Gibb’s grammar was right but he’s also profoundly wrong
There was much crowing when schools minister Nick Gibb flunked a grammar question on Today. The Sun, for example, sent him to the ‘bottom of the class’.
Gibb was asked whether the word ‘after’ in the sentence ‘I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner’ was a preposition or a subordinating conjunction. Gibb replied, ‘It’s a preposition’. The presenter said, 'Wrong.' But Oliver Kamm in The Times (14 May 2016) said Gibb’s reply was correct. He explained that ‘after’, wherever it occurs in a sentence, is a preposition that can be followed by a clause.
But that doesn’t let Gibb off the hook. Kamm continues:
‘In short, there’s nothing wrong with Mr Gibb’s understanding of grammar. Even so, I’ll criticise him on educational policy…the minister is making a grave mistake in micromanaging the curriculum. Looking for a binary right or wrong answer in grammar is sometimes plain misguided’.
But it is on such binary right or wrong answers that 11 year-olds are being tested.
Kamm supports children learning about English grammar. But grammar can’t be taught in isolation. English language expert David Crystal, in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, says it’s impossible to understand syntax without ‘seeing it in its broader perspective’. This includes:
- General knowledge
- Punctuation and layout
- Word order
- Prosody: variations in pitch, volume, speed and rhythm. These are spoken equivalent of the way prose is organised in writing.
Crystal proposes that grammar is taught via stories, poetry and other genres which help learners focus on particular linguistic issues. What he does not suggest is learning the names of grammatical constructions out of context.
Reducing the teaching of English to a reductionist naming of parts will not help children write clearly, effectively and engagingly.
I’m old enough to have been taught formal grammar. One exercise comprised ruling columns on a page and heading them ‘Noun, Adjunct, Verb, Adjunct’. We would dissect individual sentences by writing nouns in column one, any adjectives, clauses or phrases which complemented the nouns in column two, and so on. No doubt Gibb would approve. But if I can write clearly today it is in spite of such dull analysis not because of it.
The grammar test is flawed. Gibb ‘conflates performance in these tests with writing fluently and cogently’, writes David Reedy on the Cambridge Primary Review Trust website. They have no educational value and distort the curriculum.
But Gibb is convinced testing children on their ability to spot esoteric grammatical terms will turn them into proficient writers. But, as Reedy points out, ‘These grammar tests will not and cannot do what the government’s rhetoric claims.’
In the end, Gibb’s assertion that he’s injected ‘rigour’ into primary teaching turns out to be empty rhetoric – so much hot air. There’s no evidence frequent, mandatory testing increases school performance. It is, as retired primary head Gerald Hair says: ‘SPAG bol*****’.
And it’s not just grammar tests: David Crystal tells Hay Festival why exam boards and DfE are wrong about punctuation.