The power of good grammar

11 February 2013 - 02:07 By Jackie May
Jackie May. File photo.
Jackie May. File photo.
Image: Times LIVE

We're experiencing magical moments in our house. The ball-obsessed boy is learning to read. He can't digest the book reviews in the weekend Financial Times yet. I have no doubt he soon will. But for now he's reading the riveting setwork book, Home - it's about a mouse looking for his home.

"Where is my home?"

"Is it in here?"

"No, not here."

"Is it in here?"

"No, not here."

And so on.

There are no clauses or conjunctions in those simple sentences. Doesn't look promising if we're looking to develop critical thinking and expression. But it's a start.

In his junior primary years he will learn about grammar and sentence structures. As he progresses my son will be taught how to write coherently and to express complex thoughts - both of which are needed for later success. He'll need all the basics such as "No, not here" first. By the time he is a strapping young man he would have ably persuaded through well-constructed arguments with his fellow gender mates that raping women is no longer a national sport. He would have convinced them - and his mother - that playing and watching cricket is what you want do with your days.

What happens between now and then, though, is important. A Staten Island school's education project has highlighted the importance of teaching basic writing skills.

New Dorp, once a notorious public high school catering for poor and working-class children, according to The Atlantic magazine, had a history of failing pupils, but has since become a model for educational reform. The school's principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, after digging deep for reasons to explain her poor results, found: "[Pupils'] inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects."

The Atlantic's article, "The writing revolution", tells a lovely story about how the school's approach to teaching was turned around with the intention of teaching its children basic language skills and, ultimately, the ability to write "a sophisticated, well-organised essay".

Old-fashioned grammar classes helped these children, who, before, could never dream of going to university. They now have prospects their parents didn't.

All good stuff for my boy. But I suspect, "I'm going to hit you for a six" isn't quite what they have in mind.