Keep concentrating

9th February 2001 at 00:00
The DFEE's 'Grammar for Writing' manual will repay careful study, believes Colin Butler

As the National Literacy Strategy moves into secondary schools and the heat comes on at key stage 3, English teachers of Year 7 and above should study carefully the grammar manual that has been in primary schools since last September, since it is the shape of things to come.

Called Grammar For Writing, this 216-page closely-written document has two aims: the teaching of good writing to KS2 requirements by explaining and illustrating the varied forms it can take; and the provision of whole-class writing activities. The manual is painstakingly supportive of teachers. It begins with a rationale of grammar teaching (essentially, that writing improves as children consciously learn to apply grammatical forms) proceeds to detailed teaching units for Years 3-6 and ends with an informative miscellany, including exemplar material and a glossary of grammatical terms. It comes with a CD-Rom containing "punctuation fans" and targeted exercises for each year group.

The level of expertise to be achieved by KS2 is high, and lower school teachers in secondary schools will find it daunting or inspiring according to their preparedness. Since what is taught in one year is notoriously forgotten the next, the dreaded problem of cross-phase retention will certainly have to be confronted.

Moreover, not all secondary English teachers currently have the skills to continue an intensive grammatical approach to writing into Year 7 and beyond. So, heads of department and in-service training providers must start addressing the skills prolem now, and heaven help those departments required to operate with a mixture of supply teachers and temporary staffing from other disciplines. You cannot turn children into experts without expert, up-to-date staff.

Inevitably, some will think that Grammar For Writing is misconceived. Last summer, The Times had David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, talking of "a waste of tax-payers' money" and "a Gradgrind literacy strategy which teachers will rebel against". Maybe they will, especially if they find that a lot of children either cannot or will not keep up. Nevertheless, for those who can stay with it, Grammar For Writing opens up exciting possibilities. Because the process of forming high-quality English is insisted on as much as the product, correspondingly high orders of discernment and judgment are automatically fostered; and the English language itself becomes something actively to be thought about.

"Never stop concentrating," a certain John Manwaring (11 years of age) counsels in the exemplar material, as he advises others how to write effectively. It could be Grammar For Writing's motto. Such strenuous reflectiveness might not be right for every child, but those for whom it is will gain productive insights and the best mental habits for the next phase of their education. And much satisfaction, too.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent'Grammar For Writing' (DFEE 01072000) can be obtained from Department for Education and Employment Publications, Tel: 0845 60 222 60E-mail: dfee@prologistics.co.uk


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