Teacher’s Guide to Grammar

teaching language and the national curriculum

The other day I overheard a young girl of around eight ask her mother “What’s a phoneme?” Not surprisingly, her mother didn’t even understand the question. And the girl added, “I think it’s part of a word” – which was not a bad shot. This made me realise just how firmly traditional English grammar was back in our national curriculum. And when I thought of the poor teachers having to implement this policy, my heart sank on their behalf. I think Deborah Cameron would understand and sympathise with this feeling, because this teacher’s guide to grammar is aimed specifically at existing and would-be classroom workers. They now have the unenviable task of introducing what is essentially the study of linguistics into the daily life of schoolchildren.

Cameron starts by dispelling some of the common misconceptions and myths about grammar, and making the important distinction between written and spoken English. Instead of looking at grammatical rules then giving examples, she works the other way round, examining the way language is actually used, then drawing some general lessons from it. First the way words are formed (morphology) then how sentences are built up via regular syntax and well organised phrases.

All the points she makes are illustrated by short modern examples drawn from the way people actually speak and write, and she offers some quite useful tables which I can easily imagine teachers using in their classes.

She delivers some interesting analyses of scientific writing, newspaper headlines, and children’s creative prose to illustrate the use of compression in writing by using noun phrases. The same is true of her treatment of verbs. Instead of dry grammatical definitions, we get a more useful account of the function of different verb forms and modality – making statements about different periods of time and various shades of possibility and probability.

She also offers careful analyses of real examples of student writing – not merely to point out grammatical errors, but to reveal the real structure of the language holding together the meaning underneath the surface. And many of these ‘mistakes’ are features of language which novelists and poets use deliberately for artistic effect.

The whole of the debate over Standard English and dialect/received pronunciation is put into refreshing historical context, as is the use of different registers (which interestingly enough are not a prescribed requirement of the national curriculum).

She demonstrates in a way which classroom teachers will find useful that non-standard speech can co-exist quite easily along with standard writing. And she concludes with an examination of the special circumstances surrounding English as an additional language (EAL).

Anyone faced with the need to understand grammar or explain it to others will find this book useful. It’s good that linguists of Deborah Cameron’s stature are putting their intellectual shoulder to the wheel in helping the classroom teacher.

© Roy Johnson 2007

Deborah Cameron, The Teacher’s Guide to Grammar, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp.163, ISBN: 0199214488

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