Thursday, April 22, 2010

Don't mention the G word

I must be old. I used to think that literacy was the ability to read. At a stretch it was reading and basic writing, but essentially it meant you could read. You know, as in literacy rates providing an indication of a country's level of development.

Apparently these days it's been stretched to encompass practically everything except the kitchen sink. Here is the latest definition from Scotland:
"The ability to read and write and use numeracy, to handle information, to express ideas and opinions, to make decisions and solve problems, as family members, workers, citizens and lifelong learners."
So when I was asked to provide literacy notes for an educational resource I'm writing for children, I thought, Yikes, what the hell does that mean? Is it just grammar? Is it all about how to write? What exactly am I supposed to put?

If I'd read the Scottish definition of literacy before I started, I might have had an overwhelming desire to put my head under a pillow and sing la la la until it all went away. As it was I decided it might be an idea to engage my brain (hello? where did I put it?). I've read a few writing books, as in how to write, and know all about the modern day trend of 'show' vs 'tell' (a big no no) so plunged in, a tad blindly it has to be said, and started with grammar.

Yes, although grammar doesn't exist any more. It's part of literacy. You can't mention the word because I suppose it sounds elitist and hard, a bit like Latin. But I started with it anyway without saying what I was doing. Sneaky, huh?

Other more qualified people than me will be checking what I've written to make sure I'm not leading the country's youth down pre-modern educational paths (I think one can mention adjectives, yes?) because I was educated during Jurassic times in the 70s when we didn't learn much and I arrived at university to study Arabic without ever having encountered the accusative of anything.

I actually had to ask my mother to lend me her 1940s English grammar book, oh the shame of it. Then before I came to France I did a TEFL course in Mayfair where they put butter in sarnies not margarine, and discovered even more gaps in my education. Finally, after teaching for a few years, I could not look another present perfect exercise in face without bashing my head against a beer bottle, but I did at least know what it was.

Which means, I suppose, that I'm vaguely qualified to write literacy notes for an educational resource. I've convinced myself; I don't feel such a fraud now. Phew!


  1. I first learned the grammar of English when I was obliged to learn Dutch in my 20s.

    I'd completed my education with only the haziest idea as to what an adverb was and the strongly held belief that grammar didn't apply to English but was something foreigners had to deal with.

    My Dutch teacher had to teach me the basic grammar of my mother tongue before she could teach me the language she was being paid for.


  2. It's a bit like trying to teach someone medicine while pretending physiology isn't important.

    "This is the liver. Don't worry too much about how it works just prescibe the blue ones."

  3. I had the same problem, Jon, with Arabic - had to learn basic grammar in English first.

    Those trendy 70s educationalists have a lot to answer for!! It was a very narrow dumbing down view and completely lacked vision.

  4. I find my grasp on grammar is slowly slipping and for that I blame my increased use of French (well, I've got to blame it on something, right?)

  5. That was totally my experience too. No grammar at all during my entire school education, until at Uni I was suddenly faced with accusatives and nominatives and Beowulf. Not much of it sank in. It's only been through teaching English in Spain for years (thank heavens for text books with teacher's notes) that I learnt English grammar, not always one step ahead of my students...
    Now I'm only computer/numerically illiterate...

  6. We regularly 'parsed' sentences while at school. At least I think that's what we did.
    As to that Scottish definition, why not just remove all that mumbo jumbo about families, workers, citizens and state that it is all about making oneself understood without ambiguity.
    Although, come to think of it, our current world of work and politics thrives on ambiguity.

  7. That is what they want for Scotland and that is defined for that country. If you are talking of world literacy then you should read this.

  8. I think it boils down to the old political concept of 'why keep it simple when you can make it really complicated and hope that everyone will not quite understand what you mean but not want to show it so be more willing to to along with it and hope for the best'.


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