The tide has turned on grammar in schools, says Richard Hudson. But are lecturers ready for the new first-year students?
Grammar teaching is suddenly in fashion again, with two practical imperatives driving the return: the need to raise literacy standards in English and the need to improve the nation's language-learning abilities.
Not many years ago, grammar was portrayed as something that grammarians did in private or that really bad teachers inflicted on children as a kind of torture. It was seen as demonstrably useless (or worse). Now, all of a sudden at the government's behest, the anti-grammar lobby has lost its influence and grammarians can come in from the cold.
This change leaves higher education divided. Not everyone shares a grammarian's love for the subject, nor does everyone agree that studying grammar is good for language skills. However, the fact remains that grammar is back, so language-oriented university and college departments should take note and plan.
I wonder how many departments of French, English or linguistics, and how many academic literacy tutors, have realised that as far as schools are concerned the debate is over. The government's literacy strategy means primary schools are already running literacy hours, with a heavy dose of grammar such as prefixes and synonyms at age six, conjunctions and tenses at seven, phrase structures at eight, subjects at nine and complex sentences at ten.
This strategy is about to be extended up to secondary schools to be incorporated with new syllabuses for modern foreign languages. These will give 20 per cent of marks at GCSE for grammatical accuracy and 25 per cent at AS/A level. The assumption is that grammatical accuracy requires grammar teaching.
The knock-on effects on university student intake will be gradual but certain. Already in 2002, a new student with AS/A level in languages will have more than a smattering of grammatical knowledge. By 2011, we shall welcome the first cohort who have had the literacy strategy from their first day at school.
Contrast this forecast with the present picture of grammar-starved students. Grammar teaching in higher education has been -to put it mildly -a challenge. Most new students struggle to keep pronouns and prepositions apart and are blind to sentence structure. The same is true for all subjects where grammar is relevant -English, communication studies, speech science (for speech therapists), education and, of course, linguistics.
Few of my colleagues boast of their successful first-year courses in grammar. For most students and most courses, grammar combines the boredom of a subject that is too elementary with the difficulty of one that baffles them.
How will higher education courses be affected? At last, it will be possible to treat grammar as a proper subject, so courses can -in fact, must -be much more ambitious. The school curriculum defines the areas of grammar that have been covered and even the terminology that has been used. This is what courses must build on, so we shall need a new range of courses and books. (Publishers take note.) A more important question for higher education, though, is where are the grammar teachers? In some modern foreign languages departments, language-teaching and grammar are seen as dogsbody work done by hourly paid tutors. But the new generation of students will be ready for serious discussion of grammar, informed by research and scholarship to the same extent as their classes on literature. A casualised teaching force without research commitments simply cannot produce the goods.
Finally, the most important issue of all: how to teach grammar. Do we know how best to do it? The answer will vary from course to course, but we can be sure of one thing: we shall not be able to teach as we were taught. This is because none of us has gone through the new grammar-based school curriculum.
This curriculum is not simply a return to the methods of the 1950s, when most grammar teaching probably deserved its negative public image. The goal is to increase understanding and to expand knowledge and skills. The methods are enlightened and child-centred. In the hands of a good teacher, grammar can be a popular subject at primary level. It remains to be seen how things develop through secondary schools, but if they are equally successful, universities might find it a hard act to follow.
The new curriculum has caused a revolution in schools that many teachers have found painful. There is no reason to think that the effect on universities will be any less radical, painful or exciting. Now is the time to start preparing, and one of the first steps must surely be to engage in serious research on how best to teach it in various degree programmes.
Research needs institutional support and networks. The subject centre for languages, linguistics and area studies has been created at the right moment to support it. But, there needs to be much more support from universities, colleges, research councils and maybe even from the research assessment exercise.
Richard Hudson is a grammarian. He is professor of linguistics at University College London.
Why teach grammar?
* To help us to use language (and languages) better - often advocated by employers, parents and politicians, but rejected by some educationists and linguists as misguided
* To improve morals - sometimes advocated by Tory politicians but generally considered a bad reason
* To help us to understand ourselves, our minds and our society - often advocated by liberal educationists and linguists, but not so relevant to the hard-nosed accountants, business-men and tax-payers
The grammar syllabus
* Year three, term one: learn to use the term "verb" appropriately
* Year three, term three: learn to identify pronouns and understand their functions
* Year five, term three: learn to search for, identify and classify a range of prepositions; understand and use the term "preposition"
* Other terms in the official glossary: auxiliary verb, complement, determiner, imperative, infinitive and modal verb
Some useful resources
</a> * A recent seminar on grammar teaching in higher education website: www.lang.ltsn.ac.uk /lings/linggrammar.html </a>
* The Education Committee of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain website:
* Information, with links, on developments in language education can be found on: www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/lagb-las.htm