James Lewis

School Improvement Partner

  • All-round primary expert with specialist knowledge in Maths, English, History and Music.
  • Believes all education should be child-focused.

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Learning Grammar, or Grammar for Learning?

We teach grammar wrong. We think it’s about passing a test, about ‘correct’ speech, and about rigid rules. (Did you just flinch at the word ‘wrong’? Or the comma? Or this sequence of non-sentences starting with coordinating conjunctions?)

Unfortunately, this soulless approach seems to ‘work’: for three years children have achieved GPS ‘expected’ in greater numbers than the other tested subjects. But what are we actually teaching? Lots of boring terms that have almost no impact on their reading and writing, just to pass an uninspiring test. Is this our raison d’être as teachers? If not, then we need to disregard the GPS result and instead teach grammar contextually, within a high-quality programme of reading and writing.

Firstly, we need an explicit, cross-curricular approach:

Possessive apostrophes in History (Pepys’ cheese, Caesar’s army), imperatives in a science write-up; listing commas for sacred items on a Hindu shrine. Look past your official year-group content, too: hold back on the terminology but introduce ‘difficult’ grammar in earlier years – for instance modal verbs for what a pirate might put in his treasure chest.

Let's normalise the terminology:

This can be achieved avoiding the word ‘word’! (Hand out ‘noun lists’; ask for “another verb for…”) Use terminology ‘in the everyday’ (“Say ‘please’ when you use an imperative”; “Listen to my adverb: get dressed quietly”). Get excited about grammar during normal conversation (“Ooh, nice adjective, Sam”).

Embed grammar into reading:

An effective method for embedding grammar into reading is the use of the chunking approach, in which children are taught to break down passages into words/phrases, sentences or paragraphs (depending on your focus). They list any notable grammar, writing features or content and then (most importantly) they identify the effect of each one.

(example chunking grid)

So a fronted adverbial will never again be a boring, abstract idea, but a technique for emphasis linked to hundreds of examples from real literature. ‘Chunking’ provides children with practical examples to help them understand all sorts of terms like rhythm, pace, mystery, suspense, twist, formality, humour, emphasis, characterisation (and those otherwise meaningless stock phrases, ‘make you want to read on’ and ‘draw the reader in’!) Advanced literary terms and concepts are not beyond the reach of primary-age children.

Create success criteria for writing:

Reversing the chunking process lets children create success criteria for writing. (“I want to make the reader nervous - how did J.K.Rowling do this? – I’ll try out her techniques.”) This sequence of identification-analysis-imitation is powerful because it’s experience-based, purposeful, playful and child-led. Furthermore, it ticks GDS criteria by “drawing independently on what the children have read…”

Teaching grammar contextually brings it alive, gives it purpose, and makes it a lot less impenetrable. Children will retain the knowledge because it’s connected to their other learning and to their lives outside school. They will also recognise that grammar isn’t a fixed set of rules, but a creative method for impact and effect. There are different grammars for different occasions. So let’s celebrate our dialectal quirks! Let’s make grammar useful! Let’s put away the GPS practice papers and enjoy grammar by bringing it into the real world.

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For more information on chunking, why not book yourself onto one of our reading or writing courses? We also offer an Outstanding Teaching of Grammar course. All of these are available as INSET or twilight training.