I’m at the William and Mary library this afternoon, researching and writing for the middle-grade writing curriculum which will follow Writing With Ease. I’m working, simultaneously, on writing exercises based on models, and on outlining the grammatical skills middle-grade students will need to write well.

In my reading I came across this, from Colin MacCabe’s The Eloquence of the Vulgar, and thought it worth sharing.

The eighteenth century is, famously, the great century of linguistic regulation. This covered every aspect of the language from pronunciation (for the first time there is a uniform ruling class pronunciation and both manuals and coaches to instruct you how to acquire it) to literary texts (subjected for the first time to rigorous and thorough editing).

It is also the period of prescriptive grammars which try to stretch English syntax to approximate to a Latin standard held more appropriate for a language of Reason. The English authors of the preceding two centuries have become a corpus which consists largely of mistakes. The eighteenth century’s confidence that the language’s current state is far superior to its unruly past is everywhere evident; every author from Shakespeare down must have his rude and uncouth terms purged and recast his grammatical errors corrected. It is this confidence in the proper forms of language and appropriate audience for literature which allows Bentley to rewrite Milton and Tate to improve Shakespeare’s ending to King Lear….

In the last generation English teachers have made an astonishing advance in freeing themselves from the dominance of that attitude to the language which had the unspeakable arrogance to tell most pupils that they couldn’t speak their own language. Very often, however, this liberation has ben accomplished by appeals to extremely dubious linguistic and educational assumptions. The refusal of Latinate grammars as the correct model of the language has often been confused with the more dubious notion that you can teach the written language without any vocabulary with which to analyse it. The refusal to impose a form of the spoken language on pupils has been confused with the very dangerous assumption that the pupil’s spoken and written forms may be adequate for any linguistic occasion.

Most serious, however–because still very widespread–is the refusal of the use of writing exercises which depend on imitation. Such exercises still seem identified with their use in the early part of the century when the model was to be copied with absolute fidelity and the examples were all in the same register and idiom. It is, of course, ludicrous to impose on children one narrow model of the written form. However, it is equally ludicrous to assume that the pupils will automaticallly find within themselves the appropriate forms for their experience. It is only by working across a variety of written forms from the sonnet and the essay to the newspaper report or pop song that the pupil will gain the facility with language which is essential to its creative use.

The ability to move across different registers and idioms is an important skill which can only be learned by imitation whether within or without the classroom. Any teacher who looks, however, for textbooks or even research in this area will not find it.–from pages 68, 71

I’m always being asked for academic research to back up my claims that young writers shouldn’t be asked to do original writing until they’ve had the chance to imitate the forms used by other authors. As MacCabe notes, though, this isn’t an area that academic educators seem interested in exploring, so all I can do is point back a hundred or so years. The problem with pointing back to the past is that, like MacCabe, I see huge difficulties with the method as it was put to use back then: it was effective, but also inflexible, rigid, limited to a narrow range of acceptable styles and forms (exclusively British, in fact).

Haven’t solved this problem yet–which is why I’m in the library researching. Stay tuned and I’ll keep you updated on how the curriculum-construction is going.

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