Every word has its place

25th August 2000 at 01:00
Don't let the new grammar curriculum worry you or your class. Once you have the skills, the floodgates of creativity should open, writes Mark Jackson.

Illustrations by David Rooney.

If you are still only pushing 40 then you may never have had an English grammar lesson in your life. So how do you feel about teaching grammar to your junior pupils?

The question is, so to speak, academic. You are going to have to (prepositional ending, uncouth, but not a hanging offence). The new key stage 2 curriculum requires that pupils be taught a range of grammatical skills and any ignorance of these matters will not be an excuse for failing to teach them.

Are you happy about taking on this new obligation? Are you filled with a keen excitement at the chance to extend your pedagogic (the second "g" is soft, by the way) skills? Or are you wondering how many weeks of total immersion in arid textbooks (a bit of oxymoron there, or simply a hint of mixed metaphor?) you will need to master the fusty rules of pedantry.

Formal grammar teaching was dumped by most state sector schools in the Sixties or soon after because its concentration on rules and definitions derived from Latin was thought to have put generations of pupils off English as a subject. For many of the reformers, creativity was all, and anything which might obstruct its flow, such as grammar or spelling, or even comprehensibility, had to go.

That is how many adults today came to be sent into the higher spheres of learning, and even on to all-graduate professions, without knowing how to parse a sentence (that is, resolve it into its component parts and describe them) or to define a taxonomy of figures of speech, both of which are as vital to modern living as the mortarboard and gown.

Relax: no one expects, or wants, you to start learning all this stuff, let alone teach it. In fact, the grammatical skills that you will be required to develop in your pupils are for the most part ones that you already possess and use without necessarily being aware of them. They are largely based on the models you have derived from listening and reading over the years.

The grammar of National Curriculum 2000, which comes into force this term, is about as far removed from the traditional notion of grammar as a set of sacred rules and abstractions as New Labour is from classical Marxism. Whatever the reservations of some of yesterday's reformers are, the new grammar lessons are intended to encourage and unlock creativity by providing the tools for its expression.

To make that plain, the teaching programme is called Grammar for Writing, and it is a further plank (metaphor and a cliche too?) in the national literacy strategy, to be built into the literacy hour. A guide called Grammar for Writing is going to every teacher of Years 3 to 6.

During the coming months, all Year 5 teachers, and many others, will receive training from the literacy consultants based in local education authorities in the grammar they will need to know and the methods required to each these practical grammatical skills and knowledge.

The approach is one teachers are already used to: it closely parallels the prescribed structure of the existing literacy hour, with elements of demonstration, shared work and teacher scribing. In fact, the idea is that you will simply modify and extend some of the work you already do on sentences to incorporate the grammar teaching.

A video produced by the National Centre for Literacy and Numeracy, which is to be part of the training pack, may give pause for thought: the demonstration lessons with classes of various groups from Year 3 to Year 6 suggest that the new lessons in grammar may be rather more demanding than the established elements of the literacy strategy. Whether it is or not will greatly depend on how teachers respond to opportunities in the classroom.

Teaching children the basic building blocks, the vocabulary of grammar, such as what a conjunction or a subordinate clause is or how to recognize personification or the passive mood, is not particularly difficult. But the purpose of the new programme isn't simply to get pupils to name these correctly and describe their function: they need to understand just how language works so as to be able to use it effectively, be it for a poem or a letter of complaint. To do this they must not only be able to identify the elements in a text but also know how words, phrases, and the whole structure and pattern of a piece of writing can be chosen and manipulated to produce a desired effect. It is a bit like what used to be called developing style.

It means taking a lot of sentences to pieces in a process in which the teachers and children on the video seem to get very involved, tossing ideas to and fro. Textual analysis of this kind needs a lot of image-rich texts - and while the teachers could, of course, have read out standard passages, they used their imaginations instead. For some, a spinoff may well be a marked improvement in their own creativity.

It seems clear that the pupils and teachers in these videoed lessons are stimulating and stretching each other and enjoying a process of intellectual inquiry in a way which - albeit at another level - has until now been associated with the sixth form and beyond.

These were not children of middle class professionals, bred from toddlerhood to books and cognitive knockabout. Most of the demonstration classes were in schools with a mix of social and ability groups, including some heavily disadvantaged children. The teachers were clearly very able, but were not specially selected practitioners. Many others could soon find themselves and their pupils embarking on the same kind of mind-stretching exploration of the magic of words. It will confirm their suspicion that primary teaching is by far the most intellectually demanding job in education.

Oh, the glossary of grammatical terms that comes with the new programme does not include parse, but does define rap - "a form of oral poetry which has a very strong rhythm and rapid pace".

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