Getting to grips with Grammar

I became a teacher shortly after my 30th birthday. I had not stepped foot in a primary school for almost 20 years and, to be honest, the grammatical terminology required to teach Year 5 English came as quite a shock. I had done well in my SATs, GCSEs and A-Levels, I’d gone on to achieve a Business degree and a Masters in International Communications. Not only that, I’d subsequently spent several years working in marketing and communications, writing daily. Yet, not once had I felt the need to utter the words ‘fronted adverbial’. I found myself in a state of panic. There seemed to be a gaping hole in my own professional knowledge, one that I hadn’t even realised was there, until now…

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For me, use of grammar for writing is something that was – and still is – intuitive. Nevertheless, I knew I’d need to brush up on my own terminology in order to teach it. The Cyber Grammar website from Debra Myhill and Exeter University was a fantastic starting point. It covers everything from sentence structure and word class, to the difference between cohesion and coherence. Teachers need secure understanding of grammar in order to be able to teach it effectively and to cope with the questions pupils ask and this site provides a useful resource for getting to grips with all of the key terminology. You can even test yourself on your knowledge to identify any gaps.

I don’t necessarily feel the need to teach grammar as a stand alone subject although I certainly have colleagues who would disagree. This remains a topic of much debate. Personally, I see both spelling and grammar as something that should simply be embedded within and across the curriculum, something that needs to be understood so that children know how and when to use it in their own writing. Upon researching the issue, I found this Functional Grammar Table from Writing Rocks incredibly useful. It goes one step beyond ‘rules to be followed’ and looks more in depth at its function. It can be used as a guide to ensure children understand why and where you might want to use grammar techniques (for the full explanation and philosophy behind it, click here). You can also download Mr. Morgs’ grammar revision pack for KS2 SATs here.

Bristol University’s Website also has a collection of exercises to help support and practice elements of grammar. It is mainly aimed at university students writing academic essays but it breaks down all of the key grammatical elements required to write effectively. What I liked most about this resource is that it covers the common pitfalls and problems which, as a new teacher, is incredibly useful when thinking ahead to children’s misconceptions. It also includes a range of grammar exercises that have been developed to test your understanding of many grammatical concepts, including everything from use of commas and apostrophes to more complex writing concepts like using the subjunctive form, consistency of tense and straying from the main point.

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Grammar for Writing (DfE) can still be a useful resource, packed with activities and examples across the year groups, if used within the context of what Phil Ferguson and Ross Young term ‘Real-World’ literacy (essentially ensuring that the teaching of phonics, grammar and spelling is embedded in context). Part Three of the book relates to this as it breaks grammatical features down to sentence/word level and organises them by text type and purpose.

Through extensive research, the CLPE has produced a series of short booklets outlining what they know works – further highlighting the importance of contextualising the teaching of grammar. It is well worth having a read of these as they are jam-packed with useful advice and guidance for teachers.

For me, I couldn’t agree more with the Literacy for Pleasure pedagogy. It’s about creating a language rich learning environment, focussed on producing inquisitive, curious children who want to find out more about the etymology of words and how language can be used effectively for impact on the reader. Children who can understand grammatical features, children who can engage in a conversation about why an author has used a particular piece of punctuation or a particular word here or there, children who can appreciate first-hand the impact of an author’s choice on them as the reader, they are the ones who are going to be able to demonstrate effective use of these grammatical structures and features in their own writing. Therefore, the process of teaching grammar effectively must include: reading and investigation, discussion, experimentation and explicit modelling or input, as well as the opportunity to make controlled writing choices.

As such, I try to focus on three key areas so that it’s not simply a ‘define-and-identify’ exercise:

1. Providing quality, authentic texts – Identifying the purpose of grammatical features through sharing examples of author’s writing (or my own). I might even ask them to give feedback about what works well and what could be improved. If it’s my own writing, we might revise it together, discussing our choices for any substitutions or movement of particular words and phrases.

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2. Talk and discussion – I have long been a fan of Robin Alexander’s dialogic teaching and I think talk is key to unlocking children’s understanding of grammatical concepts. I might start with open questions such as ‘What do you notice about the author’s language?’ before drilling down on particular points, ‘Why do you think he has used that (grammatical feature) here? What effect does it have on the reader?’ We might even compare two or three pieces of writing and discuss which one is more effective and why. Knowing key grammatical terminology (metalanguage) enables us to talk about language, it gives us a shared vocabulary about how to get better at using language in our own writing. This stage may also include teacher input or modelling and discussion of the children’s own ideas for writing, based on what they have learned.

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3. Having a go – There is always an opportunity for the children to write and ‘have a go’ at using the grammatical feature themselves. They then have the opportunity to share their writing (if they choose to) with me or with the class and to reflect on how effective it has been (in doing what they wanted to achieve) either through pupil-conferencing, peer or self assessment.

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Knowing about grammar can help children to take control of their writing but it is only a small part of the ‘bigger picture’. It doesn’t have to be a tedious task if it’s applied to an authentic context. It should be fun and engaging, short and snappy, allowing the children time to explore quality texts and language for themselves.

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Language is fascinating and it’s important that young readers and writers know about how language is organised to make meaning. Children need to understand that it’s not simply about shoe-horning in more adjectives and adverbs, but that it’s more about achieving the desired effects on the reader, more about finding their author’s voice.

I do hope you have found this blog post and related resources useful. If you have any further suggestions, please do let me know at literacywithmissp@gmail.com.  

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