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Want to know about grammar? Don’t ask the English-language teacher

I must share with you, dear reader, a revelation about the apparent lack of knowledge of grammar among teachers in Britain. This has been exposed by the architect of a government-funded teaching programme, according to The Times.

Many teachers do not have adequate knowledge of English grammar to teach the new curriculum, according to Bas Aarts, a professor of English linguistics at University College London, The Times article, published last week, said.

The programme in question is called Englicious, http://www.englicious.org/, a complete online platform (or library) filled with English teaching resources, and including materials for teaching spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Englicious is based on millions of examples of English expressions, from text messages to recordings of BBC broadcasts. Addressing teachers, the website said: “You can use Englicious to help your students learn and develop confidence, while improving test scores.”

The new English tests for pupils up to the age of 14 appear to be demanding more knowledge of grammar than many teachers possess.

“Many teachers feel uncomfortable with grammar and don’t know how to use it formally,” Professor Aarts was quoted as saying.

“We saw an opportunity to use our research for the benefit of the wider community,” the professor told the newspaper. “We always knew that the teaching of grammar was difficult for teachers because they often had no knowledge of English grammar themselves.”

The skills gap was not the fault of the teachers, he added, but rather the fault of a historic bias against formal grammar in the education system. “There was a point in the 1960s when the government said that schoolchildren didn’t need to learn any grammar because it inhibits their creativity,” he said.

Being Swedish, I encountered that trend as a student in a Stockholm suburb in the mid to late 1960s, when suddenly I was no longer tested on what I knew, but on what I felt intuitively in terms of languages such as Swedish, English, German and French. I never complained because I passed the exams so easily. I was good at pronouncing foreign words, for example, without knowing what they meant. And grammar? Forget it. I was hardly ever challenged.

There may be a swing to the right from these traditional left-wing sentiments today, at least in Britain. A school reform is under way, steered by the conservative-led coalition government.

Also, the British Department for Transport two years ago produced a guide that listed grammatical no-nos for officials. The guide told civil servants to mind their grammar when they wrote letters. Among other things, it said: “Do not put in too many adverbs. For example avoid phrases like ‘strongly opposed’ and just say ‘opposed’.”

As for myself, my own hard work taught me about grammar as I set out to become a journalist, reporting news mainly in English over the decades. Later, before retiring, I taught British and American business people to write proper corporate English. They needed all the help they could get.

I welcome your comments.

Rolf

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