Five and six-year-olds at a Cheshire school already know about different kinds of words and how they work. Their teachers are brushing up on the basics too, as Mark Whitehead reports.
Nouns are no problem. "They're words that are the name of something," a child volunteers. "Like a castle or a stone." Adjectives seem fairly straightforward too. "They're words like blue or lovely, that say what something's like. "
Some in the class even know what prepositions are. And these children, at the Park Primary School in the village of Tattenhall, near Chester, are just five and six years old.
Giving the lie to the common notion that youngsters nowadays know nothing of English grammar, they show that even at their age, it is possible to learn about the different kinds of words and how they work.
Their teacher, Margaret Miles - who is also the school's English co-ordinator - uses stories to teach grammar. A particular favourite is A Dark Dark Tale by Ruth Brown.
"We read the story and then talk about all the different kinds of words, " she says. "We talk about the words used to create an atmosphere, for example, and try swapping them around to see what the effect is. Then I introduce the idea that these words are called adjectives."
The approach has been enthusiastically developed in Cheshire, where education advisers and teachers have joined forces to produce a classroom resource pack.
The Cheshire Cat, in a bright yellow plastic folder, serves both as a tutor for teachers to brush up on their basic grammar, and as a source of practical classroom exercises and activities.
The first of the pack's three booklets covers word structures, explaining, for example, the difference between simple and complex words (simple words cannot be broken down into smaller units without destroying their meaning, like caterpillar or fish). The second booklet covers word categories - nouns, adjectives, verbs and so on - and the third explains phrases, clauses and sentences.
Exercises in the illustrated pack - which uses the "cat" theme throughout - include, for example, producing "word trees" showing how words can be changed, and a card game. The pack, now being marketed nationally, is aimed at teachers in key stages 1, 2 and 3.
Michael Jones, Cheshire's English adviser and a co-editor of the pack, says the idea grew out of the demand from teachers for more information. "There was a gap in many teachers' knowledge, particularly at primary school level, " he says. "We thought it was best to be honest and say that they have a lot of learning to do, and to help them teach grammar effectively."
The county advisory service - one of the few of its kind remaining - put on a series of one-day in-service training courses in grammar, and soon faced clamour for more. It confirmed the need for urgent action.
The root of the problem, says Mr Jones, is that many teachers received little or no tuition in English grammar when they were at school. In the 1960s and 1970s it was accepted that grammar was inherent in speech and did not need analysing.
Children learn to speak grammatically off their own bat, picking up the rules by listening to adults and gradually incorporating them in their own speech, and although English teachers have always striven to make sure children speak and write effectively, the idea of analysing the various parts of speech and the rules of grammar was considered pointless and old-fashioned by many teachers for many years.
And with English literature dominating A-level and university syllabuses, there was little place for the study of grammar as such.
But things began to change in the 1980s with growing pressure from the Government and the educational Right to "bring back grammar". It culminated in a fairly heavy emphasis on grammar in the national curriculum and, partly as a result, a growing awareness among teachers of their own lack of specialised expertise. A survey by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, now being conducted, may confirm widespread shortcomings. The new tests for 14-year-olds in grammar, spelling and punctuation now being trialled can only add to the pressure.
All this has led to many teachers becoming aware that they need to know more. As John Selby, an English teacher at the Bishops' High School in Chester and co-editor of the pack, explains, many teachers have realised that without knowing what different words do, their ability to use language to its best advantage is limited.
"It's like fixing a car," he says. "It's not much use having to explain that you want one of those things that mixes the air with the petrol before it goes down to those things that spark. It's a lot more helpful to talk about the carburettor and the spark plugs."
Cheshire's education advisers commissioned George Keith, the director of the nationally-known Cheshire Language Centre in Warrington - now closed - to write the booklets. He has moved on to become chair of A-level English literature and language at the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board and a part-time lecturer at Leeds University's school of education.
"Grammar has a history of being a boring subject, but that's because it's been boringly taught," he says."It's got to be alive and worth doing, not just a punishment which only exists to correct mistakes.
"The more kids know about lang-uage, the more they now about themselves and about life. They like grammar if you make it relevant. There are all sorts of exciting possibilities."
The Cheshire Cat is available for Pounds 15, including post and packing, from Liz Frith, publications department, Tarvin Meadow Professional Centre, Meadow Close, Tarvin, Chester CH3 8LY. Tel: 01829 741118