Talking nonsense

Why is the UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority teaching secondary-school pupils about words like 'mmmm'?

Francis Boorman

Topics Politics

In a recently released paper, Britain’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) introduced the teaching profession to ‘The Grammar of Talk’. A new emphasis on the spoken word and its grammatical complexity is supposed to ‘balance a long history of attention to written grammars’. According to the BBC, ‘It is hoped this will improve [children’s] social skills and career prospects’ (1). Has policy become so confused that ‘talk’ is to be taught in the hope of getting people jobs?

Judging by comments in a London Times article on 25 October, it probably has (2). The article introduces the QCA paper and then suddenly tells us that ‘Employers complain that they are forced to give remedial lessons in English and maths to hundreds of thousands of school-leavers to help them communicate clearly’. This says nothing about the need for lessons in speech, only for more academic rigour in maths and English.

It is unsurprising that our written language has been analysed more often, as it is an attempt to formalise our thoughts and convey them to others coherently. I hardly had any lessons on English grammar throughout my schooling, making it hard for me to understand the grammatical terms required to learn a foreign language. So perhaps we’re not quite ready for delving into the way we communicate on a daily basis, particularly in the secondary school classroom. Our social skills will just have to wait.

These classes will probably not continue the ancient Greek tradition for the teaching of oratory. Instead they focus on the banal – our everyday use of language. ‘Although people do make speeches, tell long solo narratives and sustain monologues, spoken language exists primarily to be exchanged with listeners.’ Why take time out of potentially valuable English lessons only to persuade pupils to analyse their use of exciting vocabulary, such as the word mmm?

No, not my suggestion, but QCA’s. ‘Simple vocalisations given in feedback to another speaker include yeah, mmm, uh, huh and oh.’ Stating the obvious, as this paper consistently does, is not useful for kids or their teachers.

Hopefully, no unsuspecting schoolchild will be expected to read the report out loud as it is a hotbed of alliteration and tongue-twisters. To give an example, QCA helpfully reminds us that ‘some talk takes place with speakers speaking at the same time’. This comment seems to go against everything I learned at school about talk; my teachers insisted that when speakers speak at the same time, it is not a conversation but a bloody racket.

The report questions how ‘teachers’ behaviour [can] encourage pupils to focus on talk and encourage them to talk about talk?’. I would argue that they do not need to. By making a subject interesting and encouraging discussion and debate within the classroom pupils will become naturally more eloquent as their enthusiasm grows. Discussing subject topics will show whether kids can put their point across – and if they can’t, wouldn’t it be better to help them go back, think and write about the issue, and then make a second attempt at talking while picking at grammatical complexities of what they are saying and the body language they use? Telling children that ‘non-verbal feedback could be a nod of the head’ is simply not a constructive comment.

Even worse is the attempt to explain to teachers not only what, but how to tell their students about non-standard English. This mirrors recent initiatives in schools to stamp out slang in the classrooms. ‘If a pupil at Lilian Baylis School in Kennington, south London, uses slang the teacher corrects it on the board and gives the standard English phrase.’ Yet many secondary school students know that different language should be used in different social settings.

The headmaster of Lilian Baylis, Gary Phillips, concedes that slang ‘is a part of their heritage and identity. What we are trying to do is to make them understand that in an exam, only standard English will do’ (3). This kind of politically correct attempt to impose standard English but maintain the culture of street slang is yet another example of the confusion over whether standard English is considered to be ‘better’. It now needs to be taught in schools to assert its place in exams even if no line can be drawn deciding when else it is needed.

The report explains to adults that acceptance of the use of non-standard English, including phrases such as ‘ain’t’ and ‘me and him went’, ‘will often be a matter of judgement based on the context of the talk’. It hopes that teachers can encourage pupils to reflect for themselves on the way they talk and think, and about the language they use.

It is almost as if the classroom is to be turned into a standard English counselling session, in which the children cannot be forced to change their ways, but will hopefully realise that standard English is best. Hence the promise that learning standard English will help their career prospects. That the report goes on to tell us to consider ‘whether speakers are of the same age, status, class or gender’ makes me feel as though I am being reminded to consider using my very best Queen’s English in front of women and the aristocracy.

How can we expect educational standards to rise when lessons about ‘key skills’ are being supplemented by nonsensical appeals to teach about talk? These have nothing to do with education and are instead driven by a belief that the intricacies of everyday life, from your performance at work to how good you are at making friends, can be taught in the classroom.

Apparently, ‘Not replying to someone or remaining silent in a discussion can be construed as subversive’. I hope teachers take this to heart when reading ‘The Grammar of Talk’. Ignoring it is the best way forward.

Francis Boorman recently finished his A-levels and worked as an intern at spiked.

See The Grammar of Talk

(1) Schools
Are Given Tips on Talking
, BBC News, 25 Oct 2004

(2) Teachers of the Grunt Generation get New Tips on Running a Grammar School, Alexandra Blair, The Times, 25 Oct 2004

(3) Scheme
to Stop Slang in Classroom
, BBC News, 7 July 2004

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Topics Politics


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