Martin Galway is an English  Teaching and Learning Adviser for HfL

It’s not my intention to start this blog off on a controversial note, but I have never really been a fan of Frank Sinatra.  Still, I can’t help thinking of him when I recall the silly reminder relating to verbs that I sometimes gave the children that I taught :  just remember what we use if we forget our lyrics – “do-be-do-be-do” (usually shared to the tune of Strangers in the Night) .   Arguably verbs in a nutshell, but –  as we are all increasingly aware with the shifts towards higher stakes around the retention and application of grammar knowledge – definitions and mnemonics are highly fallible beasts.

Let’s shift to something a little less slippery…

Nouns. Lovely things aren’t they?  So straight forward.  So practical.  So – largely – concrete.  So fundamental in servicing our linguistic instincts that they are  (always?) the first words we say and underpin our early, growing understanding of the world around us.  As early sounds turn to early words, so the labelling begins:

Little One: Mum.

Us: Wahoo – Jnr said ‘Mum’

Little One:  Dad

Us: Wahey! Jnr said ‘Dad’

[Cue loving exchange of looks.  Cue end theme tune]

And so it goes… With support, noun turns to noun phrase and we’re off and away. When I deliver any kind of grammar training, I invariably spend some time considering the typical linguistic journey of younger children, in order that we have a shared understanding of what lies beneath the particular learning that we are looking at, whether it be  Year 3, 4, 5 or 6 and beyond.  If the training is for upper key stage 2, it is invariably a breakneck speed tour of the wonderful journey that children go on from birth, through the early years and onwards.  At this point, it is only right that we just take a moment to celebrate the miraculous, joyous, and very challenging job that early years colleagues do in taking account of, and responding to, inevitably wide-ranging starting points in terms of early language acquisition.

Nouns then.  Straight forward and  uncomplicated (he says, discreetly pushing abstract nouns under the carpet with a surreptitious slide of the foot).  But what of verbs?  Verbs are what we like to call the engine of a clause (and of sentences too).  It’s important that from early on we establish the critical linguistic importance of nouns and verbs to help us communicate in speech and in writing.  Let’s consider some of the earliest sentences that we might encounter in our early reading.

First we have  Ned’s Noise Machine (Rigby Star,2000) :’ It can go pop’.  Straight-forward in terms of decoding, but so far as verbs go,  a verb phrase with a handy modal pointing out the latent possibility that  the machine will, at some point, go pop.

Next we have  Curly to the Rescue (Stepping Stones, 2013):  “The spider smiled.” Perfect.   Simple.  Elegant.  To-the-point.  A classic sentence for an early reader/writer: Subect + verb, and that’s your lot.

No visit to the world of early scheme books would be complete without an encounter with Kipper – Oxford Reading Tree’s stripy-jumpered hero.  Here, in the  well-loved classic, The Wobbly Tooth, the sentences move on to include the object.  The sentences throughout are reliably arranged in a classic subject-verb (phrase)-object form with the exception of some interludes of direct speech/reporting clause. Here’s a typical example: “Dad wanted to pull it out.” An innocuous enough sentence until the full horror of the accompanying illustration is revealed (Dad brandishing a pair of pliers at least as big as Kipper himself.  Run Kipper. Run like your life depended on it!).

What is notable in these particular early sentences is that the verb (or at least part of the verb phrase) is recognisable in terms of how we might have once defined a verb: a doing word. But central to many of the early sentences children will be expected to read or write are those trickier-to-define “being” words. She is happy.   I was scared. Try to explain the concept of being to a five year old. Actually don’t . Time is precious in Key Stage 1 and you have more pressing concerns. It’s why we advocate having something like this on display/on mats/in books in the KS1 classroom:

to be

If you read Deborah Myhill’s ‘Essential Primary Grammar’ (and you should), she might also make a case for the use of a chart for the verb ‘to have’:

New Picture

As Myhill says: “It is helpful for children to understand that be and have are verbs, and to recognise all the various forms of these verbs. ..helpfully, these verbs are always verbs, whereas with many other words in a sentence, we have to work out whether it is a verb, or a noun, or an adjective depending on its context.” [Myhill, 2016, Open University Press] Given their helpfully secure status as verbs (consider how the word tap can function as noun or verb  or adjective as in ‘tap shoes’), we can avoid convoluted explanations and definitions in accounting for the “being” verbs and instead highlight them much as we might highlight “tricky” or “common exception” words – these are verbs: you need to know these, you just do…here they are.

NB: do not label as tricky verbs – they’re not – they’re frequently used in spoken language and should not be seen as challenging  in their simplest form.  When they are used as auxiliaries to form progressives or the perfect form,  that’s a different matter

So why do we need to secure this understanding?   As much as there have been outcries about the current focus on the teaching  and assessment of grammar, there are strong arguments to be made around  fostering  a better  understanding of the mechanics of our language.   In doing so we are more likely to support greater proportions of children  in writing with increased clarity and to better effect.

It’s what you do with this learning – how you allow it to inform better reading and writing – that really matters.  True, knowing that “was” is a verb will help children to tackle the following, notorious question from the KS1 GPS sample materials :

grammar question

The relative complexity of this question has been tackled in some depth here.

If we were to familiarise our students with the various forms of the verb “to be”, at least part of that question (‘was’) is easily addressed.

But is that really the extent of learning that we are looking for? Hopefully not. Instead, for many of our youngest learners, developing an early sense of conventional sentences, having a surer grasp of what a noun (or pronoun) is, and how a verb helps us to express something about it, is likely to help combat the seemingly perennial issue of where to place that most tricky of punctuation marks : the wandering full stop.

So what might help develop a deeper understanding of  the behaviour of these crucial words. How might we learn to identify and work with those shape-shifting verbs that are so critical to powering up our simplest and best sentences? Here are some ideas:

  1. Read a lot. Read the right books. Build up the sense of a sentence and note the central role of nouns as subjects, and verbs. (The DfE’s Developing Early Writing has an excellent  chapter, Developing the Concept of a Sentence, that remains very useful in this regard);
  2. Take passages from books and remove the verbs. Read aloud with the class and – hopefully – swiftly establish the following: “Hang about! This doesn’t make sense, does it?” Children should be able to make suggestions to replace the missing verbs. Once the text has been restored sufficiently to make sense, compare with the original. Is our version better? Which verbs would we keep or replace?
  3. Spot the Odd One Out, taken from Pie Corbett’s Jump Start grammar  works like a treat to promote deeper thinking. Prepare a text that has all of the verbs highlighted or emboldened. Now highlight/embolden one or two words that are not functioning as verbs. Challenge children to identify these exceptions and support them in articulating how they know that they are the odd ones out, and not verbs. Bringing in these “odd ones out” takes children beyond the usual level of thinking required to simply identify a given word class (e.g. circle the verbs).
  4. Hilary Robinson and Nick Sharratt’s Mixed Up Fairy Tales provides an excellent means for securing not just noun and verb parts of a sentence but also the overall structure of the most basic sentences. As a split page book, its micro-narratives rest on each section carrying out a common linguistic function. As a result the second strip on every single page works as a verb part (together with an object) . A typical page looks like this:
Little Red Riding Hood
put on a bright red cape
and was pounced on by a wolf disguised as
Little Red Riding Hood’s granny.

The division of the page into strips allows the children to flip the strips randomly or according to whim, and create new and surprising combinations – such as the following:

Little Red Riding Hood
grew and grew to the size of a house
and rubbed a dusty old lamp out of which popped
a handsome prince.

Exploring sentences in this way is not just entertaining but can serve to strengthen the developing sense of this notoriously tricky concept .  Early work may well focus strictly on the first two strips.  Moving from reading into writing, children could be supported to record character names from recently-shared or well-loved books and then encouraged to develop a verb phrase or verb and complement to complete the sentence.  Pretty soon, enough strips can be created to make their own version of the Mixed Up book.

It might look like this:

Traction Man
rescued the terrified farm animals

Page 1

Farmer Duck
sadly ploughed the field

Page 2

Traction Man
sadly ploughed the field

Mixed Up reading

  In the process of creating this sort of strip book, the children have further explored the noun/verb components of fairly basic, conventional sentences and have also produced a model to serve as a future reminder of what they have learned. Overtime, they can extend their sentences to four strips which in turn will reinforce later work on conjunctions.

Of course, knowing that a noun is a noun and a verb is a verb (and, sometimes,  what looks like a noun is a verb, and vice versa) is just one small part of the vast linguistic adventure playground that children run, swing, jump and slide through in their time with us at primary school.  It’s what we do (and be) with those magical words that really matters.