Hands up for grammar

James is a proper noun. We know he's a proper noun because he's standing with his left palm outstretched and his right fist on top of it, thumb pointing skyward.

Richard, the boy beside him, is clearly a verb. His right hand is flat across the outstretched left palm. If Richard wants to be a future verb, he brushes his right hand forward; if he's past tense he moves it back; for the present it stays put in the middle.

James and Richard are playing a language game that uses "grammimes", a system of hand-movements invented by teacher Paul Hitchcock to introduce Year 3 and 4 children to elementary grammatical concepts. On first impressions, the thought of teaching grammar by hand signals seems distinctly eccentric, but watching Paul and his colleagues in action, it all makes complete sense.

By using these physical symbols, the teacher and pupils can communicate about the way words work without having to "use language to talk about language", as Mr Hitchcock puts it. This is a problem many teachers will recognise - using language to talk about language can lead you into all sorts of difficulties, not least the danger of boring or confusing your pupils.

Seven to nine-year-olds (and even younger children) can usually grasp the concepts behind the major parts of speech - explain what a noun or a verb is and give a few examples, and they'll supply you with lots more.

What they can't do is remember the terminology. And when they get mixed up about the metalanguage, they also get mixed up about the concepts. This is unsurprising, as grammatical terminology is seriously abstract - "noun" is, in effect, a label for a label, and that's a bit much for the infant mind.

After several decades in which most of the primary sector has paid little attention to grammar, the National Literacy Strategy is reintroducing explicit grammar teaching to the key stage 2 curriculum - with the bulk of grammatical terminology to be covered during Years 3 and 4. Many teachers will - like Paul Hitchcock - be looking for ways of making abstract terminology accessible to pupils.

As a science specialist, educated during the anti-grammar years, Mr Hitchcock had little grammatical education himself. He realised how much he lacked when trying to speak with pupils about their use of written English, so he devoured a copy of Teach Yourself Grammar. "Learning from a book was difficult," he says. "And I certainly didn't want to set written exercises - I wanted much more immediacy in the teaching, more interaction and spoken language. I decided to use language games to introduce the concepts and terminology, so we'd have a shared vocabulary to talk about reading and writing." This was when he found that oral grammar work presented difficulties - "trying to use language at two levels simultaneously".

A vague memory of the hand-movements used by some music teachers to symbolise the notes of the tonic solfa, the musical scale doh, ray, me, sparked the idea for grammimes. Now, when he and other colleagues in the preparatory school of Worcester's Royal Grammar introduce a part of speech,they introduce the hand-movement that goes with it. Thus the abstract terminology is accompanied by a concrete physical cue, much more immediately memorable for a young child.

Other, unexpected, advantages have emerged. If Mr Hitchcock asks a question such as "What tense is 'was going?'" the whole class can respond, with a past tense grammime. Children also use the action as a bridge to the technical term - one boy, anxious to define the function of "beautiful", beats his fist against the side of his palm as he gropes towards: "It's a - a - a - adjective!" And the games can be used to look at various sentence transformations required by the National Literacy Strategy. In the game All Change, James, the proper noun, and, Richard, the verb, stand beside an indefinite article and a common noun to represent the sentence: "Daniel sailed a boat." Children take turns to change one element of the sentence until they have:

"Katy is riding the horse," using the grammatical technique of "substitution", which is much recommended throughout the NLS training pack to help children familiarise themselves with word-function and patterns of sentence structure.

Next they discuss where an adjective can be added, and someone else pops into the sentence so Katy is riding a "silly horse". Adding an adverb is more interesting, because it can go in one of several places - by now we are well into the significance of word order, required teaching in Years 4,5 and 6.

The NLS assumes that developing an appreciation of the grammatical patterns and structures underlying our language will have a beneficial effect on children's spoken and written English. But the great danger is that the difficulties inherent in teaching grammar - using language to talk about language - could distract or bamboozle children, and be counter-productive. The challenge for teachers in the coming years is to devise ways round the problem. Paul Hitchcock's work suggests a multi-sensory approach could be part of the answer.

For an information booklet on grammimes and grammime games send Pounds 5 plus an A4 SAE to Paul Hitchcock, 87 Riverview Close, St John's, Worcester WR2 6DA

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