The latest focus for alarm in literacy is grammar and punctuation. Children, says the Office for Standards in Education, do not know their adjective from their adverb.
How do you teach grammar to young children? Those of us who learned grammar some years ago probably remember it as stuffy and mystifying. Verbs were doing words; adjectives described nouns; adverbs described verbs; a full stop came at the end of a sentence. We might have learned to attach labels to words, but attaching relevance was another matter.
But it doesn't have to be like that, according to Teresa Viarengo, a Haringey teacher who has devised a method of teaching grammar almost by stealth, using stories which engage children's feelings and imagination. They have all the ingredients of fairy tales: characters children can feel for, conflicts, adventure and happy endings.
Through them, pupils find the missing parts of speech. They chase dogs that have eaten a personal pronoun. They put the pronoun in the right place in the sentence. They console a sentence that does not have meaning because its verb has died. They make a noun plural so that it can multiply and be generous. They join separated parts of sentences with a conjunction.
"It involves playing with language and trying out possibilities," says Teresa Viarengo. "The pupils listen to and invent stories. They use the parts of speech such as adjectives, verbs and articles as protagonists in adventure stories. I don't expect them to be able to apply a knowledge of parts of speech immediately. At first I just want them to understand what a sentence is and that it is made up of parts. I want to stimulate their inquisitive powers. Later, they move easily on to more abstract concepts."
Teresa Viarengo came to the UK five years ago from Italy, where grammar is taught in nursery schools. She was surprised, and not a little concerned, to find how little attention we give it here.
After doing an MA in language and literature in education, at Goldsmiths College, Teresa joined Haringey's Raising Achievement Projects team and, not surprisingly, soon turned her attention to grammar. The result was the Creative Grammar Project, a strategy for teaching grammar at key stage 2 that hasbeen successfully piloted at North Haringey Junior School. Teresa is now developing her ideas and disseminating them in schools.
First children are read stories, and they discuss them and do writing exercises; later they go on to create their own. Here is one child's tale, "The Cake Was Interesting", on the subject of plurals: "The article (the) said to the noun (cake) 'Let's have a picnic'. The noun (cake) said 'I have got only one little cake.' The verb (was) said 'If you put s at the end of your word you become cakes.' Lots of cakes came and the words started their picnic."
Eventually, pupils move on to identifying parts of speech using the Montessori symbols - triangles and dots which signify what each part of speech is. At this stage they are ready for a more formal approach. What the system does, emphasises Teresa Viarango, "is insist on keeping language to the forefront".
Lesson idea Title: Generosity Sentence: The pen is wonderful.
One day the noun (pen) was very sad. The adjective (wonderful) told him, "You are so beautiful, you should be happy."
The noun (pen) replied, "I am unhappy because the article (the) asked me for a pen, but I have only one pen. I am singular. I cannot help him."
The adjective (wonderful) suggested, "You can become plural so you will have many pens for everybody."
The noun (pen) asked with interest, "How can I become plural?" "You and the verb (is) should change clothes."
"Change? I don't know how to change," replied the noun (pen).
The verb (is) said, "I will help you! You must put the letter s near your last letter n and you will become very rich. People will call you pens and at that moment I will become are instead of is."
When the noun (pen) became pens he suddenly had hundreds of pens. He then gave many pens to his friends and neighbours.
Now he felt very generous and said, "It is wonderful to become plural because you can share!" Thinking time Why was the noun (pen) sad?
Why was he unhappy to be singular?
Why did he want to be plural?
Why was the noun (pen) generous?
What does singular mean?
What does plural mean?
What do you think of this story?
Teresa Viarengo works at the Professional Development Centre, London N17. She may be contacted by fax: 0181 365 8253, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org