How to write better English – by the government

There has been much spitting of fur and feathers recently in England about what many feel are ridiculously a) high and b) irrelevant criteria in English being imposed by the current government for the statutory exams children write at ages 7 and 11.

How to write better English - by the government

What should 7 and 11 year-olds be taught: grammar jargon, or how to write correctly? Are current educational guidelines preparing children in England properly for life in the workplace?

In an entertaining but worrying article on her blog, The Girl On The Piccadilly Line – an assistant head teacher at a London, England school – recently wrote:

“The criteria for assessing writing have changed dramatically. Gone is the best fit approach and what has replaced it is an arbitrary list of criteria of the things children should be able to do – some of which are grammatical rules that your department have made up.”

“Year 6 (10/11-year-olds) were tested on their ability to read long words and remember the names of different tenses. Whatever foundation subjects were still being taught have had to be shelved in favour of lesson after lesson on the past progressive tense.”

And how to write better exclamations – also by the government

In addition to insisting that grammar jargon is essential learning for 7 and 11 year-olds, the government in its wisdom invented what, according to The Girl, is an entirely new concept in grammar.

Here, the government directive is that exclamations and exclamation marks are sort of similar, but not exactly. Well … here is their clarification (and many thanks to The Girl for the loan of the image, as I didn’t have time to type it all out again…)

exclamation sentences

That’s not what we learned about how to write better exclamations…

One of the many reasons why I admire teachers so much is not because they have to spend around half of their weekly 60 working hours or so teaching our little darlings. That’s the easy bit.

What must drive them to drink and worse is having to deal with the sharp end of implementing well-meaning but utterly imbecilic directives from government departments who have anything but the children’s – or teachers’ – interests at heart.

And to make things far worse, as soon as these teachers have managed, somehow, to make the government directives work in practice, whoops! It’s time for something new and different again.

Even in my four years as a governor of a gorgeous small village school in rural England back in the late 1990s (where my son was a pupil and had a wonderful time) I saw examples of this wearing teachers down and often, interfering with their ability to deliver the teaching they wanted to.

But doesn’t the English language need to evolve?

Yes, of course it does, in the real world, otherwise we would be talking in caveman-like grunts. However the evolution I, as a pro business writer and trainer, see working in practice has diddly squat to do with exclamation differentiation and the past progressive tense.

It has everything to do with the way people speak. Yes, I know the way some people speak is hard to understand and they need to sort out their GSPS (see below – grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax) if they want to get and keep a white or even blue collar job. They might also benefit from re-reading this article which was published here two days ago.

But there are many acceptable ways in which English is evolving that, because they are so widespread, everyone understands and uses. 

My 2 cents’ worth on how educationalists can teach kids to write better English

Despite needing to clear the house up after a lively weekend, feed the dogs and put some laundry on, having tripped over The Girl‘s article I felt the urge to respond.

Here’s what I wrote in a comment on her site…

I’m looking at this from a professional writer’s point of view, not anything remotely academic – I did well at English “A” level but didn’t even go to university, although I did qualify in advertising writing in what would now be a degree-level course.

OK. I think this nonsense from HMG is very high-handed and confusing both for pupils and their teachers.

However, what makes teaching English difficult whether you’re talking Y6 pupils or adults (I give workshops on business writing, branding, blogging for business, etc.) is that the language is evolving all the time. That makes it hard to establishing what the hard facts are, unlike – say – geography or history.

All the same I always advocate basically “correct” grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (GSPS) to my workshop participants and clients not because I’m picky and pompous, but because getting any of those wrong can, in the workplace, make you look unprofessional and even lead to potentially expensive misunderstandings.

Within those constrictions we have to be realistic and incorporate acceptable changes that evolve – e.g. “any more” becoming “anymore” – because the whole point of learning to write is to enable learners to communicate clearly and well, in a way that everyone else understands now.

Certainly that’s what is required in the workplace for which you teachers are preparing these children, and for which I and my colleagues are helping adults work better. But basic GSPS is essential: you have to know the rules before you can break them effectively.

Not being a teacher, I don’t know how you should incorporate the above GSPS into teaching children.

One thing is for sure: drilling grammar jargon into a 7-year-old’s head ain’t going to do it.

The way I believe you used to teach children – learning GSPS within the context of creative or nonfiction writing – I reckon is the only way that could possibly work, because that’s how they will use GSPS in real life.

Good luck in your efforts and keep up the great work. Oh, sorry- !!

Suzan St Maur

How would you encourage teachers to help kids to write better? (And the government to get real?)

Please share.

Many thanks for the loan of the “exclamations” image, as well as the quotes and of course for triggering this blog post of mine – to the intrepid The Girl On The Piccadilly Line. Read her blog: if you have an interest in teaching and politics, especially, it’s brilliant.

And if you want more in-depth advice and guidance on how to write better for a variety of different business and creative genres, have a look around here.