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Ruth Miskin's newsletter: Grammar is power

 

Why is learning about grammar important?

Grammar enables us to communicate with clarity and precision. It avoids ambiguity in what we say and write. It acts as glue to give our expressions cohesion, so that we can be understood. Mastery of grammar is empowering.

Conversely, grammar does have a bit of an image problem. If you mention ‘grammar’ to most people, you are unlikely to provoke a favourable response. If the word ‘grammarian’ ever slipped into your Facebook profile you would likely be de-friended...

In the past, the link between mastery of language and power and influence was widely acknowledged. The art of rhetoric (effective speaking and writing) was highly prized and desirable. In fact, the words ‘grammar’ and ‘glamour’ have the same historical root from the Latin word grammatica. The word ‘grammatica’ developed through the Middle Ages from meaning scholarship and learning — which were considered mysterious practices — to 18th Century Scotland as a word meaning enchantment and magic. ‘Grammatica’ developed into the noun ‘glamour,’ meaning the attractive quality that makes people or things seem appealing.

Now, grammar and glamour have obviously gone off in totally different directions in terms of meaning — few grammarians enjoy the glamour of the red carpet — but it’s worth bearing in mind that there is still a very strong link between people who can communicate well and effectively, and high levels of success, influence and professionalism.

In schools, the new National Curriculum requires that children have an explicit knowledge of grammar. It is not sufficient that children can use grammar; they also need to know about grammar. Knowing and understanding grammar leads to a genuine appreciation of the English language and how it works — and how our children can make it work for them.

Some people believe that too much focus on grammar will detract from the creative, expressive aspects of English teaching and learning. They are right — an imbalance would be detrimental. However, the reality is that we need to teach both literacy and language in our schools. Employers tell us that too many British students are entering the workplace with inadequate skills in reading and writing. In fact, foreign students often have a far better explicit understanding of the English language. Many professionals (including teachers) feel uneasy with their own rather vague knowledge of grammar and punctuation. It’s not a great feeling. Most would prefer feeling competent and confident in their understanding of the English language — and this means grammar.

Some people have an intuitive understanding of language and can produce wonderful and creative work with very little explicit knowledge of grammar. They are lucky and in the minority. Most people benefit from explicit knowledge of the mechanics of language: if something sounds wrong to them, they can work out why in a logical way, and put it right.

So, back to why the teaching of grammar is important. We want the children in our schools to be able to communicate clearly and precisely, in what they say and in what they write. We want them to compete effectively in a global economy using one of the richest, most subtle and powerful languages in the world. We have inherited a magnificent language; it is our responsibility to enable our children to use it with confidence, creativity and clarity. And whether we like it or not, grammar holds the key to that.

Jenny Roberts

Educational writer and editor

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