It is not an accident or platitude that primary school students are taught grammar, and to an impressive degree too. Teaching grammar literally equips students with an understanding of the building blocks of language, the tool that we use extensively, and would be utterly lost without. In primary, the teaching of grammar is a mixture of form and function, the distinction well explained here by Bas Aarts, with functionality, inextricably connected to context, deemed as the superior strategy. The quantitative nature of SATS however anecdotally fixates attention more on form, mostly in Yr 6, rendering it a practice that many believe to be incongruent to the ideal. It may be, worryingly so, earlier for some.
Being pragmatic, both foci offer secondary teachers a significant opportunity to harness the incredibly important work done by primary teachers. Unfortunately, this opportunity seems to be rarely taken up. There exists a great irony in the recent spotlight into curriculum design that doesn’t take heed of what students bring to the table from primary education*. Issues in getting the transition right and avoiding the ‘wasted years‘ is intelligently discussed here by James Durran. It is certainly not an easy thing to get right, especially when students may arrive from a multitude of feeder schools, but having a better understanding of what a student already knows as they enter a Yr 7 classroom has got to be a step in the right direction. A recent post by Sarah Barker raises the possibility of teachers gaining more precise awareness of prior-knowledge in English, with access to specific breakdowns of errors available to secondary teachers:
Of course, all of the information is practically pointless if what students know is not going to be built upon. Yes, grammar, punctuation and spelling are perennial areas of concern, and make up a substantial ratio of an English GCSE grade, but how much focus is actually given to them as discreet components of language development? Or are they simply add-ons to the core of what we teach, with greater attention given to a more contextualised focus on language meaning?
It is my contention that a rigorous grammar focus would significantly improve schoolwide literacy as well as language analysis and expression in the English classroom.
Teaching grammar in secondary school has potency. Continuing the empowerment inducted into primary students with the knowledge of how our language is constructed not only provides opportunity for students to read and comprehend increasingly complex written information with understanding, and hence enjoyment, in almost all subjects, but it also gives them a platform from which to build, shape and refine their own writing.
Explicitly and continuously directing students to the functionality of grammar in everything they are exposed to is a sure way to help students achieve automaticity in parsing language. James Durran’s blog on doing so is a must read for all KS3 teachers, in which he beseeches teachers to discuss grammar contextually, continuously drawing students’ attention to the purpose and meaning of the language use. Explicit grammar teaching also significantly assists in providing explicit feedback to students’ writing, as you are able to suggest more refined and precise instructions for improvement. It is far superior to say to a student, ‘Would that sentence be better if you added a more interesting adverb to that subordinate clause?’, or ‘I think an appositive would improve the description in the sentence’, or to assist in punctuation, ‘Why do you have a comma placed between two independent clauses?’, or ‘Can you use a semi-colon there if the second section is a phrase and not a clause?’
This sentiment echoes the great Tom Needham, who adds to the invocation of Doug Lemov when he says: Although I want my students to be able to name these particular parts of a sentence, most importantly I want them to use them. While there may be disagreement about the ‘correct’ name to give these (absolute phrases seem to be known as ‘nominative absolutes’ as well as ‘noun phrases . . . combined with participles’), we still need a name to give them if we are to discuss, analyse and practice them, creating what Lemov refers to as ‘a shared language for your team’ p.66. If we have this shared language, we are able to minimise confusion and be precise, allowing us to create focussed practice activities.
Essentially, my belief is that having a better grasp of the science of our language will ultimately help in understanding and producing the art of our language.
How to integrate a grammar scheme
Well, that’s the next post… here.
*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.