Fitness or Formality, Fruitcake or Fudge? A Retrospective on Grammar in the English Curriculum. Phil Norman Explores the History of Approaches to Grammar in the English Curriculum in the Last 40 Years, and Calls for a More Open Approach to Content and Pedagogy

Article excerpt

BLACKADDER: Baldrick, I have a cunning plan, a plan to test your grammar--all for your own good.

BALDRICK: Why? What's my gramma ever done to you Mr. B?

BLACKADDER: Grammar, Baldrick, not grandma.Grammar and parsing?

BALDRICK: And a sad day it were too when my grammar parsed away Mr. B.

BLACKADDER: Why do I bother? But, no matterBaldrick, using my unique strategy I'll teach you grammar and show good Queen Bess real progress, even if it takes me twenty years.

For nearly a century subject English has witnessed some of its most virulent argument over probably its least taught area, English grammar. But, like some persistently noxious 'dog-dirt' of the curriculum, grammar refuses to be swept under the carpet, unsmelt by its advocates and adversaries alike. Grammar lurks ever-ready to provoke debate, complaint and even outright warfare. Yet after years of national strategies and national curricula, asking any Baldrick on the school English corridor about modifiers, modals or participles is most likely to draw answers like 'Say again Mr. B ...?'

What grammar comprises, and what its teaching promises our 21st century students, needs far more systematic analysis than can be provided here. However, some perspectives on school grammar are worth reviewing now, at a time of challenges to national testing, and new knowledge combinations in 14-19 diplomas. In particular, after all the developments of recent years, is grammar still one side of a recurrent dichotomy with 'personal growth' English?

Discourses of English grammar

Textbook introductions, examination specifications, official report rationales and the like frequently cite the past when promoting their own ideologies of grammar. This article is no different. There is something compelling about reviewing the history of the debate: such reviews show how we have periodically scented the whiff of grammar's rich fruitcake but also reveal the folly of past fudges.

Put crudely, an essentially liberal humanist view of English looked, before the 1970s, to provide a proper and practical content for improving learners' prospects by finding a better way towards the world of work, and thereby emancipating society. This tradition was bound up with a robustly structural view of language that considered English's grammar content as having fixed syntactic and inflexional structures. These language structures were to be learned and controlled by young minds as yet uninformed about 'standard', authoritative and socially acceptable language.

From the 1970s onward a series of now well-elaborated political, cultural and social critiques of schooling, social equality and power formed the theoretical background to shifting perspectives on the validity of much of subject English's former content and purpose. These critiques challenged the authority of 'standard' forms of language, and the cultural and social ideals that underpinned them. It also exposed the normative nature of much taught language that had hitherto been considered certain and structurally firm, if not entirely fixed. Simultaneously these critiques questioned the certainty that language and grammar are socially neutral goods, accessible to all through diligent study, and a beneficial educational provision towards individuals' betterment and a more equal society. This series of theoretical transitions, succinctly set out by Nick Peim (2009), provides the background for radical changes in ideas about school grammar, and its ideological and pedagogical implications (see e.g. Carter 1990).

These changes, however, stalled in schools in the 1990s, only to become enmeshed in national controls over curriculum, examinations, school improvement, inspection and league tables that confounded theoretically informed thinking about subject English. The power to create and legitimate discourses of subject English, including its grammar content, has since lain firmly in the hands of coercive policy--a scenario now so familiar that it seems almost invisible, and whose passing would in turn unsettle many. …