Thursday, 31 January 2013

New poem for your class

Here's a new poem for teachers and parents. You can try doing the repetitions in the poem with groups or all joining in. These repetitions are meant to be a bit like a Greek chorus, so when the chorus joins in you could turn the 'I' into 'they' or  'he' or 'his' etc.  So the 'I' lines, Mum and Hornby Teacher are solos, and the chorus lines are groups who say, 'he'/ 'his'/ 'their' etc. Experiment with it, anyway. 

If it suggests to you or children about things that they had to do in Nursery or Kindergarten or at any other time, they could write about that? Or perhaps it's about conversations between teachers and parents about the child. They might like to try this chorus repetition writing, too. 

In the afternoon at nursery

In the afternoon at nursery
we have to go to sleep
we have to go to sleep

In the afternoon at nursery
In the afternoon at nursery
I won't go to sleep
I don't go to sleep

because of the...
because of the...


I won't go to sleep 
I won't go to sleep 
I won't go to sleep
under the hairy blanket.

The hairy bits get into your ears
into your ears
The hairy bits get into  your eyes
into your eyes
The hairy bits get into your mouth
into your mouth

So I won't go to sleep in the afternoon
I won't go to sleep in the afternoon.

The hairy blanket is an army blanket
a browny greeny army blanket
a browny greeny hairy blanket
left over after the war.

I wriggle and wiggle 
I jiggle and squiggle
under the hairy blanket.

I don't go to sleep.
I won't go to sleep.

Hornby Teacher the Nursery Teacher
says to my Mum
Michael won't sleep in the afternoon.
Michael won't sleep in the afternoon.

My Mum says to me:
Why won't you sleep in the afternoon?
Why don't you sleep in the afternoon?

And I say to Mum
I don't go to sleep because of the...
I won't go to sleep because of the...

Is that it? she says.
Is that what's bothering you?
Is that it? she says.
Nothing else?

And, I say, and, I say
and, you're not there
in the afternoon
when we're supposed to go to sleep
You're not there in the afternoon
when we're supposed to go to sleep.
You're not there. 

Austerity-con; transfer of wealth from poor to rich

Prof Richard Drayton (Kings College, London) in Letters LRB (24 Jan 2013):

'...if there was a such a large and growing gap in the public finances, was it an urgent problem of over-expenditure, or was it really a crisis of revenue collection, as tax laws favourable to corporations and a lack of enforcement allow an ever increasing share of GDP to escape the public purse? What is clear is that in May 2010 the percentage of UK GDP which went to servicing debts, even after the impact of the 2008 crisis, was, at 2.5%, at the lowest level enjoyed by any Conservative government since...1900. By no metric in 2010 was the present or projected debt burden of the UK in historical terms very high, let alone unsustainable.


The price of austerity will be a long-term decline in the standard of living of the majority of the population, and an acceleration of the now thirty-year long experiment in transferring wealth from the poor and middle classes to the richest.'

Monday, 28 January 2013

Children today can't talk. Really? Really?

In many different contexts I hear a similar cluster of statements around children's 'vocabulary', children's language, children's speech. This runs something like this: many children today have very 'poor' language, very 'little' language, they can't speak properly, they have very poor vocabulary, they can't express themselves...and so on. Or it's more specific than this and it's problem with 'poor' children, 'working class' children, 'immigrant' children and so on.

Most of this evidence seems to come from encounters between the adult who is talking to me and the child or children they are describing. I can say honestly that I've had similar experiences: I've gone into classrooms and tried to engage in a conversation with a child and failed. The child has just spoken to me in very short yes/no type answers.

However, I don't think my encounters with children prove anything at all about how such children speak, how they might speak, or what kind of language they have at their disposal. All it shows me is how that child speaks to an adult, who, in my case, is a stranger, a male, speaks received pronunciation, with standard English dialect elements.

I suggest that if we ever want to find what children can and can't talk like, we need to set up situations in which they are most able to talk fluently, talk in an engaged and thoughtful manner. I would suggest that this would be in situations where they have something to say to each other about something they care about, or something that are deeply engaged in making or doing or planning. This would or should  mean having no adult present.

This is not difficult to set up. All it requires is for there to be a job to be done: whether it's planning something that the children really want to do or make; or it's in response to seeing a film or reading a book or poem where the questions that they are discussing are ones that have no right or wrong answer (eg does this book/film/poem remind me of anything that ever happened to me? Does it remind me of any other book, film, TV programme etc that I've seen? Are there any questions I could ask anyone in the book/film/TV programme etc? Can we together answer any of those questions?)

Then all it needs is for the children to agree beforehand for this to be recorded.

Then all it needs is for you or anyone else to be willing to transcribe these conversations and to analyse what is being said and how.

There is a literature to help people do this eg 'Understanding Children Talking' Nancy Martin et al; and even a chapter in my parents' book 'The Language of Primary Schoolchildren'.

I would suggest that we cannot make legitimate statements about children's language unless we start to analyse transcripts of children talking in the situations I've described.

If anyone reading this is interested in carrying out research like this, do get in touch. I'm on twitter, facebook and my email address is on the top right hand corner of my website.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Tories: Puritan-style

This is a preliminary note on what could or should be a serious and lengthy analysis.

I ask myself, what links the kinds of things that Ian Duncan Smith and David Cameron say about 'strivers' and 'shirkers'; the ever tighter clamp on schooling that is exerted by the testing and examining system; performance related pay; the use of the word 'rigour'; today's announcement by the Schools Minister that nurseries should spend time teaching toddlers how to read and do maths; Big Society - charity etc; Austerity talk in the midst of approving of the accumulation of wealth;

It's picking a strong strand from what the Puritans were saying in the 17th century. Their themes were moderation in all things, industriousness as a virtue in itself, a turn away from priests and churches as being the sole site of virtue and wisdom and asking the individual conscience to be responsible for his or her own actions, duties, responsibilities. Radical Puritans were egalitarians and said that poverty was a virtue, but the non-radical ones, praised the rewards of industriousness even if that reward was wealth. Idleness was a sin in itself and anyway, led to evil thoughts and actions. Education of the child was all-important but mainly in order to save the child from his her evil ways - children were  born sinful or 'fallen' and it was the job of parents and schools to beat virtue into them and teach them moderation and industriousness.

There have been significant revivals and metamorphoses of Puritanism other forms of Protestantism and  this isn't an attempt to unify them or equalise them. Different times, different forms. It just seems to me that knowingly or not, this Tory regime keeps picking up on themes first articulated clearly in Britain in the late 16th and 17th centuries.

In 'Measure for Measure', Shakespeare attacks the hypocrisy of one form of this Puritanism in power, as expressed by the character and actions of Angelo, the temporary ruler of the city state. In other words as early as 400 years ago, people sensed that though Puritans could talk the talk of being 'pure' and fighting evil, even as they did so, particularly if they were powerful, could in fact commit the same 'sinful' acts that they claimed to despise.

One of the most repulsive scenes in recent times has been the sight of a rich people voting in the House of Commons to ensure that poor people get poorer. And then laughing about it. Deep at the heart of all this is the notion that 'people on benefits' are idle. (According to Osborne they are lying in bed behind closed curtains.) This is a core Puritan idea.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Language watch 1 - Lance Armstrong: I? he?

I thought that I would start putting up occasional looks at language use as and when they occur to me.

One of the events of the last week has been the Oprah interview with Lance Armstrong. Through most of the interview he used 'I' (the so-called 'first person') when talking about himself, but, as many people have noticed, every now and then he referred to himself as 'he' or even in one part as 'a guy' ('third person').

The question we can ask is whether this is just an interesting way for us all to talk about ourselves when we're talking about ourselves in public, or whether there's deeper stuff going on.  Followers of English football will remember player, manager and commentator, Kevin Keegan, used to be keen on referring to himself in heated moments near matches as 'Kevin Keegan'. He would explain that Kevin Keegan doesn't do x, or does do y. This usually involved some sense of honour or sporting sincerity.

Here's what Armstrong said when talking about himself:

"That is a guy who felt invincible... Truly believed he was invincible. That's who that guy was. That guy's still there. I'm not going to lie to you."

My first reaction on hearing (and seeing) this was to assume, along with many others that this was evasive, a way of not accepting responsibility for what earlier and later in the interview he admits he did. We can use all sorts of constructions for doing this and I'll look out for more as part of this 'Language watch'.

The 'evasiveness' argument is that to say 'I' is like naming yourself as the 'agent', the doer, the person who acted, the subject of the verb, who caused something to happen: eg 'I did that thing.' So, the argument runs, to say, 'he' is like saying it's someone else, it's that other guy.

But is that what Armstrong is doing here? Here's another alternative: in this particular case, he is doing something akin to putting himself in a glass case and looking at himself. Or more: he's putting himself into that 'display' position and asking Oprah (and the viewers) to join him in looking at the exhibit.

Aha, says the counter-argument, look how he distances himself by saying, 'That's who that guy was.' That guy isn't even here! But then, almost as if Armstrong is aware of what that sounds like, he modifies what he's just said, 'That guy is still there.' In other words, as I interpret it, that guy is still in the glass case. And then in his next utterance, he says, 'I'm not going to lie to you.' He switches from 'that guy' and 'he' to 'I'. Again, with my model of what I think is going on, it's as if he is standing next to exhibit A (himself), first inviting us to look at the exhibit, and then drawing our attention back to him, the exhibitor, to say, 'I'm not lying to you.'

Of course, he may be, he may be not. He may have been evasive in all sorts of ways elsewhere in the interview, particularly over the matter of whether to implicate others. However, in this short passage, I don't think that I'm running with the pack and saying that this particular construction is evasive. If anything, I think that linguistically, it invites us to view the speaker as an item on show - which of course he is, what with being on a TV show with millions watching.  So, perhaps it's 'collusive', he is trying to join us as viewers of himself. He is admitting he was/is a liar. He is acknowledging that we are watching him saying this in a mass spectacle. He is coming out of the TV set, sitting alongside us, standing next to us in a bar and saying, 'See that Armstrong? He did doping and lied about it.'

Now, the next argument to have with that, though, is whether this is just a false honesty strategy, as if he is saying to himself, 'I will make myself look so much as if I'm coming clean, I will put myself on the slab, step away from myself, and take you on a guided tour round myself, to show just how bad I was, and just how honest I am being now.'

If this scenario is anything like the bit of pyscholinguistics going on, then the falseness and self-deception going on is to believe (or get us to believe) that it is possible to step outside oneself in order to  view oneself. We can behave as if we can do that but in reality it's impossible. When we take up the position of viewing ourselves, we do it with the being that is the self! There's no escape. However, we can, as Armstrong is doing here, putting on a good show of viewing himself as if he is not the self doing the viewing. Indeed, if the self-viewing persona is anyone in this linguistic construction, it's either Oprah or it's every single viewer.

And in this particular circumstance, Armstrong is not Mr Ordinary. He's the world famous guy who has lied, lied about lying, sued those who said he was lying and is at the very least concealing a whole load more about his associates. He  clearly wants people to think that he is coming clean. I suspect that he thinks that the guy saying, look at that bad guy, thinks he is better than bad guy. Bad guy lied. Good guy is, in his words, 'not lying to you.'

ps - we have the construction, 'I am someone who...' which moves the agent from 'I' to a 'third person' ('I' to 'someone') and which has the possibility of generalising ourselves, or perhaps objectifying ourselves. We turn the 'I' into a more general being, a type, a member of a group of people who are similar. This too, you could argue, contains the possibility of moving away from 'me' as being the agent to a wider group who do or think the same sort of stuff. In that sense, long before the invention of 'sociology', we have had constructions in language which enable us to think and talk sociologically. Some have said that the Rastafarian, 'I-an-I' (I and I, meaning an inclusive 'you and me' equal in the eyes of Jah) has a similar sociological sense and effect.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Grammar for teachers cont'd: prepositions or not


Most native speakers of English have no problem with prepositions. The system or grammar gets absorbed and understood when children are very young. Years ago, I worked on BBC Television's 'Playschool' and I used to watch 'Sesame Street' with my children and I could never understand why we and they spent so much time making up stories and sketches about 'in' and 'on' or 'to' and 'from' and the like. I've never had a sense that children 'get these wrong' without being taught. Perhaps they do, and I've missed it.


...the moment we start chopping up language into grammatical categories, we run into difficulties. The reason for this is that the categories are nearly always 'vertical' (see earlier blogs for this), but we speak and write language horizontally. In other words we are sticking words, phrases, clauses and sentences together, horizontally.

So, in a vertical sort of a way, we can hunt through a piece of writing looking for prepositions. We pull them out (vertically) and think (perhaps) about what might happen if we replaced them:

'I'm running to the shops.'
'I'm running from the shops.'
(vertical replacement)

All day long we use prepositions like: to, from, with, at, by, in, on etc.
and preposition phrases like back from, on to, off of etc.

And please remember, I am citing all these out of context. In English, we very frequently make the same word do different jobs in different contexts.

The way we use these words as prepositions is often in adjectival and adverbial phrases.

'I am going to the doctors'. Because 'to the doctors' seems to be talking about 'am going', rather than 'I' we say that is adverbial. Because it doesn't have a finite verb in it, some would say it's a 'phrase' and not a 'clause'. Adverbial phrase.

Around the verb 'to be' (am, is, are/was, were/etc) we use a lot of phrases using prepositions:

'I'm in the bath.'
'He's not back from the shops.'

These appear to be describing the 'I' and the 'he' so they are adjectival.

You remember the adverbs called 'sentence adverbs'? eg 'Eventually, the plane landed.' Well, if adverbial phrases can act as sentence adverbs we ought to be able to birdspot prepositions there too:

'By all means, go.'
'In the circumstances, you could do that.'

So far, fairly straightforward.

But English (and all languages, in truth) are more complicated than that.  One of the ways this complication business shows itself is in they way we construct verbs. As English developed, our ancestors wanted the action of verbs to express things like direction and place - and many metaphorical uses too -  and they invented (and we go on inventing) 'phrasal verbs'. We construct these by taking a main verb like 'get' (and this is one of our favourites for doing this) and add words which in other circumstances we might call a preposition. What is extremely hard for children (well, anyone actually) being asked to spot prepositions in adjectival and adverbial phrases, is to distinguish that usage from the one in a 'phrasal verb'.

For a bit of fun, see how many different ways you can use the verbs 'get', 'take', 'go' by adding words that look like prepositions. What you're trying to do is make brand new verbs not simply using 'get', 'take' and 'go' in their core ways, like this:

'Being in London, really got him down.'
'It was difficult, but he took it in.'
'I don't go in for that sort of thing.'

These kinds of expressions, 'get...down', '', 'go in for' are a crucial part of how we construct the way we want to talk and write. Describing them grammatically is another matter altogether.

The reason why I'm raising it now is because
a) we sometimes ask children to spot prepositions but words like 'down', 'in', 'off' are very useful to us for attaching to verbs to make new verbs. In these situations many linguists would say they are not being prepositions.
b) in circumstances like these grammar is not easy and grammarians themselves differ over how to name and explain what's going on.

Most native speakers of English have no trouble using these expressions.

I asked him over and over again to put the picture up. He did in the end. I put the picture on the table for him.
What did he put the picture up with?
He put it up with a nail.
He put up with that, did he?
You asking him to put the picture up.
Yes, he did.

One core verb: 'put'
One phrasal verb: 'put up'
Another phrasal verb: 'put up with'.

Now, at this point I'm going to chicken out.

If you want to get a glimpse of how a very reasonable text book handles the grammatical description of this whole area, take a look at this:

Notice how, wikipedia's contributors aren't afraid to say how complicated it is, how inconsistent the descriptions can be and how grammarians differ in their terminology.

If only, people who tell us what we should tell children would be as flexible and open-minded.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Grammar for teachers cont'd, prefix/suffix/adjective/adverb/joke

A meander around prefixes and suffixes, adjectives and adverbs:

One of the ways English works is to add bits on the front or back of a 'stem' or a 'root'. (a 'suffix' fixes things on the end, a 'prefix' fixes things on the front.)

'happy', 'unhappy', 'happiness', 'happily', 'unhappily'

'content', 'discontent', 'contented', 'discontent', 'discontentedly', 'contentedly'

'free', 'unfree', 'freedom', 'freely'

'fiend', 'fiendish', 'fiendishly', 'fiendishness'

'excel', 'excellent', 'excellence', 'excellently'

'satisfy', 'satisfaction', 'satisfactory', 'unsatisfactory,' 'dissatisfied', 'satisfied', 'satisfactorily', 'satisfying', 'satisfyingly'

You can also make up your own - comedians do it - and sometimes these become new usages. I don't think the word 'sweary' existed 20 years ago, but comedians started talking about 'sweary man' and the like and I often hear it. The suffix 'ish' can be added fairly easily too.

I'm not going to talk here about the 'rules' involved. I think the whole process is much too creative to label it like that. Perhaps there are several Ph.D's lying about which show how 'rule-governed' it all is. Perhaps so.

The reason why I'm bringing it up now is because we have coming over the horizon towards us, a consideration of 'adjectives' and 'adverbs'. The point about many suffixes is that we use them (or invent uses of them) so that we can 'describe' or 'modify' or 'add colour' to nouns and verbs. When we're doing it to nouns, 'the red balloon', we call them 'adjectives', when we do it to verbs  'I really like red balloons', we call them 'adverbs'.

1. Of course, there are some words which don't have suffixes that we can use for these purposes too: we  usually use 'red' as an adjective, we usually use 'then' as an adverb.
2. Mysteriously and confusingly, the word 'adverb' is also used when adjectives are themselves modified eg with the word 'very' as in 'a very silly thing to say'. And, even more mysteriously and confusingly, when, it's said, a whole phrase, clause or sentence is modified:
'Happily for the team, Jim was fit.' (phrase)
'When, happily, the team was fully fit, they started winning a few games.' (clause)
'Eventually, the team was fit, and they started winning.' (sentence)
3. Whole phrases and clauses can behave 'adjectivally' and 'adverbially'. Teachers, this is the stuff that you're supposed to teach in order to improve writing. (You'll detect my scepticism in the way I put that.) The idea is that you should be encouraging the children to make their sentences more 'complex' or   just plain longer, by not only adding adjectives and adverbs but also by adding in adjectival and adverbial phrases and clauses.

So, let's look at a sentence getting longer and longer - just for fun.

'The man was eating an apple.'

'The tall man was eating a blue apple.' (two adjectives added to the two nouns)

'The tall man was hurriedly eating a blue apple.' (adverb modifying 'was eating')

''Surprisingly, the tall man was hurriedly eating a blue apple.' (adverb modifying the whole sentence)

'When I walked in, surprisingly the tall man was hurriedly eating a blue apple.' (an adverbial clause added 'when I walked in')

'When I walked in, surprisingly the tall man who I saw in the lift, was hurriedly eating a blue apple.' (an  adjectival clause added: 'who I saw in the lift')

'When I walked in for the second time, surprisingly the tall man who I saw in the lift, was hurriedly eating a blue apple' (adverbial phrase added: 'for the second time')

'When I walked in for the second time in a week surprisingly the tall man who I saw in the lift was hurriedly eating a blue apple.' (adjectival phrase added: 'in a week')

That's the grammar. As you can see, good writing doesn't happen simply by adding this sort of thing.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Grammar for teachers (cont'd) : sentences

This blog is about a 'prescriptive' form of grammar. It won't be the 'descriptive'  type where I might be simply describing how people use language. This is about laying down the law (!) about how a particular kind of writing (not speech, please note) should be.

The core feature of the written sentence when it's in continuous prose (like these blogs) is the 'subject-verb' construction. Before we look at that, it's worth remembering that a good deal of human communication, eg a good deal of informal speech, song, poetry, advertising, a lot of writing in the digital formats (twitter, facebook, blogs, forums, etc)  doesn't necessarily follow this pattern. We should always remember that the repeated presentation of subject-verb sentences ('continuous prose')  is for particular kinds of writing - but not all writing. A good deal of this writing is 'high prestige' (legal, political, financial, literary, journalistic and so on) and so is also called the 'language of power'. For that reason, some will say that that it is the job of schools to teach all children - especially those from families who are 'excluded from power', or 'disadvantaged' - how to write as I am writing now, so that they are given the possibility of accessing this language of power.

In broad terms, I agree with that proposition. However, the two main obstacles which hinder this process are not to do with teachers unwilling to teach children. They are an exam system which demands that a percentage of children fail - even if they succeed in performing the requisite task; and a competitive ranking of schools which inevitably marks some schools as failures, even if they are not failing. So, the very system which is supposed to be giving all children access to this language of power is at the same time failing a large minority of children and students. Education is full of self-fulfilling prophecies made by parents, teachers and students whereby people mark themselves out as 'failing' or 'succeeding' and this competitive exam and school system serves as a rigid confirmation of these self-fulfilling prophecies. Put another way, children and students not only learn 'stuff' (knowledge and skills), they also learn about what kind of learners they are ie their 'perception' of themselves as successes or failures. This is learned behaviour, no matter how much the graders and markers want to claim that their tests and exams are true measures of 'intelligence' or 'ability'.

So, yes, I am in favour of children and students being taught this language of power but believe that the competitive systems militate against certain children feeling 'entitled' to take it on.

End of preamble.

In the meantime: subject-verb.

What follows is for the time being only about 'statements' - not questions, commands or exclamations. As you read, you will think of exceptions to what I'm saying. I'm guessing - but most of the exceptions may well come from speech, poetry, advertising along with questions, commands and exclamations. Please remember, what follows is only about the statements of continuous prose-writing.


The linguist Michael Halliday reminds us that the word 'subject' is available to us as a word to describe 'what we are talking about' or 'what we are writing about' or the 'topic of conversation'. It's worth bearing in mind that the grammatical subject of a sentence is quite often also the 'topic' or theme of the sentence too. Quite often this subject will come adjacent to the 'main verb' of a sentence and provided that sentence is not an exclamation, command or question, it's quite likely to come before the main verb.

'Main verb' - in the writing of formal sentences in standard English, every sentence should have a main verb. This verb will appear in a construction (called a 'clause') which will not begin with the leader words which begin 'subordinate clauses'.

Leader words for subordinate clauses

These leader words for subordinate clauses include words which, when they're used on their own,  you will by and large only use for the purpose of beginning subordinate clauses (in statements in continuous prose)  e.g.
where, why when, while, who, how, although, whereby, if, but, because, whereby,
and some phrases:
even though, with which, from whom, to whom, no matter how, no matter when, no matter where,
(Try making up some sentences using those words!)

There are also a good few leading words which you can use to lead subordinate clauses but can also be used for other purposes:

since, though, so, that.

There is a difficulty for children if you say that a particular word begins a subordinate clause, when you know that you can use it to do other things. Take 'since' for example:

'Since the house burned down, I've been rather cold'
'Since yesterday, I've been cold.'

In the first example there is a verb 'burned down', in the second example, there is no verb. In the grammar of formal prose this is asking the word to do two slightly different things. In terms of its meaning and only its meaning, you're not really asking it to do much that's different.

Main and subordinate clauses

So, you can see from this terminology, 'main' and 'subordinate',  there is an implied hierarchy: the core of a formal sentence is this main clause and then next to it and dependent on it, are subordinate clauses. An observation: grammatical terms often imply things like this but they may not necessarily be so. However, when we tell children and students these things, they may well take them literally.

I digress.

What is the difference between a main clause and a subordinate clause in formal prose? The difference is the 'stand alone' principle. Main clauses stand alone, subordinate clauses sound as if they need something else.

Simple example:

'When it rains, I stay indoors.'

Try writing, 'When it rains.' (ie with capital letter and full stop.) The only way this works is an answer to a question. BUT - writing like this is 'informal' prose, and, according to prescriptive grammar, not allowed. On the other hand, 'I stay indoors', can work as a 'stand-alone'.

However, common to both main and subordinate clauses (in formal grammar statements) is the fact that the verb must be a 'finite verb'.

Finite verbs

What is a finite verb? Think back to the blog I wrote about verbs. I 'conjugated' verbs using I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they. A finite verb is one that will fit that table. One or other of those pronouns will work if you put it in front of it.

'When the computer broke down...' Can I write: 'it broke down'? Yes, it's a main verb.

So, surely all verbs are finite? Well, not really. Because we can break verbs up into different parts, we can use those parts in sentences and expressions.

'Going out in the rain is crazy.' ('Going out' here is not a finite verb.)
'Having eaten a big meal, we made our way to the vomitorium.' ('Having eaten' here is not a finite verb)
'To be or not to be, that is the question.' ('To be' and 'not to be' are not finite verbs).

So, if you look through what I've written in this blog, prior to this sentence, can you spot some 'main clauses' and subordinate clauses'?

Here was my opening sentence:

" The core feature of the written sentence when it's in continuous prose (like these blogs) is the 'subject-verb' construction. "

What a mess!

Instead of nice neat construction like 'When it's sunny, I go out', I've written a sentence that seems to interrupt itself twice.

I'll show you:

The subject-verb construction is this one:

'The core feature of the written'

Where I've put  the three dots ('ellipsis') '...'  are two interruptions:

1. 'when it's in continuous prose'
2. '(like these blogs)'.

The first of these two has a verb in it (hidden in 'it's'  ie 'is').
The second has no verb in it, and so (in one system of terminology) is a 'phrase'.


Now what of this 'subject'? In the neat, simple examples given in text books, the subject is often a pronoun like 'I' or 'she' or 'you', or a simple construction like 'The apple'.

Mine, though, is 'The core feature of the written sentence'. Old grammar would say that the 'true' subject of the sentence therefore is 'the feature', everything else in that phrase is descriptive of it. Newer grammar tends to put it all together as a 'noun phrase' or 'NP'. Perhaps a little confusingly, this term is used even if the subject is a single word like 'you' or 'cars'. They're all 'noun phrases'.

The point though is that the subject of a formal prose main clause and/or a  subordinate clause - so long as it's not an exclamation or command -  is a noun phrase.

Exclamation: 'What a load of rubbish!' or 'Damn!'
Command: 'Get out!' or 'Go away!')


A sentence that is a statement in formal prose writing needs to include:
a finite verb
a subject

As anyone reading this knows, it will also need a capital letter at the outset and a full stop at the end.

A sentence that is a statement in formal prose writing can also include one or more subordinate clauses. There are many different kinds of subordinate clauses. They will include:
a leading word or phrase
a finite verb

Subordinate clauses can appear before main clauses, after them, or even interrupting them.
Main clauses 'stand alone'.
Subordinate clauses do not stand alone.

A subject will always be a noun phrase.
There are many kinds of noun phrases ranging from a single word to complex phrases and clauses. We haven't explored these yet.

A finite verb is not always easy to spot or create. One test is to see if you can put a pronoun in front of it and when doing so, it 'sounds right'. I can see that this not very precise, particularly if you are a non-native speaker of English.

We use parts of verbs all the time in many different ways.


I have not fully explored 'transitive' and 'intransitive' verbs.
These are ways of looking at verbs in relation to what comes after them.

'I'm cleaning my teeth.'  'am cleaning' here is being used 'transitively - the 'am cleaning' verb points forward to the thing(s) being cleaned.

'I'm going.' 'going' is 'intransitive'. It doesn't point forward to something else. The verb 'am going' is not acting on anything else.

The pronoun 'sound right' test for 'finite verbs' will include thinking about whether the verb in question is being used transitively or intransitively. The finite parts of the verb 'to be' (am, are, is, was, were, am being, are being, is being, was being, were being etc) are considered to be a special case.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The 'the'. And the 'a'. More grammar for teachers.

The path I'm treading on these 'parts of speech' (verbs, nouns, adjectives) is that of avoiding trying to define them, but instead trying to assemble a list of things that such parts of speech 'do'. (In fact, it's always us who are doing the doing (!) not the words themselves. We should always remember that language, grammar, vocabulary - all of it - are devised by us, for our purposes. Language isn't some kind of self-regulated robot, doing its own thing!

So, we were on nouns.

What else do they do? How else do they function?

In English they combine with small words that immediately precede them. The two key ones are:

 'a/an' and 'the'
But just as important is a nothing. (I'll come back to this)

In the same slot  there is a range of other words we can use and which are often given a different name to describe them e.g.
any of the numbers (1,2,3 onwards) but also words indicating none e.g.
 no, none of, not one of,
this, that, these, those, (in some non-standard dialects: them), both, both of,  all, all of some, some of, any, any of, each, each of, , every, every one of,)

Some people would say that some of these words are 'adjectives' and I'm wrong to have lumped them in on the same list. A lot of grammar is about deciding on categories, arguing about it according to the function being served by that word in a particular place in a sentence.

So, though it sounds awkward to say it, another characteristic of nouns is that they are words which come after words like the ones I've just mentioned. In other words, that's one of the ways in which we make them work 'horizontally'. If this sounds odd, think of how a birdwatcher or a geologist might talk. They talk about characteristics appearing together and these help the observer spot what kind of bird or rock they are looking at. You can do the same thing with grammar.

You can also experiment with these words to see what word fits with another. So take 'this'.

You can put it easily in front of a lot of nouns: 'this car', 'this person'
But some are not so easy:
'this anger' - yes, you could, but it would be quite rare...'This anger I feel about the government today, is different from the anger I felt for the previous government' Hmmm, ok, but a bit forced.
How about: 'This France'. Again, difficult and rare. It seems as if 'car' is a different kind of noun from 'anger' and 'France'.

What about 'both'?
It seems to 'determine' that there are two things that are being referred to. This is more determining than 'the' which can apply to one, two or many things yet it's no more determining than 'a' which can only mean one thing or entity.

Now what about this 'nothing' ie when we use nouns with none of these kinds of words in front of them? Look at that sentence you've just read. It says, 'when we use nouns'. No 'a' or 'the' or 'this' in front of it. Why not?

Earlier, I wrote 'one of the ways', 'the observer',  Why didn't I write, 'one of ways'; 'observer'.
In the same paragraph, I wrote 'a birdwatcher', 'a geologist'. Why didn't I write 'the birdwatcher', 'the geologist' or those two words without 'a' or 'the'?

I'm asking the question because there appear to be rules or conventions governing what to use and when. If you're a native speaker of English, none of this will present you with much of a problem. You will hardly ever hesitate when to use which word. For non-native speakers though, it seems to be very hard to 'sound right', ie to pick up on the rules, just by deducing them from listening to English being spoken. When I mark students' essays, it's the use of the words 'a', 'the' or the non-use of either, that is the quickest indicator to me that I'm reading something written by someone who is a non-native user of English.

I'm not going to run through all the rules or conventions now - I'm sure I don't know them all, anyway! More creative and useful for you is to see if you can deduce some yourselves.

Here are a few:
back with 'anger' and 'France' - they seem to be in a category where you very rarely use 'a' or 'the'.
'the' seems to have the advantage of suggesting that you've talked about, mentioned, written about the particular thing or entity before. Or that you're referring to something that is 'in the air'. 'This' and 'that' will do this job too of course and because they appear to 'demonstrate' (ie perform a gesture in writing, 'over here' and 'over there' as it were), they are sometimes called 'demonstratives').

'a/an' seems to be useful to indicate the opposite, I'm introducing a thing, concept or entity for the first time in this sequence of utterances (speech, writing).

The use of no 'a/an' or 'the' and a plural noun seems to help us be general or all-inclusive. It's as if we're saying 'all of these' without having to say 'all of these'.

If you're a teacher and you teach children who are learning English, you will hear and read them presenting nouns where the word immediately preceding it will sound or look wrong. As I've said, you will know intuitively what the right word is, (if you're a native speaker yourself). Your problem will be what to do about it. The traditional way is to 'correct' it. It's quite possible that this won't work because as fast as you correct one usage, it simply makes another usage wrong. How so? Because when we're told something is wrong in language, we can't stop ourselves making up a little rule for it. And the problem with that is that rule will almost certainly not fit all cases. Yes, we can say, 'a' will never become before a plural noun but in most cases, there will be exceptions to whatever rule, a text book will come up with. This is not some cruel trick. It's just that we invent language to suit millions of different circumstances. We didn't invent it so that it could be convenient for people who invent the rules!

So, today I've done a bit of vertical and horizontal. I've suggested that we can vary the slot in front of a noun (ie vertically) but what governs that variation are a host of horizontal rules or conventions.

What I didn't do (in order to avoid making it too complicated) is start slotting in adjectives (eg 'blue' or 'big') and seeing where 'a' and 'the' fit in. We'll do adjectives another day.

I think now though, we're in a position to put nouns and verbs together in the core bit of the grammar: the 'subject-verb' construction. Aha. For another day.

In the meantime, you might want to look up the terminology for 'the' 'a/an', 'each', 'both', 'this', 'that', 'any' etc. It's quite good fun to see if you agree with the categories that grammarians come up with for them.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Grammar for teachers cont'd: nouns,pronouns

So now let's move on to 'nouns'. Again, instead of trying to say what a noun 'is'. Let's look at how we make nouns behave and how we get them to function in sentences. And again, we'll look at them 'vertically' and 'horizontally'.

One thing about nouns is that we can ask of them whether we can move them between being 'singular' or 'plural'. This is 'vertical'. (Think of the chain analogy: replacing one link with another in the same place.)

So the word 'car' can be 'car' or 'cars'. These are the only two forms of 'car' that we can make in English. I say that because in some languages nouns can vary depending on things like: are they the subject or the 'object' of the verb and so on.

We have several ways of doing plurals in English e.g.:
'car' - 'cars'
'child' - 'children'
'man' - 'men'
'sheep' - 'sheep'
'mouse' - 'mice'
'house' - 'houses'
'roof' - 'roofs'
'hoof' - 'hooves'

Just for fun here are some old ones:
'cow' - 'kine'
'shoe' - 'shoon' (see Walter de la Mare's poem about the 'moon'!)

Because people who have spoken and written English over many centuries have absorbed words from other languages then these make us think about how to do those plurals. Do we do them according to the language they come from, or do we anglicise them?

'criterion' - 'criteria' or 'criterions'?
'stadium' - 'stadia' or 'stadiums'?
'index' - 'indices' or 'indexes'?

It's best to ignore people who demand that things should be said or written one way or another just because they say so. We produce the 'right' version by mutual consent and it has always been that way. Because it's by 'mutual consent', there is constant change depending on many factors including such things as vibration and international communication.

Some words that are plural in their original language or original phrase have become singular:

'the media' 'is on to this' or 'are on to this'?
'zoological gardens' abbreviated to 'zoo' - so, 'the zoo is' or 'the zoo are'?

Are there some nouns that can't be made plural?

The only answer to this is to investigate and experiment. A lot of words that people might say are not 'count nouns' (ie you can count the entity being  described as a 'noun') can with usage be made plural. One of the bizarre things about listening to football commentators, for example, is the way they talk about a type of player by naming a player and making him plural:
'We might ask, where were the Lampards, the Terrys and the rest?'
A commentator might identify 'France' as a particular kind of economy and say,
'But the Frances of the world are lagging behind...' or some such.

Nouns which refer to feelings - 'anger', 'jealousy', 'irritation' seem as if they can't be made plural until someone speaking or writing finds a way when the need arises:

'The room was full of anger - different angers - but anger all the same'.

Our ancestors invented 'pronouns' - words that are said to indicate people (without naming names), things and entities (without saying precisely which one.)

For things and entities we have 'it' and 'they' and if we want to indicate where the 'it' or 'they' are we have 'this' and 'that' at our disposal: 'This is nice.' 'That was good'.

We also have a group of words which when used on their own behave as nouns: some, both, any, each,  all. However, more often than not, they are in a phrase as with 'some of you' or 'all of them' and the like. We'll come back to that kind of construction in just a moment.

Now the interesting thing about pronouns is that we get them to do a lot more work than this, and we have also retained their 'vertical' variation.

So, I say, 'He hit the boy' and 'He hit him'. We don't say, 'He hit he'.
Why not?
And what other pronouns are like this?
What if it's 'she'? 'He hit her.'
What if it's 'they'? 'They hit them'.
What about the other 'personal pronouns' and 'impersonal pronouns' ?
'He hit you'
'He hit us'
'He hit me.'
'He hit it'

So you could draw this up as a table:

I - me
you - you
he - him
she - her
it - it
we - us
you - you
they - them

You remember 'transitive verbs'? So when the verb is acting on someone or something, and that person, animal or entity is a pronoun,  you can see what we usually say or write.

But there's one more variation to put on this table: when the person or entity is a pronoun and that person or thing possesses something or somebody:

'Whose is it?' 'It's mine', 'It's yours', 'It's his', 'It's hers', 'It's theirs' and I suppose you could say, 'Whose collar is this? [pointing at a dog] 'Its'.

So now the table goes:

I - me - mine
you - you - yours
he - him - his
she - her - hers
it - it - its
we - us - ours
you - you - yours
they - them - theirs

These three forms for the pronoun have names: nominative, accusative and genitive.
The table is called a 'declension' or a 'paradigm'.
Talking in this way, rather separated away from their use, is of course treating the words 'vertically' not 'horizontally' or,  as some would say,  'paradigmatically' not 'syntagmatically'.
(End of that outburst of terminology.)

Does it end there?
Not quite.
We arrange nouns around verbs - as agents, as receivers of actions from verbs, but also coming after the words we call 'prepositions', some common ones being, to, from, by, with, without, at, on, in, up, into, down, around, about and some in phrases like 'out of' , 'away from', 'off of', 'on to' and so on.

What happens to the personal and impersonal pronouns after prepositions and preposition phrases?

'To me'
'To you'
To him'
'To her'
'To it'
'To us'
'To you'
'To them'

So this is the fourth position in our table:

I - me - mine - me
you - you - yours - you (this one used to be: thou, thee, thine, thee)
he - him - his - him
she - her - hers - her
it - it - its - it
we - us - ours - us
you - you - yours - you
they - them - theirs - them

This fourth position is called 'dative'.

So, we have seen how nouns have 'declensions' or 'decline' or 'have paradigms' .
In modern English, nouns only vary between singular and plural.
The personal and impersonal pronouns vary in four usages, ie when we use them in four different ways.
And you could say, they vary between singular and plural as well: 'I' to 'we', 'you/thou' to 'you', 'he/she/it' to 'them'.

Now, what I've drawn up is the standard English way of declining all these. In the many spoken dialects of the UK, USA, Australia and around the anglophone world, people's usage of these pronouns will vary widely.

One interesting thing to do with your knowledge of grammar is to see if you can construct declensions for non-standard use of pronouns. So, rather than bully or heavy people who use non-standard forms, you can investigate it.

It may well be that you can bring these investigations into the classroom and this will turn out to be a better way of 'teaching standard English' rather than simply saying: 'What you are saying is wrong. It should be like this.'

It's also worth remembering and reminding your class that if they are native speakers or have learned English by 'immersion' (ie as migrants who have lived in an anglophone environment for a while, this grammar is learned without it being named or made explicit.  Aren't we all clever!

In the next blog, I want to look at some horizontal ways of describing what nouns do and how we may need some improved terminology.

In the meantime, here's a teaser: what is the difference in the ways in which we use 'a car' and 'the car' and 'car' (without either 'a' or 'the')? Why have we got these differences?

Grammar cont'd: verbs, some terminology, some ideology

Grammar: verbs, some terminology

Three sets of terms:
Expletive sentences

"I ate an apple.' This is described as 'transitive' because the word that is the verb ('ate') seems to suggest that the subject ('I') is doing something (eating) to something else (the apple). This is also described as 'active' because the 'agent' (ie the person doing the doing (!) is acting directly upon the verb. As you can see these are 'horizontal' descriptions.

'The apple was eaten by me.' The verb is now being used passively, 'in the passive'. The meaning is almost the same - though you could argue the focus is different. The 'agent' ie 'I' or 'me' is still in the picture. But now the action (eating)  being done is being done on 'the subject' of the sentence (the apple), the word that 'governs' the  verb. (We'll come back to that when we do 'subject-verb agreement').

With the use of 'is'  or 'was' phrases like in 'The apple was eaten' there's a way in which the meaning rebounds back off the verb  ('was eaten') on to the subject ('the apple'). The agent in a passive sentence like this is not the subject. The agent is on the end in that little phrase 'by me'. It's 'me'.

'The apple was eaten.' Here the meaning has shifted even more. All we know is what's happened to the apple. We don't know who did the eating. It's passive without an agent.

If we were in a class together now, the fun would be to look at a newspaper or something like it and see if we could spot transitive, intransitive, passive and active constructions.

Note: these descriptions of verbs are not exhaustive. That's to say, they don't describe all ways in which verbs are used. Again, in a class, we could go off hunting for these.

How would you classify these:

'I like walking.'
'I go walking.'
'I walked the dog.'
'The dog was walked by me.'
'The dog is liked.'

Teachers: you'll see on the sample questions for the SPAG test, the children will be told to sort the sentences into active and passive and/or create some passive sentences from active (or vice versa perhaps). However, they will always give an 'illustration'. You may find that the easiest way to teach this is indeed 'by example. The constructions that they give are relatively simple and regular. This means that it's possible to get the answer right by imitation without having to work it out, understand it, or get it from first principles. There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting grammar questions right by imitating things! Means to an end, eh?

I don't think that the children will have to deal with more complicated sentences like:
'The car will have been driven'
'The car would have been driven'
'The car might have been being driven'

At least, we can hope not, can't we?

Now 'expletive sentences':

'There's a chair over there.'
'It's a chair.'
'There are 45 peas on my plate.'

These are of course amongst the most common kind of sentences in English, though the more you look at them, the more subtle differences you start to find.

'THERE'S the chair' seems to be different from 'There's the chair'. The first 'there' seems to be more 'demonstrative' than the second.

Can an expletive sentence be passive?

'It is thought that people who murder should be hanged.'
'It is felt that poor people should be put in prison.'

These and some related expressions are an ideal resource for historians and politicians wanting to claim that everyone (or important people) have a particular view on something.

Others are:

'There is a view that...'
'It is normal to think that...'
'There is a general sense that...'

These aren't passive grammatically but have a similar sense to the passive expletive constructions.

If you want some fun, listen to politicians being interviewed and see how many times, they claim that a view is just generally held by an invisible 'we' or 'us'. When they do, they find these passive expletives very useful.

Grammar - continued, Verbs

Grammar - continued - a few thoughts on verbs in English

Verbs in English are much more complicated than seem to those of us who are what are called 'native speakers' of the language.

Take a look at these:

'I eat figs.'
'Do you eat figs?'

We don't say, 'Eat you figs?'  but we do say:

'You are daft.'
'Are you daft?'

So when we ask some questions we use the verb 'do', then turn the verb and the 'subject' round ('invert' it, as it's called). In other questions we can 'invert' without the 'do'.

'I have got a red face.'
'Have you got a red face?'

But with the verb 'have' we can also say,
'Do you have any money?'

but with 'is' and 'are' (the verb 'to be', as we say)
we can't use 'do'

'Do you are daft?' - No, we can't say that.

And now think about the way we make negatives and negative questions:

'I eat figs.'
'I do not eat figs' (I don't eat figs)
'Don't you eat figs?' or 'Do you not eat figs?'

'I have a red face.'
'I don't have a red face.'
'Don't you have a red face?
'Do you not have a red face?'

This is all hellishly complicated for people learning English. For native speakers, we just get it by the time we're 5, if not earlier.

And now think of the verbs (or parts of verbs) 'may', 'might', 'will', 'would', 'should', 'shall', 'can', 'could', 'must'.

See what happens if you first make a statement, then a question, then a negative statement, then a negative question. Something like this:

'You would do it.'
'You wouldn't do it.'
'Would you do it?
'Wouldn't you do it?'

So, in terms of how we make the phrases and sentences ('horizontally') we make some verbs behave one way, and some verbs behave in other ways.

It's worth remembering here that when people say there are right and wrong ways of using grammar, we should remember that there was a time when using 'do' to say, 'I do not eat figs' or 'Don't you eat figs?' was new. It was a fundamental shift in grammar. And this is going on all the time. London children are saying things like 'Is it you're going out?' If they take that into adulthood, that will be a fundamental shift in grammar.

On with verbs:

it's convenient to talk about 'main verbs', 'auxiliary verbs' and 'modal verbs'.

We use auxiliary verbs to make the 'future' and some forms of the past. Our main verb for making the future is 'will', our main one for the past is 'have'.

'I will go'
'I have gone'.

But we can also do all sorts of extra and nuanced things like:

'I will be going'
'I have been going'
'I had gone'
and even:
'I will have been going...'
'I had been going...'

The 'modal verbs' are the verbs that, the grammarians say, 'express modality' - a sense of doubt, possibility and compulsion:
'would', 'could', 'can', 'should', 'must', 'may, 'might' are the most common. I think some people include 'dare' as when you say , 'I dare say...' or 'I dare not go there...'

(Interesting that 'Must you do that?' sounds OK, but 'Dare you do that? ' sounds old-fashioned or not quite right to my ears.)

So where does 'the verb' begin and where does it end?

In all these statements and questions I've been writing, we could treat them all very vertically and say that

 'I would have gone'

breaks down into four separate parts: 'I' (which isn't a verb, it's a 'pronoun' and it's the 'subject'), then there are three parts to 'the verb' each of which can be changed for other parts or left out. Or I could say 'horizontally' that 'the verb' in this case is all three words stuck together according to special rules or conventions that stick them together in this particular way.

I suspect that if you're unfamiliar with grammar, your head might be hurting by now. So, only one more thing with verbs: 'to'.

This is a very handy word which enables us to hook together a string of ideas:

'I'm going to eat some beans.'
'I'm eating to get fit.'
'I ought to do some work.' (should that be a 'modal' verb?)
'I have to do some work.' (oh no! I said 'have' was 'auxiliary' but here it is being 'modal' - ie expressing 'compulsion'...but not sticking the verb together like 'may' or 'would' which do it without a 'to'...irritating or what?!)
'I used to go for a walk.'
'I've started to take the train.'


'I've finished taking the train'
'I've finished to take the train.'

'I like to walk to work.'
'I like walking to work.'

So, a) we have different ways of stringing these constructions together and b) how should we describe them? Vertically or horizontally'? Or both?

I find all this very interesting.
Anytime, you hear or read something that seems curious or 'irregular' or 'interesting', it's worth jotting it down in a notebook.


Friday, 4 January 2013

Grammar - a framework for teachers who weren't taught 'grammar'


I'm worried that some Year 6 teachers are a bit anxious about the forthcoming grammar test. Part of this worry is that they themselves received little or no education in grammar and as a consequence feel harassed by what's coming. As I've said, I disagree with what's coming and offer the following comments as a way of trying to alleviate some of the stress. It's meant as a general framework for 'grammar'.

Grammar involves several different ways of describing language. The forthcoming grammar test will ask you to teach grammar from two different perspectives. To understand this I'll make an analogy: think of chain. We could describe this chain in terms of a) the links and/or  b) how the links hook up to the next link.

The a) approach looks at separate parts (the links of a chain) and tries to find names for each kind of link. On this chain, the links aren't all the same shape, size or colour!

The b) approach tries to describe how and why one kind of link fits together with another link.

Now hold in your head something that will be useful later: the a) approach can be described as 'vertical' because you can take one link out (vertically) and replace it with another. The b) approach can be described as 'horizontal' because it looks at the hooking up all along a line.

Now let's suppose that there are some strange things about this chain. For a start, the links of the chain are not identical. They come in a variety of colours. When we look at the chain we start to see some colour sequences repeating themselves. This is what's going on when we give words the names: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition.  So take my second paragraph above as a chain. If you coloured all the nouns blue and all the verbs green (for a start) you'd start to see blue and green repeating themselves.

(In the background, if you listen carefully, you can hear people called linguists arguing about some of these colours. They are arguing about what some of the links should be called. Remember, it is the job of those in government who dictate to us what grammar is, to pretend that these kinds of arguments do not go on. They want us to think that grammar is simple and if you test children about it, 'there are right and wrong answers's (see Lord Bew's report on assessment and accountability which is responsible for the SPAG test coming in).

Now, let's look closely at how the coloured links hook up. Again we see that the hooking systems vary down the chains but these hooking systems keep repeating themselves. The hooking systems for the links are the kinds of explanation for why sentences are built in the way they are. So what's going on here in grammatical terms are the descriptions of grammar in terms of things like 'subject-verb agreement' or why we can say 'the book is on the table' but not 'book the on table the'. Some ways of trying to hook the links together won't work. They have to fit in a particular way. That's the 'horizontal' system of the English writing system.

So, these two approaches, a) and b), vertical and horizontal, are the two ways of talking about grammar that you will be teaching. (I'm not suggesting that you use this method of teaching it. This is, I hope, a framework for you to see what it is that you've being asked to do.)

The Links (or the parts of the chain)

Now let's go to one of those links, the one we've called 'verb'. Let's not bother for the moment in trying to say what kind of word is a verb. Nor should we say that this word 'go' is necessarily and always a verb because you'll hear someone say a sentence like this: 'He hasn't got much go in him' and 'go' here is a 'noun'. Let's instead look at how can spot verbs in sentences and see  how they differ from other kinds of words.

If I take the word 'the', it's either 'the' or it's not 'the'. It doesn't vary and become, let's say, 'thes' or 'thed'.  Now let's look at 'go' when it's a verb and ask what kinds of changes can we make with it:

go, goes, going, gone.
If I want to use it to mean something will happen in the future I can write things like:
will go, going to go, will be going.
If I want to use it to mean that something has happened in the past I can write things like:
went, has gone, did go, has been going...

So, one of the things I can say about verbs is that they vary like this. That's not a definition. It's a description but OK all the same. Not everything has to be defined for us to start to understand what's going on! That description (that verbs are words that vary like this) is part of my a) approach. It's 'vertical' because I am taking the link 'go' out 'vertically' and replacing it with different forms of the same verb. In the old days, when I learned Latin, we used to recite these different forms. They were called 'conjugations'.

Traditionally, the shape of conjugations goes in an order: I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they.
In English:
I go, you go, he/she/it goes; we go, you go, they go.
'I' we call 'first person'
'you' we call 'second person'
'he/she/it' we call 'third person'

These three are 'singular' because they only involve one person or one object.

'We' is also 'first person' but it's 'plural' (more than one person or thing)
'You' (in this part of the system) is 'second person plural' when it involves more than one person or thing
'They' 'third person plural'

So that conjugation is a way of describing how verbs vary in the present. It's part of my a) approach. It's  'vertical', taking one form of the verb out and replacing it with another.

The hooking up

So, the question now is why have do these verbs vary? Why do we make these different ways of saying 'go'. It would be much simpler if we always said, 'go': I go to the movies, he go to the movies, tomorrow I go to the movies, yesterday I go to the movies.

But we don't. We vary the verb to show this matter of things going on in the present, in the past and in the future. We vary the verb to 'agree with' how many people are involved or what kind of expression we're saying or writing.

These reasons are part of approach b) or 'horizontal', they are about how and why language hooks the words together along the line.

So, in the 'conjugation' I showed you before, 'go' is the same all the way through apart from one time: he/she/it goes.

So, we can say, that in standard English, the third person singular of 'go' is 'goes'. It varies because people speaking English found and still find it useful to mark or indicate that there is a singular thing going on (one person or thing involved) and that it's not 'me' or 'you' but 'he' or 'she' or 'it'. Or to put it another way, it's useful to mark it out as not being any of the other bits of the system: first person singular ('I'), second person singular ('you'), first, second or third person plural ('we', 'you', 'they').

So everything we've said about conjugations and varying things according to the 'person' (first person, second person etc) is my approach b). 'horizontal, along the line, explanations or descriptions for why and how words stick together, links hook up along the chain.

Another reason for verbs changing depends on what kind of sentence or phrase we're using. There are many ways to categorize sentences. Linguists are not agreed on this. One system you're asked to teach is: 'statement', 'question' and 'command'. Another is 'simple' and 'complex'.

I'm guessing that I don't need to go through these because they are part of the everyday grammar that we all have for talking about language. This everyday grammar is not to be despised. It's all part of the useful ways we have of talking to each other about how we talk to each other!

However, I will add the easily observable fact that these 'functions' or descriptions of sentences demonstrate how we can vary verbs:

'You are going away' (or 'You're going away') - statement
'Are you going away?' - question
'Go away!' - command

'You went away.' - statement
'Did you go away.' - question
[I'm not sure you can issue a command in the past!]

Pause for a moment. One of the reasons why grammar is difficult and hard for all of us, but especially for children is that the moment you come up with a 'rule' or fixed shape or pattern of how language should be, and the moment we come up with descriptions for what's going on, we run into problems: there are exceptions to the rule, or the description just seems to confuse.

To take an obvious example from above. Let's say you want to be aggressive and commanding in order to send someone away. Of course you can say, 'Go away!' But you might also say, 'Will you go away!' Now here's the rubbish bit about conventional grammatical description (at least 'rubbish' from a child's perspective), is that 'Will you go away!' even as a command has the structure we use in English for questions too. In other words, real language, language in use, doesn't stick to the neat patterns and rules and descriptions we give it. So you either (in schools) end up fudging it, or if you're a serious grammarian, you have to come up with more complicated ways to describe what's really going on when we speak and write. You can't simply come up with descriptions and names and expect everything to fit neatly every time. As a serious grammarian, you have to come up with names and descriptions that fit how real human beings make and use language in order to say and write what they want to say.

It's also why, when the Lord Bew report justified the teaching and testing for grammar on the grounds that grammar questions have right and wrong answers, they were talking rubbish.


So in this blogpost, we've looked at how we can describe language vertically and horizontally. We've looked at verbs and three reasons why they vary: 1. 'tense' (present, past and future), 2. 'person' (singular, plural, first, second, third) and 3. type of sentence (statement, question, command). We haven't tried to define 'verb' and it's quite possible that you don't have to! I'll leave that subversive thought with you.

This blogpost has been decidedly unplayful, and non-interactive. Apologies.

So, if you fancy it, take the word 'go' and see what kinds of expressions (phrases, sentences etc) you can come up with, changing it and seeing if you can figure out what is making you change it.  This is the grammar you know, without necessarily having names for what you're doing. You know this grammar, (if you could read and understand this blogpost) because you learned most of it between the ages of 0 and 5.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Phonics: a summary of my views

Phonics summary

Some people have asked me to summarise my views on phonics.

1. I have no complaint (why would I?) with children being shown how to use phonic cues when reading and writing.

2. What has been brought into schools in England is exclusive, intensive systematic synthetic phonics (EISSP). This has come in under the umbrella of simple slogan 'first, fast and only'. This has been interpreted by some school managements as meaning that the first encounters with the written word taking place in Reception and Year One classes are the texts and exercises of a government approved phonic scheme. These are introduced 'fast' and other texts are 'forbidden'. Not all school managements have implemented EISSP in this way.

However, whatever takes place by way of phonics teaching in English schools, it is tested by the Phonics Screening Check (PSC). For those who don't know this is a list of 40 words, 20 of which are 'real' words, 20 are 'nonsense' words. The pass mark was 32. The first full implementation of the text took place last academic year. A full analysis of the results has not been put up on the DfE website.

3. My observations: teaching children to read by phonics alone is in essence a means of teaching children how to read out loud. That is the process that is being taught. That is all that phonics on its own can do. This acknowledged by phonics enthusiasts in two ways: included in all phonics programmes are words that can't be 'decoded' phonically. They are called such things as 'tricky' words or 'red' words. These are learned as whole words. The other way is that most phonics enthusiasts I have met advocate a rich diet of rhymes and stories for children in Reception and Year One. These are read 'to' the children rather than read 'with' or 'by' them. However, there is in that an implicit understanding that reading involves an 'internalising' of the whole code of written language and that one way to do this is to hear written language being read. Allied to this of course is the idea that reading is not just a matter of making appropriate noises but a matter of 'making meaning'.

4.  There is a clear problem for commentators and even some educationists to distinguish between different senses of the word 'reading'. To be fair to phonics enthusiasts, they avoid confusion by talking about 'decoding' and 'reading'. However, I see over and over again there is a 'spread' of the word 'reading' into the territory of 'decoding' as if the two are synonymous.

To be clear a total or holistic sense we all have of 'reading' is doing something which involves deriving meaning from squiggles on the page. It is quite clearly possible to read some, many or most words in a text, out loud without deriving meaning. I can do that with Italian and German. Some children in English schools can do it with texts written in English.

I understand that the objective of teaching children to read is not necessarily to 'read out loud' but it is to read for meaning. I thought that's what we're in education for.

5. Even within the terms of 'reading out loud', it is clear that there are differing levels of success between children who have only had a diet of approved phonics schemes (eg children who come to school with no experience of other texts), children who have been exposed to a good deal of texts before getting to Reception and Year One classes. However, we should also distinguish between what is being tested. Here are possible versions of what is or could be tested:

Reading out loud of:
a) lists of phonically regular words
b) sentences of phonically regular words
c) a mix of phonically regular and non-regular words
d) sentences made up of phonically regular and non-regular words
e) whole 'real' texts with no pictures ie published texts with no immediate intention for them to be used in tests.
f) whole 'real' texts with pictures again without a reading test function.

Clearly, if children are to be tested in one or other of these, we are testing very different things. To date,    as I understand it - and I'm prepared to be corrected on this - it seems as if children being taught by EISSF are not so good as children being taught by mixed methods in testing for c, d, e and f.

If this is the case then it matters quite a lot because we are interested in children becoming readers of real texts.

6. But the real crunch comes when we look at what children can do in trying to understand the texts they read. According to Professor Stephen Krashen, the sum total of tests across the world aimed at proving that EISSP works (or other kinds of exclusive intensive phonics teaching) all test for versions of a and b in my list. In other words they test for phonically regular language (though I wouldn't call lists of words 'language' as such!). To which he and I would say, so what? Of course, a phonics regime aimed at teaching children how to read phonically reading out loud (as an end in itself) will produce good results! But that is such a limited objective and also an insufficient objective. How do we know?

From the very results that are coming out of schools in relation to the Phonics Screening Check. Many more children are failing that test than would fail to read by using the 'old' mixed methods of teaching to read.

So, children who would learn to read anyway, are being diagnosed as 'failures' (and labelled as such) and being dubbed as being low on 'phonological awareness'. Remedy? More phonics. However, low phonological awareness may not be the reason why they have failed the phonics test. And they may well learn to read using other methods.

Does this matter? Ask teachers who teach this age of child. A school day, week, term and year is of a finite length. No matter how central and important literacy is, schooling is also about (of course) other forms of knowledge, and the crucial matters of personal and social development. Spending hours repeating something which may not be the cause of failure is debilitating and misdirected - particularly as some of those children will not be failures anyway!

7.  Further on Krashen's studies. His argument is that there is to date no evidence that teaching EISSF or other exclusive, intensive phonics schemes produces any better results than the 'old' mixed methods, when you test for irregular texts or even more importantly if you include in the tests 'comprehension' ie reading for meaning.

This is a devastating critique. Billions of pounds are being spent implementing programmes of study for 4,5 and 6 year olds that have no evidence to support their implementation when we widen the testing to include irregular texts, real texts and comprehension.

8. Is it possible to integrate reading for meaning and phonics? Yes. Parents and carers have been doing this for centuries. We sit with our children reading whole books, talking about them, sometimes pointing at whole words, sometimes at letters. We sit with them writing shopping lists, labelling things in their rooms, doing texting on phones, planning holidays looking at pictures and reading out the names of places. When we walk about with them, we point at the names of shops, labels on foods, names of places we visit, names of stations and so on. We might play with magnet letters and other kinds of letter and word games. This is not EISSP. However, these are ways in which many people reading this will have learned in part or whole how to read.

Many such children are arriving in schools in England and are being told to do some other kind of reading: 'sounding out'. They are sometimes being told they are wrong. Some of these children have 'failed' the Phonics Screening Check. Some are being told that they can't advance to real texts because they must carry on in Year Two with more EISSP.

9. This is a mess. It is causing real distress to some children and some parents and some teachers. The cause is obvious: a one-size-fits-all to children with very different experiences of texts and very different personal and social outlooks and behaviour. It is a totally unsatisfactory way of proceeding.

10. There is also an issue around 'Reading Recovery'. This is flexible system, backed by evidence, which tries to help children aged around 6 years who have not learned how to read. It is flexible because causes for not being able to read are various and because children have varied exposure to texts. Reading Recovery is under attack. It is losing funding. For a variety of reasons, the one-size -fits-all of SSP is being implemented as the remedy. Again, I believe this to be misguided and mistaken.

refs :

Stephen D. Krashen 'The Power of Reading' (Libraries Unlimited/Heinemann)
Stephen Krashen 'Free Voluntary Reading' (Libraries Unlimited)

PS from Pat Stone posting on Facebook:

 " I am convinced that the reason RR is being done down is because it is copywrited and is not open to any sort of profit making. It is not for sale. Reading Recovery is concerned only with teaching children to read and write. There is more than 40 years of analysed evidence from New Zealand, Australia, USA, UK and other countries that shows and proves that Reading Recovery 'works'. Our government knows this very well. Another proven fact, very well known to our government is that RR is cost-effective in the long run - some detractors complain that it is too expensive because it is taught by trained teachers and not cheaper teaching assistants. When I say, 'Known to our government', I mean that they know because they have been told repeatedly by the various and sundry research projects that have been undertaken, paid for from public funds. "

Grammar games for children

As readers of this blog will know, I regard the imposition of a grammar test at key stage 2 as mistaken, without basis in research and fills the curriculum with even more stuff that takes time away from children getting a chance to find out what kinds of reading and writing they might really like to do.

However, I'm realist enough to know that what has to be done has to be done.

With this in mind, I'm going to suggest one approach to the teaching of grammar that you can take and run with, adapt and use as a basis for thinking of other creative ways of playing with grammar.

1. Take a several passages of written text and chop them up into single words. End result a huge bank of bits of paper with single words on them.

2. Put the children into pairs or groups and get them to make up some writing.

3. Share what they've made round the class. Do they make sense? Do they sound 'right'? If they don't, discuss what would make them make better sense?

4. Play the substitution game. What happens if you swap single words over? What if you take out just one word and find another word to take its place? Can you do that? What have you got now? Read those out. Do they still make sense?

5. What the children  have done here is 'do grammar'. They have taken the aspect of language that runs along a line (phrases, sentences and paragraphs) and made some out of the random pile of words you have given them. They will nearly all do this 'grammatically'. If they don't, others or you will make suggestions as to how they will work grammatically. This is if you like the 'grammar that is in the children's minds' which they learned between the time they were born and they were about 5 (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether they are 'first language English speakers' or not.

6. When you asked them to play the substitution game, you were treating language as 'vertical'. You were replacing one kind of word with another word of the same kind. By doing this you introduce the children to the notion that there are words of one kind or another. Words have categories. They both know this and don't know this. This is one way for them to make their knowledge explicit.

7. You can do this by first getting them to come up with names for the categories that they have just demonstrated. Or you can introduce the names that are conventional - 'noun', 'verb', 'preposition' etc.

8. Go back to the occasions when people made sentences that didn't 'sound right'. Or get the children to make up sentences that don't sound right. Or make up some (still using the words on the bits of paper) and see whether they can come up with reasons why they 'don't sound right'. What should they be?

9. You will almost certainly now be dealing with 'word order' (the most easy aspect of English grammar to pick up if you are a 'native speaker' but hard even for very experienced speakers of English like, say, football managers!) You will also be dealing with eg 'subject-verb agreement'. This is the way we make the 'verb' tie in with the 'subject' of a sentence. As you probably know, for many children they do this one way when they speak which is different from the way standard English does it. That's why it's difficult for them. So some London children will say 'we was'. Some Yorkshire children will say 'he were'. Standard English, as you know says 'we were' and 'he was'.  You can 'teach' these things by telling children how to write it, you can get them to do exercises. I'm suggesting here that you may well find it more efficient, more fun and more intellectually satisfying if you play with these 'constructions' using cut-ups (words printed on to bits of paper), and getting the children talking about the different ways of saying and writing these constructions.

10. Invent other ways to investigate and play with language rather than doing exercises.