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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 23 December 2003 - 01:36 PM

Ofsted yesterday published its latest report on the government's national literacy and numeracy strategies. David Bell, chief inspector of schools, warned that the government will continue to miss its primary school improvement targets. The report points out that eleven-year-olds' English scores have been stuck at 77% (reaching national targets) since 2000. Bell claims that the main reason for this is that "too many teachers still had too poor a grasp of English and Maths to help struggling pupils." The chief inspector called for more training for teachers to boost their subject knowledge and teaching techniques.

http://www.ofsted.go...summary&id=3442

#2 Pauline Crawford

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Posted 06 January 2004 - 12:24 PM

It has just been reported that Becta has just negotiated a new deal with Microsoft. According to the press release schools will be paying between 20% and 37% less for licences, saving them around £47m in total. I know little about software prices but is this really a good deal?

I respond to your literacy comments with interest as an Australian teacher watching from afar. It is interesting to see the number of ads in our newspapers for teachers for England, particularly the London area. What is happening? Why can't the UK education system supply teachers? Are conditions so bad that few want to teach?

In Australia we are being chastised by government groups and the media alike for literacy and numeracy standards. I must admit that over the past 10 years, of the 6 student teachers I have worked with only one has been "grammatically correct". (In fact one was so "interesting" as to not know the names of the few rivers we have in Australia and to make several mistakes with the names of our few states and capital cities.) But she was out teaching secondary geog and English the next year.

As I listen to the news reports on the TV I cringe at the incorrect sentences. Can only my 48 years hear them? Advertising prides itself on imaginative spelling. So how do we teach our native speakers the difference, let alone migrant or second language learners?

Can't resist but to add that it is too hot here to think much more than my next glass of chardonnay.

PS Where is the spell checker?

#3 Guest_Andrew Moore_*

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Posted 07 January 2004 - 09:47 PM

The English Language changes all the time. Swift and Johnson recognized this. There are standard forms, but they are not fixed forever. If they were, our language would ossify. Happily, real speakers keep breaking the rules, and new forms emerge.

Of course, these things can strain our tolerance. A few weeks ago the Queen, introducing the new parliamentary session, spoke of "upfront tutition fees". I suspect that she has never willingly said "upfront" before. In her mouth, the word sounded incongruous.

Teaching has become unpopular in England. It is not too badly paid, but in a booming economy, able people can choose alternatives. The conditions of service are not good. Perhaps the greatest disincentives are of the state's own making - all sorts of assessments, league tables, performance management. The previous government brought most of these in, but the current Labour administration has done nothing to undo that damage so far. Culturally, teaching is still subject to ridicule in popular representations.

Younger teachers may not know all sorts of information that was more or less obligatory in past times. I have heard staffroom conversation in which various teachers tried to outdo each other in boasting of their ignorance of science and maths.

The comment of inspectors about the proportion of students who attain targets is simply idiotic - it is they who do not understand maths, or human nature. And it's daft to blame the practitioners, rather than the system or its architects. Our National Literacy Strategy was supposed to work this miracle. In response to understandable public scepticism about the accuracy of assessments in which pupils' scores kept improving, the examining watchdog authority tightened up the criteria. And then, unsurprisingly, the scores stopped getting better. (Some of these guys still think they can have it both ways. They might as well tell all the children to grow tall and have blonde hair...)

Microsoft's pseudo-bargain is maybe a sign that they can see the need to lose their arrogance in telling us how we will spend our money. There are excellent Open Source alternatives, like www.OpenOffice.org, that are free to the end user. If we use these, then we can ensure that all students and parents have the same software as the schools. And save money to spend on other things.

#4 David Richardson

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Posted 11 January 2004 - 05:35 AM

I trained as a teacher at Goldsmiths' in 1976-77 and worked in the UK for three years as a secondary school teacher of English. In other words, I've missed out on the National Curriculum, targets - even on having a set number of working hours per year.

I've been teaching abroad since 1980 more or less continuously, and I'm often asked if I'd ever go back to teaching in the UK. My response has always been "No Way!" My principle objection is probably the nit-picking controls which British teachers seem to be subjected to … but if I had stayed in the UK the choice of staying in the profession would almost certainly have been out of my hands. In my estimation, I'd have been sacked around 1985 for questioning targets, written lesson plans, the school prospectus or any of the other millstones around the necks of British teachers.

However, the factor which is perhaps most influential in my not coming back is the feeling of being a 'persona non grata' for the people running the system. Where I work now, I am treated as a professional who can be trusted to have a great deal of control over his daily working life. I'm expected to work to professional standards, and to cooperate and collaborate with colleagues. I'm also expected to work openly and to participate in external reviews of my work. However, this takes place without my being treated as basically a suspect character who needs to be monitored all the time …

#5 Graham Davies

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Posted 27 February 2004 - 01:35 PM

However, the factor which is perhaps most influential in my not coming back is the feeling of being a 'persona non grata' for the people running the system. Where I work now, I am treated as a professional who can be trusted to have a great deal of control over his daily working life. I'm expected to work to professional standards, and to cooperate and collaborate with colleagues. I'm also expected to work openly and to participate in external reviews of my work.


Exactly my sentiments! When I started out as a teacher in the 1960s I felt that I was trusted to use my intelligence and initiative. From the Thatcher era onwards that trust was systematically broken down and the National Curriculum - a disaster area for my subject area (Modern Foreign Languages) - was introduced, not to improve standards but to satisfy a disgruntled electorate and to pander to the mission-statement-new-management-control-freak mentality of those in charge of educational institutions, as well as keeping an army of civil servants busy producing a deluge of unintelligible, jargon-ridden b*llsh*t.

#6 Graham Davies

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Posted 27 February 2004 - 03:02 PM

Regarding the National Literacy Strategy see:
Heather Rendall TES Online, 12 October 2003
"We need to talk: Is everyone using the same grammar terms with pupils at KS2 and 3? Heather Rendall sounds an alert for MFL and English departments"
http://www.tes.co.uk/online/
(A search of the archives under "Rendall" will locate the article for you.)

This was also the subject of a lively debate in the Linguanet Forum some time ago:
http://www.mailbase....linguanet-forum
One debate centred on the way tenses in English were described in the National Literacy documents.

It was felt by MFL teachers that whoever drew up the National Literacy documents did not have a clear understanding of the grammar of their mother tongue. We found many blunders, most of which have now been corrected.

To cite a couple of examples from Heather's article:

1. The following appeared in one of the NL documents:
"Adjectives have different degrees of intensity: nominative names the quality (tall)."
WRONG! The term "nominative" applies to the case of a noun not an adjective. The term "nominal" is usual in this context - contrasted with "comparative" and "superlative".

2. It was stated in one of the NL documents that the apostrophe plus "s" derives from "his", e.g. "the man's dog" was originally "the man his dog".
WRONG! Every teacher of German knows that the apostophe plus "s" in English derives from the Saxon genitive.

When British kids write "I might of known" and "Your the one", it's obvious that they don't understand the grammar of their own language. Is the National Literacy Strategy doing anything to improve things? TV and radio presenters don't help. They are always making mistakes.

I must admit that I learned more about English grammar from my German teacher at school than from my English teacher. My German teacher was the local Delphic Oracle concerning all aspects of grammar in German and in English.

#7 David Richardson

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Posted 27 February 2004 - 10:32 PM

"When British kids write "I might of known" and "Your the one", it's obvious that they don't understand the grammar of their own language. Is the National Literacy Strategy doing anything to improve things? TV and radio presenters don't help. They are always making mistakes.

"I must admit that I learned more about English grammar from my German teacher at school than from my English teacher. My German teacher was the local Delphic Oracle concerning all aspects of grammar in German and in English."

I don't read it this way. British kids writing 'I might of known' are reproducing a sound they've heard. I think you'd need a lot more evidence to draw the conclusion that they don't understand the Perfect nature of the construction 'might have'. In other words, this could well be a spelling problem rather than a grammar problem.

In Sweden, Swedish pupils still spend a lot of their time parsing Swedish. Swedish teachers will still tell you that "you have to know the [metagrammar] of Swedish in order to be able to learn foreign languages" - a highly debatable proposition that's easy to refute, that is, if you can get it to make sense at all. The metagrammatical term in Swedish for the tense used in the phrase "I ate" is 'imperfekt'. The Swenglish confusion is between the phrases "I ate" and "I was eating". The French equivalent of "I ate" has part of the verb "to have" in it, and is called "passé composé" or "parfait" in French, whilst the equivalent of "I was eating" is called "imparfait" in French. Hm … looks like an (imperfect) 'knowledge' of Swedish grammar is more of a hindrance than a help.

The problem, in my opinion, is in the idea that you only 'know' your own language if you can parse it. When I first arrived in Sweden (and hardly knew any Swedish) I enrolled in a secondary-level Swedish class for Swedes. We had grammar tests all the time, and I (not speaking Swedish) would typically get 100%, whilst my Swedish colleagues averaged around 30%. The tasks were all of the form "underline the 'bisats'". As soon as I'd worked out that a 'bisats' is a subordinate clause, as a language teacher I didn't need to understand the words in order to be able to identify a subordinate clause. It's a pretty strange test of knowledge which 'passes' the person who can't speak the language and fails the people who've been speaking it ever since they could speak.

After a school year of this, it was very interesting seeing what the effect of being taught Swedish was on my Swedish classmates. Their self-esteem got lower and lower for one thing, as you might expect. As an English teacher in the UK, I learned how dangerous it is to imply that a native speaker is making 'mistakes' in the way they speak or write. It's almost impossible to separate "you said that wrongly" from "you are wrong as a person". In those situations, you were nearly always talking about sociolects, and I saw my job as expanding my pupils' command of the various sociolects in the UK, rather than as criticising the particular sociolect they used most of the time.

You can probably imply from my comments here that I think that teaching the metagrammar of English to native speakers of English is pretty ill-advised. You might be able to get your pupils to see the exercises as increasing their understanding of the structure of their language - if you're lucky. This is all very nice and fine … but I fail to understand what it's got to do with something you could call a national literacy strategy. The most likely outcome, however, is yet another attack on their self-esteem.[QUOTE][QUOTE]

Edited by David Richardson, 27 February 2004 - 10:34 PM.


#8 Jean Walker

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Posted 28 February 2004 - 12:36 PM

Perfect grammar may not always be necessary, but the blunder I came across the other day demonstrates why a good basic understanding of the language does help.
In an official DoE (Tasmania) document was this delightful statement:
Employers should always provide a suitable area for breastfeeding employees."

I am currently enjoying reading "Eats, Shoots and Leaves." It's a wonderful collection of the sort of thing mentioned above.

Not long ago, in a novel I was reading, I came across another wonderful example of why a spell checker is of little use if you don't know the context:

"He sighed deeply as he slowly entered the French widows." Half their luck, say I!!!

#9 Graham Davies

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Posted 28 February 2004 - 01:04 PM

David writes:

I don't read it this way. British kids writing 'I might of known' are reproducing a sound they've heard. I think you'd need a lot more evidence to draw the conclusion that they don't understand the Perfect nature of the construction 'might have'. In other words, this could well be a spelling problem rather than a grammar problem.


I don't agree. You can often resolve a spelling problem if you have adequate knowledge of the grammar. When I was at school in the 1950s the dictation exercise was still very much in vogue, especially in French classes. French words contain a large number of letters that are not pronounced, e.g. the "-ent" present tense ending of the third person plural of certain classes of verbs, but you could work out that it should be there if you heard a plural subject preceding it. As a kid, I used to find the weekly dictation class tedious, but in retrospect I can see that it had a point. It sharpened my ability to spell and my knowledge of grammar, as well as teaching me to listen accurately - lessons that have served me well in my professional life. It worked for me!

When I entered the teaching profession in the 1960s the audio-lingual approach was in vogue. In my first school the French team adopted a new Holt-Rinehart-Winston coursebook, "Ecouter et parler", that favoured this approach. The teacher's handbook stated categorically that we should just get the kids to listen and speak for the first five lessons, so that their pronunciation would not be influenced by the vagaries of the French spelling system. All the French teaching team followed the handbook's advice. It was an unmitigated disaster. Most of the kids could pronounce French quite well but - because they had been told to write nothing down - they had problems remembering the words and phrases. The clever ones had devised their own spelling system, however, and had been writing down the words and phrases in notebooks under their desks, e.g. "byendayshozeshaytwuh" for "Bien des choses chez toi". It took ages to get them to write French correctly after that!

David writes:

Swedish teachers will still tell you that "you have to know the [metagrammar] of Swedish in order to be able to learn foreign languages" - a highly debatable proposition that's easy to refute, that is, if you can get it to make sense at all.



Again, I don't agree. It works for some people. When I taught German I always tried to relate the grammar of German to the grammar of English, pointing out similarities whenever possible, e.g. showing that separable verbs in German had a lot in common with phrasal verbs in English. I avoided using technical terms as far as I could, simply pointing out that "ich stehe auf" is pretty close to "I get up", the difference being that "auf" can end up a long way from "ich stehe". This is similar to the approach used by Michel Thomas. My wife Sally tried to learn German many times but failed - until she bought a set of Michel Thomas CDs. His approach worked for her. Within three weeks she was constructing sentences such as "Das kann ich nicht tun, weil ich zu beschäftigt bin."

I had to learn Hungarian some years ago while I was managing a project in Hungary. I decided I would just pick it up in a casual way. I have worked in Denmark, Norway and Sweden on several occasions and I never bothered to learn any of these languages systematically because I could make a good deal of sense of them - at least of the written forms - by applying my knowledge of English and German and of Germanic diachronic linguistics that I had learned at university. I got hopelessly confused with Hungarian, however. This is because I was being confronted with concepts that did not exist in any of the other languages (all Indo-European) that I had learned before. It was like trying to learn the rules of Bridge by peering over a player's shoulder. I therefore bought a dictionary and coursebook and took private lessons with a tutor. Hungarian, for example, has no prepositions and possessive adjectives - it's all done with sets of endings, infixes and postpositions. The verb normally ends up at the end of a clause. The modal verb "can" is often conveyed via an infix, and there is a verb ending "-lek/-lak" that conveys first person singular subject and second person singular informal object in one go: thus "szeretlek" = "I love you". Once I could analyse what was going on in a Hungarian sentence I made rapid progress and could quickly understand and produce sentences such as:

"Bécsbe a feleségemmel mentem" = "I went to Vienna with my wife"

which parses as:

Bécs - Vienna
-be - suffix = to
a - the
feleség - wife
-em - infix = my
-mel - suffix = with
men - root of verb menni (to go)
-tem - suffix = first person singular past tense

It's easy to be dogmatic about methodology, but some approaches simply don't work for some people. People like myself have to analyse what is going on - and it's not just an adult thing: I have come across many youngsters whose minds work the same way as mine. When I learned to ski I could not master the parallel turn until I had been told that the secret lies in weighting/unweighting each ski alternately. The instructor had demonstrated the turn several times but could not explain adequately in English what she was doing. So I asked her to explain it in German - which then made it perfectly clear to me. But, having said this, I realise that this approach would put many people off, and I therefore always adapted my approach to my audience. You could probably say therefore that I belong to the school of bumbling eclecticism.

Anyway, language teachers in the UK are stuck with the National Literacy Strategy. It is firmly embedded in the recently published Keystage 3 document relating to the teaching of Modern Foreign Languages:
Department for Education and Skills (2003) Keystage 3 Framework for Teaching MFL: Years 7, 8 and 9: http://www.standards...e3/publications
On the whole, reactions to this document from language teachers have been very positive. I find it too prescriptive, however, but I belong to a teaching generation that thought for itself.

#10 David Richardson

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Posted 29 February 2004 - 07:33 AM

I understand exactly what you're saying - this is a key issue for teachers of foreign languages. My point, however, is that there is a difference between the way you look at a first language and the way you look at a second language. Native speakers already 'know' the grammar of their native language - it's just that they don't express it in metagrammatical terms. And the problem is that the metagrammatical terms used are usually not quite adequate to describe the way a language really works.

Let's imagine you work for a company which has just changed its corporate image. You come to work one day and find that you have to wear a shirt and socks which are a hideous shade of lime-green. The company cars are all to be resprayed in the same colour.

Using conventional metagrammatical terms, these are a shirt, socks and a car which are green. I.e. 'shirt' is the noun and 'green' is the adjective describing the noun.

However, to take the example from John Holt's 'How Children Fail', isn't it just as likely that we real human beings think in terms of a 'green' (noun) that is 'shirt', 'socks' or 'cars' (adjective)? In other words, even a metagrammatical concept as basic as 'adjective' doesn't have a fixed meaning. We just happen to have decided that certain words are going to be called adjectives, whether or not the definition fits each particular case. ('Adjective' as a metagrammatical concept came on the scene quite late, by the way - for the Romans they were 'adverbs'.)

I'm not surprised that teachers, pupils and educational administrators prefer the false certainties of the National Literacy Strategy - it's a lot easier than dealing with reality. My reading of the 77% 'success rate' is that you can get most people to give whatever answer you have decided is 'right' if you hammer away at it enough … and the 23% 'failure rate' would represent where the limits of the irrationality of the National Literacy Strategy run.

I know that UK teachers are stuck with this system, as most Swedish teachers are with a system which describes English grammar in wondrous ways for Swedish pupils (although that situation is rooted in praxis in Swedish schools, rather than government directives). What I often say on in-service training courses is "that's OK - it just means that there'll always be a job for someone like me putting your pupils' English right, once they've left school!"

Edited by David Richardson, 29 February 2004 - 07:34 AM.


#11 David Richardson

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Posted 29 February 2004 - 07:46 AM

Scott Thornbury in 'How to Teach Grammar' (Longman) has a very clear discussion of the issues involved. He describes what he calls the 'A' Factor and the 'E' Factor as useful tools for deciding when and how to teach grammar.

The A Factor is 'appropriacy' and the E Factor is 'efficiency'.

Thus, to go back to the 'might of' example, an assumption that a native-speaker pupil producing that form didn't understand the way perfect tenses are used would definitely not be appropriate, unless the same pupil produced utterances like "I of read that book". Seeing the use of 'of' as a 'spelling' problem is perhaps more appropriate, whilst giving them root and branch instruction about perfect tenses would probably only confuse them more.

You could teach your pupils the phonetic script and then take them through the patterns of assimilation and reduction in English … but that wouldn't be very efficient, since they basically 'know' their own language.

Besides which, an understanding of the principles underlying this problem is something which takes place in the conscious mind, whilst the production of the 'wrong' form is an unconscious process.

#12 Graham Davies

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Posted 29 February 2004 - 11:49 AM

Yes, David, all very valid points but...

Just to nit-pick: The “have” in “might ‘ve” sounds different from the “have” in “I’ve read that book”, so it’s not a fair comparison. You hear a schwa before the “v” in “might ‘ve” but only a “v” in “I’ve”. A better example for comparison is “would ‘ve”, where you also hear a schwa before the “v” – and, yes, I’ve seen “would of” written down too. You don’t have to resort to phonetic transcription either. All you have to do is point out that writing “of” is wrong because it should be the verb “have”, which sounds a bit like “of” in spoken English when it is shortened to "'ve". You don’t have to go into a lengthy explanation about tenses and the differences between verbs and prepositions at this point – but it depends on how much your learners are capable of assimilating or want to know.

The National Literacy Strategy came about because of the appalling lack of knowledge about grammar among English children. I take your point about the metalanguage of grammar. I would not automatically expect an 11-year-old to understand terms such "subordinate clause" and "unattached participle", but the situation with which I was confronted as a secondary teacher in the 1960s and 1970s was that most children entering the school did not know basic grammar, such as the difference between a noun and a verb. I therefore had to explain what a noun was before I could give them a general rule about nouns in German beginning with a capital letter. I found this irritating as it was a waste of time and, in common with many teachers of Modern Foreign Languages, I felt that English language teachers in primary schools should have done a better job.

The situation got worse in the wave of the trend not to mention grammar when teaching modern foreign languages. As a teacher of German in higher education in the 1980s I was then confronted with 18-year-olds who did not know the difference between a noun and a verb! Somehow or other they had muddled through secondary school without having a clear idea of the very basics of grammar. We therefore had to take remedial action. My approach was to use a range of computer programs rather than waste classroom time. I recall one 18-year-girl coming up to me after using a set of programs concerning word order in German, notably the "main verb second rule". "It's brilliant!" she said, "I didn't realise it was that easy." None of her secondary school teachers had ever explained to her that there is a basic rule - and it is a fairly rigid rule - concerning the position of the main verb in a sentence.

#13 Jean Walker

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Posted 29 February 2004 - 12:25 PM

Surely one needs to ask why teachers do not "do a better job" of teaching English grammar. In the 50s I was taught grammar systematicallyand thoroughly. So why did things change so much by the time my sons were being educated in the 60s and 70s?

My reasons would include:
1. The advent of TV and consequently less need for the necessity to read and write
2. The broadening of the curriculum with less time for formal subject study
3. The introduction of the whole word/look and say methodology which believed that immersion was all that was needed
4. The Dr Spock/flowerpower era of bringing up children to choose for themselves what they though important and ignore the rest
5. The subsequent deterioration of children's behaviour which turned much teaching into a babysitting exercise
6. Comprehensive high schools with unstreamed classes which make it well nigh impossible to teach something so complex in an effective and systematic way

No doubt I will get shot down in flames for this last one, but I still believe it to be true. Also, remember that even in the 50s there were still a great many students who left school with little formal knowledge of grammar. You probably just didn't know them or didn't go to the same school!

#14 Graham Davies

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Posted 29 February 2004 - 01:55 PM

Comprehensive high schools with unstreamed classes which make it well nigh impossible to teach something so complex in an effective and systematic way


Streaming, however, can also be damaging. Both my daughters went to a comprehensive school (1970s to 1980s) which streamed most subject groups. My elder daughter ended up in the top stream for French and in one of the lower streams for English. My daughter's knowledge of French grammar was (and still is) OK, but I was appalled when I looked at corrected work in her English exercise books. It was clear to me that my daughter's ability to write (and even speak) English was taking a nosedive. Many fundamental spelling and grammatical mistakes in her exercise books were left uncorrected, some of the "corrections" were actually wrong, and I was aware that her teacher had major problems enforcing discipline in her classes. When I took issue with the headteacher about this - as a parent and as a school governor - he dismissed my complaint. I won't go into the details, but the results of a subsequent inspection revealed that at least two of the English language teaching staff did not know their subject. They weren't subject specialists - there was a shortage of suitably qualified staff at the the time. They were subsequently dismissed, but a lot of damage had already been done.

In the end, however, both daughters came through the system unscathed and went on to study at university, where they did very well.

The introduction of the whole word/look and say methodology which believed that immersion was all that was needed.


I agree that this did a lot of damage.

#15 Jean Walker

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Posted 01 March 2004 - 08:19 AM

In my experience of teaching in both streamed and unstreamed situations over 35 years, it is not necessarily the actual streaming that does the harm, but the wrong teacher for the group. I think this is to some extent what you are saying.

I have seen "bottom" groups taken by poor teachers who cannot get the best out of them, and by "academic" type teachers who thought it was beneath their dignity to teach them properly. I have also seen them taken by empathetic, well-trained teachers who got more work out of them than could ever have been achieved in a mixed group. It's HOW you do it, and with what mind-set, that matters.




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