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Use fairy tales to help children discover the joy of grammar

Changing just one word can transform the impact of a sentence – and take a familiar fairy tale somewhere new and exciting...

  • Use fairy tales to help children discover the joy of grammar

Why are we so squeamish about teaching grammar? We don’t have a problem with technical terms in other curriculum areas, but we seem reluctant to name different kinds of word-function in English.

Part of the reason may lie in the fact that we have a generation of teachers who were never taught grammar at school, but it might also be that grammar is often perceived as boring – which it certainly will be if reduced to decontextualised exercises, as well as ineffective.

The power and joy of grammar teaching lies in exploring the impact of word choice and word order, first in our reading and then in our writing.

What does this look like in practice? Well, consider, for example, the story of Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH). Using the following sequence, there are many ways to explore how the use of grammar in this text makes an impact on the reader.

  1. Identify the words / sentences the writer used.
  2. Use drama, with group or paired activities to explore possible alternatives.
  3. Discuss the impact of the different options and decide why the writer chose to use the words and sentences that are in the text.

The same steps can be used with any suitable text, as can all the activities in this article.

1 | Changing nouns and verbs

Consider the sentence: In the woods, she met a wolf. Identify the nouns in the sentence (woods, wolf). Which words might replace the noun ‘wolf’ if you changed ‘woods’ to, for example, ‘pool’ / ‘desert’ / ‘park’ / ‘Arctic’ / ‘classroom’ / ‘lake’?

Point out that we are limited in the kinds of words we can use instead of ‘wolf’ (we can only use nouns or noun phrases) and that the choice of the first noun (place) will affect the choice of the second noun.

Now identify the verb (met). Remind children that a sentence must have a verb. Which words could you use instead of ‘met’ (e.g. spotted, glimpsed, ran from, shouted at)?

Talk about how the verb sets up expectations of what happens next in the story. For example, if LRRH ‘spotted’ a wolf, we know that the wolf is hiding, or is perhaps a long way away. How will that affect what happens next?

2 | Playing with sentence types

The story of LRRH has the full range of sentence types:

  • Questions – “Where are you going with that basket of goodies?”
  • Statements – “My grandmother lives in the cottage in the woods.”
  • Explanations – “W hat big ears you have!”
  • Commands – “Lift up the latch and come in.”

Play with the words in each kind of sentence. How do you change one sentence into a different kind of sentence? How would it change the story if, for example, LRRH had asked “Why do you have such big ears, Grandmother?” or commanded “Show me your big ears.”?

Allow the children to play with speech bubbles of sentences throughout the story, using the same kind of information but in different sentence types. Talk about the reasons why particular sentence types are used at each point in the story.

3 | Tracking fronted adverbials

Adverbials are interesting because, unlike most word-types, they can move around a sentence. Ask children to consider the difference between

  • Later that morning, she arrived at her Grandmother’s cottage.
  • She arrived later that morning at her Grandmother’s cottage.
  • She arrived at her Grandmother’s cottage later that morning.

The same words are used in all the sentences, and the broad meaning is the same, but each sentence means something slightly different because the emphasis changes according to where in the sentence the information is included. Is the emphasis in the sentence meant to be on her arrival, or when she arrives?

Discuss the fact that we normally start a new paragraph if there is a new time, place, person or action. That being the case, which of the sentences is most likely to be used at the beginning of a paragraph? Talk about why.

Let children search for adverbials throughout the text. Where are fronted adverbials mostly used? Note that if there is a fronted adverbial, it often means that there should also be a new paragraph.

4 | Acting out modal verbs

Ask the children to try some of the dialogue in LRRH with lots of modal verbs, eg

  • “I might go later, if I have time,” mumbled LRRH.
  • “No, you must go now while the cakes are still warm,” insisted her mother.
  • “But I should be at Goldilocks’ house!” complained LRRH.

Let the children use drama to explore how using different modal verbs in dialogue at key points in the story changes the relationship between the characters.

5 | Creating suspense with passive voice

Challenge the children to create some tension in a modern retelling of the story by using passives:

  • She had been told not to talk to strangers.
  • She was being watched as she picked the flowers.
  • As she crossed the room, each of her footsteps was carefully counted.

Clarify that the reason for using passives in a story can be because the agent is not important, but is more likely to be in order to hide the agent and create tension or suspense. Can this story work as a suspense story?

Choose your text, or write your own version of a familiar story with lots of examples of your grammatical focus, ensure that the children know what the target grammatical construction is and give them opportunities to play with language.

Activities that engage children with grammatical structures, and which make them question and explore their use, are likely to improve standards in children’s own writing far more effectively than decontextualised sentence-writing in weekly grammar lessons.

Kate’s new writing resource Cracking Writing is available in June – find out more at risingstars-uk.com/writing


Kate Ruttle is a literacy consultant and primary school teacher of 30 years. She has written the Cracking Comprehension and Cracking Writing resources for Rising Stars.

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