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Why can’t my son use apostrophes properly – is grammar still taught in English classes, a parent in Hong Kong asks

Few would deny that conventional spelling and grammar are being eroded with ‘text speak’ and short cuts used in social media, but good schools and teachers can still impart grammar lessons without sacrificing creativity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 7:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 8:48pm

A Hong Kong parent writes: it really frustrates me that my Year Six son cannot use apostrophes correctly. The teaching of the English language appears very arbitrary these days, and it seems that instruction in the basic skills is being forgotten in the name of “creativity”. 

It has been shown that even university students, not just schoolchildren like your son, are struggling to use apostrophes correctly these days. In fact, some linguistics researchers believe that the apostrophe may soon become redundant because its misuse has become so prevalent, particularly in electronic communications such as texting. 

For the sake of speed and efficiency, many people consider it no longer important to use correct grammar or punctuation. Traditional standards are falling victim to the modern imperative of communicating a message as quickly and succinctly as possible. 

However, the problem is that in using abbreviations and skipping punctuation, accuracy can be lost; and this can leave written communication open to misinterpretation, sometimes with unfortunate consequences.

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But is all this laxity merely the result of the acceleration of technology? The emphasis on teaching formal, key language skills in education does move in cycles. Periods where there is a rigorous focus on punctuation and grammar are quickly replaced by a new orthodoxy using a less direct approach considered by some to be careless and sloppy.

In addition, language teaching varies from school to school in Hong Kong, depending on the curriculum in place and the pedagogy that runs alongside the current trend. Whatever the approach a school takes, it is a mistake to assume that key skills are somehow magically ingested by pupils who then incorporate this knowledge into their writing.

One of the most common mistakes and misunderstandings found in students’ writing is the insertion of an apostrophe automatically into any, or all, plural words. Even more common errors include the placing of apostrophes in singular possessive words such as “the dog’s tail” and in plural possessives such as “all the dogs’ tails”. Some students fail to insert any apostrophes at all.

Contractions are another minefield. How often do we see “your” confused with “you’re”, or “there” in place of “they’re”?

In days gone by, punctuation and grammar were often taught through a series of “one-off” lessons completely out of context with other learning taking place in the classroom and accompanied by endless textbook drills. 

Some research goes as far as to say that pupils retain very little of these de-contextualised skills and rarely transfer them to their other work. Teachers will often back this up citing evidence from their own classes. 

Examples include students who get full marks on a spelling test but spell the same words incorrectly in a free-writing exercise the next day; and other pupils who seem to fully grasp the concept of apostrophes in one lesson yet use them incorrectly again only a few days later. 

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This is not merely a lack of concentration. Much of the research shows that when skills are taught in context, students appreciate their meaning and value, and therefore the learning is more likely to be retained and applied. 

Teaching can still be explicit but lessons do not have to be dull or lack creativity. It takes careful planning by teachers, however, to ensure that all language skills are taught in an organised and thorough manner. 

Few would deny that conventional spelling and grammar are being eroded with “text speak” and short cuts used in social media. Although some children can easily switch between the two, others find this confusing and get into bad habits. 

Competency in language is the bedrock of success in most areas of the curriculum. Researching and recording information clearly and accurately in all subjects rely on this. The importance of mathematical literacy is often underestimated, yet is vital for effective problem solving. Ultimately, young people should be able to write grammatically correct English, and are likely to need this skill in important situations not only in the first instance such as exams and job applications, but also during the course of any major career.

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If you are a member of the Apostrophe Protection Society (set up in 2001, with the aim of preserving the correct use of this much abused punctuation mark) or you are simply one of those people who erase, add or change apostrophes on signs around your locality (as I am), don’t give up! It will encourage others to get them right. 

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary-school teacher