SPaG – Why are some teachers lacking confidence when teaching primary spelling, punctuation and grammar

"I can’t remember being taught much grammar until I took a course in ‘Use of English’ at 17 years old"…

Patrick Mainprize
by Patrick Mainprize
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While I can recall being taught spelling and some punctuation at my primary school, I can’t remember being taught grammar at all.

In fact, I can’t remember being taught much grammar until I took a course in ‘Use of English’ at 17 years old, something the head suggested I did – thank you, Mr Morgan!

Maybe we have a generation of teachers who suffered the same fate, and that is why some teachers lack the confidence when introducing some of the SPaG concepts now expected at primary school level. The author Stephen King says that bad grammar produces bad sentences, but understanding how a misplaced word or punctuation mark can make a sentence unintelligible is a difficult concept for primary-age children to grasp.

Maybe bad speech plays a part here. It always surprised me during my 35-year career as a teacher and head when I read children’s work, that although it was sometimes badly written, I always understood want they wanted to say and what they meant. Maybe teachers develop that skill over time.

Additionally, it also caused me some concern that I was probably the only person who read what they had written, unless an interested parent came across it while rummaging through their child’s tray on parents’ evening. We are now faced with a national curriculum that requires primary-age children not only to know about nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, but also a plethora of grammatical terms and concepts that at 11 years old would have probably had me dumbfounded. I think Stephen King has a very good point though. If you are writing for a wider audience and want them to not only understand what you have written but also enjoy it, it needs to be grammatically correct and correctly punctuated. We live in a technological world with a global access function that provides a massive audience for anyone who should want to display their thoughts and writing through the internet and social media.

Sadly, what I often read on Facebook, Twitter and even in texts is badly written and often incomprehensible to anyone other than those who seem to find staring into a mobile phone screen more interesting than talking to someone. Yes, I am approaching the ‘grumpy old man’ era of my life. Let’s face it, grammar can be perceived as somewhat ‘boring’, but I suspect it doesn’t have to be. So how can we ensure that children can write in a grammatically correct manner, fully punctuated, spelt correctly and still hang on to that fantastic creativity that children often display?

There are many primary teachers out there with some great ideas about how to make grammar, punctuation and spelling engaging for children. It’s sometimes a matter of spreading the word.

Ideas like those suggested by literacy consultant Kate Ruttle are exciting, and Conor Heaven’s ‘teach grammar in 10 minutes’ ideas will help immensely. Reading and writing have always gone together. They complement each other and children learn both skills as they progress. Forcing children to read certain texts or write about certain subjects can have a detrimental effect and invoke negative repercussions.

I realise now, having used the practice for a number of years as a teacher, that getting children to write a book review every time they’d finished a book was almost like punishing them for reading. Children need to be stimulated to write and, once that happens, they will want others to read their work and understand what they mean.

At that point, punctuation and grammar have a real purpose and they are more likely to grasp the concepts and continue to use them. Having lots of reading material for children to choose from is an absolute must, both factual and fictional. If they enjoy reading, they are more likely to enjoy writing. Happy SPaGing!

Patrick Mainprize is a former teacher, headteacher and local authority adviser. He is now education lead at EducationCity, an online digital resource company. Follow him on Twitter at @patmsfsg.

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