Teachers need to learn the structure of language, argues Sue Palmer on the importance of acquiring basic language knowledge.
Breakfast-time in the home of a middle-class literary family just outside Oxford. The daughter of the house, 18, and off to study English at university, muses over the marmalade. "Mum," she asks, "do we have verbs in English like they do in French?" People in Britain who have been taught grammar - which these days usually means those over 45 - throw up their hands in horror at this story, shocked by the depths of linguistic ignorance the remark implies. Those who haven't been taught grammar often can't see what the fuss is about - if the young woman can read and write well enough to get to university, does it matter whether she knows what a verb is? Since the explicit teaching of grammar has been out of fashion in British schools for more than 30 years, many teachers now fall into the latter category.
With the advent of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS), however, grammar teaching is back on the agenda. And for primary teachers brought up in an educational system in which grammar simply didn't figure, this can be a daunting prospect. Many, unsure of the terminology and of why they are expected to teach it, will do what most of us do when we feel insecure: reach for theworksheets.
If this happens, the reintroduction of grammar will be at best a waste of time, at worst counter-productive. The point of teaching about verbs is not so that children can spend hours underlining them on worksheets. Discussing how verbs are used in sentences and identifying patterns in the way this part of speech works will help not only with children's written composition but also with spelling and punctuation. Bright children from literate family backgrounds may deduce many of these patterns themselves, but pupils to whom writing does not come "naturally" need their attention drawn to the way written language works. And all children (and their teachers) benefit from having a lingua franca in which to converse about reading and writing.
The sentence-level unit of the NLS training pack tackles the philosophical "why" of grammar teaching, and gives much advice on the "how" (shared discussion of texts and plenty of investigative work to familiarise children with new terminology and the concepts that underlie it). But it does not include any help with basic subject-knowledge for teachers. So the problem remains: how do people who have been taught little or nothing about language turn overnight into linguistic wizards who can make the study of grammar interesting and productive?
It's extremely difficult to learn about grammar from a book - and most teachers don't have the time anyway. Short crash courses in in-service sessions can help them become familiar with basic concepts, but their confidence tends to evaporate when, back in the classroom, words don't always act the way the course tutor said they would. More sophisticated aspects of grammar are not easily covered in a crash course: complex sentences can be a grammatical minefield into which even the most experienced grammarian steps with caution. An attempt last year to introduce this level of subject knowledge through a "self-assessment" test produced by the Teacher Training Agency was met in most schools with outright horror.
Some schools are lucky enough to have a teacher with grammatical expertise who can answer colleagues' queries. Others are trying to create an in-house expert by sending some poor soul to every grammar course going. But in an area as important as the teaching of literacy, every teacher needs a high level of subject-knowledge and confidence. If the sentence-level requirements of the NLS are to be workable, primary teachers need massive - and non-threatening - in-service back-up. How about starting with a grammar helpline to answer all those niggling queries?
But then, as teachers' own knowledge increases, it's important that we all keep our eye on the ball. The aim of all this grammar is to improve children's literacy skills - and while terminology is useful for alerting us to aspects of language, too much terminology clutters the brain. It can, for instance, be much more helpful to talk to children about the way a complex sentence is put together using "chunks of language" (thus skating over the fact that some of these chunks may be clauses and others phrases) than to get bogged down in technicalities.
Knowing what a verb is, or a preposition, or a complex sentence, is not an end in itself. It should be the start of a more intimate and interesting relationship with the language we use, and a means of increasing pupil confidence in and command of written English. But whenever grammatical terminology begins to mystify rather than clarify, it's time to stop using it.
Sue Palmer has written several grammar books and courses. Her five programmes on sentence grammar in the BBC's 'English Express' series will be shown again this term. They are also available on video, with accompanying notes and teaching materials
WHY IT HELPS TO KNOW ABOUT VERBS
Knowing about verbs, with a growing number of other grammatical concepts, helps children to:
* avoid "weak" overworked verbs like "went" and "got".
* understand spelling rules about adding the endings -ed and -ing, as well as irregular past tense spelling patterns.
* ensure their use of tense is consistent and appropriate to the particular text type.
* watch out for non-standard verb forms like "she done it" and "we was going".
* check whether they've written a complete grammatical sentence or merely a phrase (eg, the opening words of this article).
* recognise formulas for turning nouns to verbs (eg, custom - customise) and verbs into nouns (eg, direct - direction), etc.
* recognise the difference between commonly confused pairs like it'sits, you'reyour, pastpassed, practicepractise.
* determine whether a group of words is a clause (with subject and verbs), which may affect their use of punctuation (eg, in avoiding the "comma splice").
* make sense of a long complex sentence by identifying the main clause, and working out how other clauses are linked to it.
Key stage 1: capital letter; full stop; question; question mark; sentence; speech marks;comma; exclamation mark;punctuation.
Year 3: adjective; conjunction; grammar; noun - collective, common, proper; pronoun - personal, possessive; verb; tense; 1st, 2nd, 3rd person.
Year 4: adjectives - comparative, superlative; adverb; clause; colon; connective; hyphen; paragraph; phrase; possessive apostrophe; semi-colon.
Year 5: standard English and dialect; imperative verb; preposition; speech - direct, reported; subject.
Year 6: complex sentence; parentheses - brackets, commas, dashes; voice - active, passive.
(As listed in the NLS Framework)