Gove v Rosen: grammar wars – the shoot off

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.

More at:  Are all Michael Gove’s critics illiterate?

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Categories: Policy and Teaching.

Comments

  1. andrewmillar72

    TessaLMatthews I find where I teach (and when I examined) that punctuation is the problem more often. Language is partly developmental.

    • TessaLMatthews

      andrewmillar72 yes, but I still think explicit teaching of grammar can only be a good thing, in addition to lots of reading.

      • andrewmillar72

        TessaLMatthews But be clear it’s Standard English being taught, a much better phrase than ‘correct’, & why/when/where SE is needed.

  2. andrewmillar72

    TessaLMatthews Plus, most primary teaching of punctuation is incorrect: comma splicing and incorrect use of the semi colon is endemic.

      • redgierob

        TessaLMatthews andrewmillar72 Because comma splicing occurs does not mean children have not been taught incorrectly.

      • andrewmillar72

        TessaLMatthews ARE endemic. *buries head in shame* (Though it proves one of Rosen’s points!)

        • redgierob

          andrewmillar72 TessaLMatthews Why does grammar matter so? only rarely do grammar errors inhibit the message you are trying to get across

        • andrewmillar72

          redgierob TessaLMatthews Access to Higher Education, decent A level grades & professional careers to begin. Spent much time with …/

        • andrewmillar72

          redgierob TessaLMatthews …able Sixth Former from other school who had never really been taught to write. Utterly shameful.

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews andrewmillar72 Is it not? If you read ‘The boys clothes were too big so he bought smaller ones.’ You wouldn’t understand?

        • redgierob

          andrewmillar72 Taught to write or taught grammar? There is a difference? Knowing what a fronted adverbial is does not make a better writer

        • andrewmillar72

          redgierob TessaLMatthews Actually, I largely agree. It’s in secondary the real work is needed (and that’s what Rosen suggests).

        • SchoolsImprove

          redgierob TessaLMatthews andrewmillar72 But what about ‘he bought the boys clothes’ – that’s not so clear

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews I said that incorrect grammar does not often inhibit meaning – lack of any probably does! Not all grammar is punctuation

        • TessaLMatthews

          redgierob my point is that grammar is the tool we need to be able manipulate language in creative and innovative ways.

        • TessaLMatthews

          redgierob it’s like times tables in maths: if you don’t know it, you’re always going to be held back.

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews andrewmillar72 even so if i wrote Woman; Without her, man is nothing. Would you be able to understand the meaning?

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews Grammar is often the thing that can stifle the creativity! Especially in younger children.

        • andrewmillar72

          redgierob TessaLMatthews Yes in context but also be explicit (esp in my context of boys school). Some terminology helpful, but not all.

        • TessaLMatthews

          redgierob andrewmillar72 it’s like spell checks: the only people who can use them are people who can already spell.

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews andrewmillar72 If i wrote ‘Woman. Without her. Man is nothing.’ You would be able to glean same meaning no problem

        • andrewmillar72

          redgierob TessaLMatthews Interesting discussion. Now, Sainsbury’s beckons for me plus far too much work!

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews andrewmillar72 In an exciting context that engages the ch. Using gr as targets for writing rather than grammar in isolation

        • TessaLMatthews

          redgierob okay, so through books, etc. great! What would they be thinking about during such activities?

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews for example when writing about trip to zoo include a list of animals to practice comma usage. 1/2

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews Not a way in a way through. Teaching grammar explicitly out of context means ch can’t always transfer it to own writing.

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews If my class know that ly words are good for starting sentences do they need to know that they are called fronted adverbials?

        • TessaLMatthews

          redgierob I really don’t know on that one. One compelling arg I’ve heard is that it gives you a shared vocab for later ref. Thoughts?

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews is that compelling enough to test them on it? I into the vocab and use it but still use simple terms such as drop in clause

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews Is it? Did the writing tests not check this? C had to meet gr criteria in writing – how does the grammar test add to this?

        • redgierob

          TessaLMatthews Was it vague – again comes to the point of grammar – should be to improve writing & reading not for grammars sake therefore

        • KerryPulleyn

          TessaLMatthews redgierob andrewmillar72 teaching SPaG in context, as bad Edutronic_Net – amazing resources for dystopian fiction.

        • KerryPulleyn

          TessaLMatthews redgierob andrewmillar72 Edutronic_Net sorry typo -‘as has’ Edutronic_Net, not ‘as bad’ :/

        • andrewmillar72

          KerryPulleyn Thanks – we have applied to be part of a pilot! Liked your comments about middle ground.

        • KerryPulleyn

          andrewmillar72 That sounds interesting. We are doing a lot of refreshing KS3 in the light of it. How do you get involved?

        • andrewmillar72

          KerryPulleyn Pearson sent us a letter. We are still waiting to hear. They’re publishing the results of Exeter work.

    • redgierob

      andrewmillar72 TessaLMatthews We do teach grammar, we teach grammar everyday, problem is Gove wants to decontextualise it.

    • redgierob

      andrewmillar72 TessaLMatthews I would like to see your evidence that MOST primary school teachers teach grammar incorrectly.

  3. DenrooneyDenise

    SchoolsImprove I don’t think so. He’s simply asking how it will improve standards in writing, if tested in isolation!?

  4. biscuitsarenice

    SchoolsImprove picking Rosen up on a comma? A successful writer? Doesn’t that show us that success isn’t always found within rigid rules?

  5. StephenG41HR

    SchoolsImprove: Notice that Gove and Young do not feel able to challenge Rosen’s principle argument-or should that be cannot?

  6. StephenG41HR

    SchoolsImprove Young criticises Rosen. In doing so he undermines Gove. Guardian team either approved the grammar or missed it altogether!

  7. sophiecrooke

    SchoolsImprove If Young say’s that Rosen’s grammar is wrong, then it proves Rosen’s point, that Year 6 is too early to be testing grammar.

    • sophiecrooke

      SchoolsImprove Yes, I have noticed the grammatical error I made in that last tweet! Typical. Where are my editors when I need them!

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