Earlier this week in the Guardian Michael Rosen had a pop a Michael Gove, accusing him of creating tests that will do nothing to help children, but everything to fail them. In it, he criticised the idea that grammar can be either right or wrong. Michael Gove hit back, saying the Guardian “has a style guide, a team of trained subeditors and a revise subeditor as well as a night editor and a backbench of assistant night editors to ensure that what appears under his – and everyone else’s – byline is correct English”. Michael Rosen has responded, again in the Guardian. Here are some extracts from the exchanges…
From, to set the scene, this is from Michael Rosen’s original article:
In June 2011, the committee produced its final report with most of the interim report intact, but there was now appended a brand new section, which proposed that at key stage 2 there should be tests in spelling, punctuation and grammar. The justification given was that questions in these areas have “right and wrong answers”. This new section contained no references, no evidence, no accounts of research. It was just a bald assertion.
It was also completely wrong. So, for spelling, many children read American texts, which are right but “wrong”. In my lifetime, several so-called rules about the placing of commas have been revised so that what was wrong slowly became right without anyone saying it was. In grammar, there is lively disagreement among linguists about terminology and the functions of words in the context of real writing and speech. Sometimes children are given competing terms for when they’re writing: eg “connectives”, which, when they’re doing grammar, they will have to unlearn and call conjunctions or adverbs. The assertion about right and wrong answers must have been plucked from mid-air, sagely agreed and passed unanimously in ignorance.
Then Michael Gove’s response:
“Mr Rosen criticised the test on the basis that there was no such thing as correct grammar … I could argue that nothing is more likely to condemn any young person to limited employment opportunities – or indeed joblessness – than illiteracy,” Gove said.
“I could point out that the newspaper Mr Rosen writes for has a style guide, a team of trained subeditors and a revise subeditor as well as a night editor and a backbench of assistant night editors to ensure that what appears under his – and everyone else’s – byline is correct English.”
And from Michael Rosen’s response to the response:
I should have guessed that if Michael Gove was going to reply to one of my Guardian Letters from a Curious Parent, he wouldn’t engage with what I actually wrote. Expert though he is in linguistics, he seems to find it difficult attending to detail. He claims that I criticised the new grammar test because there is “no such thing as correct grammar”. No, I criticised it because a) it was brought in without any evidence that it would help children write better, b) that Year 6 is too early to tackle grammar in any useful way, c) the kind of grammar being tested was resulting in it being taught out of context of real speaking, writing and reading, d) questions about grammar are not simply a matter of “right and wrong”.
From a purely theoretical standpoint however, I do think that there is no such thing as one single correct grammar…
Read Michael Rosen’s full argument here: Michael Gove and ‘correct grammar’: let me explain this slowly
Update: Toby Young then weighs in with this comment on Michael Rosen’s response (from the Telegraph)…
You’d think that anyone criticising Michael Gove for wanting children to spend more time on “spellings, facts and rules” would take the trouble to get these sorts of things right, but no. In today’s Guardian, Michael Rosen has launched a spirited attack on the new emphasis on grammar in the SATs and – surprise, surprise – commits a howling grammatical error.
In the course of extolling his own virtues as an educator – he’s the ex-Children’s Laureate and has written over 140 books – he writes:
I have spent thousands of hours in schools in the last 40 years doing writing workshops with children engaging in discussions with them about what kinds of language is appropriate for a particular piece of writing.
Call me an old pedant, but shouldn’t there be a comma after “children”? And, more importantly, shouldn’t it be “what kinds of language *are* appropriate” not “what kinds of language *is* appropriate”?
Once again, a critic of Gove’s more traditional approach has quite unwittingly made a powerful case for precisely the sort of education he’s deriding. Back of the class, Rosen.