A GRAMMAR SEQUENCE – what it looks like

This is part 2 of developing grammar knowledge. Part 1 is here.

Knowing where to begin a sequence of learning grammar in secondary school is a difficult one, for a variety of reasons:

  • a teacher’s picture of what a student knows and brings into the yr 7 classroom may be incomplete. * The expectations of knowledge are at the bottom of the post, but also see James Durran’s blog which discusses the literacy gap.
  • the existence of a detailed sequential scheme of learning is difficult to find. Daisy Christodoulou’s seminal work ‘Making good progress’ identifies the need to design learning sequences that provide practice of tasks that may not reflect the final summative task, but in fact are individual components that make up the whole. She writes specifically about grammar design here. There are of course a limitless number of resources available online dealing with every aspect of grammar, but I am yet to find anything that takes a student step by step through word classes in a logical and functional manner, and/or does so in a way that doesn’t suffer from the curse of knowledge (the idea that when you know something it is difficult to imagine others not knowing it, which can interfere with teaching something to adequate depth).
  • some don’t value the power of teaching grammar as a distinct discipline
  • building a scheme into a curriculum may interfere with the core content, and as time is everthing’s enemy, takes a significant backseat in most English classrooms.
  • as a corollary, lots of schemes actually don’t include grammar as a focus.

I talked about the power of grammar in the last post, as a tool that strengthens a student’s control of language and improves the feedback process with significantly more explicit direction. I also truly believe that understanding grammar significantly helps with punctuation, especially helping to elimate the dreaded comma splice and the equally as frustrating fragmented sentence. But without any shadow of a doubt, a successful grammar curriculum must be assiduously designed so that it is sequential, incrementally moving a student forward once mastery of each element is achieved.

To that end, I have created such a scheme, and am in the process of creating the resources to match. I have provided an example of how mastery would be achieved with each element.

Here is a short video of the whole scheme. What you will hopefully notice is the progression style of each element. As much as possible, one element blends into another:

The sequence is the following:

  • ​​Nouns​
  • Determiners​
  • Subject + object​
  • Verb forms​
  • Finite verbs​
  • Auxiliary verbs​
  • Modal verbs​
  • Clauses​
  • Conjunctions​
  • Adjectives ​
  • Relative clauses
  • Adverbs​
  • Phrases​
  • Prepositions​
  • Participles 

The sequence is broken into distinct sections, and the teacher would, depending on where they begin, teach each element and then provide activities for students to master their knowledge of the respective element.

Section A: begins by explaining the various types of nouns, and how determiners are used to introduce certain nouns. The subject of a sentence is then taught as this is essential for the understanding of what constitutes a clause.  

Section B: introduces the concept of a verb. The 5 main forms of verb are discussed. The reason for going into depth here rather than simply encouraging students to say that all verb forms are merely ‘verbs’ is that each of the forms serves a particular purpose in our language, and so a secure knowledge of each assists them in being more precise with their language. The great bonus of this is that the teacher can then provide more precise feedback to students. 

The distinction between finite and non-finite verb forms is made clear, which allows for a discussion about tense, and how and why we must use the correct tense. Auxiliary verbs, including modal verbs are presented to assist the understanding of tense. 

Section C: introduces how nouns and verbs are used in combination to form sentences primarily via clauses. Main and subordinate explanations provide opportunities to discuss conjunctions, both coordinating and subordinating, and what rules we use to punctuate both compound and complex sentences.  

Section D: introduces modifiers. The scheme begins by discussing adjectival and adverbial clauses. In terms of adjectival, the common use of relative clauses is explained and restricted and non-restricted clauses are explained; an important consideration for punctuation.  

Section E: introduces how non-finite verbs are used to create phrases. The 4 main types of phrases are explained, and how they are used as modifiers. Prepositions are defined, and lots of attention is given to participles. Participle phrases are highly effective modifiers, and the adjectival nature of past and present participles is explored. As well as this, the adaptive nature of participles explains how they are used in the passive voice, as well as in combination with auxiliary verbs in 9 of the 12 tenses

APPROACHING MASTERY 

Where your students enter the scheme is of course determined by their prior knowledge, but upon entering, each element MUST begin as though the student is a novice, and therefore assessment of the new element MUST only test that element. Isolating assessment is crucial to not only prevent cognitive overload, but also so you can see any errors that arise, and if more activities to achieve mastery are needed. Students MUST master each component of grammar before moving onto the next stage of the sequence. This is crucial.  The table below illustrates this design, with the scheme beginning with proper nouns, and designed activities that incrementally build knowledge. The number of errors to check understanding embedded in each activity would remain roughly consistent, and each element ends with a summative assessment combining the various types of questions that could be asked of the element. As you can see, by the time the summative test is issued at the end of this element (sentence example), a secure knowledge of proper nouns would be certain.

What is essential is that there is an adequate number of activities to achieve mastery. This means creating a bank of resources for each element, a process I have begun, but which will obviously take some time to complete. For example, as illustrated below, if a student needs 10 activities to master the element, then 10 activities must exist. This would be an unusually high number however, as the incremental design should naturally eradicate this occurence.

SO HOW CAN I EMBED THIS INTO MY CURRICULUM?

The road to mastery is not a short one. Daisy Christodoulou discusses the difference between a spiral curriculum and a mastery approach here, espousing the benefits of the latter succinctly, and convincingly. Beginning the grammar scheme as soon as possible in secondary school would be the ideal, utilising SATS tests as a baseline (see Sarah Barker’s blog on this), in combination with other measures. Some older year groups may begin the scheme near its end, with participles for example, with students having already demonstrated security in every previous element. Teachers may wish to use the scheme as an intervention tool, arming interventionist staff with a deliberate approach to bringing students up to speed, so they can begin to analyse and use language in classes with increased confidence.

How you deliver the content is up to you. Where possible, the reason for the existence of the grammatical function would be explicitly explained to the students. Why are there nouns? etc. There are cues to this in the scheme, but the teacher would add their spin on the reasons. Advisably, a strong focus on contextual grammar would be best, as superbly illustrated here by James Durran, but of course this can only happen once the form has initially been taught. You may adapt activities to reinforce mastery with examples from respective texts you are studying, but remember that the design of the activities is still crucial in terms of minimising extraneous load. Either way, constant discussion in class about the elements already covered would significantly assist in students encoding the knowledge. Empowering students with the technical language to discuss the functional grammar used in texts you are studying I think makes teaching those texts infintely more enjoyable, as you get a step closer to being truly able to evaluate the meanings contained within.

The important consideration however, is that you can’t cheat the process of developing grammar knowledge. The power it provides students is irrefutable, but you simply can’t rush the process, or skip parts of the sequence. Learning gaps will result if you do, and we end up with the current state of serious and debilitating VSSPS issues at GCSE level.

NEXT STEPS

The ultimate aim is to add videos to help explain each element, maximising the process of dual coding, and then have the activities embedded into an adaptive learning platform, so students are AUTOMATICALLY directed and guided depending on their success rates to the relevant section in the course. Stay tuned!

*Below is the Yr 6 Curriculum signalling expectations of grammar knowledge:

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching and general educational resources and discussions.

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