Take it as a rule of tongue

Concise Encyclopedia of Educational Linguistics
March 31, 2000

Among my favourite students are a group of 25 trainee primary teachers to whom I have to teach some basic linguistics. "Teach" is perhaps too generous a word: given the shortage of time available, their ignorance, confusion and hostility about grammar, and their reluctance to concede that my course serves a useful purpose, the process is more like squeezing blood into 25 stones. Nothing has prepared them to learn linguistics, but the Teacher Training Agency has decreed that some disembodied grammatical concepts must be pumped into their brains. They are quite a challenge to teach, and the odd occasions when daylight dawns and they learn something useful are very rewarding.

Whatever "educational linguistics" might be - it is not a term in widespread use - my trainee teachers are surely involved in it. If I could persuade them to look at Bernard Spolsky's Concise Encyclopedia of Educational Linguistics , would they find any information that would help them with their predicament? The answer is a resounding yes.

The section "Grammar in mother tongue teaching" contains several articles that they could profitably read. The first is "Grammar in British schools", which sets out policy as imposed by the TTA. The writing is crisp and informative, and the critical remarks about the national curriculum simply express what most informed people think: "The grammatical approach which was advocated... did not adequately equip pupils to engage with the process of meaning-making in texts, with consequent implications for the quality of their literacy, and their lives."

Subsequent articles in this section present grammar in more detail. One discusses research into the value of grammar in primary schools, concluding: "The empirical evidence is consistent. Formal grammar instruction appears to contribute nothing to the development of writing and reading skill." Not only would this encyclopedia help my students understand grammar, it would also explain why government policy is misguided and would give them principled reasons for resisting my attempts to teach it.

This book also has plenty to offer for anyone involved in learning or teaching a second language. It gives just the right amount of space to a wide range of issues, from teaching pronunciation to discussions of how learning strategies and motivation make for success or failure. I was pleased to also find much material about the social context of language learning, including literacy policies in different parts of the world.

Like the ten-volume Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics on which it is based, the Concise Encyclopedia is a wide-ranging, informative resource that should be in every college library.

Unfortunately, the book shares a weakness with its larger forebear: poor-quality indexing. The name index lists the same person in different places, depending on how he or she is cited by individual contributors. To take just one example, the eminent grammarian and lexicographer John Sinclair is listed as Sinclair J., Sinclair J. C., Sinnclair J. M, and Sinclair J. McH. A few hours' work by an informed person would have eliminated these silly duplications.

More seriously, the subject index is also less than helpful. Those seeking information about the UK may well try the index under "United Kingdom", but they will find no pointer to the article "Grammar in British schools" or several others that could usefully have been listed here. Or suppose a reader wanted to find out about language-acquisition research based on Noam Chomsky's work and looked up "parameter setting" or "parametric variation" - they would see nothing of relevance under either heading. Only under "principles and parameters" are they sent to page 234. If they were persistent and looked under "universal grammar", they would find a sub-reference to parameters at page 543, and under "grammatical development" a pointer to page 234. The sad thing is that excellent discussions of parameter setting also start on pages 218, 228, 581 and 594, and probably other places too. What a pity the index fails to mention them.

Notwithstanding these flaws, this is a rich and valuable book, and I shall recommend it often and enthusiastically to my students. It summarises a huge amount of material in an intelligible way, and readers will come away from it better informed, more effective and more civilised. It might even convince my recalcitrant trainee teachers that linguistics is, after all, worth the effort.

Raphael Salkie is principal lecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.

Concise Encyclopedia of Educational Linguistics

Editor - Bernard Spolsky
ISBN - 0 08 043163 1
Publisher - Pergamon
Price - Euros 205.00 (£139.00)
Pages - 877

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