What did grammar ever do for us?

In my last blog I groused that successive governments, while insisting on science being a mandatory part of the schools curriculum, do not apply scientific methods to their consideration of what the language part of the same curriculum should contain.

When we come to the dreaded word “grammar”, policy seems to be derived from old gentlemen in Conservative clubs grumbling about the inadequacies of the younger generation in writing formal styles of English. In some cases they themselves learned to write in the prescribed way and put this down to their being made to learn old-fashioned grammar. Their argument is rather like the one advanced by the people still demanding corporal punishment in schools – “It never did me any harm!”

Scientific studies have shown that direct teaching of “grammar” has no effect on the command of formal written English. Nevertheless, there must (one hopes) be more than dogged conservatism in the hankering after the shibboleths of a bygone age. In this blog I examine what the purely linguistic benefits of the old grammar school teaching were. Continue reading

Taking notice of research

One of the most dismaying features of the debate about the English curriculum is that the Government pays no attention to research. It has been clearly established in project after project that teaching grammar has no effect on pupils’ ability to write correct formal English. This does not mean that explicit teaching of the relevant genres of formal written English has no effect. Continue reading

The Wigan Language Project

Last week I finished reading Urszula Clark’s book War Words: Language, History and the Discipline of English (Elsevier 2001). For this blog I shall skip chapters 4,5 and 6 and move at once to share my delight at finding her reference to the Wigan Language Project. In half a page she encapsulates the main features of Breakthrough to Learning, laying proper emphasis on the teaching of abstract language. Continue reading

Fast-Track version is now on-line

The most essential chapters of the three books of Breakthrough to Learning have been combined into a single volume “Fast-Track” for use by students in Colleges of Further Education.

This single volume version can now be viewed and downloaded from the Downloads page.

What was going on?

With two friends I’ve been reading Chapter 3 of Urszula Clark’s book War Words: Language, History and the Discipline of English. All three of us have “English” degrees and we all earned our living teaching “English” in one form or another. (The first effect of Urszula’s book is to problematize as a school subject – hence the inverted commas.) We all had some training in modern Linguistics  and two of us taught English Literature as well. The institutions we taught in ranged from primary through secondary schools and Further Education to University, and the clientele from native speakers to foreigners and immigrants.

Our professional lives covered, between us, the period 1950-2000, the major part of the period covered by Clark’s second chapter. It was fascinating to see how our various experiences exemplified the ideological debates and practices of the second half of the twentieth century. I, at least, participated in those debates, both as an active member of the Labour Party and as a teacher in the system. When I recall what it felt like to be involved in those conflicts, I recall my utter confusion! What the heck was going on? Continue reading