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Teaching grammar – 6 tips for teachers who find grammar scary

Yes, you need to know your stuff, but it’s not as complicated as you think, say Zoë and Timothy Paramour...

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1 | Forget the rules

There are two types of rules. The first type is universal and unbreakable, like the rules of mathematics or the laws of physics. Languages were created by humans, so their systems of grammar can’t possibly contain universal rules.

The other type of rule is the type set out by an authority such as government legislation or a school code of conduct. The English language has no central authority, so it can’t have these sorts of rules either.

Grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive. Its purpose is to describe how English speakers tend to speak and write – sometimes called the conventions of grammar.

2 | It’s not all about tests

Most primary schools have had to place an increased emphasis on grammar since the introduction of the grammar, punctuation and spelling test in Y6 in the early years of the last decade.

While it can’t be ignored completely, try not to make this incredibly narrow assessment your main focus when teaching children about grammar.

Your goal should be to help children take apart the English language and see how it works so they can put it back together in their own writing and express themselves with clarity and flair. That’s more important than any test.

3 | Know your stuff

When teachers say they “don’t know how to teach” a particular grammar point, what they often mean is that they don’t fully understand it themselves. This is completely understandable: most of us were never taught grammar properly at school.

Many of our own school teachers, for example, didn’t really understand what commas were for so they filled our heads with nonsense about pauses or “taking a breath”. None of the concepts in primary grammar are difficult to teach, but you do need to make sure you understand them yourself before you dive in.

4 | Don’t be worried by terminology

First of all, the terminology changes as often as the education secretary. There are terms like ‘connectives’ that were all the rage ten years ago but have now been consigned to the grammar graveyard.

Secondly, the terminology can sometimes sound far more complicated than the convention. For example, ‘the indefinite article’ sounds very complex but it simply refers to the words ‘a’ or ‘an’, which leads nicely onto point number five…

5 | You know more than you think

One of our favourite grammatical conventions is what is known as the ‘order of adjectives’. We love it because it’s the perfect example of a convention most people understand without an in-depth knowledge of grammar.

Even if you don’t know the order of adjectives – you do. Take a look at this sentence: “The green, big dragon was sitting in its cave.” If you saw this written in a child’s book you’d immediately correct it to “The big, green dragon was sitting in its cave.”

This is because, without realising it, when you use multiple adjectives to describe a noun, you list the size before the colour. If the dragon was also terrible, the word ‘terrible’ would come before ‘big’ and ‘green’. But you already knew that – didn’t you?

6 | Don’t be afraid to ask

When we first started teaching grammar, we sometimes felt like we were expected to know it all already – that simply isn’t the case. We’ve written an entire book about grammar and there are still things that we have to check or ask.

If you have a question, don’t be afraid of asking it as you won’t be the only one wondering.

Zoë Paramour is head of English at a school in North London. Timothy Paramour is director of studies at a school in Redbridge. They are the authors of The Grammar Book: Understanding and Teaching Primary Grammar (£19.99, Bloomsbury Education). Follow them on Twitter at @zoeparamour and @timparamour.

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