Andrew Cunningham: Children need grammar lessons

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The Independent Online

At first, I couldn't believe the headlines. Teaching grammar was a "waste of time"? And not the best way to teach children to write well?

At first, I couldn't believe the headlines. Teaching grammar was a "waste of time"? And not the best way to teach children to write well? So, at least, argued a recent study from the University of York. Apparently, a far better way of teaching children how to write would be to cut back on grammar lessons and allow children to "learn to write by writing" instead.

It's a wonderful irony that this York report contains a solecism: "the teaching of formal grammar (and its derivatives) are ineffective". But the real issue, surely, is that the need for good grammar lessons in schools has never been greater. In the past year alone, there have been constant headlines about standards of literacy slipping. Last May, the pass mark for English SATs tests was lowered for the third year running (to 41 per cent). Employers, too, are increasingly convinced that today's young lack the basic skills they need to work well. The Confederation of British Industry says one-in-three companies now provide some form of training for school-leavers who have not mastered sufficient reading and writing skills. Even the universities, north and south of the border, have been running crash courses to prop up English language skills.

Formal grammar lessons, learning about syntax, parts of speech and how to use them have been part of the Government's drive to improve standards since 1998. So why isn't it working? Could it be that our attitudes to teaching grammar are wrong? For too long, grammar has been seen as some harsh medicine, only to be taken with great reluctance. Children quickly get the message and switch off. Each week, even at schools with good reputations, teachers are resigned to marking work that is poorly punctuated, badly spelt and poorly paragraphed - and that's just from sixth-formers. But it doesn't have to be like this. Grammar is not some nasty disease: merely "the science of structure and usages of language" (Collins English Dictionary). Clear guidelines on grammar are there to help a child. They are empowering, not restricting, skills, that enable children to master their own language for life.

Yet many teachers may still feel a sense of residual doubt and guilt about teaching grammar. The legacy of the flawed arguments of the 1960s and 1970s that say good grammar is stultifying and "wrong", still lingers. Let's face it, learning about spelling, apostrophes and punctuation never provides for the most stimulating lessons. It's far more fun to move on to exciting texts.

And now to argue that grammar has suddenly become "ineffective" in teaching children to write well seems akin to suggesting that these same children should receive no formal instruction in music, sport or any other essential skill. They can simply pick it up as they go along, with full freedom to make mistakes. No teacher is doing a child a favour by allowing them to get away with howlers like "I could of done that" - no matter how well the rest of an essay may be written. Try explaining that to this year's GCSE examiners who, according to Ken Boston, the head of Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, will be instructed to mark mistakes more harshly and "reward good spelling and good grammar".

Last November, further controversy erupted over that 1898 King Edward's School Birmingham exam paper for 11 year-olds, in which candidates had to "parse" sentences and construe stodgy poems. Yes, it looked daunting. But the many great writers in English literature who had to learn skills like these - Victorian giants like Hardy, Eliot and Gaskell - were not put off and proved that learning good grammar is the best route to writing well.

It's no coincidence, surely, that that there has been such a recent rush of best-selling books about the need for good grammar. Take Lost for Words, by John Humphrys, or Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which has sold a staggering 930,000 copies and spent a year in The Bookseller's Top Ten. The British public may know best on this one. They wouldn't be buying these books in such quantities if they thought grammar was a "waste of time".

The writer is an English teacher at Charterhouse School