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To (boldly) teach

Telling children about grammar needn't be as dry as dust. Sue Palmer shows how it can be fun and games.

A recent study by the Economic and Social Research Council found very little explicit teaching about English grammar in schools. Since many teachers nowadays have themselves been taught little about grammar, which disappeared from most school curricula in the Sixties, this is not surprising.

However, the national curriculum now requires that junior pupils should be "given opportunities to develop their understanding of the grammar of complex sentences, including clauses and phrases, and taught the standard written forms of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and verb tenses."

This all sounds pretty dry stuff, a long way from meaningful reading and writing activities. But it doesn't have to be. Learning about grammar can enhance children's literacy skills by making them more aware of language, and by providing them with vocabulary to discuss their own language use and that of others. If they sometimes use non-standard English expressions, grammatical knowledge can help them recognise where their own grammar differs from Standard English forms, so they can adjust it when appropriate.

The sort of basic grammatical concepts and vocabulary listed in the national curriculum can be taught largely through language play. Games and activities designed to demonstrate the functions of particular grammatical elements can be entertaining, while at the same time providing the teacher with plenty of opportunities to ram home the appropriate technical vocabulary. This is then available for use when discussing pupils' written language in real contexts across the curriculum.

The games given below are useful for consolidating children's understanding of the seven parts of speech listed in the national curriculum. Once they have grasped the concept that words perform particular sorts of work in a sentence, children can begin to build up understanding of sentence grammar - looking at sentences in terms of "chunks of language" (words, phrases, clauses) which work together according to certain rules to create meaning.

Knowledge is power, and power over language is vital for all our children. Learning about how their language works can be an important element in gaining that control - it can also be extremely good fun.

Nouns Nouns are the naming words, and the most recognisable word class. ln "Ban the Noun", groups or pairs of children act out everyday situations for the class without using any nouns at all (provide a substitute such as "thingy" or "doofit"). The rest guess what is going on, and if any stray nouns slip in they all yell "Noun" at the tops of their voices, thus consolidating the vocabulary.

Verbs Teach verbs in the gym or on the school field: somewhere pupils can be active. Use the term in the context of actually doing things, for example, "Show me three verbs that happen close to the ground," "What verbs can you do on that apparatus?" "Make up a sequence of three slow verbs and three quick ones." Don't forget the verb "to be".

Adjectives Compile an Adjective Bank (a box with index cards for each letter of the alphabet) from adjectives children find when reading, in advertisements (a rich vein), from trawling the dictionary when they have the odd few minutes to spare. Use it for impromptu acting games (teacher picks an adjective with a pin for one child to act and the others to guess), poetry-writing (pick three adjectives with a pin and build a poem round them), making tongue-twisters.

Pronouns Pronouns (like the personal pronouns I, you, he, she, it and the demonstratives this, that) are used in place of nouns. In "Ban the Pronoun" teams of pupils identify the pronouns in a passage from a book. Members of a team then take turns to read from the book, substituting an appropriate noun or noun phrase wherever a pronoun occurs. The opposing team members watch for omission or inaccuracy; a successful challenge means they get to read. The teacher notes the number of pronouns scored by each team.

Adverbs These are the words which fill in background detail about what's going on in a sentence, answering the questions "how?", "when?", "where?" and "to what extent?" Pupils can act the part of "Ashly Adverb, Roving Reporter". You provide very simple sentences (for example, The dog howled) and each child has a shot at being Ashly, who has l0 seconds to provide appropriate answers to how, when, where (for example, loudly, yesterday, outside). Correct answers should be written on the board in three labelled columns and may not be used again.

Prepositions Prepositions are usually found at the beginnings of phrases, for example, in the garden, after dinner, with a big smile. These prepositional phrases often have an adverbial function in a sentence, and can therefore be integrated into the Ashly Adverb game described above. Indeed, you'll need them, because contestants soon run out of one-word "when" and "where" adverbs!

Conjunctions These are the linking words. A simple conjunction like "and" can link words (for example, black and white), phrases (for example, over the hills and far away) or clauses (for example, This is a clause and this is another clause). The more sophisticated conjunctions like "because", "when" and "although" are usually found at the beginning of adverbial clauses in complex sentences. For "Take a Conjunction, Any Conjunction", you need a number of cards with conjunctions written on them, stacked face-down. The teacher provides a simple main clause (for example, The school cat is sick) and pupils in turns take a conjunction card, and use it to begin a subordinate clause which can link meaningfully to the main clause.

Sue Palmer has written five programmes on sentence grammar to be shown in the BBC Schools series English Express, beginning on Wednesday, September 18 at 11.40am. She is the author of the Longman Book Project language materials (Longman Education, 0800 579579) and PCET grammar wallcharts (0181 567 9206). NEXT WEEK WORD RECOGNITION.

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