SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Teaching grammar: the blind leading the blind
, July 5, 2008
A Queensland teachers' guide to teaching grammar is full of grammatical errors, reports Kevin Donnelly.The debacle surrounding the resources developed by the English Teachers Association of Queensland, designed to "help teachers to defend and explain the place of grammar in the school curriculum and in our classrooms", underscores our dumbed-down education system.
In the words of Rodney Huddleston, a retired professor in linguistics of the University of Queensland and one of the principal authors of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language
, the material contains "a huge amount of error, inconsistency and confusion. They (two of the resources) constitute, without question, the worst published material on English grammar by a native speaker that I have ever come across."
The errors Huddleston uncovers include confusing adverbs with verbs, adverbs with adjectives and conjunctions with pronouns.
That the material is flawed is partly because of the priority given to a functional linguistics approach to grammar. Functional grammar, similar to critical literacy, is imbued with the view that language has to be analysed in terms of power relationships. Students have to be taught how standard English is used by more powerful groups in society to oppress others.
With functional grammar, children are no longer taught things such as parts of speech or how to parse a sentence; instead, the focus is on so-called real meaning and real contexts where language is defined as a socio-cultural construct. Nouns become participants, verbs are described as process and adverbial clauses and phrases are changed to circumstances. Such is the dense and arcane terminology associated with functional grammar that former NSW premier Bob Carr had it banished from the curriculum.
Queensland Education Minister Rod Welford boasted last year in relation to the new English syllabus: "Curriculum waffle is out, clear English is in." It's a pity, however, that he didn't follow Carr's example.
The in-service training for English teachers organised by Education Queensland, while mentioning traditional grammar, gives priority to a functional linguistics approach.
In notes titled Getting a Grip on Grammar
, verbs, clauses, phrases, nouns, subject and predicate are secondary to descriptions such as processes, participants, circumstances, mood, modality, cohesion and theme.
The result? Not only are teachers bamboozled but parents are unable to help with their children's work.
Many of those responsible for training English teachers and writing syllabuses are committed to a progressive, cultural-left approach to English as a subject, represented by functional grammar and critical literacy. As a consequence, not only do most Australian syllabuses fail to include a systematic treatment of formal grammar, but many teachers lack the knowledge to deal with the subject.
No wonder thousands of primary school children start secondary school illiterate, many Year 12 students enter university incapable of writing a lucid essay and employers complain about the language skills of workers.
In The Literacy Wars
(reviewed by Bill James in News Weekly
, April 12, 2008), Monash University academic Ilana Snyder condemns me and The Australian
for promoting a "manufactured crisis" in English teaching.
One wonders what she will make of the latest incident.— Dr Kevin Donnelly is an education consultant and author of Dumbing Down (available for $24.95 from News Weekly Books). This article is from The Australian, June 13, 2008.