By Sarah Dean on 20 May 2020
Why is it important to explicitly teach grammar in primary schools?
The 2014 English National Curriculum states: ‘Explicit knowledge of grammar is very important, as it gives us more conscious control and choice in our language.’ Young readers and writers need to understand how language is organised to make meaning and communicate effectively. Whether developing oral confidence in EYFS, or choosing the grammatical structure and organisation for a persuasive letter in Year 6, concepts must be explicitly taught and children guided in their effective selection and application.
Should grammar be taught in context or in isolation?
Since the introduction of the KS2 SATs GPS test, the way in which teachers teach spelling, punctuation and grammar has changed dramatically. Research from Safford, Messer, McLachlan and Walker (2015) looked at the impact that the statutory test has had on teachers and the teaching of grammar. It is no surprise that it concludes that learning has become ‘routine, explicit and formalised’ and significant time is spent in preparation for the test.
Research by Hillocks (1986) and Andrews et al. (2006), concluded that no evidence exists that the formulaic teaching of grammar by labelling and identifying items of language use has any beneficial effect on language production. However, there is powerful research evidence, including a large-scale study from Exeter University (Myhill et al., 2013) that demonstrates the benefits of relevant grammar when taught explicitly and in context. Teachers who contextualised the study of grammar within the reading of literature and discussed real life texts reported a positive impact on pupils’ writing and a deeper knowledge and understanding of language.
How can grammar be taught effectively?
From Year 3 onwards (and Year 2 GDS) children who are working at the expected standard, are expected to ‘write effectively and coherently for different purposes, drawing on their reading to inform the vocabulary and grammar of their writing’. As they move through KS2 they are expected to ‘select appropriate grammar and vocabulary, understanding how such choices can change and enhance meaning.’
To support children to learn how to do this, we must support them in understanding what effective writing is. At One Education we use the acronym R.A.F.T to support teachers and children with their understanding of this.
When planning a unit of work for a specific text-type we as teachers must very clear on the R.A.F.T of writing, who the writing is for, why we are writing, what tone it should be written in and what grammatical features should be and should not be included. With this in mind, we can then select the appropriate grammar to teach.
We have hopefully moved away from the culture of ‘tick lists’ where children attempted to ‘shoe-horn’ all types of grammar into a piece of writing, where writing ‘ticked all the boxes’ but did not necessarily flow. Now what we are seeing more and more is pupils being supported to make choices and select appropriate grammar for specific writing. This way writing feels less forced and is more coherent.
Professor Myhill (2014) explains that ‘ the key to effective use of grammar is to open children’s eyes to the infinite repertoire of choices which are available to them as writers. Used in this way, grammar helps children understand how language works and how to express themselves with greater craft and creativity’
Grammar should be taught within English lessons and support the children’s learning of a specific text-type. The evidence is clear – the isolated teaching of grammar has very little, if any, impact on children’s writing content and ability.
The Exeter research (Lines et al, 2014) provides a number of practical approaches for teaching grammar effectively:
1. Use authentic examples from authentic texts
Teaching children to write effectively, we must ‘hold their writer’s hand’; expose them to high-quality texts with rich language, grammatical rules and sentence structures in order for them to apply these independently in different contexts. We need to plan in rich reading experiences linked to specific language goals. Exposing our pupils to high-quality reading will increase their vocabulary and provide opportunities for discussion around authorial choices. However, we do not want our children writing to a formula, simply copying the models they have read. We must explicitly share good examples of grammar and model how to make similar choices using strategies such as ‘thinking aloud’ to share the process we take as writers.
Using A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness as an example, this text can be an excellent model for how to create suspense. With authentic examples of repetition, short sentences, rhetorical questions and dashes for interruption, this short extract is perfect for introducing grammatical features for this type of narrative.
2. Use grammatical terms but explain them through examples
It is true that children must be able to identify grammatical features such as ‘nouns’, ‘verbs’ and ‘simple sentences’, however, functional grammar goes further than just looking at a word within a sentence. They must also understand why, where and in what order these are used to be able to apply them within their own oracy and writing.
For example, a child may be able to identify a noun and verb in a sentence, but do they understand the importance of a verb within a sentence? Do they understand the order of a noun and a verb in EYFS and KS1? Do they understand how selecting different verbs will impact the meaning and possibly the intent of the sentence?
Using a text that they are familiar with, or a current text within English lessons would be the best way to introduce a term. For example, Zog by Julia Donaldson is helpful for introducing simple sentences, verbs and alliteration. There can be lots of discussion about the vocabulary, its meaning, importance and position.
3. Encourage language play, experimentation and risk taking
For children to have the confidence to ‘play’ with language, they must be exposed to a wide bank of vocabulary to choose from. We need to build up their knowledge of vocabulary and develop a ‘word consciousness’ where they are excited and curious about language.
When introducing a new grammatical term, providing opportunities for children to investigate and explore words and punctuation together can be powerful. Exploring ideas, patterns and discovering rules together can be a much more effective way of learning. This way they are able to make links to wider knowledge and experiences to their learning.
For example, here, when introducing verbs, children could be given a selection of words colour coded and could attempt to work out the different word classes justifying their thoughts. This can only be possible if they are familiar with the vocabulary.
In order for children to experiment with language and take risks in their writing, they need to know that it is safe to do so. Building a culture of drafting and proofreading within your lessons is vital here as children need to know that their writing can evolve and change if they want it to. There needs to be a culture of discussion about language, looking at language on scales and knowing that choices need to be made to create the correct intent.
4. Encourage high-quality discussion about language and effects
We must explain that each choice made about language or punctuation should be considered carefully to contribute to meaning. Making considered choices ensures that our writing reflects our intentions. This can only be done properly if we fully understand the purpose of the structures and concepts. Understanding grammar is more than learning the names of certain punctuation, sentence structures or word classes by rote.
The dog darted through the bushes searching for a place to hide. The dog meandered through the bushes looking for a place to settle. Similar structures, but different language and different effects on the reader.
We can again use real examples within texts to support language choices. In this extract from The Explorer, the author Katherine Rundell uses personification to create imagery of the fire. We can really support children’s understanding of deliberate language choices by looking at author choices.
Asking them questions such as ‘what effect does this phrase have…?’ and ‘why has the author chosen to …?’ can help deepen their understanding of imagery and effect on the reader.
Playing with language further, you could ask them to look at how the sentence impact would change if language were changed: If we changed the fire’s imagery from ‘it belched upwards’ to ‘it spat pathetically’, how has the meaning changed? How has the effect changed?
5. Support children to design their writing by making deliberate language choices:
Once children have some experience in exploring texts similar to what they are creating, discussed language and authorial choices, it is important that we use these techniques and features within our modelled writing, showing children how to apply such techniques to their own writing.
Then support them to plan and prepare the grammar and language they will use. When making deliberate choices within language, children need the chance to explore their options, collect words, order them and scale them.
This can also be a critical part of editing their work as well. Research suggests (Brenchley et al, 2018) that very often children fall into the trap of believing certain grammatical features have intrinsic merit. It’s a bit like thinking along the lines of “adding adjectives in makes it more descriptive”, “avoid simple sentences because they look basic”, or “use complex sentences because they make the writing look fancier”. This does not get us the most effective writing. Sometimes, we know that a simple, but powerful sentence has much more impact than a longer, more complex sentence.
Importantly, they need to know that improving writing isn’t about adding lots of adjectives, verbs or adverbs but about achieving the effect that the writer wants.
6. Use model patterns for children to imitate
When introducing a new grammatical term or feature, having a structure to the lesson will support the children’s understanding and ability to then apply this in their own writing. As we show in our P.I.C.C approach (free webinar - watch it here), teaching children specific grammatical features is vital to achieve effective writing. If teaching expanded noun phrases you might follow the structure below:
Part of our suggested approach is to ‘identify, create and change’. This is where we can provide them with models from high-quality texts for them to innovate or change. For example, they may identify the use of alliteration within Sue Hendra’s ‘Supertato’:
They then might use this pattern of ‘He crept through the cakes… checked the cheese’ to create their own alliteration sentence:
‘He slithered through the sausages…spotted the strawberries.’ Then they could change a sentence without alliteration into one with alliteration.
Using authors’ techniques and patterns is a great way to support children with developing sentence structure and language techniques that they can then apply in their own writing.
7. Progression in grammar So how does your school ensure progression across year groups in the teaching and learning of grammar? Ofsted’s latest framework (2019) suggests that ‘progress means knowing and remembering more.’ We must ensure that learning is progressive and that there are chances for children to repeat and remember learning. It suggests that knowledge is generative (or ‘sticky’) meaning the more you know, the more easily you can learn.
Click on the below links to download example documents of our progression grids for grammar and punctuation and also spelling for years 1 and 3:
- Year 1 Grammar Progression free resource
- Year 3 Grammar Progression free resource
- Year 1 Spelling Progression free resource
- Year 3 Spelling Progression free resource
You can also watch our free webinar Introduction to Grammar and Spelling. This webinar is a small snapshot of the training we offer. For more information on our training and other support available for Grammar and spelling teaching, please email email@example.com
- Andrews, R., Torgerson, C., Beverton, S., Freeman, A., Locke, T., Low, G., Robinson, A., Zhu, D. (2004a) The effect of grammar teaching (sentence combining) in English on 5 to 16 year olds’ accuracy and quality in written composition. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education.
- Andrews, R., Torgerson, C., Beverton, S., Locke, T., Low, G., Robinson, A., Zhu, D. (2004b) The effect of grammar teaching (syntax) in English on 5 to 16 year olds’ accuracy and quality in written composition. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education.
- Brenchley &Cushing, 2018, Take a "simple" approach to teaching grammar.
- Burrows, P 2014, A Creative Approach to Teaching Grammar.
- Lines, H (2014) Secondary school English teachers’ and students’ conceptualisations of quality in writing.
- Reedy & Bearne, 2013 Teaching Grammar Effectively in Primary Schools.
- Safford, Messer, Mclachlan and Walker (2015) Teaching grammar and testing grammar in the English primary school: the impact on teachers and teaching of the grammar element of the statutory test in Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG) in England.
- Myhill, D. and Fisher, R. (2010) Editorial: Writing development: cognitive, sociocultural, linguistic perspectives. Journal of Research in Reading. Volume 33, Issue 1, 2010. Myhill, D., Lines, H. and
- Ofsted, 2019 The Education Inspection Framework. Manchester. Crown Copyright.
- Watson, A. (2011) Making meaning with grammar: a repertoire of possibilities. University of Exeter. Metaphor, Issue 2, 2011.