#ToYouFromTes: 10 things every teacher needs to know about grammar

Misunderstandings are rife regarding the ‘correct’ use of grammar, which makes many teachers terrified of getting it wrong. Here, Mark Brenchley and Ian Cushing dispel the myths and set out how you can create meaningful grammar lessons
8th December 2017, 12:00am
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#ToYouFromTes: 10 things every teacher needs to know about grammar


Every teacher needs to know about grammar, and every teacher needs to know how to teach it.

To us, that view should not be controversial. However, the debates about how, why and whether to teach grammar have gone on for years. They are often framed through the metaphor of grammar as war. Teachers can be heard talking tactics about how to survive a grammar lesson and about battling with students to understand grammar; meanwhile, others defend and fight for its place.

The battle lines, we believe, have been drawn from misunderstandings about what grammar is and what it should do.

What follows is our attempt to dispel some of those myths about grammar, discussing what it is and what it isn’t, and how this might translate to classroom teaching.

In our work in schools, we see plenty of excellent practice. At the same time, we see not only a lot of uncertainty but also a fair amount of apathy. This is understandable, given that many teachers simply haven’t received the necessary training, either in subject knowledge or in teaching methods. To teach grammar successfully, both these things are required.

Indeed, if our research shows us anything, it’s that, with a little bit of subject knowledge and some forward-thinking pedagogical principles, grammar teaching can be empowering and enabling for both teachers and students. With that in mind, here are 10 things we think every teacher should know for cultivating successful, meaningful grammar lessons.

1. Grammar is not static, but it is important

One thing you’ll hear is that grammar changes; contemporary English, for instance, differs from that of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Another is that grammar is conventional, made and sustained by particular communities. Both statements are true.

What is not true is what some go on to argue: that grammar somehow isn’t real or doesn’t matter. Actually, at any particular time, every language is defined by its own particular recipe book that frames how its component words can be put together. A grammar, in other words.

All of which means you have good reason for getting your students to consider grammar. Because not only is it already a core part of their linguistic knowledge, it’s also a core part of the knowledge they need to develop in order to become successful users of English.


2. Non-standard forms are not errors and shouldn’t be treated as such

A corollary of (1) is that there are no ungrammatical languages - a fact no less true of dialects, the differing varieties of a language used in particular regions and by particular social groups. Each such dialect is defined by its own recipe book that makes that variety what it is. Unfortunately, thanks to the rise of “standard” languages and wider social inequalities, these entirely legitimate languages are often dismissed as bad grammar. That’s simply false.

Of course, none of this means that your students don’t need to know or even appreciate standard English. It remains, after all, the prestige set of forms. What it does mean is that you should avoid treating non-standard usage as an outright error, not least because non-standard forms are entirely grammatical relative to a particular dialect, and because not every context requires standard English.

Instead, it is more accurate to frame such usage in terms of appropriateness, placing the emphasis on a particular non-standard form being more acceptable in some contexts and less so in others. To do otherwise paints a false picture of language, and it won’t help your students develop the flexible knowledge they need to be successful language users.

3. Don’t rely on definitions - grammatical categories are fuzzier than you’d think

Ask non-linguists what they associate with “grammar”, and they’ll probably give you notions such as “correctness” and “logic”. There’s a lot of truth to this: grammars are really pretty systematic. Delve into the nitty-gritty, however, and you’ll find that grammar doesn’t always play along so nicely with these intuitions.

Take, for example, the adjectives “happy”, “thin” and “alive”, as highlighted by professor of English linguistics Bas Aarts in his Syntactic Gradience.

In standard British English, all three fulfil two core adjectival characteristics. Specifically, all name properties and all follow the verb “be” to ascribe these properties to the grammatical subject: “He was happy/thin/alive.” However, only the first two premodify nouns. Thus, “the happy linguist” and “the thin linguist” are fine; “the alive linguist” isn’t.

Even fuzzier still, only the first accepts the prefix “un-”. So, “unhappy” is fine, but “unthin”/“unalive” aren’t. In other words, what we see is a cline, with not every adjective exhibiting every core property.

Put bluntly, it seems some adjectives are more “adjectivey” than others.

In fact, look closely at grammar and what you see is something much more like an intricate patchwork, with some elements fitting the grammarian’s categories more neatly than others.

That’s just the way it is.

Of course, this needn’t be cause for despair. Grammars are systematic enough that we can productively identify their various features. What it does mean is that you should be wary of defining grammatical categories as if they were perfectly neat little bundles. This can be highly misleading.

So, yes, good definitions are important. But, ultimately, they are things to be treated pragmatically, with a much greater emphasis placed on plenty of practice with plenty of authentic examples. This is a much surer way for your students to build an effective working knowledge of grammar.

4. Good grammarians disagree

This is partly an extension of (3). It’s also in contrast to the many popular portrayals that present grammar in terms of simple rights and wrongs. In fact, actual pieces of language can be highly ambiguous, making it often unclear what the right answer is.

Take, for example, the word “revolting” in “the students are revolting”. This is definitely either a verb (“yes, they are taking over your class”) or an adjective (“yes, they really do smell”); as written, it isn’t clear which.

Usually, the wider context helps to disambiguate. But often it won’t, which means you may well find your students providing distinct but completely valid analyses of the same sequence.

More than this, look at the grammatical literature and what you’ll actually find is disagreement about the very categories themselves: what is an adverb for one grammarian is actually a preposition for another. Indeed, some grammarians go further, arguing that the categories themselves need revising; there is an ongoing debate as to whether prepositions (eg, “in”, “on”, “off”) and subordinating conjunctions (eg, “because”, “if”, “although”) are actually a single category. Some say yes; others, including the national curriculum (NC), say no.

Ultimately, though perhaps counterintuitive, such disagreements are entirely natural given the intricacies of grammar when explored in depth. And they are mostly immaterial when it comes to working with grammar in the classroom. They do, however, mean two things. First, student disagreements are not necessarily a sign of misunderstanding. They can actually mean the exact opposite: a recognition of the nuances of grammar and how we understand it. Second, it is worth preparing for such cases, especially when working with the particular features specified in the NC glossary. Taking the time to check how the glossary defines a feature and to consider how it might cause disagreements in practice can be crucial for ensuring your students learn what you want them to learn.


5. Use reputable, curriculum-compatible sources when teaching

Unsurprisingly, given (4), it really does matter where you go for guidance. One place you should never go is the general internet, which is a veritable den of grammatical iniquity. Instead, your first port of call should always be the NC glossary. While not perfect, this remains the core reference document that all teachers are expected to use. So it does at least provide a consistent set of terminology to guide you through the curriculum; it’s also, of course, the terminology that students are assessed on.

Unfortunately, because of the imperfections, you’ll inevitably cast your net wider. With that in mind, we hope you’ll forgive us for recommending the resources developed by our respective research centres. Yes, we’re obviously a little biased here, but they’re extensive, NC-compatible and full of in-depth exercises and schemes of work built specifically with English teachers in mind. And whatever they are, they are 100 per cent guaranteed not to be the general internet.

You’ll find the Exeter resources at bit.ly/GrammarExeter and the University College London resources at englicious.org.

6. Know the difference between grammatical form and grammatical function

Perhaps the feature that non-reputable sources most often get wrong is the difference between form and function. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the key feature for getting a concrete handle on how grammar works. Fortunately, it’s also much more straightforward than you might think. Put simply, grammatical form deals with what a linguistic unit is, grammatical function with what it does within a particular utterance. More specifically, we have:

  • Categories of form: word classes (eg, adjective, adverb, conjunction, noun); phrases (eg, adjective phrase, noun phrase, preposition phrase); clauses (eg, main clause, relative clause, finite clause, non-finite clause).
  • Categories of function: adverbial, complement, modifier, object, subject.

All utterances can then be analysed along both dimensions. Thus, for instance, “that morning, the students escaped the teachers” can be partially broken down as follows:

Formally, we have three noun phrases: “that morning”, “the students” and “the teachers”. At the same time, each fulfils a different function. The first functions as adverbial, adding circumstantial information to the clause as a whole (here, specifying when the escaping happened). Meanwhile, the second functions as subject (here, specifying who escaped), while the third functions as object (here, specifying from whom they escaped).

So in this example, we see two crucial aspects of English grammar. The first is the interplay between form and function for creating meaning. Swap the last two noun phrases, for example, and we get a sentence with a very different meaning, despite both phrases remaining exactly the same at the level of form:

Secondly, there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between form and function. As shown above, one form can perform many functions. Conversely, the same function can be performed by many forms. Hence the distinction between adverbs and adverbials. The former is a description at the level of form, applying to a particular class of words (eg, “happily”, “heartily”, “very”). The latter is a function that can modify both verbs and clauses, but that can be filled by several different forms, as in the following snippets from Oliver Twist.

All of these are adverbials at the level of function. In each case, however, Dickens has opted to fulfil the adverbial function with a different grammatical form:

  • It was eight o’clock now [adverb]
  • The next day Oliver and his master returned [noun phrase]
  • Mr. Bumble grasped the undertaker by the arm [preposition phrase]
  • When they had performed this operation, they would sit staring at the bowls [subordinate clause]


7. Grammar is fundamentally about meaning, not formal correctness

There is little doubt that grammar involves knowing certain patterns to be obligatory, relative to particular dialects. Hence, the necessity of the word “that” in the italicised clause below, at least for standard English:

I ate the cat that was sitting on the mat.

However, you would be wrong to think that such examples make grammar reducible to such arbitrary-seeming rules: it is much more fundamentally a rich, flexible communicative resource, existing not so we can be “correct”, but so we can make meaning in all the various ways we need.

Consider, for example, the pronoun “you” in the preceding sentence. We chose this to directly address the reader, hopefully increasing the forcefulness of our point. Yet nothing in standard English makes this “you” obligatory. We could have chosen a different pronoun such as “it”, for example, perhaps making our sentence less confrontational. Or we could have chosen a noun phrase such as “a person”, perhaps striking a better balance between emphasising how people misconstrue grammar without implying you to be one of them. We could even have produced a different sentence altogether: “But grammar shouldn’t be so stupidly construed.”

We could go on, of course. The crucial point is that each variant exhibits clear communicative differences; yet each is an entirely legitimate option for standard English speakers. And this is what grammar ultimately is: a set of expressive options that each user draws on to enact our various thoughts, identities and relationships. So it really makes little sense to reduce grammar to a single set of universally “correct” rules - they are by far the least of it.

Indeed, look closely at language use, and what you see is the richness of grammar, with people varying the particular features chosen along any number of communicative dimensions: from spoken contexts to written, narrative to non-narrative, formal to informal, personal to impersonal, and from so on to so forth. Such variation is very much at the heart of grammar, and is ultimately the sort of grammatical knowledge that the students in your classroom should be focused on developing.

8. Grammar can help your students become better writers, but only if you make explicit links between particular features and the particular effects they can achieve

For a long time, educationalists held that grammar teaching did little for language development. This was true enough as far as the evidence went. Unfortunately, this evidence was based on a misguided model of grammar teaching that essentially reduced grammar to the labelling of sentences: “That’s a noun, that’s a verb; ooh, look, a relative clause!”

Instead, as shown by ongoing research at the University of Exeter, what does make a difference is an approach that directly connects grammatical features with the rhetorical work such features can perform in specific pieces of writing.

What you need, in other words, is an approach that construes grammar in terms of (7): as a meaning-making resource, not a set of decontextualised formal rules. Do that, the research shows, and you can open up your students to an entirely new dimension of language.

Take, for instance, the italicised words in the following passage from Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak:

  • and sailed back over1 a year
  • and in and out of2 weeks
  • and through3 a day
  • and into4 the night of5 his very own room

For the traditional student, these sequences are merely things to be identified as preposition phrases, with the more sophisticated, perhaps, providing a structural analysis of each phrase.

That’s fair enough, as far as it goes. For the student schooled in the meaning-making approach, however, it misses the point. This, after all, is a particular piece of writing, produced with purpose and intent.

Why these preposition phrases? Surely Sendak didn’t include them to fill some arbitrary editorial mandate such as “make sure your story has ≥4 preposition phrases”?

On the contrary, these phrases create a specific pattern within the text, describing the journey that carries Max home. And yet, there is another pattern at work.

So, the first four phrases are all adverbials (“over…”, “in and out of…”, “through…”, “into…”), creating a temporal movement that emphasises the metaphorical but extensive distance Max must travel, telescoping years to weeks to day to night. More subtle still is a final variation, the shift within the final adverbial from “night” to “room”, marking the transition from a world of time to one of space.

Strikingly, Sendak has used a noun-modifying phrase here, in contrast to the preceding adverbials. This signals a final shift from the imaginary world of the wild things to the real world of Max’s room, but does so in a way that emphasises the underlying equivalence of “night” and “room”. Max, our student might conclude, has been away a world and never left his room.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps they would develop another interpretation: perhaps one more detailed, perhaps not. Such an interpretation would be theirs to make. But it is one less available to the student who hasn’t experienced this richer model of grammar teaching, one that takes grammar just as seriously as the “traditional” model, but which goes beyond the naming of parts to see grammar as a meaningful resource for building an author’s world.

A model, that is, which ensures that a student sees not just the “PP + PP + PP + [PP [PP]]”, but its underlying symbolism: year --> weeks --> day --> night --> room.


9. Grammar matters, but you should always put the text first and foremost

Grammar is both interesting in itself and a substantive part of how good speakers and writers work their magic.

So, if the question is whether to draw grammar into your lessons, then yes, a thousand times yes! But this is a world away from saying grammar should be the be-all and end-all of the classroom. It merely acknowledges what grammar is: a core meaning-making resource.

By all means incorporate grammar, but only as you would alliteration or metaphor or rhyme: a resource to be exploited where appropriate to the particular writing at hand.

Most importantly, grammar teaching is no substitute for the critical, creative focus on the orchestration of meaning that is at the heart of any good English lesson.

Imagine a scheme of work in which the teacher wishes to incorporate some grammar. They begin that day’s lesson by displaying a poem on the board, before labelling every single grammatical feature in the poem and having the students write out a sentence for each stating what that feature is doing. Job done? We think not. Doing it this way certainly signals the potential importance of grammatical features for engaging with a text. And it certainly highlights the value of connecting these features to the meanings they make. But it gets its start and end point wrong. Because that point is not the grammatical features themselves, it is the evolving thoughts and emotions that readers and writers develop as they engage with the meaning of a text as whole.

Far better, then, to ensure that any grammar lesson is centred around this engagement, with the aim always being to develop a student’s capacity to explore and experiment with the ways in which particular grammatical features can contribute to the holistic world of the text at hand.

10. Teachers and students get grammar

They really do. This isn’t to say everyone instantaneously understands everything perfectly. That would be astonishing. It’s simply highlighting what our work shows: teachers and students are actually very good at grasping core grammatical concepts.

Unfortunately, what teachers and students aren’t so good at is recognising just how good they are. So when they find that a particular NC glossary definition doesn’t work so well, the lesson drawn is not “I can see this term is problematic”, but “I’m rubbish at grammar”.

This isn’t their fault, of course. It’s an unfortunate consequence of high-stakes environments and decades of inadequate support. But, ultimately, it’s this lack of confidence that may be the fundamental barrier to successful grammar teaching. It’s also completely unjustified.

So, please, by all means take grammar into the classroom. You have nothing to fear about grammar but fear itself.

Mark Brenchley is associate research fellow at the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter. He tweets @Growing_Grammar. Ian Cushing is a teaching fellow in English linguistics at University College London. He tweets @ian_cushing

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