Almost 40 per cent of 11-year-olds fail to reach the writing standards set by secondary schools. Is it any wonder, when many teachers would struggle too?
By Steve McCormack
09 June 2005
How many times have we heard people ask why teachers don't teach our children grammar and punctuation any more? The answer may be as simple as it is shocking. They don't teach it because they don't understand it themselves. Put less sensationally, a substantial chunk of school teachers have such a shaky grasp of basic grammar that, at best, they fail to notice and correct their pupils' mistakes, and at worst they pass on their misconceptions. The most frequent way this comes to the surface is when teachers write reports. Most schools have had to put in place an elaborate checking and approval system, to try to ensure that the worst howlers do not get sent home. This sucks in hours of time, and often causes upset, when well-meaning teachers have to be told their reports are littered with mistakes.
We are not here concerned with esoteric points, such as subordinate clauses, hanging participles and the misuse of the subjunctive. The level of incompetence is more fundamental.
Here are a few examples of glaring errors spotted in reports about to be put into envelopes at a big comprehensive just outside London this week:
"Sarah should of revised more thoroughly for her end of unit test."
"Your very capable of doing well in this subject."
"Try and practise the keyboard regularly."
Misunderstanding of the humble apostrophe has also taken hold within the teaching population. Among numerous errors in the same set of reports were these two familiar transgressions:
"Katys written work is generally of a good standard."
"All pupil's should make sure they revise properly for the exams."
At another school I know, there's even a prominent apostrophe offence pinned up for all to see on the staff-room wall. "Student's on Report," it announces in large characters. Sadly, though, there are scores of students' names on the attached list.
We shouldn't really be surprised by this, as many of today's teachers have been produced by an education system that still does not seem to value the ability to write grammatically particularly highly.
The former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson last year called for an urgent review into GCSE and A-level marking, saying he found it "difficult to defend" the current practice where marks are not deducted for poor spelling and grammar. This followed wails of anguish from senior markers working for the OCR exam board after sloppy grammar and punctuation cropped up on large numbers of last summer's exam papers. Common mistakes in history A-level papers, for example, included the misuse of capital letters, confusion between "where" and "were" and "would of" instead of "would have".
It is no surprise then, either, that universities are complaining at the poor writing skills exhibited by undergraduates starting out on degrees.
And, further down the system, despite apparent improvements in overall literacy among children about to finish primary school, scores for the writing element of national tests continue to disappoint. Last year 37 per cent of 11-year-olds failed to achieve the level of writing competence judged to be necessary to start the secondary school curriculum. Taking boys alone, the figure is a staggering 44 per cent.
This is the background to English 21, the ongoing consultation exercise into English teaching run by the national curriculum body, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).
Steering the process is the QCA's head of English, Sue Horner, who expects to receive a big postbag dealing with the basics. "I expect, over grammar, there to be a spectrum of views on what children should know, what we should teach and how we should teach it," she explains.
But you do not sense that there are any alarm bells ringing at the QCA over the current state of affairs. Perhaps this is because, to encourage blue-skies thinking, Horner declines, at the moment, to ally herself to any absolute, non-negotiable, positions.
One of the starting points for English 21, for example, is the question: Will reading and writing still be viewed as essential basic skills in 2015? "Some people may say we don't think you should be teaching grammar and punctuation at all," she observes, while hinting, however, that this is unlikely to be an approach she favours herself.
A further strand of the debate will centre on what some see as the competing priorities of creativity and grammatical accuracy. Helping to discuss that question, at seminars and workshops that are part of the English 21 process, have been some of Britain's most celebrated and successful creative writers, including the poet laureate, Andrew Motion. In contrast to the QCA's relatively open mind, Motion believes there are some sacred, untouchable principles. "A grasp of grammar is absolutely essential," he states without qualification, while emphasising the link between this stance and his desire to help children be creative with words. He rejects absolutely the idea that insisting on grammar and punctuation stands in the way of children expressing themselves. "You can only really break the rules in an interesting way in creative writing if you know what the rules are in the first place."
While the stereotypical trendy English teacher of the 1970s and 1980s, who promoted free expression at all costs, has now become a figure of widespread ridicule inside and outside the educational establishment, Motion suspects some renegades remain. These teachers, from what he calls the "let it all hang out" school, are doing students a disservice, he insists.
Julia Strong, now the deputy director of the National Literacy Trust, an independent charity working to improve all-round literacy, taught English in schools for two decades, and remembers working alongside some colleagues who didn't seem to know much grammar. But, while conceding the damage that that attitude did, and the continued existence of older teenagers and university students handicapped by a poor grasp of basic grammar, she believes a sea-change is under way.
She is referring to the introduction, in 1998, of the national literacy strategy, designed to help teachers bring their pupils up to the standards set down in the national curriculum, brought in a few years before. "I think over the last few years, grammar has begun to be much more strictly taught," she maintains. "But I think it's still going to take some time to work through."
She points to national curriculum requirements that pupils are taught to master the nuts and bolts of writing. On leaving primary school for instance, they should know how to use full stops, commas and apostrophes. And there are now, she argues, superb materials to help people teach them. "I believe that there is a lot of good stuff out there, and that, over time, grammatical weaknesses will all but disappear."
The increased prominence accorded to punctuation and grammar in most schools is undisputed. Internet discussion-sites for English teachers frequently feature requests from individuals struggling to find successful ways of teaching these elements, and comparing notes on books and other teaching resources.
But, if there is a strong trend pointing to a generation of children who can write correctly working its way through the system, it remains difficult to pin down. One secondary English teacher, from a comprehensive in Bradford, observes that, although the national literacy strategy has definitely helped teachers, average writing skills among pupils remain poor. Even the improvements in overall literacy results among 11-year-olds are suspect, she argues.
"I know a lot of primary teachers, and the problem is their teaching is all geared to getting pupils through the national curriculum tests," she says. "But this does not transfer to writing skills. Kids can understand, but can't produce proper sentence structure and punctuation on paper."
Support for this argument comes from Dr Sue Beverton, who teaches trainee primary teachers at Durham University. Her research into how children learn concluded that formal grammar lessons in the national literacy strategy are not proven as a way to teach writing.
So the English 21 exercise is entering controversial territory. And the need for solutions is urgent. An admissions tutor at one of the country's leading teacher training colleges confirmed this week that numerous applications crossing his desk from would-be teachers are still littered with errors. And surely, any remedy for the nation's children must start with a teaching workforce that is itself literate.
Why grammar matters
Bad punctuation can sometimes be a mere irritant, offensive only to purists, but it can also often lead to confusion and miscommunication. Below are some examples. They are three pairs of sentences, differing only in one small detail of punctuation, but with radically different meanings.
"He spent all his sister's money," or "he spent all his sisters' money" (How many sisters had money spent?)
"Injured, and abandoned by his comrades, the soldier struggled back to base alone," or "injured and abandoned by his comrades, the soldier struggled back to base alone." (Did the comrades injure the soldier?)
"The teacher rewarded all the students who wore smart uniforms," or "the teacher rewarded all the students, who wore smart uniforms." (Which students, exactly, were rewarded, and who wore smart uniforms?)