Why do we teach Grammar?
Author(s): Andrew Philp
Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material
Learning a second language, and having the opportunity to discuss similarities and differences between its structures and those of the mother tongue, can also create vital occasions to learn about language (as well as learning the rudiments of a new one). It allows young learners to use the terminology in which thinking about language takes place.
A ‘language to talk about language’ (a metalanguage) therefore helps the learner to improve performance by extending and deepening his or her insight of how the aspect of language being used actually operates. Moreover, in the case of grammar – the patterning which enables us to make sense of words in sentences – the grammatical awareness may indeed extend the learner’s perception of how to use language and thereby improve his or her competence more directly.
For example, a group of secondary pupils may be examining the language of a set of advertising leaflets and come across one for cable television which, on the front page, offers ‘a free set top box’. The pupils might be asked to consider all the possible meanings suggested by the various combinations of adjectives before the noun (‘modifiers’) in this noun phrase (‘free-set’, ‘set-top’, ‘top-box’, etc.). When they examine the text inside, information such as ‘second set top box’ and ‘the set top box is free’ will enable them to identify that the free offer is a control box for the top of the television set, supplied by the cable television company. They may be able to work this out for themselves without the article, using either their implicit awareness of language, or their awareness of how cable TV works.
Yet this kind of focus on the patterning of noun phrases and how the modifiers before the headword (main noun) can create ambiguity will enable the pupils to see how some advertising copy-writers use this device to create a sense of impressive density for the non-technical prospective customer and thereby encourage him or her to buy – or at least to read on. This should, in future, enable the pupils to read more discerningly and also to understand that complexity in technical and advertising texts is not caused solely by unfamiliar technical terms, but by the skilful use of this kind of noun phrase patterning. Therefore, when they meet later in the advert ‘a single fibre optic cable’, or, in a car advertisement, ‘a digital engine management computer’, they may be able to see the role of noun phrase modification in creating ambiguity and complexity. Moreover, on the ‘metalanguage’ point, it would be difficult to investigate this ambiguous patterning without terms with which to refer to the elements of the noun phrase.
In discussions of grammatical patterning such as this, however, it must be remembered that it is the ‘elements’ and their ordering that cause the subtle differences of meaning, not the terms themselves. The terms are merely words that enable us to talk more accurately about features of the patterning; they are not the essence of teaching Knowledge About Language.
Teachers often ask, ‘When should this or that grammatical term be taught?’ Yet what is important is not so much the sequence in which specific terms are introduced as that pupils gain sufficient experience of using and experimenting with the actual language features described by the term, so that they can gain a real sense of its nature and how it functions in texts. Jim Crinson’s excellent work on grammar with primary children (reported in the NATE "Primary English Magazine", 1997-99) clearly involved children in experimenting with the possibilities inherent in various kinds of grammatical structures and how these created effects in texts.
For example, in relation to Subject and Predicate, Crinson encouraged P4 pupils in pairs to write down a noun phrase and a predicate, swop it for the noun phrase created by another pair, and add their predicate to that pair’s unseen ‘starter’ noun phrase, or ‘subject’, often with humorous results (e.g. ‘A pig is a football’, or ‘Ten big men with fleas crashed’). From the subsequent discussion it was established that verb phrases are required to create complete grammatical sentences, whether whimsical or not. As Crinson points out, children are not confused by technical terms, provided that they can understand what these refer to, and he uses terms such as ‘subject’, ‘predicate’, ‘headword’, ‘determiner’ and ‘modifier’ in the activities, although he also uses simpler terms such as ‘helper verb’ for ‘auxiliary’ and suggests that teachers may wish to use ‘starter of a sentence’ for ‘subject’. Obviously, such decisions should depend upon the teacher’s awareness of his/her pupils’ experiences and the stage of learning they have reached, rather than upon a requirement to teach the ‘correct’ terms by a given stage.
Children’s awareness of the role of ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’, therefore, can be seen becoming explicit throughout the primary stages. In P1, young children using "Breakthrough to Literacy" can create endings for sentence beginnings, for instance, ‘Miss Smith (is a nice teacher’ / ‘likes quiet children’) or ‘We like (Westlife’ / ‘to go to McDonalds’). This implicit awareness can be consolidated and made more explicit by a range of activities to provide sentence-endings (Predicates) for Subjects, as in some of the Language Games mentioned in Paper 17, or in the CD-ROM, or by examining their own sentences or an author’s use of sentences. It is worth noting here that much of our work with pupils on ‘verbs’ is in fact about how they function as ‘main verbs’, that is, how they work as the central elements of predicates as they form complete sentences. Thus, although the terms Subject and Predicate, according to the 5-14 English Language Guidelines, are officially introduced by Level E, in fact the pupils’ experience of the concepts should begin long before that.
The memorable SCCE Bulletin on "The Teaching of English Language" (1971) claimed that ‘grammatical terminology should be produced in response to need’, and went on to say that ‘the grammar to be taught should only be limited to what pupil and teacher require’. The 5-14 Guidelines supported this view, saying that ‘there is … need for the teacher to help pupils with word choice, with a turn of phrase, with sorting out the meaning or punctuation of a sentence. In doing so the grammatical terminology of the sentence, the word (noun, verb, etc.) and punctuation should be introduced as the technical terms by which the teacher and pupil discuss such matters’.
Yet many teachers still prefer the support of a schematic outline for grammar, in which terms and concepts are introduced in a specific sequence, and several recently published approaches – such as the National Literacy Strategy for England and Wales or the North Lanarkshire Reading and Writing materials – have adopted this approach. The 5-14 Guidelines indicate that pupils should be familiar with ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ as grammatical terms by level C; with the bulk of traditional parts of speech (and with singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and tense) by Level D; and with ‘subject’ ‘predicate’ and ‘clause’ by Level D. Moreover these are related to the outcome of Writing, suggesting that they are mainly relevant when teacher and pupil discuss the pupil’s writing. These terms are not, however, set out as a sequenced programme of study.
Therefore there is a real dilemma here, as many teachers prefer to have a systematic scheme for the teaching of grammar, but it is also widely accepted that grammatical terminology should be taught as it arises in texts within specific contexts (including the pupils’ own writing) and that it should be reinforced by regular involvement in the use of patterns in all kinds of contexts. Perhaps the guiding principle should be that pupils are taught certain KAL terminology – possibly in a predetermined sequence – but only as the language features referred to relate directly to the kinds of reading and writing which the pupils are meeting in the classroom. Thus, aspects such as the use of speech marks, or of bold type, capitals or italics for effect, can be introduced in the early stages, as and when they appear in big books being used in class. Similarly, questions, statements, commands and exclamations can be introduced in the early stages as they occur in children’s reading, and even past, present and future verbs may be drawn to children’s attention. (‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’)
As children meet a range of genres, such as informational texts, they will have to make sense of the language features of these texts and they can be shown how informational texts are often written in present tense, rather than in the past tense of much narrative, or how instructions often use commands and indicate sequence (‘first’, ‘second’, ‘next’, ‘finally’). Also, as children in mid-primary meet exploratory texts, there is a locus for introducing certain kinds of subordinate clause. For example (from a pupil’s explanation of the water cycle):
"Before the water comes to our homes, it has to be treated in a place called the ‘water treatment plant’. Then when it is clean it can wait in a place called a ‘service reservoir’ until a house needs water."
Moreover, the need for description in fiction and non-fiction texts from the earliest stages often leads those who write course books to focus prominently on adjectives – although it is worth remembering that there is more to descriptive texts than adjectives (the density of noun phrases and indications of typical behaviour are two other aspects).
It is important, therefore, to link pupils’ introduction to specific language features to their experience of the same features in the reading and writing of texts – whether we introduce a sequence of features and then give experience of these in texts, or we allow the class to meet them in texts and then provide an input about them. An example of the latter occurred with a P7 class where, after they had read with the teacher a passage in which a boy, who was also the narrator, had an argument with his mother, the class were asked to prepare in groups dramatic readings of the discussion. As well as focusing upon the reading and writing of direct speech (as was the teacher’s intention) this brought up the problem that some pupils were unsure when the boy was telling the story and when he was speaking. This led to the groups investigating what exactly showed the difference between the two roles. The ensuing whole-class discussion involved the teacher in giving a ‘lesson’ on 1st, 2nd and 3rd Person pronouns, on the tendency to use past-tense verbs in narrative and present/future in direct speech, and on the punctuation and grammar of dialogue.
Nevertheless, whichever way we approach the sequencing of pupils’ development of language awareness, it is essential that we adopt a cross-referencing approach, so that the pupils’ awareness of how certain language features operate in texts is constantly being reinforced by using those features or by having their attention drawn to them.
Two other factors are also important in planning the development of grammatical awareness. First, we need to develop activities which constantly draw upon pupils’ unconscious awareness of how grammar works rather than adopting a teacher-centred approach which tends to suggest that they have to be taught something that they do not already know. The former approach will foster their confidence in themselves as language learners and make the activity interesting and meaningful.
Second, various approaches to grammar development – the National Literacy Strategy, Crinson’s approach, the North Lanarkshire Council materials, and NATE’s "The Primary Grammar Book" (and the Secondary one) – all introduce certain grammatical features and they revisit them later in a more demanding way, using a spiral approach which seems to mirror recent views of language development. It also accords with research that suggests a certain sequence in the way in which children begin to use grammatical features in writing at different stages. (Their exposure to these features in reading presumably occurs earlier.)
Crinson, for all the challenging grammar activities that he has used with primary pupils, is of the view that they cannot fully engage with the active/passive distinction until the secondary stage. This is supported by Perera’s research findings, reported in Carter, R., ed., "Knowledge about Language and the Curriculum" (1990), that children do not typically use passives in their writing until the age of twelve. She also finds that they do not use ‘marked themes’ (e.g. ‘In the clearing stood a little house’). Harpin ("The Second R", 1976) also found that subordinate adverbial clauses of concession (‘although’, ‘even if’) were extremely rare before the age of twelve. There is some evidence, therefore, that certain patterns are best left to the secondary stage, but it would be useful to have much more research in this field.
Finally, as has already been implied, the approach to grammar which we adopt ought to take account of phrases – for instance noun phrases, verb phrases and prepositional phrases; each having their own distinctive structure and functioning in certain ways within the clause. These types of phrases are the real building-blocks of meaning in clauses rather than individual ‘parts of speech’. As Crinson says, ‘It makes more sense to think of how language works in terms of phrases rather in terms of single words, since the single word approach (learning the technical term for each word) does not explain what children intuitively know: that language can be broken down into chunks and that these can be shifted around.’ (‘Step by Step Grammar’ in "The Primary English Magazine", 4/1, 1998.)
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Why do we teach Grammar?. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 29 November 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1422.
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