I don’t use this blog to make points about politics. I will happily share my beliefs down the pub or on my personal Facebook page, but this is not the place. However…I’ve just read the sample Key Stage 2 English examination paper. It sucks the joy out of language faster than a Dementor could. Its focus on grammatical rules is a depressingly dry way to look at English.
Children seem to naturally enjoy language. I’ve mentioned before how watching them learn new words is a delight. My four-year-old has just worked out that if you sound these letter things together, you can read an actual word! She’s very excited.
I don’t normally write about my kids in this blog either; however this concerns them more than me. My eight-year-old writes stories. To be fair, he has a reasonable grasp of grammar, and his spelling is getting less eccentric every week. I read his stuff. It’s wonderful. Unfettered by any nods to realism, I envy his untrained ability to run with ideas. “It was a sunny, pancakey sort of day in Cornwall”, he wrote a couple of years ago to describe a happy day, a description so naively perfect it makes me smile every time I think of it. He’s encouraged, both at home and at school, to be creative; to write what he enjoys, and to develop his own idiom. Where is that fine line between “correct” writing and stifling natural ability?
Stepping away from the literary canon always helps. I love listening to people who enjoy language. Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, Charlie Brooker – no, not a particularly harsh round of Snog, Marry, Avoid, but three wordsmiths who clearly have such a joy in playing around with words. Listen to song lyrics. Remember the howl from Middle England when an Amy Winehouse lyric appeared in an exam paper? But it was a beautiful, pared-down lyric that connected with millions. Think Arctic Monkeys, Neil Hannon, Jarvis Cocker for songwriters who revel in words. The frenetic wordplay of some rap shows an ability to play with language that “serious writers” should envy. Do these talents play by the rules of grammar? Unlikely.
I admit I’m conflicted here. I have a real word nerd’s OCD when it comes to things like the grocer’s apostrophe. I ruthlessly proofread menus, posters, food packaging, newsletters, and instruction manuals. But does tying our lovely language down to a series of rules help to improve our collective communication skills? I don’t think so. I may have a reputation as the Grammar Police among my friends; however in the end, does knowing your adverb from your elbow really matter? Engaging, readable writing that people actually want to read is surely the idea? After all, we’re talking about communication here. Does being able to identify the past progressive make children better writers?
I’d like to draw this to some sort of conclusion, but I don’t think I can. Walk the line. Find a balance. Yes, teach our children the rules of language, but emphasise that that’s not all there is to it. Knowing what a verb is isn’t much good if you can’t come up with some good ones in a story. Just keep enjoying words.
And if you want to test your own grammar, here’s the paper.
And here’s Michael Rosen’s wonderful open letter.