Ed Clarke

The joy of grammar

After a long period of neglect, particularly in the state sector, the inner workings of language are back on the curriculum

The joy of grammar
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A virulent epidemic has in recent years spread across our island nation. I speak not of bird flu, Ebola or the plague, but of grammatophobia: the irrational fear of grammar, its necessity and its teaching in our schools. This has proven both highly contagious and severe in its consequences. The symptoms have never been more apparent than in the hysterical reaction to the government’s new Spag (spelling, punctuation and grammar) test for 11-year-olds.

‘This curriculum is the direct result of a government’s Gradgrind approach to curriculum development,’ thundered Mary Bousted of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in the TES. This Dickensian term is used for anyone with the temerity to suggest that children should be taught anything at all. In the Guardian, the former children’s poet laureate Michael Rosen argued that there are no ‘right or wrong’ answers in spelling and grammar, and that much of the terminology is disputed.

I agree, insofar as the consistency of terminology is important, but it is not true that fierce debate rages over every term. Parts of speech and basic punctuation are fixed, and a proper understanding of them is key.

Anyone promoting the teaching of grammar is often accused of desiring it solely on ideological grounds. In fact I support learning grammar for its own sake. It is hugely interesting, beautiful in its way, and the quirks are fascinating — why is it ‘If I were a rich man’, not ‘was’? What kind of verb form is ‘If need be’? What distinguishes ‘who’ from ‘whom’? Grammar’s practical value is also self-evident. Undertaking only ‘detailed comparative work on different kinds of texts, investigating, interpreting and experimenting’, as Rosen suggests, is like asking a young musician to merely to watch others play. At some point, he or she must master the instrument.

This involves repeated practice. A violinist has to learn basic scales and positions before grasping more complex aspects like harmonics and double-stopping. A football team does not simply play match after match. Far from improving performance, this would result in the acquisition of bad habits as poor technique is engrained through repetition. Instead, proficiency is encouraged in discrete areas, thus improving the whole game. So too must children practise spelling, punctuation and grammar to become capable and confident writers.

Thank goodness, then, that Michael Gove and his successors have shifted our education system’s approach to English so radically in favour of grammar. With England named the worst in the developed world for literacy only the other week (based on data collated in 2012), the government’s reforms could not have come soon enough.

French, Spanish and other languages are seeing a renaissance in grammatical learning, too, as teachers embrace online resources which allow students to complete verb forms or carry out linguistic exercises.

A rigorous approach to Latin is similarly gaining traction. For years the disastrous Cambridge Latin Course has held sway. The book may teach correctly that servus est in atrio means ‘the slave is in the hall’, but it fails to explain why the phrase has that meaning. At last teachers are realising how vital it is that pupils grasp the inner workings of a language, and just how much they enjoy it. Most of my own students are enthralled by Latin’s intricacy, its peculiarities and the puzzle-solving of translation. Am I to be accused of a Gradgrind approach when I have pupils as young as nine enthusiastic about rendering English sentences into accurate and stylistic Latin?

Last year I published a new two-part textbook, Variatio: A Scholarship Latin Course. I hoped that it might help to counter the ineffectual CLC, but suspected that my view might be a minority one. It was encouraging, therefore, to meet delegates at a ‘Clash of the Classics’ course at the last Independent Association of Prep Schools conference. I was expecting to meet the fusty older guard, wearing cardigans and toting dog-eared copies of Kennedy’s Latin Primer. But much more prevalent was a younger breed of classics teacher, keen on classroom discipline and a robust, grammatical method for tackling the language. I am going to be addressing the next conference in April to discuss the reasons behind Variatio’s creation — with resources for Latin and Greek under discussion — and very much hope we can continue to fly the flag for rigorous grammatical teaching.