Editorial

By Snapper, Gary | English Drama Media, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Snapper, Gary, English Drama Media


Grammar for Writing

The question of the teaching of grammar is still with us, despite everyone's best efforts to make it go away. We know--despite the conservative press's best efforts to convince the nation otherwise--that the traditional teaching of grammar within English was ineffective as a means of improving reading and writing skills, and disastrous as a means of inspiring creativity or motivation in the subject--though it arguably gave students an abstract sense of a linguistic system at work. We also know that the linguistic system it took as its base was essentially that of Latin, not English, and thus led to a pedantic obsession with irrelevancies like not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions, which it seems will forever be used as ammunition in the battle between English teachers and those who think they know better than English teachers.

Getting rid of that kind of grammar was one of the best things that happened to English teaching last century. The flame of grammar has, however, been kept alive over the years by many who have been convinced that teaching about the workings of language in a more enlightened form might yet help us in the classroom. First there was Language Awareness, then Knowledge About Language; these were (and continue to be) great things, but tended in practice towards sociolinguistics rather than grammar. Then came the 'strategy' model - based on perfectly respectable theories such as critical literacy and genre theory, but a mess once passed through the guts of the National Literacy Strategy.

Quietly in the background, however, scholars have been working on more sensitive models for framing what we do in the classroom more explicitly in terms of knowledge about language that actually helps teachers and students to make better readers and writers. Amongst these are Debra Myhill and her Grammar for Writing group at the University of Exeter, whose article in this EDM outlines elements of a major research project which has found that, with a careful synthesis of theory and pedagogy, a model of pedagogy which recognises how the classroom actually works, and a model of grammar which is based on what actually happens when writers write, grammar can be both a pleasure to teach and a valuable way of helping children to progress.

The project is also a fantastic model of a dynamic and responsible approach to the widespread dissemination of research findings in a form appropriate for assimilation by practising teachers, as evidenced, for instance, by the way that the research group have actively sought to promulgate their work in professional as well as academic networks, for instance in this journal.

Classics and English

Latin grammar may not be a useful model for making progress in English, but there are many ways in which classics and English valuably inter-connect. When I was a Head of English at a comprehensive in Cambridge, I was fortunate to work with the Cambridge Classics Project at Cambridge University, which has been fighting to keep classics alive in state schools in the UK, through promoting imaginative and accessible ways for schools both to teach Latin, Greek and Classical Studies as separate subjects, and to embed elements of classics across the curriculum. With the help of CCP, for instance, we experimented with ways of raising students' awareness of the Latin and Greek roots of English words as a means of building their vocabulary and showing them how words are built of units of etymological meaning.

Bob Lister's article in this edition of EDM--the first in a series of articles addressing ways in which English and other curriculum subjects can work together--outlines a major project (Classics in the English Curriculum) being undertaken by CCP, focused on developing oracy in English classrooms, using a storytelling approach to tales from Homer (The Iliad) and Ovid (Metamorphoses).

We know that storytelling is a highly valuable approach in English, combining creativity with the development of speaking and listening skills in a way which has the potential to increase achievement and motivation in reading and writing too. …

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