Teach Them What They Know

The teaching of English has recently been in the news in the UK following the proposal for a test of English grammar, punctuation and spelling for children between the ages of 7 and 11. David Crystal was consulted on the test, and has set out some of his objections to in this post on his blog. The numerous comments support his view. The basic problem seems to be summed up in those words that drew so much attention a couple of weeks ago in the letter written to the Education Secretary by 100 academics: ‘too much, too young’.

Children don’t need to be taught the grammar of their own dialect. They learn that by the time they go to school, without instruction and without effort. What they need to be taught is the Standard English dialect. How that is done and when it is done is a matter for professional educationalists. Because Standard English is the dialect of the printed and written word its use requires instruction in the conventions of punctuation and spelling by teachers who are themselves properly trained, and who understand that punctuation and spelling are not grammar.

Grammar is, in very simple terms, a description of how a language works, and a prior understanding of it will help in learning Standard English, just as it will help in learning other languages, provided the distinction between learning grammar and learning about grammar is maintained. How and when it is introduced is again a matter for professional educationalists. But here’s an off-the-wall proposal to get the harrumphers going. Why shouldn’t schools teach grammar in terms of the predominant regional dialect? This would give young children something they could relate to, it would remove the shame that it is sometimes associated with regional dialects and it would give children a sound basis on which to build when they came to learn  Standard English, as they most certainly must.



Filed under Dialects, Education, English Language, Standard English

9 responses to “Teach Them What They Know

  1. I can think of one good reason not to teach the grammar of the regional dialect. Who would teach it?
    I was born and brought up in WOlverhampton. Years of living away have modified my idiolect substantially but I can still use the old Black Country dialect when the mood takes me.
    I am also an English teacher. I taught for many years in a college in England and now teach in China. I’m pretty good at it and, like all the other English teachers teach the standard dialect.

    If anyone should be competentto teach in the Black Country dialect, it’s me. But I’m not. From time to time I’ve written things about the dialect, even tried to explain aspects of the grammar to interested parties but it’s tough. Just the variations of “to be” (for example I’m not = I ay) are tough. There isn’t a reference source we can go to and say “that’s the way to do it”.

    I love the idea in principle but in practice it’s probably impossible.


    • I expect you’re right. I did say it was off-the-wall, but it might be easier with some dialects than with others.


      • I like the idea (Warsaw Will’s post below) of teaching it comparatively and demonstrating where the dialect differs from standard English, as long as we are making it clear that we aren’t saying the regional version is “wrong” or “bad”, just a different register for different circumstances.

        I still think it would very difficult to find people competent to teach it.


        • It might be difficult to find them, but we wouldn’t know until we tried. What I think would be more difficult would be getting any government to commit to doing it.


  2. Maybe not so off-the-wall as all that. Here are two sources that suggest at least a comparative approach, one British and the other American.

    In the Cox Report of 1989, which “stressed the entitlement of all children to Standard English … it was clearly stated that Standard English (SE) is a social dialect ‘which has particular uses’ and should not be confused with ‘good English’. Moreover, it stressed that SE should be taught ‘in ways that do not denigrate the Non Standard dialects spoken by many pupils’. But Mrs T’s government didn’t like it.

    That extract comes from a paper “Standard English and Education” by Ann Williams at Views of Standard English at UCL which would seem to support your idea.

    The Center for Applied Linguistics in the States sees diversity as an opportunity rather than a liability:

    “The concept of using dialect diversity and the cultural diversity that accompanies it as a resource in the curriculum presents a viewpoint that is very different from many traditional approaches. Instead of seeing differences as barriers to be overcome, the differences provide fascinating topics for scientific study.”

    CAL – Vernacular Dialects in U.S. Schools


    • Thank you. I’m familiar with that UCL page, particularly Peter Trudgill’s authoritative exposition, but I haven’t read the Ann Williams paper.

      The difference between good English and Standard English is an important one, but sadly one which many people, including, I suspect, some English teachers, do not seem to understand. And, yes, decisions about how English should be taught do end up being political, and the Thatcher government’s view doesn’t surprise me.


  3. This is near to what happened in the “Ebonics” proposal that became infamous in the states. On one had, the Center for Applied Linguistics and academics, on the other, every late-night comedian and outraged columnist who imagined “The rain in Spain be fallin’ mainly on the plain, yo”. Even though – a crucial difference – Oakland never proposed teaching *in* African-American vernacular, only recognizing and talking about it as part of an overall pedagogy to get kids to standard English. Anyway, of course it didn’t survive the outrage and the misunderstanding.

    The practical reason not to do it is that modeling standard English while teaching its rules would probably help the kids pick it up faster. I assume that every time my son hears me say “I’ve written” instead of “I’ve wrote” is probably worth a lot more than me formally correcting him to “I’ve written”.


    • I suspect the misunderstanding may be an even bigger obstacle than the outrage. That, I fear, will continue to be the case until grammar is taught as a serious account of the way language works, rather than, in Geoffrey Pullum’s words, ‘a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions’.


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