My mention of the apostrophe got quite a few comments. Ironically, of course, my teaching colleagues and I are the ones who seem to have allowed the younger generations to grow up grammarless, so perhaps I should be hanging my head in shame instead of making rueful remarks. (The essays I was marking weren’t written by my own students, I’d like to add – though probably my students produced work of much the same standard.)
When I started teaching in a comprehensive (high) school, in 1973, grammar was out. Or so it was said. But I don’t know any of my colleagues who didn’t try their best to teach it. What is probably true was that it wasn’t taught as rigorously as when we were at school: one period a week for thirteen years or so. The real problem as we secondary teachers saw it – and this may not have been true – was that primary teachers no longer taught it. Certainly we found that our first year pupils knew very little about grammar, and so we were building on very shaky foundations indeed.
Received wisdom from the teaching theorists was that creativity was more important and that we shouldn’t limit our pupils’ imaginations by banging on about spelling and such. But I’ve always corrected spelling, taught grammar and discussed sentence structure and fluency.
I have some ideas about why the standard of written English seems to be so bad now. One centres on the fact that some young people don’t read much for pleasure. The theory goes that if you read good English then you’ll absorb it. (Or is it just that people who read a lot are also those who like language and therefore tend to write carefully?) These non-reading young people are now being expected to stay on at school, do academic exams and take up jobs that require a certain amount of writing. Before, they might have left school at fourteen and taken up apprenticeships and no one would really have noticed their writing abilities.
At the same time, of course, there were many highly literate people who had to leave school early for financial reasons, which meant that though they worked in blue collar jobs, their skills in English were impressive. Now it's the less academic children, on the whole, who tend to go on to these jobs.
For another thing, yes, pupils may do less grammar and less writing in general; but they have other skills. They learn IT and go on outings and do projects. Time is finite and primary teachers can’t do everything. Meanwhile, in secondary schools and colleges of further education, we have to administer lots of assessments, so that at some points in the term we’re spending more time assessing than teaching.
And then there are computers that do your thinking for you, and text messages…
I was greatly comforted some years ago to read a book of letters written home by soldiers in the First World War. They were full of errors of grammar, spelling and expression. I blame the teachers.