Grammar has received a fairly bad press over the years and it's hardly surprising. Critics have claimed it's hard to learn (probably true), difficult to teach (sometimes true) and largely useless when it comes to having any effect on students' writing (thought to be true, according to most studies, until 2011 as we see below). What's more, they say, it's almost impossible to keep up with the arcane terminology used to label words, phrases and clauses, because it keeps changing and grammarians themselves can't always agree on whether one particular usage should be treated as (say) a determiner or possessive pronoun. True again. So why bother with it?
Some English teachers don't bother with grammar and get by perfectly well without it: after all, to get a top grade at GCSE there's no absolute requirement to say anything very specific about grammar and if you can write, then you can write. You don't really need lessons in clause analysis to be able to put together a piece of travel writing or autobiography, do you?
Others feel a need to sprinkle a few terms like adjective, abstract noun and pronoun around like magical fairy dust, hoping it will transform otherwise vague writing into more analytical, precise and detailed work, with varying degrees of success. Finally, there are those English teachers, often self-taught in the school of hard knocks that is English Language A level, or perhaps holders of Linguistics or English Language degrees, who live and breathe grammar as a means of unlocking texts.
Is there really a case for arguing that grammar is vital to English teaching? It certainly has a central place in English Language A level teaching as there are specific references to a range of grammatical concepts--word classes, phrases, clause and sentence structure--in the assessment objectives for both AS and A2, although the depth of knowledge and its application depends a great deal on which specification you follow and which unit you're teaching.
It's also evident, thanks to recent work by Debra Myhill and her team at Exeter University that teaching grammar in a systematic and integrated way can have a significant impact on young people's ability to write in different forms. The article by Debra Myhill and Helen Lines in this edition of Classroom offers much more detail, so I won't say much more here beyond adding that with its focus on creativity and stylistic repertoires, here at least, grammar looks like it could be a really important part of an English teacher's arsenal.
And Michael Gove seems to think that grammar teaching is important too, but the problem is that when he talks about grammar he's probably talking about something very different to what linguists mean by grammar. If his recent pronouncements are anything to go by, English teachers need only nip out to their local Victorian book vendor and pick up a copy of Simon Heifer's Strictly English, wherein they will find all the grammar what ain't teached properly nowadays. As he said to his audience at Cambridge University in November 2011 (www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2066141/):
'Conventional grammar--as we understand it here and as Simon Heifer lays it out masterfully in his wonderful book Strictly English--doesn't feature in the English curriculum. But the English Language GCSE can include listening to tape recordings of Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers.'
'Wonderful' is not really a word that has been applied to Simon Heifer's book before. In Strictly English he expounds at some length (sometimes inaccurately) upon shall and will, as and because, and perhaps most importantly for the 21st Century Facebook-literate-smartphone-using generation, how to address baronets and knights. In an English Drama Media review last year it was described (admittedly by me) as 'a throwback to the 1870s', while more eminent reviewers such as the linguist, Geoff Pullum (www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story. …