The Thing About Grammar

It’s really hard to talk about grammar without upsetting someone. Really, really hard. Some might even say impossible. The DfE have managed to upset just about everyone at some point with their approach to grammar. Even if you’re not cross about them saying where and when kids can use exclamation marks, you’re probably going to be at least a little bit irritated about the leak of Key Stage One SPaG papers. Writers have been known to upset teachers on the subject of grammar, by saying that you don’t need to name parts of a language to be able to write in it. However, those same teachers have to get on with the task of teaching the grammar that the DfE insists that they teach, whatever the writers think about whether it’s a good idea or not. Teachers also disagree with each other on what’s important, why it’s important and how it should be taught. Then there are linguists who say that maybe it’s the case that “Teachers hate teaching grammar” and that perhaps the reason for this is because they don’t know enough about it, rather than just that they’re fed up with another top down demand from the DfE. Sometimes it feels like the only certain thing about grammar is that everyone is cross with everyone else about it.

Having said the above, I’m bound to upset someone if I set out my stall on the subject of grammar. (Please know that what follows isn’t about me saying what should work for you, but rather, what works for me.) To my mind, language is eternally fascinating – I’m lucky because I get to play with it as my day job. But if you wanted me to teach “the difference between a conjunctive adverb and a subordinating conjunction” I would have to resort to google and a whole heap of hard thinking, since understanding grammar is not the same thing as being able to write. Linguistics is a field distinct in its own right. Hugely valuable and interesting, but more the nuts and bolts than the entire engine. Knowing how to name the parts is not the same thing as understanding how to express yourself, because you don’t learn to write by sticking bits of language together until you’ve made a piece of writing. You learn to write by having chances to consider what you think, to gain an understanding of the kind of voice you want to express your thoughts in, and then having the opportunity for an audience to celebrate what you said.

The piece of writing at the top of this blog is a story I wrote when I was 11. There’s a distinct lack of fronted adverbials; a paucity of subordinating clauses. I wouldn’t have had a clue what those things were when I was that age, anyway. But that story came from my heart, and my teacher told me that he loved it, even though I chopped up my sentences like I was trying to be Ernest Hemingway. So I guess my main take on the question of teaching grammar is that we shouldn’t be afraid to let children write like children. That we should allow them to build up their language from the inside out, not try to stick it onto them from the outside in. We should let them get older, read more books, talk about stuff more, learn how to express themselves, basically. I’m pretty sure this puts me in the bin marked ‘biogtry of soft expectations blobby progressive’, but honestly, I don’t care. Because the most important thing about writing is not how it is constructed – it is about whether or not it reaches out, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and makes you think or feel something that you never thought or felt before. And there ain’t no grammar recipe for that.

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