I’m an old fogey when it comes to writing. I spend many hours each term teaching grammar. We work on this formally twice-weekly, and incidentally when an interesting situation arises.
One such situation was brought to my attention during the week. A sixth class pupil wanted advice. She wasn’t sure if the sentence she had written was correct, so I took a look. “Mrs. Hayes’ keys had been left in the car ignition.” Is this correct? I asked her to explain the apostrophe. She was able to say that the apostrophe comes after the “s” because the word finished with the letter “s” and the keys belonged to Mrs. Hayes. I confirmed that she was right, and I affirmed her accurate recall of a grammar rule. I was about to return to my reading lesson with younger pupils, but the confident girl lingered. She actually adopted a tactic of mine (I was intrigued to notice!) as she looked directly at me with a slightly puzzled look. She looked at me and then back to the text, alternating twice. In effect, she was asking me to comment and I obliged her with a quizzical “You’ve just noticed something, haven’t you?” In the twinkling of an eye, she mentioned that maybe the lady’s name was Mrs. Hay, and quickly again she said that if her name was Mrs. Hay the apostrophe should come before the “s”…. “Mrs. Hay’s keys had been left in the ignition”. Perfect teacher moment!
Have I lost you? The task she was working through involved figuring out the correct use on an apostrophe. This advanced pupil had completed the easier sentences and came to the above example. She displayed good understanding of a topic taught on many occasions by me over the past year. Yes, the same topic was taught repeatedly, simply because grammar is not a very interesting topic and as such needs regular revision in order to ensure it sticks in the mind. She was in a position to help younger pupils (she is 12, in a class of 8 to 12 year olds) but what intrigued me was that she had adopted a thinking process that went beyond the lesson being taught. She explained also that there was a second example that could be interpreted differently. “The lion’s den was littered with the carcasses of dead animals.” denotes one lion, whereas The lions’ den was littered with the carcasses of dead animals.” means more than one lion.
In 1973 the Department of Education & Skills here in Ireland introduced a New Primary School Curriculum. I started teaching shortly after this, and soon became aware that many teachers viewed this new syllabus with derision. It will lead to a sharp drop in standards in English and maths, they said. In effect, teachers were being asked to be jack-of-all-trades in order to broaden the education of pupils, and to incorporate the concept of pupil-centred teaching. English and maths standards did drop, and have continued to drop. Pupils have very definitely benefited from a broader education, and this has been a very positive development, but the price paid has been too high. Too many schools failed to revolt against a curriculum imposed by so-called experts. I would even go so far as to say that some younger teachers’ english and maths standards fell below what is required to teach effectively.
I profess to being ultra-modern when it comes to many initiatives in education. Certainly, my passion for integration of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) had brought many miracles to my class. My recent post here is, in some small way, a testament to this. However, when it comes to English grammar I am a bit of an old fogey. Boring rules need to be taught over and over again. I call this teacher-centred education. Teacher knows best. The interesting factor here, is that constant repetition of a simple (but boring) concept does bring its rewards when the penny drops. Pupil satisfaction following patient perseverance is more lasting than many child-centred activities that in essence mean nothing. The child, being the most important education partner, is not entitled to hog the agenda.
There was a further new updated curriculum in 1998. Years passed, and finally, the penny dropped with the education gurus on the top steps. The PISA Report compared standards of performance of Irish pupils between 2000 and 2009. The Irish education system, once lauded as perhaps the best in the world, was rocked. Now, thankfully, there is a returning emphasis to literacy and numeracy. There is very little funding attached to this major policy shift, but there is an implied recommendation that any teacher who decides to downgrade the time devoted to other curriculum areas might be actually doing kids a big favour!
English is about communicating, both verbally and in written form. Recent texting experience (textese?) has given us a generation of poor spellers, inadequate communicators and something far worse, I think: a generation that seems not to bother whether it’s right or wrong.
All comments welcome. Feel free to disagree and open up some debate.
Useful links worth following include:
The Grammar Blog Thanks, Tom! @tomdotquitter
My new class blog. Just up this week.
Surely, some reader may find some grammar mistake(s) here, or perhaps some spelling errors. I shall take this as a compliment in that they have read the article carefully!
Finally, if all of this is just a bit too heavy, you’ll find some light relief (i.e. normal everyday behaviour, fun and family-focused stuff) over at my personal blog, Kilcaroon. Kilcaroon is a townland in Tipperary, home of my maternal grandmother.