I teach an adult evening class in formal writing skills. It is for learners who are under-confident about the daily writing tasks essential in work or other situations.
This is the second term I’ve delivered the class. A fascinating pattern is emerging. In both classes the composition of the students is roughly 3:1, non-native: native English speakers. These articulate, enthusiastically engaged, adults, mainly young, want to write more effectively.
Their language abilities exhibit an even more fascinating pattern. The non-native English speakers are weak on nuance and idiom but almost all, having been taught grammar in their own language and taught English on a sound grammatical basis, comprehend the grammatical foundations of English.
If I say that the first simple rule for the possessive apostrophe is that it applies to possessive nouns but not to possessive pronouns or adjectives, they understand exactly what I mean.
The native English speakers are strong on nuance and idiom but, without exception, almost bereft of any technical knowledge of their own language.
There are 12 students in my current class. The three native English speakers are a fascinating trio: a fine arts graduate applying to enter a post-graduate Master’s course and recognising that study at that level will require more formal writing than her largely practice-based first degree; a young man who worked for several years as an outdoor adventure instructor, completed an access year at college, is now in the first year of a B.Ed primary teaching course but who recognises the weakness of his own writing skills; and a young woman working in an NHS administrative job and under-confident about her writing.
These three (the first is English, the second two Scottish) are bright, self-aware learners. British education has failed them. It did not teach them grammar. Being devoid of grammatical knowledge means that, despite their best intentions, they cannot reflect meaningfully on the language they use in their writing.
Three explanations have been proffered for the abandonment of formal grammar teaching.
First, it stifled creativity. The traditional emphasis on grammatical correctness, it was asserted, created pupils who failed to write their superb ideas because they were constantly fearful of getting the grammar wrong. The simple answer is to encourage children to write first and correct later.
The second was that grammar was learned best, not by pedantic teaching, but by reading well-written, grammatically accurate writing. There is a very limited truth in this. Children raised with a rich vocabulary, countless books and a command of logic do learn grammar, almost by osmosis, and write grammatically. That is a small minority. The rest require teaching.
The third was that grammar was too difficult for too many. This was akin to arguing that reading Shakespeare or learning a foreign language were too difficult for many. It is either patronising or elitist to state that an understanding of how one’s own language works should be denied to the majority of a population.
Curriculum for Excellence gives some hope. It recognises grammar as a vital tool for reading although, curiously, makes no mention of it in the “Experiences and Outcomes” relating to writing.
We would not expect children with no knowledge of number bonds or multiplication tables to tackle algebra, yet we expect children without grammar to analyse complex texts.
Private sector schools certainly teach grammar and thus facilitate the linguistic confidence of their products. Why should that be denied to children in the comprehensive sector?
A rigorous approach to curricular content should not be the preserve of crusty conservatives. If that rigour were applied, my evening class might comprise entirely non-native English speakers.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.