MFL - The Lego of language

26th October 2012 at 01:00
Grammar provides the building blocks of understanding

How do you give primary children a good grounding in a modern foreign language when they are still struggling with their own? Start by reminding them of something they can already do in English, such as saying "I like", "he likes" and "she likes".

That shift from "like" to "likes" is what you do in every language; making a little change to a word so that it makes sense with another word. This is what we call "grammar". If pupils think grammar sounds hard, ask them if they can tie their shoelaces. That is a lot harder.

We think young children hate grammar. Yet a Year 10 pupil told me recently that she thought Year 7 was "too late" to start.

"How to stick the words together" is a good definition of grammar. It is simple enough to give to small children. They can relate it to building blocks: grammar is Lego made of words. You can use it to make everything from a giant chicken to Paris.

Children need to be told what grammar is so that they grow up with no fear of it. Spelling is how you stick letters together to make words. Grammar is how you stick words together to make sense.

Tell the class to write down the words "fish", "cat", "the" and "like". Then tell them to make up short sentences using variations of these words. "Cats like fish." "Fish like cats." "The cat likes the fish." Grammar is the magic glue that gives us the meaning. Without it, you cannot tell what someone is trying to tell you about cats and fish.

Write up and recite together the simple, regular English verb "to like". Little changes to a word such as adding an "s" are like a spot of glue that makes it ready to stick on to another word.

Now teach them to recite a simple, regular verb in the new language, such as manger (to eat) in French. Rote learning is often rejected as boring in favour of a whizzy starter. Yet to a child, repetition can be reassuring. Build their knowledge in small chunks, pointing to people for pronouns and miming the meaning of the verb. Feeding them a little at a time when they are young will give them pronouns and "er" verbs for life.

Tell the class that now they have learned manger they can eat anything: cheese, socks, little sisters. The first time you make up a sentence by yourself in a new language feels like magic.

Grammar is the magic glue of language. It is what makes words an incredible toy that you can keep playing with for the rest of your life.

Catherine Paver has taught French in England and English in Italy and South Africa. Read more of her articles at


Practise present tense in Spanish with delnon's PowerPoint.


For a wide range of activities to improve pupils' use of grammar in French, Spanish and German, try the TES Resources MFL grammar collection.


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