Simple grammar dish will whet children's appetite

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Welcome to the art class. This colour is known as "red". I'm going to hand out copies of a coloured picture, and your job is to underline all the red bits."

Why is it that in art, science, maths and every other subject, we teach technical terminology for one reason and one reason only: so that we can use it, in context, to help children do the subject? Yet, in English, the minute we start teaching grammar, out come the pointless worksheets.

Partly, I suppose, it is because grammatical terminology, practically proscribed in primary education for a quarter of a century, is unfamiliar not only to pupils but to teachers. Until terms like verb, conjunction and clause are common currency, they will have a scary ring about them, and worksheets seem a safe haven. Partly also, it is due to a lingering folk memory of what grammar lessons were like in the past: teachers assume grammar is about "naming of parts", and that it is meant to be meaningless drudgery. And partly, of course, it is because educational publishers - quick to spot any area of insecurity - have flooded schools with worksheets, thus ensuring coverage of sentence level objectives without anyone learning anything particularly useful.

The national literacy strategy did not help. While its Grammar for Writing training course for teachers contended that the purpose of teaching grammar is to help children become more competent users of the language, the accompanying book made an enormous meal of terminology and covered far more grammatical ground than any child could need. Insecure teachers ended up more frightened than ever.

The trouble is that the more of a meal one makes of grammar, the less helpful it is to all concerned. Endless exercises bore children, waste valuable time and contribute nothing to standards of reading and writing.

Now that most teachers have had time to familiarise themselves with the terminology, they can avoid the grammar trap by sticking to a few simple rules:

* Introduce the terminology when it is relevant to what you are doing at text level, preferably via a fun, concrete activity, like those recommended in the Grammar for Writing materials. Avoid too much talk about it - put words, clauses and phrases on card and point to or manipulate them to make the point.

* Follow up by immediately using this terminology in context, to talk about the texts you are reading and writing, and encourage the children to use it too.

* In subsequent lessons, if children need reminding about the term and what it means, display a poster summing up the main points to remember and point to it. Then just use the term in context again.

* Use visual and kinaesthetic approaches rather than talk - the more you try to explain grammatical concepts the more impenetrable they become. And as soon as you see the children's eyes glaze over, stop.

Grammar for Writing is one of the themes of "Literacy: what have we learned and where do we go next?", a series of one-day conferences in September-October 2003 led by Sue Palmer and Pie Corbett. Details from ulrika@suepalmer.co.uk or 01872 241776. Sue Palmer's Skeleton Grammar Poster BooksOHTs are available from TTS: 0800 318686

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