HL Deb 15 December 2003 vol 655 cc941-4

2.43 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to improve the usage of English grammar and punctuation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, the development of language is key to children's learning. The study of grammar and punctuation feature in the national curriculum from the foundation stage onwards. We have invested considerable resources in the National Primary Strategy and the Key Stage 3 Strategy in order to raise standards in schools and to improve teaching and learning in English.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that positive Answer. Her belief in the correct use of English language and punctuation is clearly shared by a large number of people. Lynn Truss's excellent little book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is top of the best seller lists this Christmas with a print run that has been extended from 15,000 to 400,000 copies. The title is a joke about pandas, which I do not have time to explain.

Does the Minister not agree that regrettably few people know how to use commas, apostrophes and figures of speech properly and that the Government and Parliament should set an example? For example, there is a notice not far from your Lordships' Chamber which gives "Fridays" a possessive apostrophe. Will she also impress on her colleagues how important it is that the comma is used correctly so that the sentence "A woman, without her man, is nothing" is corrected to "A woman: without her, man is nothing"?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, in anticipation of my noble friend's Question, I obtained Lynn Truss's book and read it over the weekend. I recommend it to any noble Lord who is interested in pursuing grammar. Perhaps I shall receive a free copy now! Of course, the panda went into a bar and "eats, shoots and leaves". As noble Lords will know, it depends on where the comma is placed; indeed, as it does in the phrase about women and their requirement for men, which is in the same vein.

My noble friend raised a serious point. It is important that we ensure that children and adults—we have a huge basic literacy problem in this country— learn to speak, to read and to use English correctly. It is very important that people can converse and write in the tongue of this country, but it is also a useful tool in terms of learning other languages.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, as a grammarian by trade, I obviously declare an interest since anything that sells my books must be good. But would the Minister not agree that classroom emphasis ought principally to be on addressing the poverty of children's vocabulary; on helping them to enjoy and use the unparalleled riches of our lexicon; and on savouring the nuance of the mot juste, as we say in English?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the mot juste is a very important phase. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. I do not think that these ideas are in contradiction. We know that children who do not have access to a good, high quality teaching of vocabulary, and who do not have parental input that gives them the quality of vocabulary, tend to become poor readers and can end up in a downward spiral that leads to severe problems in the future. I could not agree more. It is part of the work being carried out in the Sure Start programme; that is, working with parents to help them to become the best educators that they can be for their young children.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House what proportion of marks are awarded for GCSE English and History, respectively, for grammar, punctuation and spelling?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it will come as no surprise to the noble Baroness that off the top of my head I cannot give that information. I shall write to her and put a copy in the Library.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, given that most of us learnt our English grammar from Latin or from foreign languages, is the Minister not concerned at the demise of foreign languages teaching in secondary schools, particularly at key stage 4?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I rejoice in the fact that under the National Language Strategy— which I am pleased that I had a hand in—we are introducing languages more fully into the primary stage of children's learning. I have said often in your Lordships' House that it is wrong to rely on recalcitrant 14 to 16 year-olds as being the deliverers of our foreign language strategy. It is important that children, young people and adults have real opportunities to speak languages; that is, to converse, to enjoy the culture and to use languages for the betterment of their employment possibilities.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that many foreigners speak and use better English than we do in Britain?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I sense an Eliza Doolittle moment arising. There is, no doubt that there are examples where people have very good spoken and written English. It is true for people who are educated here; it is true for people who are educated abroad. Our ambition should be that everyone should have the highest possible quality of written and spoken English.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, does the Minister agree that inverted commas can sometimes be misleading? For example, last week, I had a letter addressed to me with my name in inverted commas. But not only that, the second line, "House of Lords", was also in inverted commas.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, indeed, one could be misled by such inverted commas.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether poor English is corrected in all subjects taught in schools or only in English lessons and English homework?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised an interesting point. One aspect revealed by the National Literacy Strategy is that teachers have noticed how the use of English has improved dramatically across different subjects. It has long been my view, and I think the noble Lord will agree, that English should not be taught or corrected purely in English lessons, but that children's use of language is appropriate or corrected appropriately in all lessons.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, would my noble friend be more up-front about the use of the Queen's English in the Queen's Speech?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I make no comment whatsoever.

Lord McNally

My Lords, what will be the impact on grammar, punctuation and spelling of the generation that sends more text messages than uses speech?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, when I note the speed with which text messages are sent to me by my children, I think that they will develop incredible thumb dexterity. It is important to recognise that children are perfectly capable of developing skills in more than one language. Clearly, text messaging is going to become another language.

Lord Monson

My Lords, first, does the noble Baroness agree that it would be a good idea for Government Ministers to set an example by always using correct grammar and punctuation, which has not invariably been the case? Secondly, is she aware that when the Post Office in the Palace of Westminster forwards correspondence to noble Lords during the Recess, it does so using large, floppy, printed envelopes that are not only difficult to open, but which feature a glaring grammatical error?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, fortunately I am not responsible for the envelopes used in your Lordships' House, but I am sure that the noble Lord's comment will be picked up. People will scour those envelopes to see what is the grammatical error.

I agree that we are all beholden to ensure that our English is grammatically correct. I hesitate to say that mine always is, but I do strive.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, is the Minister convinced that enough is being done about this problem within our teacher training courses? If teachers themselves cannot use proper grammar and punctuation, they have no hope of imparting them to their pupils.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is an important aspect both within teacher training courses and as a part of continuing professional development. The latest Ofsted report highlighted the fact that more needs to be done in some areas with our schools and teachers. We shall continue with that work.