Friday, 27 May 2016

Grammar: why am I talking about it?

1. Some people on twitter assume that I am someone who can't possibly know anything about 'grammar' because a) I write children's books and b) I'm opposed to young children learning much of the 'grammar',  that is in the KS1 and KS2 tests.

2. I hate to do this but as several people have asked:
a) at primary school in the 1950s, we did parts of speech, a bit on relative clauses and comparatives (!) and not much more. They were much more anxious about maths, and verbal reasoning tests.

b) At Grammar school, in English we did 'box analysis' and  'clause analysis' - loads of it ie breaking up sentences into phrases and clauses and putting them back again. In French, Latin and German (which I did) we did conjugations, declensions, tenses, moods much of which we learned by rote.

c) At university I did historical linguistics along with learning Anglo-Saxon (or 'Old English') and then some Middle English.

d) On various occasions, I've voluntarily put myself through mini-courses in the various kinds of grammar available, especially M.A.K. Halliday. I've also read much of David Crystal's work.

e)  I've also immersed myself in other ways of talking and writing and about language - mostly socio-linguistics of various kinds e.g. Labov, Dell Hymes, Trudgill.

f)  Since 1998, I've presented about 20 half-hour programmes a year for BBC Radio 4 on 'language in use' ie a form of descriptive linguistics to describe how people use language.  I'm still presenting that, now alongside linguist Laura Wright.

g) Though it's no formal qualification, my father was an applied linguist and we must have spent hundreds of hours talking about language in literature, education, daily life etc. and I have read most of his work.

f) I have an MA and a Ph.D. in children's literature much of which involved considering how it is we handle language in order to read and write: a combination of 'intertextuality' and 'rhetoric' - both branches of applied linguistics.

3. The result of all this leads me to think that there is absolutely no harm, and perhaps some advantage FOR PRIMARY SCHOOL CHILDREN in knowing the generally shared names for the basic parts of speech and a bit on subject-verb structures. Beyond that for this age of child I think that this particular kind of grammar  involves too much work for too little return to spend time figuring out, learning and spotting such structures as 'determiners', 'fronted adverbials', 'embedded relative clauses', specific names for tenses e.g. 'present perfect progressive'.

4. The kind of 'grammar' on offer in these tests is a) not the only way of describing language and b) not necessarily the best 'knowledge about language' (KAL) to be taught in order to help children write well.

5. This kind of 'grammar' on offer to primary children attempts to describe patterns, conventions and 'rules' derived from 'meaning' and 'function' and then declares these as correct. It cannot and does not explain or explore changes in use, changes in meaning, variations in use, variations in meaning, or indeed use itself. Instead, it takes simplified, 'ideal' sentences or words, takes them out of any context of actual use and demands that children identify features of this non-real language. As a result, children are not invited to explore or understand language as it actually is.

6. This kind of 'grammar' on offer to primary children keeps trying to pin down a perfect or pure or totally correct way to describe a written language feature and give it a name. As a result. in my own lifetime, this terminology has changed many times over and gives rise to many arguments. In fact, more often than not, there isn't a more or less right way of talking about it, because the terminology is constantly being derived from the system itself, without referring outside and back to meaning, context and social function ie how and why is a particular  word/phrase/clause/sentence being used at that particular moment by those particular people. The terms themselves are often opaque and don't refer to meaning and social function - though, mysteriously some of them do, like 'possessive' ie it indicates that we 'possess' things in real life 'out there' and therefore need words to describe and indicate 'possession'. 'Present perfect progressive' doesn't indicate anything of meaning and social function.

7. Let's not forget for a single second: this whole grammar apparatus was not introduced into schools because people in education thought it was a good idea. It was introduced because the Bew Report of 2011 that was set up by Michael Gove to make recommendations about 'assessment and accountability' said that 'Grammar, punctuation and spelling' were a good means by which teaching (not children!) could be assessed because grammar, punctuation and spelling questions have 'right and wrong answers'. In short,  that is an untruth.

One exemplification of that: Schools Minister, Nick Gibb made what was described as a 'mistake' when asked to identify a word in a sentence. In fact, all that he did was give one of two alternatives for that word. It is only this kind of grammar test that calls it a mistake. It's the test that is the mistake, not the man who imposes it!

8. If we started again and wanted to think of how best to talk about language in primary schools we would start with investigation of forms of language in use. And we would do this alongside many forms of playing with and using language that children would enjoy and find interesting and useful for their writing.

9. The 'grammar' that is being taught is being applied artificially to the children's writing as a measure of what is supposedly good writing. In other words, the children are being asked to use things like 'embedded relative clauses' as the criterion. The only reason for this is that it then becomes a measurable, testable quantity. However, that has nothing to do with what makes writing good. Writing is being distorted to fit this particular kind of 'grammar'.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

BBC's 'Last White People on Earth', last night

My first quick thoughts were:

a) it's one thing to film people talking about their views of their own situation, the world, what they think of other people - even their theories of how the world should be, but it's quite another to let that drift into their theories about the past.

b) On the matter of their theories about the world and how it could be, you have a choice as a film-maker as to whether you put those theories up against anyone else's. Quite obviously, the film chose not to. So we hardly heard views which contradicted or gave any kind of counter-narrative to those in the film.

c) Both the narration and the people in the film talked about history. There were many distortions and fibs here. The commentary used the word 'thrived' to describe the lives of people in Newham in the 1930s and 40s. Oh please! By ring-fencing 'Newham' (which didn't exist before the 1960s as an entity) it conveniently left out two major earlier migrant 'invasions' - Irish and Jewish. So, the present state of affairs could be presented as 'new', 'unprecedented' etc etc. Even worse, it enabled the people on screen to represent themselves as the 'true' East Enders. Either there is no single 'true' East Ender, or it has to include these two major migrations and many smaller ones. From memory, I don't think Irish migration was mentioned once, and the only Jewish one was when the bloke in the working-men's club said that over there is 'Lou the Jew - he don't mind' (meaning he doesn't mind being called 'Lou the Jew').

d) You'd've thought from the film that Newham was experiencing one single demographic change: 'Asians coming in, whites moving out'. In fact, there is another one which is that with rising house prices, there is and will continue to be an influx of people of all backgrounds - including white - to buy the houses that white working class people are leaving.

e) The film cast as a tragedy (tears etc) that people are moving to Hornchurch and Rayleigh. Oh please! Another way to talk of this is to describe it as embourgeoisement or 'moving up' enabled by the fact that people can sell their houses for sums way higher than any price they could have got 20 years ago. The film described the move as a 'push' but no serious history of migration in and around cities (e.g. the story of Chicago) would limit it to 'push' because a 'new lot' came in. This pattern has been repeated all over the world, many, many times and it most certainly isn't always a history of 'white flight'. What I mean is that there is 'push' but there's also 'pull' and 'rising' as factors too.

f) Beware the film-makers justifying what they did with reference to e.g. the old woman saying goodbye to the Somali family and b) the 'irony' of the boxer talking about crime going up, even though his own dad was in prison. That's how these film-makers talk up what they do.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

How to engage an audience? Good conjunctions and suffixes. [Irony alert]

A comment on my Facebook page:

"I observed one of our students teaching a lesson this morning. It was a Year 2 class [6/7 year olds] and the children were asked to write a description of a particular scene they'd been given as a picture. The student asked them what they needed in a descriptive piece of writing to engage the audience. The answers they gave made me feel quite sad... good noun phrases, conjunctions and proper use of a suffix. "

On a technical point here: the reason why this sort of thing is possible is because what the government call 'grammar' is in fact a way of talking about language that leaves out how we use words to mean things in all our social interactions (what I keep calling things like 'full meaning' and 'social function'). The more you narrow down the terminology to what are supposedly pure descriptions of the 'system' of language, the less you engage with what words, phrases, clauses, paragraphs, chapters, books do - and indeed the more you overlook speech, where what we say deviates so much from the neat little packaged systems of 'sentence grammar'.

So, in the above comment, the teacher is asking the children about social function - how to engage an audience. They reply with 'system grammar' as if knowing system grammar engages an audience. That's what SPaG does. It lies about how to be effective.

Monday, 23 May 2016

How SPaG wastes space and wastes the mind.

Q. 38
Write a sentence using the word 'point' as a verb. Do not change the word.

Remember to punctuate your sentence correctly.

Write a sentence using the word 'point' as a noun. Do not change the word.
Remember to punctuate your sentence correctly.

Directions to those people marking this question according to the 'Mark Scheme':

Award 1 mark for a grammatically correct sentence that uses point as a verb and that is correctly punctuated, e.g.

I saw the teacher point at the board.

Do not accept responses that use an inflected ending of point, e.g. Ushma pointed at the book she wanted.

Award 1 mark for a grammatically correct sentence that uses point as a noun and that is correctly punctuated, e.g.

I sharpened my pencil to a fine point.

Do not accept responses that use an inflected ending of point, e.g. The red team scored more points than the blue team. 


In real life, we use some or many or all of the forms of the word 'point' : e.g. points, pointing, pointed.

As the mark scheme says, if, say,  you put 'a' or 'the' in front of it, you could - depending on the use - say, 'point' or 'points'. If you use it with a 'subject' in front of it, you might say, 'She pointed at the chair', or 'They were pointing at the ceiling'. 

But these would be WRONG because the instruction in the question says that you MUST NOT. 

Now, remember that this paper is supposedly about 'grammar'. The grammar point being shown by this question is that the word 'point' is available to be used as a noun or a verb. 

So, if this was really a question about finding out what children know (as opposed to being part of a test to measure teachers' ability to teach this stuff) then those 'inflected endings' would be acceptable if the 'grammar' was right. 

Really, then, what's being tested is a) the ability to use 'point' as a noun and as a verb BUT ONLY IN THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE QUESTION. In other words, this is as much a test of whether the child reads and understands that pointless (excuse pun) question, as it is of 'getting' that bit of grammar. 

Of course, you could also use 'point' as a command - and therefore a 'verb': as in 'Point!' or 'Point.' I would seriously doubt that the examiners would allow that. 

Why not? Because we are in the crazy SPaG-world of language taken out of context where the word 'word' (!) is easy to talk about as if it is something real and 'point' and 'points' are supposedly different words. When linguists want to talk about words in real use (and not in imaginary SPaG-land), linguists prefer to talk about 'lexemes' to talk about a word like 'point' being used in real sentences as, say,  'points', 'pointing', 'pointed'. 

But in SPaG-land, for no useful reason, 'points', 'pointing' and 'pointed' are WRONG. 


According to SPaG-land, (and this year's test) the Oxford or 'serial' comma is WRONG. It isn't wrong. It's an alternative use. If you see "I can't find the bats, balls, caps, and stumps' THAT IS OK. SPaG is wrong to say that it's wrong. It's just one way to write it.


1. According to SPaG-land, the word 'fierce' has a 'true opposite'. Quite simply this is nonsense. No single word, isolated on its own has a single 'true opposite'.  We can never totally predict how a word might be used. In fact, in another part of the school, teachers will be working hard to help children see that in literature, writers use words in ambiguous and fresh ways that deliberately make writing interesting and surprising. In SPaG-land, they isolate a word like 'fierce', pretend that it has one meaning, pretend therefore only words meaning 'e.g. gentle or calm' (see mark scheme) are 'true opposites'. 

How about 'We were taught by Mr Jones. If we talked in lessons, he  got really fierce'? 

Whatever the 'true opposite' of 'fierce' is in this context, it certainly isn't 'gentle' or 'calm'. The sense here is of someone being loud and punishing so if we really want to waste time on opposites, the opposite would be 'quiet' or even 'kind' or 'nice' - words that children use to describe teachers who are not 'fierce'! 

Apart from anything else, all this really has nothing whatsoever to do with grammar, punctuation or spelling. The only reason why children are doing this particular bit of rubbish is because that's what the Victorians did. 

If it's supposed to be a window on semantics (meaning), then it's a useless, irrelevant and misleading way to do it. 

The more we rip language out of context, the more difficult we make it to study how it is really used and how language itself changes. 

2. Remember the only reason why there was a question on the 'subjunctive' is because Michael Gove said there had to be one. No other reason.  

Next week, Jeremy Hunt will tell surgeons what clamps to use when operating on bowel cancer. 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

To be or not to be that is the exam question.

"To be or not to be that is the question."

Underline the correct insubordinate conjunction in the sentence above.

In one word say why the sentence above is correct.

What is the correct synonym of 'the'?

Why is the writer?

Explain in less than one word what is the correct answer to the question.

Is the writer experiencing an existential crisis?

Which of the following is true? (tick one box only)
a) to be
b) not to be
c) that is the question
d) or.

With close reference to the text, show why the sentence is effective.

Put the word 'to' into your own words.

Would the following line be an improvement?
'To be? Or not to be? Those are the questions.'

Who won the iambic pentameter in the last Olympics?

I am an exam designer stuck in an exam design factory. Help. Get me out of here.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

What is real science and how much of it can you teach at GCSE?

A science teacher put this list of things on my Facebook by way of defining what an ideal science education does:

"Doing and learning going hand in hand:
seeing, questioning, predicting, hypothesising, testing, reviewing, exploring: equalling real understanding, to then reapply in other contexts."

Hand on heart, science teachers - AND I'M NOT BLAMING YOU, I KNOW YOU HAVE TO TEACH WHAT THEY TELL YOU TO TEACH - how much of this were you able to do with your GCSE students?

(I'm on twitter and Facebook if you want to reply.)

To those defending this year's GCSE Science exams

I'm beginning to find the Shuttup School of criticism being directed to pupils and parents who are objecting the science GCSE a little tiresome. The point is that Michael Gove deliberately upped the 'knowledge' content of these exams. He was warned by the Select Committee that this didn't make education better and didn't narrow the difference between the lowest scoring pupils and the highest. We now know that what it's also done is squeeze the practical side of science down to a very rudimentary core.

To which I ask, what's 'scientific' about the kind of cramming that I see our daughter doing for these exams? She is simply learning off by heart loads of stuff that she hasn't seen demonstrated let alone had a chance to experiment with it herself. This isn't science. It's the subject known as Learning-off-by-heart. It's what Judi Dench does without the 'perform it well' component. It may or may not be connected to any understanding of what is being learned. It is purely an arbitrary good side effect if it is. It may well not involve any sense of how what is being learned may be applied or how it manifests itself in the real world. It may. Or it may not.

As I say, this is not the science of investigation of, experimentation of, proving and 'reproducing' phenomena.

Those who are defending this stuff might consider what happens to those pupils who are going to fail this stuff? What have they got from the course? Awareness of scientific method and principles? And who's to say that this stuff is going to help create scientists?