Imagine, for a moment, that you are six years old and your family has just moved to a country where you barely speak a word of the native language. You are sent to school, itself a challenging experience as you struggle to interact with your new teachers and peers, who have never used any language other than their own.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, you are told that you have to take some very important exams in a few weeks’ time. Your parents, anxious to do everything in their power to maximise your chance of succeeding in your new home, have already bought the crammers and text books, although they don’t really understand what they are about and your teachers seem a bit hazy on them as well. You aren’t even quite sure what an examination is, but every couple of days your teacher takes a few of you out of the classroom – thickies like you who can’t write fluent, grammatical sentences – and makes you work through twenty questions in about half an hour. She tries to be nice but you can’t understand why she helps you the first time and then the second time she makes you do them all on your own, even though you don’t understand and there are lots of things you need to ask someone about.
You know the teacher is trying really hard not to be cross with you but you still get the feeling that she’s worried about you doing badly, and you’re really frightened that one day she will be cross, really cross, because you are so stupid for being six and not able to speak this language and understand what modal verbs and conjunctions are.
On top of all this, she’s taking the class in the school reception area. It’s really noisy and full of interesting things happening and you are trying hard not to turn round and look because then you get told off for not listening.
That’s what our political masters are asking Key Stage One children and their teachers to do. I’m learning Italian at the moment and it’s really hard. Even if I was in a quiet, very dull room, I would struggle to take an exam in Italian grammar. And I am a motivated, fairly bright grown-up.
Should primary school children be learning grammar at all? I can see two sides of this question. As a child of the 60s, and a school librarian, my emotions come down in favour of kids learning to enjoy the English language and feel confident using it in creative ways before we worry too much about the nuts and bolts of sentence-building. However, I’m also aware that my daughter, who is a gifted linguist, really struggled to take her German beyond GCSE level because she hadn’t really been taught English grammar, let alone German grammar, in a structured way. She pulled through and has recently finished six very rewarding months at the University of Vienna. But that experience gave me some sympathy with my Italian friends who are rather horrified by the lack of grammatical grounding in English schools.
Beginning a foreign language myself in middle age has been a real eye-opener. I’ve realised that you can reach a level of basic competency within a few months, mainly on the basis of rote learning and guided repetition in a very limited selection of scenarios. That will get you through the holiday basics, if anyone abroad has the time and patience to listen to your struggles rather than switch to English. If you are really determined, you may be able to reach this stage of competence on the Internet alone.
But to go deeper, to reach the point when you can really engage with a language and culture, does require some knowledge of grammar. In some languages word order is everything; in others you need to make sure that noun (male/female, singular/plural), adjective and personal pronoun all agree – and learn all the exceptions that have crept in because they sound so much better (yes, Italian, I’m looking at you). This sounds incredibly dull, and few of us could claim that grammar drills are our favourite way of spending a spare hour, but it leads to windows opening on a completely different view of the world.
There is also a more abstract pleasure in discovering how different nations have tackled the challenge of forming words into a logical structure that enables people to navigate reality with clarity. So I came rather late to the belief that grammar is important, and can be interesting and even enjoyable to study. Grammar is right at the interface of the controversy over whether we allow language to evolve, or try to impose order upon it. I’ve realised that Italians codified and organised their language in a very precise way into what is, basically, a simplified and evolved form of Latin. English, by contrast, has been far more promiscuous in its borrowings and bodged solutions. That is probably what makes it such a difficult language to learn.
What worries me about the testing regime being imposed on children in schools by our present government is precisely what bothers me about the proposals to turn every school into an academy. I say this as someone who now works for an academy trust and has so far found it to be a liberating experience. It’s not a bad idea in principle. But it’s not right for everyone.
It seems to me that by insisting that young children master English grammar at such a sophisticated level, we are pandering to people who want to cling to a fantasy that the whole concept of Englishness is an easily defined and codified matter. We are telling them that there is only one way to tell a story, think a thought and construct their own view of reality. It’s particularly ironic and sad that in these times of multi-culturalism, we’re being so incredibly prescriptive about how six year olds should express themselves, and putting teachers under so much pressure to make them conform.
What would I like to see happening in primary schools? I’d like teachers to be trusted to know what works best for their pupils, and if they were paid a bit better and respected more, that wouldn’t hurt. I’d like them to have more time, so that if a child comes out with a sentence like, “I goodly hided it,” they can explain that although it follows some grammatical rules, and sounds rather charming, it’s not what English people usually say, and that such a disconnect is not another reason to groan and put your head in your hands, but the kind of interesting, human oddity that makes language learning so intriguing. I’d like children to realise that if they make a mistake people will correct them, but it’s not an examination, and if they keep on trying they will get it right. Anyone who’s learned a language will know how easy it is to be rendered mute by fear of making a mistake, even after hours of practice, when faced with a real live foreigner, and yet we’re asking children to overcome this fear of sounding silly in an artificially high-pressure and high-stakes environment.
If children must be drilled in examination conditions, I would like schools buildings to be less crowded and chaotic. You can’t concentrate if you are learning in a reception area, or the end of a corridor. It’s like giving people German lessons in the middle of Waterloo station and shouting at them for being distracted by the loudspeaker announcements. I’d like every school to have a fully staffed library and for children to have time to browse the stock and talk to the librarian about what they might enjoy. That means far more relaxed timetables. You will not get a seven-year-old Star Wars fan to try something else in five minutes a week.
And yes, I would like to see children taught grammar – there’s no harm in telling them what a noun and a verb are, but let’s get the basics in place first, so that when they do find themselves needing to know about subordinate clauses they are already writing complex enough sentences for the device to make sense. We learn by doing things, not by cramming theoretical questions under pressure. I hated every minute I spent learning French at secondary school. Now, over thirty years later, I’m revelling in discovering another European language. Education isn’t all fun, of course – our kids need to learn self-discipline and realise that. But there is a time and a place for everything and the best people to judge when that is are not politicians, but teachers.
And I can still remember having to write numerous times in an exercise book, at the age of seven, “I must never start a sentence with ‘and’.” And you know what? I just did. And the sky did’t fall in. If it was good enough for William Blake to do it when he wrote “Jerusalem,” it is hardly going to lead to the downfall of England’s green and pleasant land.