The ever-fabulous Michael Rosen wrote a really interesting Facebook post recently that got me thinking about my English teaching days. The subject of his post was grammar teaching - specifically, the KS2 SATs grammar test and the teaching of grammar to 9-11 year olds. I wouldn’t presume to present you with synopsis of his ideas – you’ll have to read the post yourself – as he put it much more succinctly and intelligently than I ever could! However, one of the points he made really resonated with me and that’s the analogy linking grammar and language function and structure to buildings.
Now, several years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and we all rode our penny-farthings to school (am I mixing my metaphors?) I invented a similar analogy (similar inasmuch as it relates language to a building structure) to describe the process of understanding, analysing and inventing poetry and other creative writing. I was teaching poetry to a group of fabulous students who asked me the perfectly legitimate question: ‘why do we need to know all this grammar, when poetry doesn’t even stick to grammar rules anyway?’
I’ll admit, I was stumped. So I had a think about it and I eventually retorted: ‘You need to know the rules before you can break them – and understand how writers break them – effectively’. I was fairly happy with this response. It sounded clever and teacher-y and I’d got the word ‘effectively’ in there, which is always a useful qualification. The girls didn’t look impressed, however. There were raised eyebrows, folded arms and sighs. So I fumbled a bit further…
“You see girls, poetry is like….a canal.”
A bit of dubious interest. Mainly to see whether I was actually going anywhere with this simile.
“No, bear with me. It’s a man-made construction. It’s not natural, but it emulates the natural world – it looks like and reflects the structure of a river. However, the beauty and creativity and artistry contained within a poem – the flowing water – need a solid foundation. You need to understand how to put together the bricks of language, with the mortar of grammar, to create something that will last. A solid vocabulary will only last so long before the water washes it away if you don’t have the underpinning grammatical understanding to stick it all together. Also…”
(I was getting carried away at this point. Are canals even built of bricks? I'll go with it...)
“Also, if you want to take your ideas (that is to say, anything floating on or contained within the water) anywhere, you need a foundation of understanding to do so. The grammar and vocabulary channel the creativity and make it something functional, beautiful and whole.”
So, let’s unpick – what did I mean by this? Is there anything of value in this rather off-the-cuff pronouncement? Well, yes, I think there might just be.
It is undoubtedly true that there are many people out there who know everything (for the popular definition of ‘everything’, meaning a whole heck of a lot) about grammar. Does it naturally follow that they are wonderful writers? Not necessarily.
It is undoubtedly true that there are a lot of other people out there who are incredibly creative and imaginative. Does it naturally follow that they are wonderful writers. Not necessarily.
So, to be a wonderful a writer, do I need to know absolutely everything about grammar AND have an incredible amount of creativity as well? Again, not necessarily.
When I’m building my canal, I don’t necessarily need to know the chemical makeup of the materials I’m using. I don’t necessarily need to have memorised the technical definitions of ‘brick’ and ‘mortar’ from the dictionary and I certainly don’t need to have personally pulled apart every brick, in the brick factory, and discussed the process of making bricks ad nauseum. What I need to know is how bricks work. How they hold together. What effect it has if I try them in a different order, a different shape, a different pattern. I need to know that, without mortar, the bricks will be unstable and may not hold water. I need to know that if I use too many bricks and not enough water, my canal will be technically functional, but not beautiful, and may not fulfill its purpose of conveying my message. I need to know that if there is too much water and not enough bricks, my creativity will spill over and not get to where it needs to go. What I need is balance.
So let’s apply this to the classroom. Do our children need to know the definition of the subjunctive mood or how to identify the past progressive tense in order to be effective writers? Not really. Do they need to know how to select the appropriate vocabulary to create their desired effect; how to use different grammatical structures to create anticipation, intrigue, comedy; how to ‘signpost’ the reader through a non-fiction text with appropriate cohesive devices to ensure that their overall point comes across? Well yes, I think these things do help. However, these things without creativity, enthusiasm and imagination are pretty worthless. An empty canal cannot convey anything along, just as an overfull one will leave detritus in its wake. A balance, then, between creativity, passion, excitement, enjoyment and love of learning; and a solid understanding of how language affects a reader and how to manipulate it to convey the message and effect you want.
In essence, perhaps what I’m saying is that what we need from grammar is an understanding not of the shifting, sliding, complex terminology, but of its basic functionality and how it helps us do what we need, want and aim to do through our writing. Or perhaps not. After all, I was put on the spot!
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Published on 12 December 2019