Untangle a web of meaning

Some people have only to hear the word "grammar" and a lost world is evoked of red telephone boxes, village cricket and obedient children with scrubbed cheeks. Others argue that formal grammar teaching is authoritarian, renders our students passive victims, and makes no difference to their writing ability.

This is usually as far as the grammar debate gets - a stagnant and unwholesome blend of nostalgia, prejudice and myth. It also unleashes a set of unhappy polarisations - structure versus creative writing; teacher control versus student-centredness; correctness versus appropriateness.

For example, one of the recurring arguments against formal grammar teaching is that decontextualised exercises do not work. The Bullock Report of 1975 lambasted grammar drills like these: Change all words of masculine gender to feminine gender in "Mr Parker's father-in-law was a bus conductor"; and: add the missing word in "As hungry as a . . .", "As flat as a . . . "

It is an easy target. But who said grammar teaching had to be like that? Why assume that developing students' explicit knowledge of grammar can only be accomplished by resurrecting exercises from long-buried textbooks?

Brief, focused exercises can serve an important purpose in developing students' understanding of a grammar point, and in building their confidence. But there needs to be another step. Students must take the skill and use it in the context of their writing, to start the process of internalising what they have learned by practising it for themselves.

I have spent months working with students who are hampered by an inability to write in sentences. After nine years in formal education, they have not yet internalis ed the structures, conventions and rhythms of the most important level of grammar - the sentence. Without them, they are unlikely to achieve higher than GCSE grade F.

This has prompted me to experiment with more formal approaches to grammar teaching, developed as part of our work on literature and media texts, not in place of them. These students haven't undergone a diet of grammar drills. Spoken English hasn't been banished from the classroom. But it has led to a much more systematic coverage of grammar knowledge and skills.

As a result, I offer six suggestions for effective grammar work:

1. As English teachers, we can wrongly assume that grammar is synonymous with learning word classes or "the parts of speech" - the ability to spot an adverb at long distance. In a school context, this is not the important level of grammar. We need to work at the level of sentences, showing students that there are different types of sentences, that these create different effects. Short sentences can create suspense. Compound sentences can create a conversational feel. Complex sentences can convey a bulk of detail in compressed form. Students should look at different sentences, hear them read aloud, and experiment with them in their writing.

2. Students need to internalise the rhythm of sentences. As English teachers, it is easy to forget that we are paid-up members of the literacy club. Novelist Jeremy Seabrook's autobiographical comment is probably true of many of us: "We passed exams as naturally as others passed water". We write in sentences automatically, unconsciously, because we are familiar with their variety of rhythms and styles.

But read a short story aloud and watch the class. Those who are weakest at writing will not be following the text with their eyes - they'll be watching you or staring into space. Chances are they're involved in the narrative, but if their eyes are not following the linear unfolding of the words, not encountering the clarifying purpose of the punctuation, and not sensing the rhythmic reassurance of sentences, then they are less likely to write consistently in sentences.

3. Punctuation should be taught as a written convention of grammar, something which clarifies meaning. It is misleading and unhelpful to tell students to add a comma or full stop because they need to breathe. Punctuation needs to be established as an aid to meaning - a system for helping the reader to gain the subtlety and precision of the writer's meaning.

4. The use of grammar exercises isn't shameful. If we teach students a skill, they need to practise it. After a short, intensive burst of reassuring consolidation, they need to move into the context of their writing and practise using the skill there. In this way the learning development is more logical - learn a skill, practise it, use it in context.

5. Every English lesson should be about more than mere content. If all we talk about is themes or characters or ideas, and we don't draw attention to structure and language and style, then students are not gaining sufficient experience of the way language is being used in different contexts. Every encounter with every text ought to be inviting students to comment on the writer's use of language.

6. We mislead students if we teach them that language is transparent - that we look through it to ideas. The "intolerable wrestle with words" - encountering language that is demanding and perplexing - should start young. Part of the satisfaction of studying literature is untangling a web of meanings. Working creatively in small groups to look at more demanding texts than we might previously have dared can build student confidence.

All of this is not about illustrating that "language is fun". As a teaching aim this would be unambitious. We need to show students how a more assured understanding of grammar, developed systematically, can help them to write with more assurance, vitality and accuracy - and help them to gain membership of the literacy club.

Geoff Barton is a head of English at Huntingdon School, York

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