I was never taught grammar at school. By grammar, I mean taking apart and being able to identify the different parts of sentences to understand how and why the written word in English is constructed in the way it is. I think it was assumed that because we were native speakers we didn’t need the knowledge of the names and functions of different parts of the language because we had it ingrained.
But surely this goes against the aim of English teaching; it certainly goes against the way I see the aim of English teaching. Any subject’s goal is to create a new generation of subject specialists, and to do that the future specialists need to have the vocabulary and understanding of the subject’s object of study, which in English is the English language. If we don’t explicitly ensure that our students have this knowledge and understanding, we deny them the opportunity to become the very thing we are paid to encourage them to be.
I recently listened to a series of lectures by Professor Michael Drout, in which he entertainingly espouses the beauty of grammar, the importance of understanding it and the joy of playing with it. He also bemoans the serious lack of understanding that people, and even undergraduate English students, have of it. He thinks that a lot of the problem is that most of us are scared of grammar for a number of historical reasons.
The first is the sheer complexity of the English language, and in particular the numbers of rules there are, coupled with the fact that there are usually more exceptions to the rules than otherwise. But he clearly explains how each of these exceptions is down to the unique and complicated history of the language. Whereas many languages had a fairly straightforward, organic development, the English language is actually layered by the many invasions of the British Isles (he uses the metaphor of a road that centuries ago was a deer track in a forest, and then became a hunter’s path, followed by a bridleway, a B road and then a motorway. All the other incarnations are still contained within, or just under, the latest embodiment of the route). Although it shares it roots, like all Indo-European languages, with the language of a tribe living in the Kyrgyzstani area of Southern Russia, it has a series of layers which were laid down one on top of the other, beginning with British Celtic, the ancestor of Cornish, Welsh and Gaelic, which was mainly stamped out by the Roman Invasion. After the Romans left, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes began to migrate to this fertile land left empty by the Romans. This is the true ancestor of English, and many of our words still go back to this time. Then we have the Viking invasions, which introduced many Norse words, followed by the Norman Conquest. This already eclectic mix was added to with the growth of the British Empire and so, we effectively have at least five different grammatically and linguistically distinct systems working together, thus explaining the bewildering variety of rules and exceptions in English.
The second reason he thinks we’re scared of it is because, historically, the British Education System taught students the rules, without explaining the reasons for the rules. And if students didn’t memorise these rules they were beaten. The worst thing here is that many of the rules (like the prohibition of the split infinitive) were actually nothing to do with English and were in fact taken from Latin, the rationale being that the more English grammar could be made to fit with Latin, the better it would be. So in our collective cultural memories we still have the image of the militant, violent grammar teacher, flogging innocent children to within an inch of their lives for failing to remember the correct inflection of some obscure verb conjugation.
I had first-hand experience of the shortcomings a lack of grammatical education causes. When I left university I decided to go and be a TEFL teacher in Spain. Before this, I thought it would be a good idea to try and learn Spanish and so I went and spent three months living in Barcelona (it was only when I arrived that I discovered that Barcelona wasn’t really Spain and that the Spanish spoken there was very different to the Castilian of the south). I enrolled in a month-long intensive Spanish course and ended up in a class with two other English people and another 15 people from a variety of European countries, including Germany, Holland and Norway. As the course went on I realised that the English students were at a serious disadvantage; the other students talked comfortably to the teacher about various word classes and their position in sentences, about direct and indirect objects and about different participles and verb-tense agreements. But to us this was a whole new language, and because we didn’t have the tools (i.e. knowledge and vocabulary) to talk about these aspects of language, we fell behind very quickly.
So, what I want for my students, whether they’re in year 7 or 11, is the ability to be able to speak comfortably and confidently about the various grammatical elements so that they can move beyond this point in order to understand how the language works, and why certain word and grammar choices affect the reader in the way they do. To aid this, I’ve made a display in my room that shows the word classes and their functions, and I’m currently working on one that demonstrates how a tree diagram shows how sentences are made up of word classes, phrases and clauses. Yesterday, I spent a full lesson with a year 10 group playing about with a single sentence: Lazily, the old wizened pedlar sat at the edge of the water, gazing longingly at the distant, blue horizon. We looked at how changing certain word types changed the meaning of the whole sentence. For example, if we replaced the first adverbial with “crazily” or “furiously”, how would this change the mental image we had of what the pedlar was doing? What if we changed the preposition, for example with “on” or “under”? What I think the students began to understand was that developing an understanding of the way language works (the underlying grammar) allows students to actually have fun with the language because they can play with it. It’s like mastering the rules of any game; football, snap or chess. If you don’t know the rules and have the basic skills, it just looks like a horrible, confusing mess. But once you have the basic skills and knowledge of the rules then you can compete in the game and really start to enjoy participating. There was a lot of laughter in the lesson yesterday, particularly when thinking about the substitution of prepositions with other prepositions. Consider the phrase “Lipa jumped over the wall”. Try changing “over” to “through” or “into”. The whole meaning of the sentence is changed. And it’s not that this focus on grammar is hard to think about, it’s just that we don’t think about it explicitly often enough. This is in fact the basis of most comedy; good comedians take our basic cultural pre-programming and play with it by substituting words with unexpected ones that have the same grammatical function. The new unexpected meaning catches us out and the new, surprising mental image makes us laugh.
Hopefully then, when my new year 11s are sitting their exams next June, they will be able to write confidently about how an author’s particular choice of modal verb or adverbial phrase causes the reader to react in certain ways, and will be able to manipulate their own choices in their writing in an objective, “meta-linguistic” way. I suppose really, if I take the selfish, cynical perspective, I just want classes full of expert linguists with whom I can spend our lessons doing interesting and exciting things with language. Let’s see how it pans out.
This year I have been trying to use a common sense approach to challenge and differentiation. Rather than slavishly accept the doctrine to dumb down my resources and make the language of explanations “accessible” (read “easy”), I’ve ensured that my students have been given deliberately difficult language and concepts to deal with, and given them the time and support to understand them. As you might expect, this takes a little longer when you’re dealing with a “low ability” set full of kids who all have SEN statements that label them as failures and strugglers in one form or another. This week my Set 5 SEN group sat the most difficult controlled assessment they will have to do, comparing a Shakespeare play to a range of poems. Where we previously would teach them the Shakespeare, write part of the controlled assessment, teach the poetry and then write another bit of the controlled assessment, followed by a last comparative section written at the end, this time I decided to teach them the whole lot and get them to write it in one go: a true academic and intellectual challenge. The results have been rather pleasing. Although 5 out of a group of nearly 20 still ended up with E and F grades, which is what I’d have expected from the whole group if I’d been teaching under my previous pedagogical methods, the rest of the group’s grades ranged from B- down to D. In a group of this type, I think this shows exceptional performance from these students. So how has a change in teaching methods allowed this to happen?
Let’s first look at what this approach isn’t. It isn’t a case of tweaking resources to make language easier to read or putting lots of pictures on the page to make the text easier on the eye. It isn’t about providing a range of objectives at the start of each lesson that cap aspiration and allow most students to give up after making minimal progress (i.e. those of “must, should, could” or “all, most, some” variety). And it isn’t about providing the students with the criteria that they need to hit their school target. All of these negative approaches smack of the philosophy of differentiation that I’ve been encouraged to use since qualifying in 2005 and which, over the last 18 months, I’ve been making a concerted effort to get away from. But enough of the negativity; here follows a summary of the four main things I think teachers can do to improve student engagement.
The first thing is to have unflinchingly high expectations, not just of the achievement of students but of their approach to their learning (“behaviour for learning” in the jargon). I’ve realised that the biggest obstacle facing our students is the behaviour that they’ve learnt is acceptable from years of not being challenged and from being allowed to bandy about excuse labels, usually provided by school support departments. I make my students realise that I will not accept anything but total immersion in what we are doing in the classroom. In reality I know that this doesn’t happen all the time, but I try to make sure that I never cease to challenge disengagement or avoidance behaviour. Learning is bloody hard work, and the sooner they realise this, the better. The only way to improve and get better is to throw themselves into it and tackle it to the best of their ability. The real difficulty here is knowing that this approach may not be applied across the board meaning that in some learning environments they may be allowed to coast along unchallenged, providing they’re not disruptive. Until CPD is perfected, this will always be the case. But you’ve got to train them to know that when they walk into your room it’s hard work and total immersion in the task at hand and that the reward is in the progress they make and the learning they take away.
The second thing I do is use lots of positive praise and reinforcement where due, both for good behaviour for learning and for great work. I think this is really important as even as a grown adult I know that praise makes me feel good when I’ve done a job that deserves it. But this must be praise only wherever and whenever it’s due. I NEVER praise a student who hasn’t put in a really good effort or who has produced sub-standard work. This would clearly be ridiculous as they would simply go about believing that their unacceptable work is fine. But equally, when work and behaviour are substandard, I never “tell them off”. I try to look disappointed and a little bewildered, and then make sure we get to the bottom of exactly what the problem is and how we can rectify this next time. This is simply giving good quality and honest feedback that will allow them to improve.
The third thing I do is make sure I have lots of visible and eye-catching posters around the room that reinforce the message of unflinchingly high expectations and that I can constantly refer to during lessons. One of the most common phrases I hear in lessons is “I don’t get it”. I hate this. It doesn’t mean anything. I suppose what they’re really saying is “I give up” or “Do it for me”. I believe that many teachers and TAs will accept the former and bow down to the latter. But I don’t want this from my students. I want them to formulate a sensible question that will allow them make progress towards their goal. So I have a poster that reads:
““I don’t get it”. STOP. Now think of a question to make sure you do.”
Every time I hear “I don’t get it”, I point to this poster. I also have a poster that demonstrates the “Brain, book, buddy, boss” principle. Every time a student asks me for help I point to this and verify that they’ve been through all these stages before using me as a last resort. It’s all about cultivating self-confidence and resilience and transforming the negative culture of dependency into a positive culture of self-reliance. The other really useful poster I have is one that has a representation of the learning process and shows how failure is a necessary stop-off on the route to success. Every time a student tells me they just can’t do something or that they keep doing it wrong I refer to this and remind them that FAIL stands for “first attempt in learning” (which I have written on my classroom window ready to refer to). In this case, it’s about making them realise that mastery of anything is just about lots of focussed, deliberate practice and acting sensibly on teacher and peer feedback.
The other thing I’ve found really useful this year is employing SOLO taxonomy in planning. I won’t go into this as you can read about it in my previous blogs (the ones with “SOLO” as part of the title), but suffice to say that I’ve been trying to include students more in the planning process and have been making the skills and knowledge they need to gain throughout a topic available to them before they start. This, I’ve found, gives them a greater stake in the SoL and makes them more proactive in thinking about lesson content and what learning looks like. Tied into this is making sure that I give students examples of excellent work, always of A-A* standard and lots of chances to deconstruct it with highlighters, scissors, felt tips or whatever they prefer to use so that they can see how it works, followed by lots of time to practise creating their own examples of great work that is open to both peer and teacher scrutiny and receives lots of helpful feedback that they can use to improve. In my former teacher-self, I would have given each student examples of work that was levelled at their target for them to deconstruct. I now berate my former self for this capping of aspiration and achievement. As that awful saying goes, “aim for the moon and you’ll land among the stars”. Now, every student aims for the highest criteria possible.
So to conclude, this year I’ve realised that I’ve been doing differentiation all wrong up until now. I believe it is all about expectations and support and about adapting your teaching to individuals in order to change their culture and habits where these are detrimental to the learning of themselves or others, rather than making resources more accessible or easier to read. All this approach does is to allow the perpetuation of a culture of dependency which will set students up to fail in the real world (I talked a bit about this in a previous post entitled “Dyslexia, Fonts and Football”). And that really is doing them a disservice. What we want is to create successful people who are up for a challenge and enjoy doing things well. Allow them to coast or disengage and they will coast through life and disengage from the challenges that await them in the big, wide world.