Going on a grammar hunt? Forget it, says author Michael Rosen

Former Children’s Laureate says don’t worry about the rules after 1980s children admit they haven’t a clue

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 26:  Michael Rosen attends a photocall during the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 26, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland.  (Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)
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Know your gerund from your genitive? Your imperative from your indicative? Your perfect from your past continuous?

We're Going on a Bear Hunt author Michael Rosen says you shouldn't get hung up on such minutiae after joining a debate about grammar sparked by a tweet from writer Siri Kale. He takes issue with the teaching of grammar, saying it is an "illusion" that there is one agreed set of rules that does the job.

When Ms Kale tweeted that she was unaware of the past continuous tense, she had little idea of the grammatical can of worms she was wrenching open.

Her admission clearly touched a nerve, sending the Twittersphere into a frenzy of solidarity.

Many pinned the blame on UK educational policy and said that their route into grammar had been through learning other languages.

The demise of the formal teaching of grammar in English schools in the 1980s can be traced back to the 1967 Plowden Report: Children and their Primary Schools.

Its findings completely reconstituted the tenets of education, placing the child at the centre of the learning experience. This approach was a marked departure from the previous credo in which the child’s educational experience was subordinate to the regimented instillation of knowledge.

This philosophical change paved the way for an evolution from learning by rote - the method of repetition - to the more intuitive approach encapsulated by American writer Joan Didion when she described grammar as being “a piano I play by ear”.

The educational pivot of the 60s and 70s was bemoaned by a 51-year-old tweeter responding to Ms Kale:

A more formal approach to teaching grammar was adopted in the 90s following the institution of Britain's National Curriculum and, in recent years during the tenure of education minister Michael Gove, the approach has become even more prescriptive.

A children’s book author, a poet and a former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen is a long-term critic of government education policy.

Mr Rosen was left in a coma for six weeks earlier this year after contracting Covid-19. He is now recuperating but his battle with the virus has attenuated none of his passion on the subject of grammar.

The We're Going On A Bear Hunt  author has a fabled imagination at odds with a regimented approach to grammar. 
The We're Going On A Bear Hunt  author has a fabled imagination at odds with a regimented approach to grammar. 

"Any question around being taught grammar or not should also be a question of 'what grammar?" he told The National.

“The illusion is that there is one agreed grammar that does the job. There isn't. It's a much disputed territory. I oppose any attempt to tell children and young people that grammar is a blueprint for a) the only way of describing language and b) the correct way to write and speak.”

Mr Rosen believes grammar is too open to interpretation to be taught. As with language, he sees grammar as fluid, a phenomenon that shouldn’t be impeded by millennia-old strictures, and he decries the “prescriptive” approach favoured by establishment educationalists.

“These grammatical rules are derived in a wrong way,” he said. “They attempt to deduce the rules as an abstraction of written language, which in turn were mostly derived from descriptions of written Latin imposed onto English.”

On the matter of tenses, the subject (not the object) over which Miss Kale (the object), provoked such impassioned tweets, Mr Rosen said they were a “case in point”.

“I do have a problem with teaching 'tenses' … It's a fib to say that this or that verb form necessarily indicates a time frame. It's just a nonsense. We should talk about 'verb forms' and the amazing flexibility we have through our social usage of them.”