How should grammar be taught?

last changed 31 May 2005

What does the KS3 Strategy say about how grammar should be taught? The answer clearly depends very heavily on:

  • what grammar is
  • why it is being taught

Here is a summary of the main points, which you can click on for more information. Each point focuses on one of the tensions which can probably be found in teaching any subject, but which are particularly acute in grammar.

  1. Grammar teaching should be integrated but systematic.
  2. Grammar should be taught explicitly but should also be explored by investigation.
  3. Grammar teaching should use standard terminology but focus on the interrelated ideas behind the terms.
  4. Grammar should be general but applied to day-to-day work.
  5. Grammatical knowledge should be cumulative but constantly revisited.
  6. Grammar should be taught not only in English, but also in MFL and across the curriculum.

1. Grammar teaching should be integrated but systematic. Grammatical knowledge is not taught for its own sake, so whatever its other benefits may be, it is always integrated ("made relevant to the texts studied and written in class" - The Grammar Papers, p. 8) into the teaching of language skills (writing, reading, speaking/listening). For example, Grammar for Writing lists 54 units for use in KS2 classes, each of which:

  • explains some point of grammatical knowledge or skill which is defined as a learning objective for the relevant KS2 year,
  • suggests a range of investigation activities in which the class could collect and classify examples of the pattern concerned,
  • suggests ways in which the findings of the investigation could be applied in writing activities which would follow on immediately after the investigation.

Notice here how the grammatical knowledge is immediately applied to a piece of writing by the pupils, so that grammar teaching is closely integrated into the teaching of writing.

Another important feature of this approach, however, is that the teaching is planned in terms of grammatical concepts. This is important because it allows grammar to be taught "explicitly and systematically" (as recommended in The Grammar Papers, p. 8), thereby solving the problem which dogs any attempt to make grammar 'relevant' by only teaching it 'when needed' - i.e. when a child's writing produces a particular problem. "For those seeking to teach grammar in the context of pupils' work there are some clear dilemmas. How can grammar teaching be systematic and progressive if it is only taught when it arises, either naturally or by chance, in the context of pupils' own work? At the same time, how can a systematic treatment of grammar avoid being a study of form, divorced from the living language it is meant to represent?" (The Grammar Papers, p. 16)

This solution may be the most impressive achievement of the Literacy Strategy, and the KS3 Strategy for English is right to adopt it. A lesson may be focused on a particular area of grammar, which allows systematic teaching; but the discussion of grammar moves, via investigation, directly into writing, which makes it relevant to pupils' writing. In short, grammar teaching is proactive, not reactive. Of course, once a grammatical concept has been introduced, with its terminology, a teacher will also be free to use it reactively in commenting on a pupil's writing; but that is not the primary mode of grammatical discussion.

Interestingly, the proactive approach is compatible with the one method of grammar teaching which has been repeatedly shown to 'work' in terms of its positive effects on writing. Called 'sentence combining', this has two parts:

  • the teacher writes a number of simple sentences on the board,
  • the pupils try to combine these into a single sentence in as many ways as they can.

This has a clear grammatical focus - compound and complex sentences, and different kinds of subordinate clauses - so it is systematic. Indeed, it makes no pretence to being relevant to the immediate writing needs of individual pupils. On the other hand, it also leads immediately into a writing activity, and is seen as an important element in the teaching of writing. It is easy to see why it is popular with both teachers and students.

2. Grammar should be taught explicitly but should also be explored by investigation. The KS3 Framework for English (p. 16) encourages teaching which is:

  • direct and explicit
  • highly interactive
  • inspiring and motivating

In relation to teaching in English, the Framework recommends, among other things:

  • more explicit teaching, with attention to Word and Sentence level skills
  • investigations in which pupils explore language and work out its rules and conventions

Investigations have the great attraction of showing pupils that grammar is 'for real' - not just a collection of terminology and abstract ideas, but the organisation behind everything we say and write. Potentially, at least, grammar investigations are both fun and informative.

3. Grammar teaching should use standard terminology but should focus on the interrelated ideas behind the terms. Standard terminology is essential if grammatical understanding is to grow from year to year (i.e. in spite of changes of teacher) and across subjects. However, what really counts is obviously not the terms, but the ideas that they name. As in any other subjects, the ideas form a tightly integrated network so it is essential for teaching to emphasise these connections so that later work not only sits comfortably with earlier work, but reinforces it. For example, the idea 'noun' is involved in a wide range of facts about English grammar which a child will encounter in different years:

  • Nouns are used to name people and concrete objects.
  • Nouns may be common or proper.
  • Nouns may be singular or plural, which is signalled by the ending.
  • Nouns may also be used to name the actions that verbs can name.
  • We can form nouns out of verbs by adding various endings.
  • Nouns may be modified by adjectives (but not by adverbs).
  • Nouns may be modified by determiners.
  • Nouns may be modified by prepositional phrases and relative clauses.
  • Nouns may be used as subjects and objects of verbs.
  • Sometimes an abstract noun is a better alternative to a subordinate clause.

All of these facts about nouns (and many more) should come up for discussion at some point during a child's schooling. Collectively they provide a much better definition of 'noun' than any single memorable one-sentence definition (even if this is not the disastrously misleading traditional definition of a noun as the name for a person, place or thing). To understand grammar is to understand these interconnecting facts.

4. Grammar should be general but should be applied to day-to-day work. This is the question of 'where' English grammar is. On the one hand, it is in our minds as a very general set of rules and patterns; but on the other, it is in the texts that we read and hear every day. (Similarly, you could say that the rules of football are in the players' minds, but they can also be observed in a game of football, through their effects on the players' behaviour.) It is important for grammatical ideas to be "looked for in day-to-day work" (The Grammar Papers, p. 8) - i.e. constantly applied to concrete examples, and if at all possible to genuine examples rather than specially-constructed ones made up by the teacher. (Not that there is anything inherently wrong with made-up examples; they can be much clearer because they avoid unwanted complications.)

5. Grammatical knowledge should be cumulative but constantly revisited. "Teachers should base their planning on a clear idea of pupils' prior grammatical knowledge, to ensure that pupils are not taught the same aspects of grammar repeatedly and to make full use of pupils' implicit knowledge of grammar. " (The Grammar Papers, p. 37). It is important that grammatical knowledge should be constantly growing and maturing, not only through learning more terminology but also through a deepening awareness of the interconnections among the ideas described above. At the same time, however, it is important to revisit and revise the old ideas in order to consolidate them into a (hopefully) permanent network of well understood ideas.

6. Grammar should be taught not only in English, but also in MFL and across the curriculum. The Frameworks for MFL are absolutely explicit about the need for explicit teaching about grammar and for this to build on the grammar that pupils will have learned in their English lessons. They even insist on the need to use the same terminology as the English teacher does.

However, the KS3 Strategy sees an even broader remit for grammar teaching, as something which every teacher will engage in. As The Grammar Papers (p. 21) says,

It is clear ... that explicit grammatical knowledge ... is relevant to other subjects in the way that knowledge is constructed. Although each subject has its own vocabulary and technical concepts, explicit grammatical knowledge can help students use the language of the subject area appropriately, for example when describing events, reporting a process, or explaining what they have learned.

More recently, the Strategy has put considerable resources into developing "literacy across the curriculum", with an ambitious series of materials (books and CDs) for different subjects. For example, a geography teacher might

  • focus students' attention on the grammatical structures in an essay about the causes of famine by comparing different ways of using the word drought as a cause.
  • develop sensitivity to grammatical structure by exploring grammatical ways of connecting sentences that describe two kinds of valley.
  • prepare students for describing a geographical feature by pointing out that "many sentences will begin with adverbials to locate the feature, e.g. At the top … , On one side … , Above the snowline …".