A labour of love

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Geoff Barton says that working on grammar can only enhance students' literary appreciation and skills.

They have been at a great feast of language," declares Shakespeare's Moth in Love's Labour's Lost, "and stolen the scraps." That is our job too, identifying and using the bits of grammar that will help our students to read and write more effectively.

When I trained to teach, grammar seemed a taboo subject. In a seminar group I once asked how anyone taught pupils to use full stops. The room fell silent. It was the equivalent of breaking wind in polite company.

I think we assumed then that grammar was something that just happened. Expose students to enough lively reading, writing and speaking activities, and their language competence would increase. So in my first year of teaching (1984-85) I dutifully exposed my students to lots of reading. In fact, I read up to six class readers aloud to every class. This was what I thought you did as an English teacher, with the result that while some students were mildly entertained by Joby and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, it would be difficult to say precisely what they were learning.

Occasional pangs of guilt would set in, so I would feel I ought to do an exercise on punctuation or teach the parts of speech. I knew that decontextualised exercises had been soundly rubbished, so I tried to make the activities relevant to the texts we were reading. "Here's the opening of Joby," I would say. "I've left all the punctuation out. See if you can put the punctuation back in." Or, "Here's a paragraph from Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. Use a coloured crayon and underline the nouns in blue and the verbs in red," and so on.

Alison looked up from her desk one day and said, "Why is it always Joby?" I was shaken by this. Decontextualised language work was forbidden. Therefore I shoved any explicit work on language into a literature context. There did not seem to be any other way.

The understanding we have moved to now is that explicit teaching about grammar is an essential ingredient in English lessons. It is grammar without guilt, chiefly because our notion of grammar has developed into something broader than the old schoolroom definition of spotting word classes and completing punctuation exercises.

Grammar knowledge at text level (how texts are organised), sentence level (how ideas are structured into units), and word level has broadened our approach to grammar (away from word classes). In terms of teaching it, we have come to see that grammar only becomes meaningful if it is part of an active approach within an overall developmental scheme.

Mapping out the grammar features we expect students to acquire as they progress is an essential starting point, with a framework provided by the national curriculum and made tangible through the National Literacy Strategy. This is not a checklist of the linguistic terms we expect students to be able to chirp on cue. It is far more active than that, part of a distinctive approach to all English teaching.

In exploring any text - fiction, poetry, media, non-fiction - we would now expect to focus on a small number of key language features. Students might explore how these work in the text, for example by removing those features from the text and rewriting it in a different way. This is essentially a workshop approach to grammar, focusing on a languge point and then experimenting with it in the context of your own writing. The teacher needs to be an active part of this process, too, exploring the effects of language, rewriting, asking for comments. A student in Year 8, examining the opening paragraph of a speech, could be focusing on abstract nouns. Why has the writer chosen words such as pride, freedom, power? What happens if the abstract nouns are replaced by concrete nouns? What happens if we add modifying adjectives to make phrases such as: human pride, total freedom, absolute power? What happens if you increase the level of modification: pure human pride, uncontrolled and absolute power? Students experiment with the style, tinker with texts and then - crucially - discuss the effects:

"the text feels too wordy", "it loses its power", "it feels all clogged up."

This move, from identification of a grammar feature to internalising it through activity, to articulating an effect then building it into a more extended piece of writing of your own, is a significant shift in the way grammar is enhancing students' writing. We first explore grammar in the context of its effect by experimenting with it, then we practise it on a small scale, then we evaluate the effect (reading it aloud, rewriting some student examples), before embedding that skill in a more extended piece of writing (write the opening of your own persuasive speech).

The teacher's role in all of this is central: guiding the development of students' understanding, creating a workshop ethos, being prepared to tinker with language and see the effects. The rewards are significant, not only in terms of seeing students progress but also in finally shaking off any lingering guilt that our time would be better spent grinding through another class reader or dishing out some tokenistic punctuation exercise.

Geoff Barton is a deputy headteacher and teaches English in SuffolkE-mail: geoffbarton@mac.com


One-off grammar lessons are usually pointless, however entertaining we make them. Pupils need to be aware of an overall language framework, knowing why they are studying a particular language feature (at text, sentence or word level), so that there is some notion of progression.

* Do not aim to be comprehensive. Students need to learn the grammar that will enhance their reading and writing. They can always progress to linguistics later.

* Schemes of work are vital in mapping out development - across key stages, within years, and within individual schemes of work. This is not a straitjacket but rather an agreed departmental approach to coverage and progression.

* Remember that the process of developing schemes of work is more important than the final document: discussion about how and why we teach specific grammar points is a vital form of professional development.

* Use departmental meetings to look at teaching and learning styles. Just how might different members of the team introduce abstract nouns to Year 8 in the context of speeches?

* A scheme of work will only be effective if it is reviewed and monitored, through sampling of student books, mutual observation, comparing work produced by students in different teaching groups.

'They have been at a great feast of language,' says Shakespeare's Moth in Loves's Labours Lost, and stolen the scraps.' That is our job too

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