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Grammar to come back to Australian schools
Posted: 07 June 2012 01:36 AM   [ Ignore ]
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When I was a very young lad, the subject of grammar was dropped from the curricula of most Australian schools. It is now making something of a comeback.

http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2012/s3519365.htm

Excerpt:

NEIL JAMES: When it comes to grammar, the pendulum has fortunately swung back in the other direction. So the new national curriculum for English has decided to reinstate grammar and to reinstate traditional grammar.

There are a couple of problems with it, however, and one is that we’ve got two generations of teachers in the system who are going to have to teach this curriculum and as far as I can tell there are very few resources being allocated to help those teachers to catch up.

The problem with old school grammar is that it tended to be overly prescriptive, so anything that was new was immediately suspect. So whenever we were coining new words and turning them into verbs, for example, tabling a reports in parliament or more recently for example, medalling at the Olympics - the old school said none of that was acceptable.

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Posted: 07 June 2012 04:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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First, understand that the “expert” in this piece, Neil James, makes his living through prescriptivism. His Plain English Foundation is a business that provides grammar instruction and other language services to businesses. This is hardly an example of unbiased journalism.

The reason that grammar instruction disappeared from the curriculum is that study after study has shown that it doesn’t work. Students who receive formal instruction in grammar fare no better than those that don’t. It’s a waste of time. (I’m not saying that knowing grammar isn’t important for good writing, but that formal instruction in grammar doesn’t help.)

And the thing that really sets me off is the touting of a fifty-year-old book. A textbook from the 1950s isn’t going to help anyone learn to speak good English in the 21st century. (I’m hoping I’m wrong about this and that James was talking about a new edition of the New Graded Work Book for Australian Schools, but as far as I can tell it was last revised in 1959.)

(I also got a laugh out of the response to the question, “Is that just anecdotally that you are hearing that or is there any evidence to back that up?” To which James responded with more anecdotes. Cite some studies, guy! You’ve got a PhD; use it!)

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Posted: 07 June 2012 05:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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What Dave said.  This is bad news for Australian schoolchildren.

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Posted: 07 June 2012 09:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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At the risk of taking what may be a cheap shot, I’m tempted to note that Dr. James has, presumably inadvertently, provided some anecdotal evidence for the proposition that receiving formal instruction in grammar does not necessarily help one craft well-formulated sentences. 

This article contains quite a few absolute groaners, and I can’t help but wonder why anybody would seek instruction on the niceties of usage from this gentleman (although, to be fair, I suspect that some of Dr. James’s statements were poorly transcribed). There is a particularly awkward example where, somewhat ironically, Dr. James is extolling the virtues of simple communication (at least, I think that’s what he’s doing), and I don’t think all of the blame can be laid at the transcriptionist’s feet (but some of it might be):

Just simple match your language to the level of the content deserves.  To be able to do that you need some technical understanding of how to change your language from a more complex, what are the elements that make language more complex, what are the elements that can cut through that and communicate even a challenging idea as simply as you possibly can.

Quite.  And, cheap shot aside, I’m not sure that a grounding in formal grammar helps one identify barriers to clear communication, or that it helps one come up with ways to cut through those barriers.

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Posted: 07 June 2012 10:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The current system of English tuition in the UK isn’t serving children well.  I’m in favour of bringing back grammar.

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Posted: 07 June 2012 10:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I think formal instruction in grammar is helpful for learning other languages (and, of course, the study of language per se) even if it doesn’t necessarily improve writing or speaking skills in one’s first language.  But this opinion is based on personal impressions, not hard statistics.

And welcome back, Eliza!

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Posted: 07 June 2012 10:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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(although, to be fair, I suspect that some of Dr. James’s statements were poorly transcribed)

It looks to me like it’s a rather accurate transcription. I would say that the “groaners” are due to the difference in speech as opposed to writing. His excessive reliance on connectors like “and” and phrases tacked on to one another are classic signs of the flow state that is speech. Had you been listening to him, as opposed to reading the words, I doubt you would think anything amiss.

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Posted: 07 June 2012 11:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I agree [with Dr. Techie] that studying grammar can be helpful in both of the ways [he noted].  But Dr. James seems to be making a case for the idea that formal training in grammar is essential if one is to learn how to communicate well.  And I don’t find his case to be particularly compelling.

[edited to fix an inadvertent nonsequitur]

[ Edited: 07 June 2012 11:22 AM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 07 June 2012 11:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I misspoke when i said the interview was transcribed poorly.  What I was trying to allude to is that I think the “author” of the “article” could have shown the reader (and Dr. James) a little kindness by judiciously inserting a comma (or other signal) here and there to make the interview more readable.  While I don’t think a quote should be altered to “improve” it, I think there is at least a certain amount of latitude to insert commas and the like if there was even a tiny pause in speech.

I admit that it’s not necessarily fair to judge oral statements by the standards governing written communication.  But, on the other hand, Dr. James was being interviewed, and he presumably was aware that he might be quoted verbatim.  So, it might have been a good idea for him to
craft his statements with some care, to ensure that they “read” as well as they sounded, particularly when he is trying to sell the idea that a solid background in formal grammar is essential to learning how to communicate clearly.  But, as I admitted, maybe this is a just a cheap shot.

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Posted: 07 June 2012 05:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I think some understanding of the workings of grammar makes formal writing easier. Readers of formal literature expect certain rules to be followed. You can get away with a lot in informal speech and writing but being able to switch between registers will be useful to anyone, and having a basic understanding of grammar will make it easier to learn these differences. It is not easy to explain things such as number agreement to someone who doesn’t know what a verb is.

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Posted: 07 June 2012 09:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Precisely.

How many of you are teachers of English?

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Posted: 07 June 2012 09:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Dr. Techie:

I think formal instruction in grammar is helpful for learning other languages (and, of course, the study of language per se) even if it doesn’t necessarily improve writing or speaking skills in one’s first language.  But this opinion is based on personal impressions, not hard statistics.

This was my experience with German in the 9th grade. Before that, verbs, nouns, adjectives ... who knew? An adverb seemed a little weird--what does it mean to modify a verb?

English grammar is a mess for the uninitiated. Many words can function as nouns or verbs, then even as adjectives and adverbs. Try explaining that to a confused twelve year old.

The best thing is to expose kids to good language that has some meaning. This does not include the insipid gruel in grammar books or in feel-good literature scaled down to the supposedly limited mental capacity of the vast kid humanity. But what do you do with quasi-literate students who, in some areas, top fifty per cent of the population? The same thing. Make the words mean something. You just have to start at a lower level. It won’t ever be easy. Reading the written word, for many people, is an abnormal and aberrant activity. Yeah, I like grammar, and books about grammar. It’s just not for everybody.

That grammar exists at all, as a concept, is incomprehensible until learners have crossed a certain threshhold in active language, whatever age they are. But then, once crossed, hit ‘em with a little grammar, but not too much.

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Posted: 08 June 2012 01:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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One small thing in all this is a bit odd.  Mr. James seems to place a great deal on the “Royal Mail Survey”.  A quick search reveals that this is common “reference” on many training, grammar etc. services sites.

It seems to be a stock phrase or “meme” for anyone pushing for business in this area.  However I can’t find any trace of the survey itself.  This could be due to me looking in the wrong place, or maybe it’s buried in all the blogs and advertising of the language industry.

In any case I suspect that if the survey exists, then these “conclusions” might be contrived rather than actual.  If so many people have poor language and grammar, how come so many are skilled enough to spot the errors (and be concerned about them)?  Clearly this would be good evidence why eastern based companies are making no inroads into US and UK markets (so many manuals and materials are poorly translated); except that the reverse is true!

The survey is usually dated 2005, but this BBC article is from 2001. 
BBC news link 2001

I have seen dates of 2007 and later given as well.
If anyone can do better and find the actual Royal Mail press release or even the survey, it could be worth a look.

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Posted: 08 June 2012 02:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I think part of the problem is that what passes for grammar in primary education is such a small part of the actual grammar of the language.  For example, iff we agree that, e.g., “run into” as in “run into an old friend” and “look up” as in “look up a word” are both phrasal verbs why are:

1a) I looked up a word in the dictionary

and

1b) I looked a word up in the dictionary

both OK, but

2a) I ran into an old friend yesterday

is also OK, but not

2b) *I ran an old friend into yesterday

?

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Posted: 08 June 2012 03:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I agree that much of the problem in discussing the topic is that the word grammar is doing too much work. Most of what people are talking about is usage, not grammar. Talking about good “grammar” is perfectly fine in general contexts, but when you get down to the specifics of education, one should be precise in one’s usage.

if we agree that, e.g., “run into” as in “run into an old friend” and “look up” as in “look up a word” are both phrasal verbs why are:

This is a perfect example of why grammar and syntax don’t need to be taught. By the time a native speaker is five years old, she knows which of these constructions are correct and which aren’t. Trying to explain the grammar at work underneath phrasal verbs just complicates things unnecessarily. If I saw “ran an old friend into yesterday” in a student paper, I would make a comment about being careful with cut-and-paste operations, not about grammar. (I’m not speaking about second-language instruction here, which, as has been pointed out, is an entirely different beast.)

I actually started to write an explanation as to how the syntax of these phrasal verbs operate, but quickly discovered that the topic is enormously complex, with myriad exceptions and subtleties. Too much to tackle in a single sitting. It’s like trying to explain how one catches a ball. Everyone can do it “without thinking,” but the mental processes behind the action are latent and complex.

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Posted: 08 June 2012 05:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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What Dave said.

I think part of the problem is that what passes for grammar in primary education is such a small part of the actual grammar of the language.

A bigger part of the problem is that part of what passes for grammar in primary education has nothing to do with the actual grammar of the language.

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