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Primary Education News
News Michael Gove and 'correct grammar': let me explain this slowly | Michael Rosen
If you really want see more children fail to acquire Standard English, go ahead with your programme of grammar tests in primary schools
I should have guessed that if Michael Gove was going to reply to one of my Guardian Letters from a Curious Parent, he wouldn't engage with what I actually wrote. Expert though he is in linguistics, he seems to find it difficult attending to detail. He claims that I criticised the new grammar test because there is "no such thing as correct grammar". No, I criticised it because a) it was brought in without any evidence that it would help children write better, b) that Year 6 is too early to tackle grammar in any useful way, c) the kind of grammar being tested was resulting in it being taught out of context of real speaking, writing and reading, d) questions about grammar are not simply a matter of "right and wrong".
From a purely theoretical standpoint however, I do think that there is no such thing as one single correct grammar. Here's my argument:
1. All language has grammar, otherwise it wouldn't be language. Grammar is what gives words sense. We produce language in strings of words, and the means by which they stick together and make sense is grammar. This applies to all language, all dialects – not one particular way of speaking and writing. So grammar is not a matter of being correct or not. It's a way of describing how all language works. All linguists believe there is grammar, but linguists do not all agree on grammatical terms or categories. Pretending that there is only one correct way to describe language is confusing and untrue.
2. I think we have to assume that Gove is using the phrase "correct grammar" to mean "the grammar of Standard English".
3. Standard English is a form of writing that has developed, has changed and is still changing. There is not one correct form of Standard English, and to tell children that there is would be to tell them an untruth. To take one simple example, we can write in modern Standard English: "Do you have any wool?" "Have you got any wool?" "Have you any wool?" All three are acceptable forms of Standard English.
4. If there were one "correct grammar", we wouldn't be able to explain how and why grammar changes. So, the method by which we ask questions in English changed in the era before Shakespeare. If you listen to journalists and politicians, you'll hear and read that they show a growing tendency to discuss a plural subject, eg "drugs" or "teenage mothers", and follow it with a singular verb. It's as if people have started to give themselves permission to turn these plurals into a title or a topic. What was "incorrect" is becoming "correct". In other words, the term "correctness" doesn't help us understand language.
5. Gove thinks that the Guardian's style guide is evidence that there is a "correct grammar". He has forgotten that different publishing houses have different style guides. One will demand "alright", another "all right". One will demand "can not" and never "cannot" or "can't", while others will accept all three. By the way, some members of the elite that Michael Gove mentions didn't go to university or study grammar. When they want to write in Standard English they hire people to do it for them.
6. A problem that arises from talking about "correct grammar" is that it suggests that all other ways of speaking or writing are incorrect. This consigns the majority to being in error. Gove might be happy with that way of viewing humanity, but I'm not.
7. The immediate consequence of the grammar test introduced into Year 6 is that teachers are buying textbooks that are full of ungrammatical nonsense. Single words separated from sentences are being described as nouns and verbs. Words are only nouns or verbs when they are being used in real language. The word "black" has been frequently used as an adjective, noun or verb, but it is only its use that tells us which. "Up" is only a preposition when it's used as one. If I "up" my work rate, it won't be.
8. Michael Gove wants to position me as someone who is against schools teaching grammar. No, I am someone who thinks that the place for grammar teaching is the secondary school, college and university, and that it should be taught on the basis of the evidence that someone like Professor Debra Myhill has produced. In fact, I am so keen on grammar, I have written a mini-course in grammar and put it up on my blog where it is free for all to read and download.
9. It's bizarre of Michael Gove to accuse me of hindering the acquisition of Standard English. Surely I don't need to point out that very young children all over the country, many of whom speak local dialects or languages other than English, hear, read and sing We're Going on a Bear Hunt, which is written in Standard English. Many linguists say that the acquisition of Standard English is enhanced by pleasurable learning of poems and songs. What's more, I have spent thousands of hours in schools in the last 40 years doing writing workshops with children engaging in discussions with them about what kinds of language is appropriate for a particular piece of writing.
10. I think there is one certain way to make life harder for children to acquire Standard English: creating tests that fail hundreds of thousands of children. This is Michael Gove's contribution to 10- and 11-year-olds' linguistic skills.