I was educated in the 1970s and 80s and was not taught any grammar; yet left state school and gained a First Class degree from a Russell group university, in English. Formal grammar was taught as part of my degree and being a logical person, I enjoyed grammatical analysis for its mathematical quality. I loved all the round and square brackets, the labels you had to add and the fact that you could (and I did) get 100%. But I don’t believe it made me a better writer or made me appreciate literature to a greater degree.
The first grammar tests are being sat in schools today. These tests won’t improve standards in writing and may have a detrimental effect on the enjoyment of the literature which Gove is so keen for children to engage with. I have been teaching grammar (in state schools) as part of analysing different texts for the past 17 years, but not in an abstract ‘feature spotting’ way. These tests seem more designed to check that teachers are doing their jobs, than of any real benefit to the children.
And once again the tests will have taken attention away from ‘real’ learning as I have no doubt that teachers have spent many hours preparing their classes for these tests at the expense of other subjects or more enjoyable learning experiences.
Last September I joined a ladies’ social tennis group having not picked up a racquet for nearly 20 years. And in the past few months I have understood in a very real way what it means to be back in the classroom , particularly for some of the students who struggle with literacy. Teachers will recognise the frustration of giving students something challenging to write about and finding that full stops and capital letters fall by the wayside. With tennis I have discovered exactly the same thing happening – my tennis coach tells me to keep my head still, my arms fail to coordinate; I slow down my ball throw and my knees won’t bend.
But I will make progress because I enjoy it. I am determined to improve because of the pleasure I get when I am praised. I am encouraged to take risks and when it goes right it feels great. And that, I believe, is how real learning takes place. With enjoyment, challenge and support. My students engage with literature and language learning because I build those aspects of learning into my lessons – if you add more testing, rote learning and build in failure – standards simply will not improve.
My concerns for English teaching are two-fold: firstly, that by building in ‘failure’ at such a young age (as young as 6 for children taking synthetic phonics tests – and yes, parents do care and will convey their anxieties to their children when they ‘fail’ to achieve the standard) we will be creating a group of disaffected children who will not be given the opportunity to read and engage with the wonders of narrative; secondly, we will create a generation of illiterate decoders – children who can work out what the words say and what parts of a sentence are, but who have no understanding of narrative, imagery, the journeys that a wonderful book can take you on.
Children should be immersed in literature from a young age without the fear of tests or failure. My middle child didn’t want to read to me when she first started to bring books home from school. I didn’t make her – I never made her finish a page or a story if she had had enough. Aged 7 she is a prolific reader, who still doesn’t like reading out loud. She is supposed to read to me every day, but I don’t force her. I read stories out loud to her and she gets through a swathe of the library every week, happy to talk about what she has read and independently writing pages of stories which she rarely wants to share, but from which she clearly gets a great deal of (uncorrected) pleasure.
So, those are my thoughts really. Not that they count for much. It seems that 18 years of teaching English, 14 of them in inner city London, mean that I don’t know what I am talking about. Unheard, alongside writers like Michael Rosen and linguists like David Crystal and hundreds of other voices on twittersphere. Let’s hope that maybe, just maybe, Gove might start to listen to the evidence. In the meantime I have to dash, as a class of thirteen year olds awaits me. We will be engaging with literature in creative ways, thinking and immersing ourselves in it whilst we can.