The Resistance Against Teaching Grammar

As much as I have reservations about the “phonics approach” to teaching reading, I firmly believe that any skill worth teaching can be taught well. Just because phonics, spelling and grammar can be taught in a very dry and mundane way, doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable and it doesn’t mean that it can’t be delivered in a style in which students enjoy.

Plans for new primary school grammar tests in England will hold a “gun to the head” of teachers, experts say.

The National Association for the Teaching of English says a revised focus on spelling, grammar and punctuation will “impoverish” teaching.

Its chairman, Dr Simon Gibbon, says the reforms are based on ministers’ “diminishing memories of their own grammar- and public-school educations”.

It’s not the content of the tests that I am concerned about, it’s the tests themselves that bother me.

Click on the link to read my post on the phonics debate.

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2 Responses to “The Resistance Against Teaching Grammar”

  1. John Tapscott Says:

    Phonics and Grammar are needed more than ever in teaching. Phonics provide children with important skills for reading and spelling. Taught in the context of meaning and not merely as an exercise in “barking at print” phonics can be a vehicle for rapidly expanding children’s reading vocabularies and to provide essential tools in spelling, despite a large number of exceptions.

    Grammar not only trains children to write sentences and paragraphs correctly, it also enhances a child’s logical thinking skills. In education context is everything. Take it out of context and it has no meaning.

    These are important building blocks to literacy. There is little sense in laying bricks in a wall without foundations. Foundational to children learning phonics is an ability to recognise a number of words by sight. Only until a child can recognise the word “cat” can he or she be expected to be able to break it into its component sounds and match them to the print.

    I know there are those who advocate teaching phonics first but without context and meaning it’s only making noises. If children in China can be taught to look at 猫 and pronounce “mao” (= cat), then so can children in Australia be taught to look at “cat” and say cat. The advantage that Australian children have is that knowing that they can then begin to learn other words phonetically as the phonemes remain constant. Hence: mat, rat, bat and so on. Of course visual clues, such as illustrations are also important for developing a beginning sight vocabulary.

    I am unable to quote the research now but I remember reading years ago that without a knowledge of phonics, by sight recognition alone a child can attain to a reading age of 8. After that point, if the child has no understanding of phonics he or she hits a plateau.

    There is a body of evidence that shows that some children, for reasons I am not aware, fail to develop a sight vocabulary and are better approached with phonics from scratch. There is no reason for me to doubt this but I think such children are in the minority. In my experience I have found beginning with sight vocabulary (hence meaning) to be generally more effective than beginning with phonics. I wish I had more time to study all these issues.

    That Grammar and Phonics are closely related can be seen in the way in which the meaning of a word can be modified by the addition of a morpheme. Hence “jump”, “jumped” and we are dealing with the tense of verbs; “possible”, “impossible” and we explore antonyms, so on and so forth. Grammar does not have to be boring but it has to be taught well. That it is not, these days, is a reflection of the fact that many of today’s teachers went through school at a time when Grammar was considered unnecessary and children learn to write well by osmosis.

    Unfortunately things have swung too far in the opposite direction with children having to learn all about different text types when many of them can’t even write one coherent sentence. By that logic, perhaps we should begin teaching calculus in grade 1, before children are scarcely able to count, add and subtract.

    Is it an explanation or an exposition? What does that mean for a child who can’t string enough words together to make a coherent sentence.

    So what are you going to teach? Is it an aim, an objective, a goal or an outcome. Let’s cut the gobbledygook and give our children a sound basic education in literacy and numeracy and leave the more high falutin stuff for later when there will be a solid foundation on which to build. Get rid of the specious testing regime and allow more time for music, dance art and craft, nature study, singing and drawing and make education a more enjoyable experience for students and for teachers.

    Here endeth the lesson.

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