher for her having made so many other aspects
of school, university and life in general much easier for us.

Damon Allen Davison


Internet Project
Romance Languages Department
University of Cologne <>
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: Re: 9.1694, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Date: Thu, 03 Dec 1998 02:15:06 -0500
From: Lance Nathan <>
Subject: Re: 9.1694, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

>From an earlier post to the list:

>Date: Tue, 1 Dec 1998 20:54:06 +0100
>From: "Damon Allen Davison" <>
>Subject: RE: 9.1693, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy
>The notion that creating and using just *any* system of terminology
>for teaching English seems ridiculous, especially since the very idea
>behind the UK National Literacy Strategy (NLS) was to do things the
>*right* way.
>Students who learn the non-scientific terminology (i.e. not the
>terminology that is generally considered correct by most linguists)
>get along very well as long as they remain in the environment where
>such terminology is taught. Perhaps it will even help their writing.
>But a problem surfaces when they are forced to learn another
>metalanguage which expands concepts whose meanings they thought they
>knew. This is true for both traditional grammar and for any new terms
>created within the NLS Framework. But the terminology partly
>described in Ms. Fraser Gupta's post compounds the problem by poorly
>or incorrectly defining terminology already in use by the linguistic
>community, and redefining terms from Traditional English Grammar.

I've had long discussions with friends about this very topic, or a closely
related one, that occurs in an entirely unrelated field, namely
mathematics. In particular, one friend of mine was quite annoyed that, in
the traditional method of teaching arithmetic in secondary schools, young
children are taught that you "cannot" subtract a larger number from a
smaller one, and are taught later that this definition of subtraction isn't
correct. Why, she wanted to know, can't the proper definition of
"subtract" and similar words be given from the start?

Because, a mutual friend of ours (whose undergraduate degree was in math)
pointed out, there are a lot of other terms like "zero" and "one" which
have much more technical definitions [these two terms are nothing more than
a designation for the particular element of a ring or field which is such
that it, the element, bears a special relationship to one of the two
operators defined on the ring or field, namely for the element A designated
"0" that for all elements B in the ring or field and for the operation
designated "+" we have the property A + B = B. (Got that?) This would,
when expressed more precisely, be the "technically correct" definition of
"zero," and "one" is similarly defined].

However, given that the only rings most people ever look at (until they
learn abstract algebra perhaps a decade and a half after first learning
"zero" and "one," if they ever learn abstract algebra at all) are the
integers and rational numbers, it doesn't seem worthwhile to confuse
children with a technical definition they won't need; giving students a
definition that will be good enough for all the practical purposes that
most of them will ever need is considered good enough. Certainly these
students, while learning what we consider "basic math skills," won't have
definitions they can use when (and if) they study math at a higher level,
but that's fine.

It seems to me that the same thing is happening here: there's no need to
give anyone who isn't going to be a linguist an intensely technical
definition of a term like "noun" or "rhyme" or the like. A teacher need
only give people definitions that will work for what they need to do--which
may be, as both Geoffrey Sampson and Damon Allen Davison suggest, to write
better. Again, students learning "basic English skills" won't have
defniitions they can use when (and if) they study linguistics, but that's
fine, too.

This does leave open the question of whether the definitions of the words
that _are_ being given are in fact at all helpful, and whether they do (as
suggested) "redefine terms from Traditional English Grammar," and whether
these redefinitions are the wrong thing to do, and so on. But I think that
worrying that a five-year-old's definition of "noun" isn't technical
enough, or correct by modern linguistic standards, may not be necessary.

 Lance Nathan (Brown U. '99, A.B. Linguistics)

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 4: Re: 9.1693, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

Date: Thu, 3 Dec 1998 12:20:22 GMT
Subject: Re: 9.1693, Disc: UK National Literacy Strategy

The response to my posting on the UK National Literacy strategy by 
Geoffrey Sampson <> appeared before he would 
have been able to read my summary. But I'd just like to clarify my 
own views on the topic.

GS argues for the usefulness of grammar teaching, and I agree. Like 
(I imagine) most people contributing to this list, I would like to 
see some teaching of English grammar in UK schools (especially in 
secondary schools). But I do feel (and I agree with Damon Davison on 
this) that what is taught should be academically reasonable as well 
as pedagogically appropriate. 

While some of my discussants wanted to see generative syntax being 
taught in schools, I incline to agree with GS that the traditional 
grammar terms are probably the best ones to teach. But surely it is 
the current trad. grammar terms (as exemplified by the Survey of 
English Usage productions from University College London, for 
example) which should be the base, not the random and (at best) 
archaic collection of terms that the document seems to be using.

Furthermore, let's not forget that in the National Literacy Strategy 
the children who are expected to learn all this stuff are aged 5-11. 
I understand that in the current incarnation of the National 
Curriculum, there is little or no provision for linguistic analysis 
AFTER age 11, and that it is not currently assessed in the 'English 
Language' examination at age 16 (GCSE). Many of the analytic terms 
and skills of linguistic analysis would be appropriately done from 
11 upwards, and appropriately assessed at age 16 (as they were until 

The National Literacy Strategy is adding to a centralised syllabus 
that is already very very packed, and to which teachers often adopt a 
cynical 'tick it off to show the powers that be that we've done it' 

If linguistic analysis was part of the curriculum age 11-16, 
it could then be taught by specialist teachers who would 
have more idea what the terms meant. The terms used in the glossary 
of the National Literacy Strategy will be meaningless to most primary 
school teachers. 

GS says:
> I would hope [that linguists could participate] ... in a
> positive spirit, helping to suggest modifications of detail that
> would improve the initiative without robbing it of its force

I agree. 

GS says:
> 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.

I agree. Why is this paradoxiical? This was why I supplied the list. 
Furthermore, these terms are not generally known by teachers.

My own view, which I appear not to have made sufficiently clear, is:

1) Very young children should have some education in language 
awareness (there are different languages; they're all worthwhile;
English isn't the greatest; people speak differently from each other 
& that's fine; different kinds of English are used for different 
purposes; we know a lot about language because we can do it). This 
should continue throughout the syllabus.

2) Children aged 5-11 can understand some commonly used 
metalinguistic terms (such as rhyme, 'opposite', probably 
'noun' and 'verb', the difference between a sound and a letter). 

3) As children get older they can develop a metalinguistic 
vocabulary, and can start doing some linguistic analysis. I 
personally think traditional grammar is the best basis (word classes, 
parsing, SVOCA analysis, clause types etc). Most of these skills 
should be taught after age 11 by teachers with some training in 
linguistics / English language.

Hope this clarifies my own stance.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Anthea Fraser GUPTA :$staff/afg
School of English
University of Leeds
 * * * * * * * * * * * *
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue