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John Simkin

National Literacy Strategy

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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.

Yes, indeed! My daughter's teacher of English was the least qualified, and least capable of maintaining discipline in her department. Hence anyone who ended up in that lower-level group was destined to fail. On the whole I tend to favour streaming, especially in modern foreign languages, but a high degree of skill is required to get the best out of children who have been labelled as failures. Unfortunately, however, the more experienced teachers grab the most academic groups in order to give themselves an easy time. But I know a few experienced teachers who have worked wonders with special needs children.

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I've been wondering why I still get the feeling that Graham and jaywalker are barking up the wrong tree … and why the National Literacy Strategy seems stuck at around a 75-80% success rate. I have a strong feeling that the reason goes right back to the start of the National Curriculum and the (I hate to use the term) political situation which existed after 1979 - which I'm sure sounds like ancient history to most UK teachers now.

I was a newly-qualified teacher of English in 1977 and worked as an English teacher until 1980 in north-west Kent (of all places). I trained at Goldsmiths', though, and did my TPs in places like Peckham - and Blackheath, so I had quite a rounded education during my PGCE year.

I've been trying to square the picture of a 'qualified' teacher of English grammar with the kind of background most of my English-teaching colleagues came from. I was unusual, since my first degree is in Philosophy and Politics, which included some very rigorous courses in subjects like formal Logic. Most of my colleagues had degrees in English Literature, rather than Applied Linguistics, so they were often worse off than I was when it came to analysing how the language worked outside of a literary context. As I understand it, this is still the case. Lower school teachers don't fit this picture, of course, since in my days most of them followed B.Ed. courses on which they received an extremely good grounding in subjects such as the way that human beings learn to read.

I remember well the immense amount of pressure Mrs Thatcher's government was under in the early 1980s. Nearly everything they had touched had turned to dust - the economy was in shambles, and in those days people could see very clearly how public services had deteriorated sharply (I feel that lots of people in the UK have become used to poor schools and clogged road, etc nowadays). Since lots of people have children, the deterioration in the state of schools was most marked, and subject to a lot of criticism. I remember how the cleaning regime in my classroom went down from 'floor swept every day - washed every week' to 'floor swept every week - washed every month', and how broken windows were replaced with plywood to save money.

I also remember the strength of the government's alternative explanation: that the poor state of schools was due to the inadequacy of the teachers, rather than to the cuts. And the two subject areas first in the firing line were History teaching and English teaching. The attack on History was focussed on the need to teach children how marvellous the British Empire was. The attack on English was, I remember, much more visceral and atavistic - this was the subject that was bringing everything else down.

At the same time, teachers of 'native-language studies' have one of the least well-defined subjects in the whole school to work with. At least with History you have dates vs. social and industrial trends to argue about, but what exactly is it that is the subject matter of English Language?

When I was training at Goldsmiths' we spent a lot of time working out what our role was as English teachers. Nearly all the strategies that worked had a 'political' dimension - our job was to teach our pupils to think, and to express themselves in their mother tongue, both practically and creatively. This is my explanation for the virulence of the attack on English teaching - we had a government and, specifically, Ministers of Education who didn't particularly want pupils to learn to think, but rather to obey and to accept their place in society.

It's very easy then to construct a new 'subject matter' (such as parsing) which has nice neat right and wrong answers (which unfortunately happen to be largely irrelevant to the whole subject of teaching pupils to think), and to put a lot of pressure on English teachers to avoid an exploratory approach to their subject in favour of a prescriptive one.

And, as I've said in a previous post, I think that 77% represents about the limit of how far this approach can be pushed. At the same time, I'm full of admiration for the rearguard action many English teachers have fought over the years to preserve their subject - it's just such a shame they have to waste their time on diversions such as the National Literacy Strategy.

Edited by David Richardson

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I was a newly-qualified teacher of English in 1977 and worked as an English teacher until 1980 in north-west Kent (of all places). I trained at Goldsmiths', though, and did my TPs in places like Peckham - and Blackheath, so I had quite a rounded education during my PGCE year.

I trained at Goldsmiths’ in 1964-65 and did my teaching practice at Forest Hill School, a good comprehensive, but with some very tough kids from the Catford area. It was a baptism of fire in some respects. My first full-time teaching post in a grammar school in rural Devon was a complete contrast – a very easy ride!

Yes, it’s true to say that English teachers were hammered during the Thatcher era – mostly unjustly – but there were severe shortages in the 1980s and schools were forced to employ under-qualified teachers in several subject areas. The problem is still with us. I recently visited a London school that had to shut down its French department for two years as they could not attract a single recruit and no one on the existing staff had enough French to keep it going. They are now up and running once more.

Now the government’s policy for schools in England is to make foreign languages optional beyond Keystage 3 (age 14). This means that the shortage of staff will be alleviated but that our children will have even less of a chance of becoming members of a multilingual Europe.

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It's very easy then to construct a new 'subject matter' (such as parsing) which has nice neat right and wrong answers (which unfortunately happen to be largely irrelevant to the whole subject of teaching pupils to think), and to put a lot of pressure on English teachers to avoid an exploratory approach to their subject in favour of a prescriptive one.

Parsing was certainly not a new subject matter during the Thatcher era; it was a revival. I took the Oxford Board's GCE O-Level exam in English in 1958. Parsing featured in one of the papers. We practised parsing thoughout secondary school in the 1950s and I recall doing a bit of parsing in preparation for the 11-plus. I found it boring, but it was an easy way of picking up marks for people like myself who had an analytical mind, and it helped me in coming to terms with German, the second modern foreign language that I studied at school, e.g. being aware of the fundamental difference between a subject and an object meant that I could easily cope with the concept of accusative case.

Parsing has made a comeback in the cross-disciplinary area of computational linguistics. I found the knowledge that I had gained at school useful when I developed an interest in machine translation (MT) in the 1970s. Parsing is a prerequisite of parser-based MT, although the current trend is towards more efficient translation memory or example-based machine translation (EBMT) systems. Translation memory systems (e.g. Translator's Workbench) are used extensively by the European Commission. Yes, and they do work! They are designed to be used as an aid for professional translators, not as fully automatic systems. They are particularly useful for translating texts that use a lot of standard formulations, e.g. EC jargon-ridden texts and technical manuals. See:

http://europa.eu.int/comm/translation

I used to teach parsing on my introductory course in computational linguistics at Ealing College in the 1980s. Researchers involved in ICALL (Intelligent Computer Assisted Language Learning) have written some clever automatic parsers and taggers. Geoffrey Leech developed the CLAWS parser/tagger at the University of Lancaster years ago - I recall it being demonstrated by him in at a course I attended there in the early 1980s.

We cover the topic of parsing and tagging in Module 3.5 at the ICT4LT website: http://www.ict4lt.org

This module is an introduction to Human Language Technologies (formerly known as Language Engineering). Section 5 and Section 7 of Module 3.5 cover parsing and tagging. Section 8 covers parser-based CALL. There is a link from Module 3.5 to an automatic Web parser at the University of South Denmark. It's surprisingly efficient, but by no means perfect. See: http://visl.hum.sdu.dk/visl/en/parsing/automatic/

Try it with your students!

Module 3.4 on Corpus Linguistics also mentions the applications of parsing.

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Thanks for the parsing site. It'll definitely come in useful to our linguistics students.

I didn't mean to imply that Thatcher's lot invented parsing! I was at school just as the parsing era was ending, but, fortunately, I missed having to sit an O Level which included it.

The formal study of parts of speech is definitely something I'd recommend to teachers of foreign languages. My point is just that I question how useful the practice is for native speakers of a language.

One exercise I use with teacher trainees to get them to analyse the language before they try to teach it is with the 'used to' construction. Calling this a 'defective verb' is a useful bit of shorthand for language teachers, but I wouldn't recommend using this terminology with learners. Learners need to develop an unconscious grasp of the fact that 'used to' doesn't have a present tense (which the Swedish equivalent does), but my aim as a teacher of beginners is precisely to divert them away from thinking too deeply about its defectiveness … otherwise they fall straight into the trap and produce utterances like "I usually played ice hockey, but I don't now" (a straight application of the Swedish construction).

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I didn't mean to imply that Thatcher's lot invented parsing! I was at school just as the parsing era was ending, but, fortunately, I missed having to sit an O Level which included it.

Did Thatcher's lot invent anything new? They even borrowed the idea of the poll tax, even though a little bit of research could have told them it didn't work! And why "fortunately" regarding parsing? As I indicated in my earlier email, parsing was an easy way of gaining marks. Sentence analysis was a lot easier that having to dream up an imaginative essay - which was never my forte. I have never been a creative person. See my WorldCALL 98 keynote entitled "True creativity often starts where language ends":

www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/wordlgd1.htm

The formal study of parts of speech is definitely something I'd recommend to teachers of foreign languages. My point is just that I question how useful the practice is for native speakers of a language.

As I said before, it was a waste of my time as a German teacher having to explain what a noun is so that I could give my students a general rule about German nouns beginning with a capital letter. Similarly, the verb second rule in a main clause is easy to grasp if you know what a verb is. If you know the difference between a subject and an object the concept of the accusative case is easier to understand. I could go one... What drives MFL teachers like myself mad is how much time we waste teaching basic stuff like this. We are all pretty well agreed that this is not right.

On a lighter note, concerning the modal verbs "must" in English and "må" in Swedish, a Swedish friend of mine told me the following joke:

A Swede was visiting London and decided to use the Underground to get around to see the sights. He was spotted by an attendant at Piccadilly Circus station, standing at the top of an escalator and hesitating to step on. The attendant thought the Swede might have been nervous about using the escalator and asked if he needed help. The Swede pointed to a sign at the top of the escalator which read: "Dogs must be carried". "So, " said the attendant, "what's the problem?" "I don't have a dog." replied the Swede.

German speakers often get confused by "must" too, because "I must not" is similar to "ich muss nicht", which means "I don't have to" and not "I must not".

My dentist used to have a sign in Swedish in his surgery (he had a Swedish girlfriend). I can't remember all of it, but it was a list of sentences beginning with "Gör det". The last two were something like:

"The Dane said: Gör det stor!" (Make it big!)

"The Swede said: Gör det ont?" ("Will it hurt?")

Does this make sense?

It could almost work in German too, the expression for "Will it hurt?" very similar.

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All very enlightening about parsing, but to get back to the original topic, I'd like to point out that here in Australia where we have not suffered from the Maggie era and do not have a National Curriculum or literacy/numeracy strategies, as a country we still perform well on the PISA scales.

I taught in Britain in 91/92 and have kept in contact with what is going on ever since, and it does seem to me that in Britain teachers are not permitted the same amount of professional judgement as here and the curriculum is overly prescriptive.

Our curriculum is much more outcomes based, relying on teacher judgement of content to reach those outcomes, although subjects such as history do still have a set content. I think we tend here to do a reasonably good mixture of the formal and the "creative", in response to student needs within a particular classroom. From what I hear UK teachers saying on the TES website, that is not always possible for them.

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I taught in Britain in 91/92 and have kept in contact with what is going on ever since, and it does seem to me that in Britain teachers are not permitted the same amount of professional judgement as here and the curriculum is overly prescriptive.

You are absolutely right! The National Curriculum is far too prescriptive.

Since the Thatcher era teachers have not been trusted to do a good job using their professional judgement, imagination and initiative. And the present lot that are in power have not changed things. In fact, they are probably worse, the Curriculum Online initiative being a typical example of their control-freak mentality: http://www.curriculumonline.gov.uk

Teachers hate it!

Documents relating to the National Literacy Strategy are a typical example of the products of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). It horrified teachers of modern languages when the early drafts of the documents appeared, as they were not only out of line with the terminology that teachers of modern languages use but also contained some glaring mistakes in describing English grammar. Most of the mistakes have now been corrected, but the debate on terminology bubbles on.

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Guest Andrew Moore

The problem starts with the requirement in the National Curriculum to teach "knowledge about language" rather than models, or theories.

It gets worse when the models derive from the discredited tradition of Bishop Lowth, so that mistaken ideas of word-categories from the Latin-fixation of the Augustan age are imposed on our Germanic language.

And then the strategy is broadcast by recycled teachers who are meeting this stuff for the first time, and mostly don't begin to understand it.

Some years ago, I sat, in a meeting convened by my school managers, to listen to the literacy consultant for East Riding primary schools who was informing our collected staff about the mysteries of language. I was dozing off when I was jarred awake by her reference to the "subjunctive tense". But I realized that any attempt to explain the distinction between time signals and verb moods would be a waste of breath among my fellows, who, while unable to follow the account closely, appeared to have faith in its accuracy.

There is a fundamental problem in the name. I think that, in most parts of the world and in most ages, literacy denotes the ability to read. The National Literacy Strategy uses a secondary or metaphorical sense (as we do when we talk of media-literacy - understanding how it works).

It has the kind of doomed arrogance of the Academie Française - attempting to impose by fiat what can only emerge from informed debate in pursuit of a consensus.

It also represents the first attempt ever by the British state (but not in Scotland) to assert by authority what language is - the folly of enchaining syllables, which Dr. Johnson ridiculed. Meanwhile, whatever the government says, people will use language as they choose, like the wonderfully crude speech-writer who had the poor old Queen referring to "upfront tuition fees" a little while ago.

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There is a fundamental problem in the name. I think that, in most parts of the world and in most ages, literacy denotes the ability to read. The National Literacy Strategy uses a secondary or metaphorical sense (as we do when we talk of media-literacy - understanding how it works).

I agree! Why don't they just say "grammar" when they mean "grammar"? The term "National Literacy Strategy" is misleading.

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Absolutely!

And then you have the problem with the word 'understanding'. Do we 'understand' how to breathe? Well … in one sense we do, since we breathe all the time. And breathing is obviously essential to being able to stay alive.

In another sense, most of us don't, because we have no idea of the physical and psychological processes which govern breathing.

Do we all speak grammatically correctly? Well, again, obviously we do, since other native speakers understand what we say.

And then again, we don't, since people's 'language' is always being criticised, usually on aesthetic grounds ("I don't like the way you speak"). And most native speakers couldn't explain how their native language 'works' any more than they could explain how they breathe.

Do you have to have an explicit knowledge of anatomy in order to be able to breathe? And do you have to have an explicit knowledge of one of the various metaphors which describe how English is supposed to work in order to be able to speak it?

Now you could argue, as does the National Highways Authority in Sweden, that the person who can't explain how a carburettor works does not have the knowledge necessary to become an authorised driver. Other people (like me, for example) say that this is a "category mistake". (Excuse a diversion into Philosophy) Professor Gilbert Ryle's classic category mistake was the Indian who was shown around the Oxford colleges, and finally asked to see the famous 'Oxford spirit'. The category mistake was thinking that the Oxford spirit was something that could be shown to a visitor, in the same way that King's College Chapel can be shown to a visitor.

My position boils down to this: the National Literacy Strategy will only work if category mistakes stop being category mistakes. Since this has conceptual thinking against it, I'm not holding my breath!

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I came across an interesting article in today's Guardian by Philip Pullman which I'll have to quote extensively from in my next post in this thread, because the link isn't working!

I find it hard to understand why teachers in the UK are still 'teaching' parsing and calling it 'English'! I know there's heavy government pressure, but what happened to professional standards?

As I've mentioned before on this thread, this is what happens in Sweden with the Swedish language. The net results, in my opinion, are 1) that Swedes generally lack self-confidence in using their own language; and 2) they have a very vague grasp of their own culture, since they spend so much time parsing in Swedish lessons.

This is my explanation for the fact that Swedish culture is becoming rapidly Americanised … which is not necessarily a bad thing in itself (since cultures do what they want) … but is perhaps not what Swedish teachers in Sweden intended should happen!

Edited by David Richardson

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Common sense has much to learn from moonshine

It's time English teachers got back to basics - less grammar, more play

Philip Pullman

Saturday January 22, 2005

The Guardian

The report published this week by the University of York on its research into the teaching of grammar will hardly surprise anyone who has thought about the subject. The question being examined was whether instruction in grammar had any effect on pupils' writing. It included the largest systematic review yet of research on this topic; and the conclusion the authors came to was that there was no evidence at all that the teaching of grammar had any beneficial effect on the quality of writing done by pupils.

Needless to say, this goes against common sense. That particular quality of mind, the exclusive property of those on the political right, enables its possessors to know without the trouble of thinking that of course teaching children about syntax and the parts of speech will result in better writing, as well as making them politer, more patriotic and less likely to become pregnant.

For once, however, common sense seems to have been routed by the facts. If we want children to write well, giving them formal instruction in grammar turns out not to be any use; getting them actually writing seems to help a great deal more. Teaching techniques that do work well, the study discovered, are those that include combining short sentences into longer ones, and embedding elements into simple sentences to make them more complex: in other words, using the language to say something.

A word often flourished in this context by the common sense brigade is "basics". It's always seemed curious to me that commentators and journalists - people who write every day and who presumably know something about the practice of putting words on paper - should make such an elementary error as to think that spelling and punctuation and other such surface elements of language are "the basics". These, and deeper features of language such as grammar, are things you can correct at proof stage, at the very last minute, and we all do that very thing, every day. But how can something you can alter or correct at that late point possibly be basic? What's truly basic is something that has to be in place much earlier on: an attitude to the language, to work, to the world itself.

And there are many possible attitudes to take up. There are some that are confident and generous and fruitful, and others that are marked by fear and suspicion and hostility. We instil these attitudes in children by the way we talk to them, or the fact that we don't, and by means of the activities we give them to do, and the environments we create to surround them, and the games and TV programmes and stories we provide them with. The most valuable attitude we can help children adopt - the one that, among other things, helps them to write and read with most fluency and effectiveness and enjoyment - I can best characterise by the word playful.

It begins with nursery rhymes and nonsense poems, with clapping games and finger play and simple songs and picture books. It goes on to consist of fooling about with the stuff the world is made of: with sounds, and with shapes and colours, and with clay and paper and wood and metal, and with language. Fooling about, playing with it, pushing it this way and that, turning it sideways, painting it different colours, looking at it from the back, putting one thing on top of another, asking silly questions, mixing things up, making absurd comparisons, discovering unexpected similarities, making pretty patterns, and all the time saying "Supposing ... I wonder ... What if ... "

The confidence to do this, the happy and open curiosity about the world that results from it, can develop only in an atmosphere free from the drilling and testing and examining and correcting and measuring and ranking in tables that characterises so much of the government's approach, the "common sense" attitude to education.

And the crazy thing is that the common sense brigade think that they're the practical ones, and that approaches like the one I'm advocating here are sentimental moonshine. They could hardly be more wrong. It's when we do this foolish, time-consuming, romantic, quixotic, childlike thing called play that we are most practical, most useful, and most firmly grounded in reality, because the world itself is the most unlikely of places, and it works in the oddest of ways, and we won't make any sense of it by doing what everybody else has done before us. It's when we fool about with the stuff the world is made of that we make the most valuable discoveries, we create the most lasting beauty, we discover the most profound truths. The youngest children can do it, and the greatest artists, the greatest scientists do it all the time. Everything else is proofreading.

Take the national curriculum. The authors of the York study remind us that it lays down that children aged five to seven "should be taught to consider: a) how word choice and order are crucial to meaning, B) the nature and use of nouns, verbs and pronouns" and so on; that children aged seven to 11 "should be taught word classes and the grammatical functions of words, including nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles", as well as "the grammar of complex sentences, including clauses, phrases and connectives ... " Think of the age of those children, and weep. It simply doesn't work.

What does work, the York study maintains, is writing in a meaningful context: writing as a practical hands-on craft activity. One of the implications of this is that teachers have to be confident about writing - about play, about delight. Too many are not, because they haven't had to be; and the result is the dismal misery of the "creative writing" drills tested in the Sats, where children are instructed to plan, draft, edit, revise, rewrite, always in the same order, always in the same proportions, always in the same way. If teachers knew something about the joy of fooling about with words, their pupils would write with much greater fluency and effectiveness. Teachers and pupils alike would see that the only reason for writing is to produce something true and beautiful; that they were on the same side, with the teacher as mentor, as editor, not as instructor and measurer, critic and judge.

And they'd see when they looked at a piece of work together that some passages were so good already that they didn't need rewriting, that some parts needed clarifying, others needed to be cut down, others would be more effective in a different order, and so on. They'd see the point of the proofreading, at last; and they'd be ready, because they were interested, to know about subordinate clauses and conjunctions and the rest. The study of grammar is intensely fascinating: but only when we're ready for it.

True education flowers at the point when delight falls in love with responsibility. If you love something, you want to look after it. Common sense has much to learn from moonshine.

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