Spell it out to teachers

OPINION: relaxed standards on language are creating an illiterate generation, says Randolph Quirk
Click to follow
The Independent Online
E veryone has their own horror story about the supermarket checkout. You query a quite implausible total and diffidently invoke common sense only to find that the nimble fingers on the machine are controlled by a head that can't multiply five by three.

So your initial sympathy for teachers lambasted by Chris Woodhead ("15,000 should be sacked") is diminished when you read in his annual report that they haven't been giving mental arithmetic the attention you'd expect. This is not a new finding: it is just that we have a better mechanism for establishing it than by accumulating anecdotes. For years, it has been asserted that children in England were worse at sums than their fellows in several continental countries. Now, hard on the heels of the Ofsted report comes one from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research showing a widening gap between our children's performance in maths and that of their trans-Manche counterparts.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ran a leading article on 8 February: "One and one is five". But while acknowledging that we were indeed worse at sums, the writer warned that school standards in some of the German Lander seemed also to be slipping and that mother-tongue literacy was giving particular concern.

Well, this is something that - unlike maths - can't easily be compared across linguistic frontiers, but the Ofsted report has gloomy news about the teaching of English in our schools. Nor is the gloom peculiar to Ofsted. British university professors of English have just been in conference lamenting how little literature their students had read in the sixth-form. Unkind souls, mind you, may think this smacks of the pot calling the kettle chromatically challenged. After all, if it is not university professors who influence A-level syllabuses, it is teachers who have been taught by professors. It would not be surprising if decades of snidely rubbishing the idea of a literary canon had filtered through to students of "media" or "culture and communication" as they dozed their way to a Lower Second.

Professors in other university departments don't demand much knowledge of literature: just enough competence in English to cope with their science or engineering work. Yet even in Oxford we hear of history professors unhappy about their students' English, and University College London is conducting an inquiry about the entry standards in English.

The demands made by employers of school leavers at 16 are more modest still. They just want youngsters who can read and write, whose spelling and punctuation fall within fairly generous limits of acceptability and who can write a two-clause sentence without getting their grammar in a tangle.

Sixteen-year-olds to this specification are apparently getting harder to find, having been taught by teachers who have been taught by professors to be rather relaxed about good and bad (in language, I mean, I go no further). There are good and bad graffiti and cereal labels, they are told. A professor at Sheffield Hallam University was not wildly out of line when writing in a teachers' journal that the English curriculum "smacks of a right-wing witch hunt against so-called 'slovenly' speech, spelling and punctuation". A sample inquiry last year suggested that an alarming proportion of university teachers of English firmly decline to correct the written or spoken English of their students. Not, they insist, because such hack work is beneath them but because correction inhibits the creative flow, intrudes upon a student's private "space", and unwarrantably implies (or infers, as they might say) that language can be reduced to crude judgements of good and bad.

What sort of message does this give to students who may soon be teaching in a school? Indeed, has the current Reith lecturer pondered that question? Popularising the more provocative tenets of linguistics is always good for a laugh. And, of course, Jean Aitchison is not actually encouraging slovenliness or saying that "anything goes". But to judge from reactions across the whole press spectrum, she seems perilously close to giving that impression and it would be a great pity if that was how teachers understood her as well.

Some may see all this as just another rearguard plea for a return to "old-fashioned" teaching, but not a bit of it. Well-researched modern thinking in maths points to the value of mental arithmetic. Avant-garde critical theorists are providing an intellectual basis for good taste in literature. And those linguists who still regard "phonics" as an outmoded way of learning to read should themselves read what linguists at the epicentre of linguistic theory are writing on the subject. Alarmed at falling standards of literacy in Massachusetts, 40 of the best-known linguists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Ivy League college Amherst have sharply demanded a new tough regime in local schools to make the matching of sounds to letters as automatic as the five-times table ... should be.

Lord Quirk is an eminent linguist and is a frequent speaker on education from the cross benches in the House of Lords.