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Prepositions and pronouns – Creative tools for successful grammar teaching

Teaching grammar well means giving children a functional, flexible set of instruments for lifelong effective communication, says Rebecca Cosgrave...

  • Prepositions and pronouns – Creative tools for successful grammar teaching

It wasn’t long ago that the average primary teacher would not have been able to distinguish a progressive from a perfect and a subjunctive from a subordinate; in fact, to be fair, most of us might still struggle with it!

The expectations of the National Curriculum for grammar are challenging for both children and teachers; and perhaps the toughest aspect of all is being able to teach it in a way that is meaningful, engaging and manageable.

Unlike many aspects of the curriculum, grammar is assessed in two ways: through a stand-alone test and through teacher assessment of writing. This is because fundamentally, grammar provides the toolkit we use to communicate clearly in writing – and in order to achieve that outcome, we have to understand how each of the tools within it can work.

So what are the key challenges for teachers?

Subject knowledge

Most teachers I work with have areas of their own grammatical knowledge that are not secure. In order to teach concepts effectively, we have to understand them thoroughly enough to explain and exemplify clearly. Teachers cannot avoid this challenge and need subject knowledge guidance, which goes beyond the expectations of the curriculum in order to be one step ahead. Within schools, we need to continue grappling with the intricacies of subject knowledge, and support each other as we do so.

Progression and filling the gaps

The National Curriculum has clear progression but depends on all teachers understanding and revisiting what has come before. This is a particular challenge as we implement a new curriculum: children in KS2 have not had the grounding of KS1 grammar teaching so there is a lot of ‘catch-up’ required.

In No Nonsense Grammar we have stranded the curriculum and outlined progression within each strand to support teachers. These progression charts can be downloaded from babcock-education.co.uk/ldp/literacy, and can help teachers to identify the core foundations of understanding within each strand.

Securing understanding

Children now need to understand the key grammatical concepts at a depth beyond previous expectations. This is in line with the aims of the new national curriculum. An example of this can be seen in the following question from the sample SATs for Y6:

Tick all the sentences that contain a preposition:

  • Ali locked the door before he left.
  • The shops are beyond the main road.
  • My brother is behind me in the race.
  • Barry is below Andrew in the register.

In order to answer this question, pupils have to understand the function of the preposition in each sentence and recognise that in the first sentence, the word ‘before’ is acting as a conjunction to join two clauses; they need to recognise that there are two verbs in this sentence therefore there must be two clauses.

Questions like this are daunting but also encouraging – it’s important that children should understand grammar at a functional level and be able to explain how language is working in context. However, if teaching has focused on identifying words – eg underline the preposition – rather than function, learners will struggle.

Much of the useful research into effective teaching of grammar has been undertaken by Debra Myhill and her team at Exeter University. Our work at Babcock LDP is underpinned by the key principles that they have identified. These have been summarised in their excellent new book, Essential Primary Grammar (2016), which I would wholeheartedly recommend to all teachers, as follows:

“Always link a grammar feature to its effect on writing. Use grammatical terms, but explain them through examples. Encourage high-quality discussion about language and effects. Use authentic examples from authentic texts. Use model patterns for children to imitate. Support children to design their writing by making deliberate language choices. Encourage language play, experimentation and risk-taking.”

Myhill et al (2016)

Adopting this pedagogy enables teachers to teach children the concepts, terms and conventions which will enable them to be successful in tests, but more importantly also requires them to apply their growing knowledge of grammar to enhance their writing.

3 strategies for successful KS2 grammar teaching

1 | Always use examples in context, preferably from a real text

Why would we make up examples, or use dry exercises when there is such richness in the books children are reading? For example, who could resist Jackie Morris’s tiny dragons ‘with whisper-thin wings of rainbow hues’ (Tell me a Dragon) when teaching expanded noun phrases including prepositional phrases (Y3/4)? Teachers need to use the quality texts they are using for literacy teaching as models of the grammatical concepts they need to teach. Examples can be explored, replicated orally and finally applied in children’s own writing.

2 | Use multi-sensory teaching approaches

Grammar is essentially a very abstract concept for children to learn. The more we can make this concrete, the easier the concepts will be understood. At Babcock LDP we have developed the idea of a sentence toolkit where physical tools represent grammatical concepts.

This allows teacher to use real (toy!) tools, images and actions to support understanding. For example, we use the image of an extending tape measure to represent noun phrases; this allows the teacher to model how a phrase/clause can fill the noun slot in a sentence by extending the measure, but also can model how the noun phrase can be replaced with a single noun or pronoun, by pressing the button and shrinking the measure.

Similarly, we use the image of a screwdriver to represent punctuation, to reinforce the fact that the purpose of punctuation is to fix meaning for the reader. This helps to reinforce the idea that punctuation is about comprehension not respiration!

3 | Secure key concepts before moving on

Children need to see how grammatical concepts are related to each other, building one on another with secure foundations. There are some key ideas secured early in the curriculum which are essential to understand more complex concepts later.

For example, Y2 pupils will not be able to learn the differences between questions, exclamations, commands and statements if they do not securely understand the concept of a simple sentence. Similarly, learners cannot understand joining clauses to make complex/compound sentences if they do not understand that a clause needs a verb and that a simple sentence is a single clause.

Teachers need to focus on high quality formative and diagnostic assessment to identify misconceptions and probe their pupils’ understanding. When children are given opportunities to explore concepts and explain their understanding, it becomes very clear what further teaching is required.

One really useful example of this is an activity I would use to clarify understanding about sentences: provide your class with a range of sentences (simple and complex), clauses and phrases on cards and ask them to sort them into ‘sentences’ and ‘non sentences’. Challenge pupils to explain how they know. From this, understanding about sentences, verbs, punctuation, phrases and clauses can be assessed.

There is no doubt that grammar teaching can be exciting, empowering and creative - provided we accept the challenge of developing our own knowledge and skills. Research evidence suggests that if we do, we can expect to see gains not only in GaPS understanding, but more importantly, in children’s writing, enabling them to be more aware of the choices and decisions they make to communicate more effectively to their reader.

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