SpaG – a foreign language teacher’s perspective

There has been a lot of controversy over the new spelling and grammar test for year 6 children recently. I have to say that some of the sample questions do seem somewhat strange and I confess that I had not heard of the phrase “fronted adverbial” until this year. However, as a linguist, I do believe that children will find learning foreign languages in secondary school much easier with the greater knowledge of grammar terminology that the new test requires.

I have yet to meet an EU national who has arrived in Britain to teach French, German or Spanish who is not initially shocked at how our pupils seem to have so little knowledge of the grammar of English. The fact that a word such as “before” can be a preposition, an adverb or a conjunction in English (thank goodness no more of that horrible word “connective”), means that English native speakers who have not come across these terms will struggle when they find out that “before” is translated in three different ways in French and German, according to whether it is an adverb, preposition or conjunction. “Why are there all these irregular verbs  – we don’t have this in English” is a comment which drives many non native speakers of English to despair, particularly since they themselves had to learn lists of English strong verbs by heart when they were at school and were then tested on them. The classification of tenses is another issue; English tenses are far too complex to be oversimplified as past, present and future. “What is this Perfect Tense?” , our pupils grumble and look on us foreign linguists with suspicion when we tell them that English has perfect tenses as well, almost as if we were somehow being unpatriotic to point out that English is not something unique and set apart from other languages. Being able to identify subordinate clauses in English has been dismissed as useless, but it is vital for translating English into a language like German, where word order changes in subordinate clauses.

“But the tests are for 11 year olds – they’re much too young” is the next objection. Well, I did some research and found that the French school curriculum requires a detailed knowledge of grammar terms at the age of 11, plus full understanding of tenses (perfect, imperfect, pluperfect etc.) which goes beyond the massively oversimplified “past, present and future” which our children are taught. Germany does not have a national curriculum, as education is in the hands of the individual German states, but I found a copy of the Bavarian curriculum which stated much the same thing. And all at the age of 11! I admit my research has not gone further than France and Germany, but my guess is that the same applies in other European countries.

“But it doesn’t help them write good English” is an objection I can sympathize with. I can think of nothing more dreary than a class of pupils sitting down with a “checklist” of grammar terms to include in their writing – it is likely to lead to sentences such as “I like it , because it’s good”. At this point any MFL teacher who has done a GCSE controlled assessment will be nodding in recognition. Yet if we are to improve foreign language learning in the UK, we need to start with getting our pupils familiar with the grammar of their own language (or indeed languages!) while they are in primary school. That is why, speaking as a linguist, I welcome the new test.


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4 Responses to SpaG – a foreign language teacher’s perspective

  1. Mark Bennet says:

    Could it be that the students from France and Germany are also learning a foreign language earlier and in more depth than primary age children in England, giving context and motivation for understanding grammar (since there are variations in grammatical constructions between languages) – and in that context, with that motivation, the naming of grammatical functions makes a deal more sense than dealing with the concepts essentially in abstract (without the concrete problem of “how do I translate this?”)? Better early language teaching might lead to better outcomes – but that has to be financed and staffed if it is to happen consistently at scale.


    • fish64 says:

      Possibly, but grammar is just engineering with words and I don’t accept the premise that it is intrinsically boring. In my experience a lot of children, particularly those who like maths, enjoy it. I give my year 7s an extract from Harry Potter where they work in teams to correctly identify and classify all the forms of English past tenses that they can. They nearly all enjoy it. Trouble is, this takes up teaching time – if they had learnt this in primary school I would be able to push on further and faster with the foreign language


  2. Thanks for pointing this out about other countries. I’d gained the same impression from reading parents’ forums. Immigrants and European ex-pats are mostly nonplussed by the English hostility toward formal learning and traditional teaching styles.

    Another reason for learning grammar is that without it you can’t punctuate correctly, or understand what a complete sentence or a run-on sentence is. Some people may gain this understanding intuitively through reading, but many don’t, as any University lecturer who has to read students’ essays will tell you.

    Liked by 2 people

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