My daughters recently moved from a French primary school to one in England. In the light of the current debates raging around SPaG* tests I wanted to share my first observations about one particular difference between the two systems as we’ve experienced them, and its noticeable effects on my children.
Much of the SPaG conversation recently mocks the fact that in her correspondance the Education Secretary herself has failed to meet the expected levels of primary school grammar, and perhaps if she were assessed on her use of subordinating conjunctions and fronted adverbials she would be found – embarrassingly – wanting. But I want to step back from that kind of sniping and look at the more fundamental issue – how literacy is affected by the ways we encourage children to engage with language.
Author Michael Rosen is a tenacious and articulate opponent of many of our current government’s education policies and his voice can, thankfully, be heard widely in the press, challenging their thinking. You can find his excellent blog here where he regularly shares his opinions on these issues. In this Guardian article he says:
“You must hope we parents are so mystified by this that we’ll think it represents “rigour”. In fact, it’s the grammar invented to describe how the Romans wrote. Our forebears neither knew nor cared how the Romans spoke, so they devised a self-serving system of descriptions that bear little relation to why we say or write things the way we do. So, back with the new gold standard of “subordinating conjunctions”: all this kind of description does is describe language as if humans invented it for the sole purpose of fitting it together. Amazingly, we invented speech and writing to enable us to do things. Language varies according to what we want it to do.”
For me, this hits the nail on the head, and illustrates is the big difference I see already in the way my girls are being taught here as opposed to in France. In their French primary school, French language, spellings, punctuation and grammar were learned by rote. There is an enormous emphasis in this area at least up to age 11, and the children are tested weekly. They certainly came out of it knowing vast amounts about verb conjugations in at least half a dozen tenses, being able to recite by heart the definition of a preposition, and explain the difference between a pronoun and a demonstrative adjective, amongst other things. They also learned about story structure. However they never seemed to DO anything with all of that. They wrote no poetry, no stories and no essays. They did no comprehensions and no projects. All the reading they did was sections specifically written for approved textbooks, which was then followed by questions to answer on the use of grammar and punctuation. It was dry, joyless and uninteresting. Language for language’s sake.
After a month in their new school, my children want to talk to me about the Tudors, about Egypt, about Coasts and Mountains. They want to discuss the life of Charles Dickens, the Plague and the Great Fire of London. They are excited by the different styles of language they are being exposed to and keen to use the new vocabulary they are developing to express their ideas and tell their own stories. Yes, they still have grammar and spellings to learn, and more so because they are shifting languages from French to English, but they are more engaged because they are applying it to interesting topics that give them a reason to use their words, and are exposed (by the school) to literature where the “rules” are not necessarily followed. It’s like a revelation.
I understand that this side of the channel our family’s experience is very limited – I’d be interested to know what your experiences are. For us, the difference is marked and in a very good way. The first thing my 10yo was asked to do when she joined her year 6 class in March was to write an essay about the differences between French school and English school. She had never in her life been asked to write more than a single sentence response to a question. She suddenly had a lot to say.
I’m a writer. I became a writer because I love language. I love the stretch and shift and richness of it. The malleability, the way you can play with it to make ordinary things sound surprising or beautiful. The way you can use words to give someone goosebumps or bring them to tears. The way you can use them to inspire other people, communicate ideas and create momentum. There is such joy to be had in all of this – surely this is why so many people want to be writers? Far fewer people want to become copy editors, (although thank goodness for the ones who do).
I honestly believe that if in my early exposure to English I had not been allowed to be creative, to play with words free of the constraints of the naming of parts, I would have felt suffocated by the rules and quickly lost interest. And even if I had not wanted to be a writer, but just be able to use written communication effectively, the end result would have been poorer. On the other hand, when you enjoy doing something there is a natural urge to improve your craft. In the case of language this means striving to find better ways of telling your stories and being receptive to learning from others, by lesson and by example.
*Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar. Whenever I see this abbreviation I want to add ‘Bol.’…