Wall power

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Mark Poulter says that making a real wall of words helps young children manipulate sentence parts.

It is back. Much as it might strike fear and loathing in the hearts of teachers of a certain age, grammar has made a comeback, thanks to the National Literacy Strategy. And despite the guidelines many teachers remain uncertain of how to motivate children to do something they hated so much themselves.

But times have changed and teaching and learning grammar can, with a bit of ingenuity, be a far more interactive and enjoyable activity than it was when you and I sat endlessly analysing endless sentences. If you need more consolation, just remind yourself that an improvement in children's work at sentence level is what really seems to move their writing attainment forward. Pupils who can write more complex sentences, check that they make sense, and punctuate them correctly, are the ones likely to make most progress.

Teaching grammar in Essex, home of Estuary English, has its own little quirks, as I know from my own experience. Remind a boy: "Don't forget your gram-ma" and he is just as likely to tell you she died last year as he continues to miss out all the capital letters and full stops you were desperate for him to remember.

To help make grammar come alive, I use a word wall as the focal point of our sentence and vocabulary work. It is put together with strips of card stapled to a display board, and I slide old flash cards into them to build sentences. Alternatively, Birmingham-based company (Wordwalls Ltd) produces a high-quality, child-friendly A1 board called Wordwalls, which comes with a comprehensive collection of 700 tiles.

If money is an issue you can use a washing line hung across your board, with a few pegs and key words on card.

Around the wall, you can display different words in a range of coloured boxes. After a few lessons using our "vital verbs", "amazing adjectives" and "naming nouns", children soon grasp how different word classes are used. Add a healthy supply of blank cards and you can really begin building sentences - and creativity.

In whole-class sessions we put up a simple sentence such as, "The dog walked along the road". By adding adjectives and more powerful verbs it becomes, "The fierce, dark-brown dog prowled along the road".

Children welcome the chance to demonstrate the way their dog moves, write their word on a blank card and display it proudly at the heart the new sentence.

The wall is invaluable for teaching different tenses or verbs in the first, second and third person, as children quickly identify which words or parts of a word need to be changed to ensure the sentence makes sense.

Punctuation can be added too. We se a "fat full stop" or a "cunning comma" to block the path of those annoyingly common words in children's work such as "then" and "and", or experiment with a range of "clever connectives" to make two sentences into one better one.

Your wall need not become redundant during the group work part of the literacy hour. You could lead a small group as they write an engaging opening to a story, or a pair of children could set out the steps of a recipe using verbs such as "stir" and "boil" in their imperative forms.

Children can also work independently, perhaps by researching synonyms for "said" and using them to spice up a piece of direct speech. The plenary is a useful time for children to report back on their discoveries.

At all stages, remember:

* Build your wall on secure foundations. Be clear about exactly what you want to achieve in a session.

* Model the drafting and editing process with your wall. Children learn from seeing you in action.

* Make your wall interactive. Make sure that children can reach it.

* Colour-code cards for different word classes to reinforce children's understanding.

* Display children's work on the wall. It is motivating to see their own words published in the classroom.

* Change the focus of your wall regularly depending on your objectives.

* Do not be afraid to add an extension. Have spare cards or a white board available so children can add new words and phrases when inspiration strikes.

The possibilities are as endless as the number of sentences and, at all stages, the children's work has the potential to spark lively discussions about language and writing. Many will quickly learn to love the words for themselves and the grammar for what they can do with it. Reluctant and slower writers enjoy the support provided by the wall while those with poorer concentration stay involved by holding up word cards, writing their own words on cards and adding them to the display. More talented writers can try adding, deleting or moving whole clauses to change the pace or emphasis of a sentence.

It is particularly enjoyable to put questions and instructions on the board and ask children to guess the next or missing word. This is a useful way to teach direct speech.

Finally, remember to admire your wall regularly. Soon you will notice an enthusiasm in the children's oral work and a great improvement in their writing.

Mark Poulter is a writer and teaches a Year 3 class at St Peter's Catholic primary school, Romford, EssexThe A1 Wordwall with tiles costs pound;299. Complementary materials available. Wordwalls Ltd, Unit 10, Premier Trading Estate, Dartmouth Middleway, Aston, Birmingham B7 4AT. Tel: 0121 3590500

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