Martin Galway is a Teaching and Learning Adviser for English at Herts for Learning.
(This blog is lightly adapted from our most recent newsletter, available for free download here)
Grammar is not your enemy but you probably already know that. There are far bigger things to worry about. What, then, is the point of this article? It stems from two inspiration points:
- Fear of grammar
- An apparent belief that the teaching of grammar is damaging children’s writing and must be stopped
Fear of grammar
It is real for some and it must be fought. Grammar is your friend or at least wants to be. It can be an awkward friend, but it will be there for you in the good times and the bad. Grammar is a constant, shape-shifting presence in your life. You say something and are understood? You successfully deployed your grammar skills to good effect. You write something and have the desired effect? You guessed it. You’re acing life’s grammar test. Want to see some exciting progress in grammar? Consider this journey that might occur in the early years:
Here we have a single-word – critically important – utterance of ‘toilet’ transformed by skilful spoken language work into a standard request in the form of a question. The journey does not stop there. Let’s see the later journey as the command of language becomes more pliable:
Having successfully led their charges through the conventional nuances of modal verb use, the upper KS2 teacher is well-placed to engage in some (standard English) fun around whether we are talking in terms of capacity to do something or permission to do something. (You have to take the joy where you can find it.)
The statutory shape of grammar teaching has led to an increased risk of affected parties being struck by grammar as a right/wrong proposition and this can have some undesirable effects. Let’s use a curricular analogy to illustrate. Those of us who have taught key stage two for a length of time will have delivered a timed mental maths test. I am willing to bet that we will have seen certain children lower their mental shutters in response to an inner voice of doubt that tells them : “I can’t do mental maths on the spot, as quickly as the posh lady on the CD expects me to. I am about to fail.” I’m not about to get into growth mindset; that’s been covered elsewhere. What I want to note is that the introduction of the GPS test had the potential to position writing in the same way for some of our children. In looking for a right/wrong answer to the arrangement of words on a page, there is a risk that some children (and adults) may develop a certain fearfulness towards English. Checking for a sure grasp of writing fundamentals is not, in itself, a bad thing especially where there are clear aspects of language that we want children to secure and that can be reliably assessed. This is not an anti-test argument – it relates more to the fact that grammar has proven to be far more problematic to assess properly than maths has. In the relatively short history of the GPS test, I have seen more errors in papers, resources, textbooks and display items than I can ever recall in another area of learning. Too often it’s due to a simple reduction to a fixed answer, when the language involved refuses to be pinned down quite so neatly. It’s bad enough when writers and speakers self-censor for fear of saying the wrong thing; if this were to happen based on flawed materials, we’ve really messed things up.
Removing the fear
When we deliver grammar training, it is almost certain that at least one participant will have some anxiety around the content. They have no doubt seen how unkind some people can be about grammar on social media. Perhaps they didn’t consider what this might say about the pouncing grammarian. We make sure we offer a no fear training space. The implications of creating undue anxiety around self-expression are almost too horrible for me bear. We reassure our colleagues in a number of ways. We highlight how slippery most grammar is: words move between classes depending on context; usage changes over time; different regions and cultures have different syntax. Grammarians don’t always see eye to eye so if they can’t pin language down completely, how might we? We reassure that dialect and accent are to be cherished and not banished. Teaching Standard English should be depersonalised. It adds a voice to your repertoire. I use the example of my mum’s telephone voice from my childhood: one fairly formal voice is used for answering the call; another less formal voice is used once it’s safely established that it’s just Auntie Janet hoping for a natter. Moving between voices is a life-skill that gives options without devaluing home-language (in the widest sense). This is what allows language learning to be playful as well as academic.
We can also mitigate fear of grammar teaching through the vehicles that we use to explore it. As a team, we make no bones about favouring the teaching sequence for writing, with units being led by great texts: read first; appreciate the book (not its adverbs); look at how the magic is made; undertake some deliberate instruction/practice; have a go ourselves. We have no trouble choosing great books. The world turns ever odder as I type, yet children’s literature seems to buck the trend and goes from strength to strength. Let’s celebrate and capitalise on that.
The apparent belief that the teaching of grammar is damaging writing and must be stopped
When someone has the urge to say something to the effect of “grammar teaching is killing the joy of reading/ writing/ learning/childhood/life”, there is a strong chance that the word ‘adverbials’ (or its bolshy cousin, the ‘fronted adverbial’) will be retrieved from the evidence room and shown to the jury to impressive effect. Some high profile articles have mounted robust arguments against the prescriptive insistence on including fronted adverbials and other stylistic elements in primary writing. The argument runs that fronted adverbials, themselves, do not lead to good writing. Absolutely they don’t. Used where it matters and chosen for effect – that’s a different matter altogether. A good test of what sort of balance we are striking in school is when we ask “Did you like that story?” If the answer is “Yes, it had good adverbials in it,” then something somewhere needs to change.
Fronted adverbials can be lovely things. A quick and random grab from the nearest bookshelf shows me that Susan Hill is not averse to them (The Woman in Black makes pretty effective use of them). On the other hand, we have the adverb-phobes – quite a number of them thanks to the influence of Creative Writing courses. Their mantra is this: there is no doubt, leave them out.
E. B White (a personal hero) remains one of the giants of the anti-adverb movement:
“I actually once tried to write an entire novel without a single adverb. I didn’t quite make it – sometimes you need them – but sentences are almost always stronger without them.”
from Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E. B White
[Houghton Miflin Harcourt, 2016]
Try as he might to avoid them, they came in handy in moving the story on as proves to be the case on flicking through my copy of Charlotte’s Web. Fern doesn’t blandly teleport – E. B. White’s adverbs help her and the reader on their way. Quite sparingly though.
I mention this as sometimes the “ adverbs weaken writing” convention is used to bolster the argument against some of the prescriptive detail of the national curriculum. It’s here where I start to find myself going around in circles in a logical Mobius-band. Is a suggested avoidance of adverbs as potentially prescriptive/restrictive in children’s early writing as insisting that they are included? ‘Steer clear of the adverb’ is a mantra in good writing guides. I’ve now seen evidence of its influence in some primary educational writing but we’re teaching younger children – with growing vocabularies – not authors. Future authors hopefully, but not exclusively.
When it’s argued that the current focus on grammar teaching is harming creativity or that the regard given to particular aspects of language is not what real writers/authors do, I think we are narrowing the lens that we see our class through. At a grammar workshop earlier this year with delegates from every phase of learning, I heard some blanket dismissals of the value of grammar teaching. The thrust being that English is all about fostering a love of literature and creative and expressive impulses, and that grammar teaching undermines this. For some children this may be true, especially if the instruction or practice is limited and limiting in scope . For others – vulnerable in their grasp of written language – other routes are vital.
I’ve used enhanced explicit grammar teaching for children that had entered Key Stage 2 without a fundamental grasp of sentence control for a very long while now – certainly well before the new curriculum. Time and time again it worked. It worked in ways that were revelatory to the children concerned. You had to be there. I wish you had been. It was always quite special.
It worked through showing basic sentence patterns and building from there. It helped by making language visual and not overloading students with more than one or two concepts at once. For example, let’s look at subject/verb in some simple sentences – one colour for the subject/ one for the verb. Secure that concept and then move onto another part. Shall we try some adjectives? One colour for the adjective and one for the noun it relates to. Now, we’re cooking up some noun phrases. We highlight what we are focusing on and avoid overload. It sounds like a cliché but this led some children – surprised by their own successes – to ask: “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?” This is grammar teaching. Life-changing grammar teaching I think. It’s teaching that might just capture the child that is not inclined to be bookish, or that likes systems and patterns and has yet to realise they are their in language. If what we object to is the requirement to learn, let’s say, the subjunctive or the use of the semi-colon, well that’s a different matter entirely. So let’s be specific. If we see flaws in the curriculum or (hold me back) in current statutory assessment – name them. Naming entities is grammar use in its earliest, simplest form. We likely start with ‘Mum’ / ‘Dad.’ Then we can move on to phrases: “naughty fronted adverbial” / “lovely full stop.”
What I am ultimately arguing for is keeping the channels open in the English classroom, an attempt to make it a more genuinely democratic space. You might just be amazed at what can come from it. I’ve had the privilege of undertaking a series of grammar-led lesson studies across both key stages of a school in Harlow. It has been a pretty thrilling piece of rich, exploratory work that has helped to set a love of language learning alight. Following one year 2 lesson in which we looked at verb forms, one especially excited boy ran up to his teacher and me and blurted out: “That was like doing 200 press ups in my head.” His eyes danced as he told us.
To wrap up, we need to keep in mind that we have undergone rapid change across the curriculum and beyond it in a short period. Up until September 2014, the requirements for grammar teaching outside of year 6 were more implicit than explicit. Children and schools do not evolve overnight but they evolve very quickly. Teachers and pupils are finding their way. Some of this early, greater emphasis on grammar may be a little bumpy. Finding the right texts to open up rich contextual avenues for learning might take some a little longer than others. For some children, the route to quality writing will continue to lie in immersion in quality text and opportunities to write. For some learners who appreciate knowing the mechanics of what they are doing, explicit grammar teaching may be just the thing. Let’s explore different routes, try out a widescreen lens and unleash a range of our own real writers.