Document 1423

How do we teach Knowledge about Language?

Author(s): Andrew Philp

Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material


There are a number of types of teaching strategy which have been useful in teaching KAL and these are best interrelated in a constant process of cross-referencing and reinforcement. These types of strategy are outlined below. It is not possible in this paper to give an adequate picture of the scope of these activities, but the materials in the database, together with "The Primary Grammar Book" by R. Bain & M. Bridgewood and "The Grammar Book" by E. and R. Bain, will provide a much wider range of strategies. In this Paper, Modern Languages teachers may find Sections 3, 4 and 5 particularly relevant to their work with second language learners.

1. Direct Teaching.

Traditionally, in both English and Modern Languages, grammatical features were taught directly and the pupils’ ability to identify the features was practised in follow-up exercises. Research in English has proved conclusively, however, that this kind of activity did not transfer to an increased ability to use those features in writing. Now, most English teachers either introduce the features, followed by some direct involvement in text or, conversely, move from discussion of, or involvement in, text to direct teaching of points arising. In Modern Languages, similarly, the function or notion is the starting point with the grammar point arising naturally from context.

2. Focusing on Authors’ Texts.

(a) Talking about texts This familiar activity involves the teacher exploring with pupils what the text appears to mean for them and how the author’s use of language features has created effects which contribute to that meaning. For example, in the "Whispers in the Graveyard" passage in Booklet A 5-14, grammatical features which might arise in discussion are:
• the use of 1st person and present tense to give immediacy to the story
• the use of fairly straightforward clause patterns (mainly Subject-Verb-Object, or Subject-Verb-Adverbial), contrasted with the denser noun phrases which evoke the sights the boy observes in the graveyard (e.g. ‘a carving of a leopard with a shuttle in its mouth’)
• the occasional use of verbless sentences (e.g. ‘Every one of them’, ‘A weaver’, ‘Not yet’), which creates a sense of the boy musing about what he sees, and also helps to convey an emphatic tone.

Talking about texts can also involve the introduction of ‘model’ genre texts and discussion of their features, such as the use of commands and of temporal linking words in instructions, or, in information reports, the use of the present tense, and linking verbs with ‘is’ or ‘has’ (e.g. ‘The dromedary has one hump; other types of camel have two’). This example also shows how information reports refer to general subjects, i.e. all dromedaries in general rather than one dromedary in particular. Similar techniques could be applied at a later stage in Modern Languages.

(b) Comparing texts One useful way of enabling pupils to see how specific language features operate in texts is to compare two different texts which have some features in common. For example, "Whispers in the Graveyard" could be compared with the opening of "The Diddakoi" by Rumer Godden, the story of a part-gypsy girl and her struggles for acceptance by adults and children in a small town. In it, there are uses of past, present and future verb forms for the children’s chants at Kizzy, the adults’ threats or comments and the narrative, which is past-tense and 3rd person. This contrasts in the former text with the dyslexic boy, Solomon’s, own view (mainly 1st person and present tense) of his surroundings and the influence of his father on his life.

(c) Presenting texts Asking pupils to prepare a reading or dramatic performance can lead them to focus upon specific grammatical features and their relevance for meanings in the text.

3. Focusing on Pupils’ Writing.

(a) Joint Construction of Texts This process of the teacher co-operating with a class to create a text on OHP or chalkboard obviously leads to a focus on which language features are appropriate in their jointly constructed text, and in the process, what to call those features.
(b) Discussing Writing (Teacher with individuals, groups or whole class.) An awareness of how grammatical features operate in texts enables teachers to help pupils focus clearly on the strengths and limitations of their writing, and an appropriate terminology sharpens this process of discussion. Teachers can use examples of previous pupil writing from other classes for consideration of, say, weaknesses in sentence cohesion and the use of possible alternative connections. This avoids the embarrassment caused by using the work of pupils in the class. Modern Languages teachers might usefully use authentic writing done by young foreign pupils and discuss areas of weakness, e.g. perfect tense verbs with être.

An example of fairly effective cohesion in the writing of a personal recount is seen in the ‘Our Day at the Farm’ text in the Sample Texts in the database, written by a P5 girl. Using cohesive linkers, she creates a clear time sequence for the story (‘the first thing’, ‘after that’, ‘next’). The cohesive effect is also achieved by the use of pronouns which build clear chains of reference throughout the text (‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’; ‘the turkey’/‘it’, ‘its’; ‘the hens’/‘they’; ‘the horses’/‘their’; ‘a pony’/‘it’; ‘Mrs Brown’/‘she’). We could use this as an exemplar in discussing effective cohesion with other pupils, particularly those whose tendency is just to list events or experiences in an incoherent way.

(c) Pupil Collaboration on Writing Planning or redrafting a piece of writing in collaboration with another pupil focuses the pupils’ attention on language features and also how to refer to them, and leads them to use those terms and concepts meaningfully for themselves. In the following extract from transcripts of two pairs of P5 pupils operating as ‘response partners’ on a piece about William Wallace, there is a clear focus upon relevant features of punctuation and grammar, although they do not actually use the terms ‘past tense ending’ or ‘adverbial clause of reason’ (‘because’ clause).

Paul: I think you should change this bit … “the feast was for the soldiers who battled, murdered the English”.
Mark: You’re reading it wrong though. “The feast was for the soldiers who battled the English and murdered the English.” Actually, I know what I should do to get that, “who battled the English” and then you put three dots, and that is like a pause. So let’s see how it sounds now … [reads new version]
Paul: That is much better.
Mark: Right, back on to it.
Paul: Do you think you could make any pauses in mine?
Mark: I’m not sure … I don’t think so. Yours isn’t that way.
Paul: [reads story] … “nobody dares speak”
Mark: Nobody dared speak …
Linzi: Let me see yours … “he was hung”? I don’t understand what you have written. You need a full stop there. Who it was, you’ll need to write. Right that is okay so far. You could put: “He was getting hung because” … and then write the situation.

(d) Drafting/redrafting (according to teacher’s specifications) Both English and Modern Languages teachers employ similar techniques here. The teacher, in discussing possible changes to his writing with a pupil, may direct the pupil, for example, to change some of the verbs so that the tenses are consistent, or to provide more detail through the use of adjectives, adverbs or more extensive noun phrases. Thus the pupil is having to identify these features and use them appropriately. Jim Crinson in his ‘Step by Step Grammar’ suggests having the pupils try to write a story according to a prescribed set of connectives, so as to practise their use and become more aware of their application. Similarly, "The Primary Grammar Book" suggests giving pupils in groups one of a number of settings (in a shop, on a bus, at home etc.). They would then brainstorm the different verbs, adjectives and adverbs that would be used in that setting and then compare them, to consider why there are different words for different settings. The pupils then go on to write a description of their setting using as many of their words as they can.

4. Investigations.

These are perhaps the most worthwhile of all strategies for the development of language awareness as they lead the pupils, within specific tasks, to discover aspects of language patterning for themselves, thereby fostering their confidence in language matters and deepening their insight into how language works.
(a) Collecting and categorising Pupils collect examples of a language feature to which they have been introduced and list them. They may then go on to categorise them according to some set of categories suggested by the teacher or, alternatively, create a set of categories for themselves.
• A class might be asked to collect connectives (‘if’, ‘before’, ‘when’, ‘although’ / si, avant, où) in a number of texts which they have been using recently and categorise them into sets (e.g. ‘because’ connectives: ‘because’, ‘as’, ‘since’, ‘for’ / parce que, car, puisque). They can create a wall chart for these and look out for them being used in explanatory or persuasive writing.
• Crinson’s class explored three types of text, a factual explanation, a pupil’s imaginative story based on the experiences of a character in a novel, and a report on a football match which speculated on the team’s prospects. The pupils were asked to collect as many examples of verbs as they could find, and classify them according to tense under the headings of Past, Present, Future, None, Not Sure. The pupils found it fairly easy to allocate verb forms to past, present or future, and tended to put passives under ‘none’ and modals (‘can go’, ‘must go’, etc.) under ‘not sure’. They were then asked to comment on which kinds of tenses were found in which text. Crinson uses this kind of introduction to tense as a theoretical foundation to enable the pupils to avoid subsequent confusion in their own use of tenses.
• The class can be reminded that the verb ‘to be’ has various forms, three for the present and two for the past, and they are then asked to examine a number of texts and try to discover the different forms, recording them and making a display poster about them. In Modern Languages, teachers might contrast the use in French of the verb ‘avoir’ in expressions that use ‘to be’ in English, e.g. avoir soif /faim / dix ans. In Spanish, the distinction between the two verbs ‘to be’, ser and estar, is discussed and compared.
• Middle primary classes can collect examples of adjectives associated with particular words (e.g. ‘dog’, ‘flame’) or the names of characters from stories, and the ensuing lists can be used in large adjective trees, flowers or rockets for display around the room.
• With a class novel, a P7 or S1 class who have been exploring noun phrases could collect as many noun phrases containing four or more words as they can find and classify them according to whether they have pre-modifiers only (word before the headword), post-modifiers only (phrases after the headword), or both pre-modifiers and post-modifiers, and whether there are two headwords (e.g. ‘the carvings and designs on the stones’). The pupils could then consider how to group these different patterns according to the subject matter they describe, and whether they could improve upon them.
(b) Transformations
These are activities in which pupils are asked to change the form of a given text or set of language materials in some way.
• The pupils can be given a set of lists of words with different colours for each list. These lists are in fact ranges of adjectives, nouns, verbs and ‘other words’, mainly grammatical words – ‘a’, ‘the’, two’, ‘together’, ‘upon’, etc. – and they are compatible in that meaningful sentences can be made up from them. The pupils can first be asked to make the longest and shortest sentences possible from the list of words, and then to make up different sentences which might be found in, say, an advertisement, a story, a recipe, a poem or a reference book. This activity allows the pupils to focus on how parts of speech are actually used in sentences and how this depends on the constraints of different types of texts.
• Pupils can be asked to take boring sentences and to extend and enliven them through transformation, according to set questions. For example, the two sentences, ‘The children went down to the beach. They went back home at teatime’ could be expanded and made more interesting in response to the questions ‘Who? / Qui?’, ‘How? / Comment?’, ‘Where? / Où?’, ‘Why? (What for?) / Pour quoi?’.
• Similarly, a class could be asked to take a sentence marked off for phrases, written on separate cards, and change the order, looking at what is and is not possible. The sentence (marked for phrase boundaries) might be of the following kind: ‘The old lady/had lived/in the top storey flat/with three dogs/seven cats and ten goldfish/for the past ten years’.
• A class could consider whether there were too many subordinate clauses (and connectives) in a text they were reading and whether they were justified. The pupils might take a copy of that text, or a piece of pupil writing, and in groups re-write it, so as to overdo the use of subordinate clauses, or alternatively overdo the use of short sentences, with very few subordinate clauses, or they could try to achieve just the right balance. Groups and teacher could then discuss the effects created.
• Teacher and pupils can profitably discuss how sentences might be joined together by means of linking devices, in order to improve a piece of writing. (This might be one written by a former pupil or be an extract from the class novel converted into mainly one-clause sentences.) Using an OHT of the piece of writing covered with a blank OHT slide, the teacher can have the pupils create different versions, drawing upon a range of devices for sentence-joining, and then discuss with them which changes seem to be the most effective. Finally – in the case of the novel extract – they can compare their versions with the original text. Alternatively, pupils can collaborate to create their version in pairs or groups at the computer.
• Whole texts can be transformed by pupils in order to focus closely on the kinds of language feature which are to be expected in each type of text, or to practise the use of a particular feature. For example, the "Whispers in the Graveyard" passage could be transformed into a past tense 3rd person narrative. Also, to develop genre awareness, pupils could convert the story of a pet, with description and past tense narrative features, into an informative description (Report) suitable for an entry in a children’s animal encyclopaedia. In Modern Languages, older pupils can take traditional tales and write these in a different tense.
(c) Substitution, Deletion and Prediction
• This activity has been frequently used to good effect in the materials for the North Lanarkshire Council Project, Another Look at Reading. Pupils can be given copies of a text with certain adjectives, adverbs or verbs deleted, or they can blank out their own examples with sticky paper, for other pupils to use. The point of this activity is not just to identify these parts of speech but rather to focus on how these choices could add to the overall effect created in the passage, or how choosing different examples of the same part of speech would create a different effect.

For instance, at Level C the substitution of other words in gaps for the original adjectives or verbs might focus on the impression of the character being conveyed (e.g. ‘cocky’, ‘swaggered’), or pupils might predict how such a character would behave at that point in the story, and choose substitutions accordingly. At Level D, pupils are encouraged in the North Lanarkshire materials to experiment with the mood or atmosphere of the text by substituting different adjectives and adverbs so as to create a different mood.

• Cloze procedure could in fact be used in many ways to reinforce understanding of parts of speech through the choice of words to suit a particular style and using grammatical awareness to work out the choice of appropriate parts of speech. The sense of appropriate style which can emerge from cloze procedure activities also extends to those instances where the author – very often the poet – uses unusual choices of words, unexpected collocations, to create a particular perception. The pupils will not usually be able to choose the same word as the author but the activity will clearly focus attention on the particular effects achieved by the author as a result of this word choice.
• Substitution can also be profitable when used with the part of speech which is itself a substitution, the pronoun. A piece of writing in which a number of sentences all begin monotonously with ‘he’ or ‘she’ can be re-written by groups of pupils, so that in at least some of the sentences a more explicit – and more interesting – noun phrase is used. (Incidentally, it is worth remembering that pronouns in fact stand for noun phrases, and not nouns, as is often claimed.)

• Younger primary children could use substitution to focus on the noun phrases in an activity such as the following:
Children are presented with three sentences with gaps to be filled with nouns or noun phrases:

For my Christmas dinner last year I got ….
For my dinner today I am probably having ….
When we go to McDonald’s next time I would like to get ….

Answers are collected and then categorised into those with adjectives or numbers before the noun (‘two tasty cheeseburgers’); those with several nouns in a list (‘sausage, egg and chips’); and those with phrases added after the noun (‘a strawberry ice cream with chocolate sauce’). This activity can easily be varied by focusing on names for toys or clothes or something else that the children might want. In Modern Languages this could usefully be done with likes and dislikes: j’aime, je n’aime pas, me gusta(n), no me gusta(n).

5. Language Games.

Language games in any language are a very useful way of creating an enjoyable context for groups or the whole class, in which aspects of language patterning can be focused on and subsequent discussion can lead to beneficial language insights. There is now a very wide range of games available in the many grammatical activity books being published, and only a small selection can be given here and in Paper 17. Some Modern Language versions of these are given in Booklet A, and many additional Language Games can be found in Lydia Biriotti’s "Grammar is Fun" (see bibliography).

(a) Noun Phrases and Verb Phrases
Young children can practise the possibilities in noun phrases and verb phrases by playing the Elastic Sentence game (Open University Language Development Course). In this game the players take turns at expanding the phrases in a sentence:
Our dog chews a bone
Our big dog is chewing a juicy bone
Our big friendly dog has been chewing a lovely juicy bone

At each turn the teacher indicates which element is to be altered. Any pupil can challenge a ‘bad’ sentence such as ‘My dog didn’t chewing a bone’. (The teacher can decide if double verbs are permissible, e.g. loves chewing, wanted to chew.)

(b) Subject and Predicate
Various games will enable pupils to practise their command and awareness of complete sentences by exploiting their ability to combine grammatically the elements known as ‘Subjects’ and ‘Predicates’.
• The teacher can give pupils a list of one-clause sentences associated with their topic, or the pupils can write out a set of their own. These written sentences are cut up into subjects and predicates and distributed at random to a group of pupils who then take turns to combine them as new sentences. The new sentences may not make sense but they must be grammatical, i.e. having a valid subject and predicate combined. This game can be played as a form of Rummy or Whist. In Rummy-type, pupils exchange cards on each turn and try to build up as many grammatical sentences as they can. The pupil with least on each round is out. In Whist-type, one player plays a subject and another tries to take a trick with a predicate or vice-versa.

• Pupils can also focus on making more normal grammatical sentences in ‘You’ll have to make a statement.’ In this game, players make up grammatical and meaningful statements, with one providing a Subject (dealt from a pack of ‘safe’ subjects prepared on cards beforehand) and the player on his or her right, within say 10 seconds, providing a valid Predicate to make a grammatical sentence.

(c) Clause Structure
There is also a series of games which create contexts in which pupils can practise their command of clause structure.

• Various similar activities allow pupils to create ‘crazy sentences’ by permutating the elements of clause structure. For example we could create a booklet made from a set of sentences written vertically on different pages and stapled together. These are then cut through horizontally so that various permutations can be created. These may be fairly meaningful, awkward or just outlandish, such as ‘Our Dobermann, Prince, played a long woolly jumper with great style’. Apart from the entertainment value, this kind of activity makes explicit for us the normal order of elements in a statement sentence.

(d) Conjunctions
Various games also focus upon the potential of connectives to extend sentences:

• In ‘Everlasting Sentences’ pupils in turn add a phrase or clause to a sentence, which extends the sentence grammatically. If they cannot do so they ‘lose a life’ and the game proceeds as the players try to avoid completing the sentence. The winner is the last player ‘still alive’.
• In ‘Why Don’t You Join Us?’, the pupils in groups have two sets of cards, one for one-clause sentences and one for conjunctions which could extend those sentences. One sentence card is turned over, and one conjunction card, and everyone has to make the one-clause sentence into a two-clause (or more) sentence. The player with the most interesting or amusing sentence in each round gets to change the cards for the next one.
• Wray and Medwell’s ‘Clause Consequences Game’ (for P6/7 in English and older pupils in Modern Languages) creates the same kind of nonsensical but grammatical formations as some of the subject-predicate games. In it the pupils are given a grid marked Participant (Who was taking part in the action?), Process (What was happening?), Circumstance of Place (Where was it happening?), Circumstance of Time (When did it take place?). Each pupil writes a suitable word or phrase in each column of the grid and passes it on unseen to the next pupil to write another word or phrase in the next column, so that all the columns for the parts of the clause are completed. The final recipient has to read everything and combine the elements into a clause. The resulting ‘silly sentences’ can then be discussed as to what makes them funny or silly.

6. Language Projects.

Language projects or investigations involve pupils in investigating an aspect of language in use, such as relationships between spoken and written language; uses of dialect (or languages, in the case of those who speak several); how young children acquire language; the range of uses of languages throughout a day in a school, a hospital, an airport etc.; aspects of how language changes.

Such activities allow pupils to use the kinds of language concepts discussed above, but also to embrace the assumption that they already know a great deal about language and that, with some organisation, they are enabled to find out more. These language projects also enable pupils to relate the language of school to broader issues concerning language in society and in the development of human beings. Useful information about language projects can be found in Bain: "Reflections: Talking About Language" and in Bain, Fitzgerald and Taylor: "Looking into Language: Classroom Approaches to Knowledge about Language". It may be useful here to provide some suggestions for language projects set within the context of investigating Scotland’s languages and their cultural implications:
• creating thematic or topic-based word banks, possibly on computer, on ‘Weather’ or ‘Transport’, ‘Homes’, ‘Games and Pastimes’ or ‘Beasties’
• developing a Scots phrase book for tourists to use in social situations (in the street, at a restaurant, or at sporting occasions)
• practising and then audio-taping readings of short texts by Scottish writers in poetry and prose
• developing bi-lingual or tri-lingual signs in Scots, English and Gaelic for the school environment
• taking part in a dialect survey of uses (and changes in use) of words in their local area, by different generations of speakers
• exploring the meanings and history of local place names and landmarks in order to create a classroom frieze or an article for the local newspaper.

Any of these activities would provide a valid context for using the Knowledge About Language terminology of 5-14, as well as involving the children in practical and focused work in language. Knowing more about language in many cases will mean getting to know more about what has too often been a hidden part of the curriculum, but yet is a marvellous resource for fostering confidence and self-awareness among all our pupils, in all their languages.


Bain, Elspeth & Richard Bain. 1996. "The Grammar Book". NATE.
Bain, Richard & Marion Bridgewood. 1998. "The Primary Grammar Book: Finding Patterns – Making Sense". NATE.
Biriotti, Lydia. 2000. "Grammar Is Fun". CILT.
Wray, David & Jane Medwell. 1998. "Teaching English in Primary School – a Handbook of Teaching Strategies and Key Ideas in Literacy". Letts.

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Information about Document 1423

How do we teach Knowledge about Language?


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Year of composition 1998
Word count 4340
General description One of a series of position papers on current educational developments in relation to language education

Text medium

Other CD Rom of teacher materials (LILT)

Text publication details

Part of larger text
Contained in CD Rom: LILT Materials
Editor J McGonigal / C Kay
Part of a longer series of texts
Name of series Position Papers: CD Rom: LILT Materials

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction


Author details

Author id 60
Forenames Andrew
Surname Philp
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1930
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism
Occupation Retired Lecturer in Education
Place of birth Londonderry
Region of birth Co. Londonderry
Country of birth Northern Ireland
Place of residence Airdrie
Region of residence Lanark
Residence CSD dialect area Lnk
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Tool Fitter
Father's place of birth Auchterarder
Father's region of birth E & SE Perthshire
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Per
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Seamstress in shirt factory
Mother's place of birth Ture
Mother's region of birth Co. Donegal
Mother's country of birth Ireland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes At work, at home
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic Yes Yes Yes Yes Evening classes and immersion
Italian Yes Yes No No Elementary
Japanese Yes No No Yes Very elementary
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes Elementary - intermediate
Urdu Yes No No Yes Elementary