Clause that grip

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Ann Webley shows how teaching grammar can be fun and can lead to arresting writing

Manipulating words for effect - whether in non-fiction or fiction - is a powerful tool. I like to tell children how much power they have over the reader, and that this power comes from their understanding of grammar.

I enjoy teaching grammar and talking to teachers about different ways of approaching it. Success all depends on how children are taught. Grammar teaching must be interactive, investigative, repetitive but fun, and firmly rooted in a familiar context. Many aspects of sentence-level work can be taught through playing games. This allows the teacher to exploit opportunities for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning. Examples might be: * The children see sections of sentences in different colours and work on putting them together or manipulating the order.

* They hear the structure being repeated as the sentences are read out or the games repeated orally.

* They move around the room when playing some of the games in order to create their sentences.

* They learn and practise the relevant punctuation and see the punctuation marks reinforced by an agreed gesture and hear a noise.

I have noticed that the children are engaged in the lesson the whole time.

Everyone is busy; everyone is learning. The teacher does not rely on the written answers to a grammar exercise to see if everyone has understood.

It is an amazing thing - but call an activity a game, present it with a great deal of build-up and excitement and even quite sophisticated Year 6s will happily go along with you. It is, of course, important to vary the activities.

A key stage 1 game

Aim: to introduce compound sentences using "and". Demonstrate first, then the children play.

Give out "subjects" of sentences written on cards of one colour (eg "Aladdin and the princess").

Give out "ends" of the sentences on cards of a second colour (eg "jumped onto the magic carpet").

Children sort themselves out and make sentences - no full stops. Give out "and" cards (third colour) and additional clauses on the second colour (eg "flew over the city").

They see the parts of the sentence in different colours and see it getting bigger. They move about to do it and are all involved. They hear the sentence structure when they read it aloud and make the noise for the full stop. They don't write anything at this stage.

A key stage 2 game

Aim: to "drop in" a relative clause starting with "who" or "which".

Write a sentence on card and then cut it with scissors - very visual. For example take "Harry Potter defeated Voldemort". Cut it into "Harry Potter" and "defeated Voldemort", so making space for a relative clause.

The children can then discuss:

* what can be "dropped in";

* the need for commas - they often suggest it themselves;

* which is the main clause and why.

They can then say the sentences aloud and make the gesture and noise for the commas.


It is important to remember that dealing only with a certain sentence structure, for example, will not mean that the children will be able to use it successfully in their own writing.

They need to practise in small bites. A game that started on cards or on the interactive whiteboard can become: lan oral game; la "can you write two of those sentences in a minute?" activity on mini-whiteboards; l"silly sentences" -a game children do not seem to get tired of. Replace parts of sentences with potentially silly subjects or objects. Make sets of cards in different colours, including sets of connectives if relevant. Ask children to shuffle and pick the cards, then make up their own "silly sentences" in the same construction that you have been teaching. It can become a five-minute starter and really does work. It can be used to practise time connectives, cause-and-effect connectives related to explanations, complex sentences beginning with a connective, and compound sentences.

Use a familiar context

In science, children learn that, when carrying out a fair test, they must change only one aspect of the experiment at a time. The same holds for teaching sentence structure, so the children can concentrate on the grammar. The sentences should, if possible, be firmly rooted in a familiar context, rather than "generic" sentences. If the game involves putting bits of sentences together, children will be able to focus on how it works rather than struggling to decide which bits go together. For contexts I use: * the class book, a class routine or activities shared; * well-known traditional tales or nursery rhymes; * history, geography or science topics for structures that can be used in non-fiction writing. This is doubly useful because they will be able to transfer the contents of the game into their own writing in another subject area.


If children are to learn and use grammar, they need to understand what they are doing and the reason for it. I avoid telling them anything beyond what a part of speech or a construction is called after they have talked about it. Children will be able to use words and sentences more successfully if we ask them to investigate. Give them sentences with the words highlighted in bold, and then ask, for example: * What job is the word in bold doing in the sentence?

* What do you notice about the words in bold?

* What is the difference between the two sentences I have written? Which sentence is better? Why?

* Which words could we use instead of those marked in bold (a string of "and then"s or compound sentences which use only "and")?

* What happens if we move those clauses around?

A good example of this is the exchange that can go on when I introduce "a sentence of three", in this case three verbs. There will be two sections of text on the board relating to a well-known story or the latest class book.

This one is based on the start of Stig of the Dump: * "Barney set off at a run and climbed the fence into the paddock. Then he tramped through the long grass on the other side."

* "Barney set off at a run, climbed the fence into the paddock and tramped through the long grass on the other side."

An exchange with a class might go a bit like this (I would use partner talk at times before they answer me): Me: Which piece of writing do you think is better? (They find that very easy.) Child: The second one.

Me: Why?

Child: It sounds better.

Me: Why? (Often confused looks.) OK, let's look at the difference between the two pieces. Tell me what you notice?

They realise that one has two sentences and the second one has one sentence and then discuss other aspects of the sentences, such as choice of words, structure and the importance of pacing.

It is an exercise that can also be used for pieces of description. As an extended version of "he hopped, skipped and jumped", it can be taught very effectively for the first time when introducing the use of commas for lists. As children progress through the school, they can extend the clauses.

I avoid being too precise with my learning objective at the start of a lesson. I would not want to write on the board that the learning objective is to "write a sentence of three to show action" because I want them to tell me this. That way children will remember. During the plenary, I ask them what they have learned. Teaching grammar through isolated sentences and photocopiable worksheets is of little value. However, teaching grammar which relates directly to what children need to write - in English or in any other subject - will free them to express ideas using constructions they have practised. It will also enable older pupils to make choices, and this is the beginning of an individual style.

If children are challenged to investigate and are taught in an interactive way, they will be able to use more complex sentence constructions and this will -with practice, practice, practice - become part of their own writing.

Ann Webley is a former primary teacher

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