Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cats can't use apostrophes.

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.
Meanwhile, Spring is beginning to return to my garden. Thank goodness.


  1. Are you sure you're not teaching in the US? It's much the same her!

  2. This has nothing whatsoever to do with your post, but I received the following piece of spam tonight and thought of your marking efforts. Just trying to read it makes my brain hurt.

    "Wallpaper which you imagined correctly and in if anything is wrong. Christian is very unlike what steps her brother took. First he was strict marched with the troops they stopped by the wounded empowered to bind with respectable families such of titles with the face of a captain going into to work. His father died and his mother's years part and parcel of the same eccentricity a shrug moreover, is very uncertain, and there has been that a sufficient deputation, for which they had."

  3. Interesting points, Isabelle. I had never thought about the fact that in the past lots of kids might have poor writing/language skills but not be noticed because they went into manual jobs where they simply weren't required. I think that is probably very valid. I certainly worry that too many children now are pushed down the "academic" route - if you leave school and do not go to college or university, you seem to be viewed as a failure, but there must be plenty of children who are just better suited to other things.

    And Tanya - are you getting spam from Jeffrey Archer???

  4. I think it's because grammer has always been seen as boring, and these days especially, God forbid we should bore the little darlings. Have you read "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" ? Anyone who does will never be bored by grammar again.

  5. Speaking as an archivist... it's absolutely true! I told you at the time, I expect, about those letters from the early 19th-century gentleman farmer who was quite possibly dyslexic? "Yeuer" for "your"; letters posted in "Deecembre" containing complaints about being "difrawded" (defrauded).

    It wasn't that this was too early for spelling to be standardised, either, because I had both halves of the correspondence and the other half was perfectly well spelt.

    They were rather a cryptographic challenge; on top of the spelling, his style was a bit stream-of-consciousness (a century early). He had beautiful handwriting, though.

  6. I forgot to go and teach a class this morning. I was so busy doing assessment levels, that the lesson was halfway through before I realised that it was happening without their teacher. Moi. This is going to take some living down. It is clear that I am losing my mind. You needed to know this bit of trivia.

  7. We are pleased to see that our just turned 7 year old grandson is reading a lot and for not only pleasure but because he wants to learn. He is also really aware of punctuation, telling me why commas, full stops and question marks are used. Can't remember if we've discussed apostropes yet! His spelling is a bit hit and miss. His reading level is quite advanced and the teachers said his spelling will catch up. Interesting to hear him read as he is also quite expressive with different voices and tones.

    Hope I've got all my apostrophes correct!??

    Please tell your son that the weather should still be lovely and warm in March, even until April. He is moving to the sunniest city in NZ!

  8. When I was twelve, I had a teacher who went against the current thought at the time and pro-actively taught grammar. We had worksheets every week on which we had to identify sentence parts and punctuate correctly. I've often thought of her over the years with much gratitude.

  9. Now, I am quite afraid to write anything that requires an apostrophe.

    I was a cat in a previous life, I think.

  10. Catastrophe!
    I had the fairly progressive, child-centred, 1970s state primary education but went on to private school with all the traditional trimmings, including quite a bit of formal grammar, which I loved, as well as a lot (by todays standards) of foreign languages (French, German and Latin) which I think perhaps are very helpful for awareness of how language works. I think perhaps I'm a bit sloppier now than I was then about language, grammar, spelling etc.

    French people have been taught so much formal grammar that they are convinced that 'French'is something quite other than what they speak all the time, and intimidatingly difficult. There is a level of awareness which is helpful,(and, to people like me at least, quite interesting) and a level beyond which it becomes burdensome. I don't have to know that what I'm using is a propositional infinitive to use it correctly, and what is the difference between a gerund and a gerundive?

    However, I have become quite a reactionary old fart about educational standards, and think a lot of the alleged making academic of training and jobs is a charade; just because something is supposedly degree-only doesn't mean that degree is worthy of the name or that the job is done any better than it was previously.

  11. A very interesting post Isabelle.
    My Grandmother was most particular about grammar, & so was my mother. Heaven help us if we mispronounced anything, also.

  12. The more you read, the better your spelling -- absolutely! I think your grammar probably improves as well. I am sad to admit that I know many people with college degrees who are proud to say they haven't read a book in years....and, let me tell you, you can certainly tell that is the truth when you read their emails.

    My dh NEVER read for pleasure before we got married, but now can rarely be found without a book in his hand (of course it helps that we haven't watched TV for almost 11 years). His writing has improved vastly since the days when I had to rewrite most of his police academy papers.