Teaching Grammar: a confession.

I had an unexpectedly cracking lesson with my mixed ability year 9 group this week. But I shouldn’t have. Oh no, forgive me Lord, I really shouldn’t have.

You see, I’m ashamed to admit that we didn’t do any group work. And I didn’t plan for their “learning styles”. I’m sorry to have to come clean and tell you that “discovery learning” was nowhere to be found. What was more unforgivable was that volume of “teacher talk” was through the ceiling. And worse still, there was absolutely none of that “differentiation by task” that apparently makes a good lesson.  In fact, all I really did was stand at the front and teach them some grammar. This was on Thursday, and still I’m unable to lift my head and meet the accusing and disappointed eyes of my colleagues. Through my traditionalist approach to the teaching of such an outmoded and outdated topic, I’ve let down my school and the profession generally.

Anyway, enough of the wallowing confession. This is how it happened.

I had planned for a lesson in which students would spend up to half an hour going back through their books correcting and improving their work in response to my written feedback, after which they would move on to planning and drafting a piece of biographical writing. At first, all went well. Students busily went about their work and I circulated to support them and answer their questions. Half a dozen of them had a similar comment in their book, which was something like:

“Try to create more complex sentence structures by opening some sentences with adverbial and prepositional clauses.”

Ten minutes into the lesson it became apparent that none of them knew what this meant, and I felt it would be beneficial to everyone in the class to “do some grammar”. So I called a temporary halt to what the class was doing and began a bit of old-school chalk and talk (without the blackboard and chalk, obviously). I’ve always felt that the best way to teach the building up of complex sentence structures is by starting with simple sentences, building up through compound sentences, and then liberally dropping in subordinate clauses around that compound sentence.

So I asked one student for a simple sentence. Her response was “I can’t think of one”. I thanked her very much and wrote on the board “Carrie couldn’t think of one.” (Students’ names are changed here by the way). I then asked why this was a simple sentence, and it took a bit of gentle steering and targeted questioning before one bright spark finally realised that it only had one verb in it. When I asked the group how we could turn it into a compound sentence, Gemma offered the wise idea of adding more information using a connective (I’m kicking myself now for not reminding her that it’s a conjunction, not a connective), and somebody else realised that we’d need another verb phrase (although he didn’t use that term, and again, I didn’t correct him – two missed opportunities in almost as many minutes!). When I asked for a suggestion, Carrie called “but Tom thought of one for her!” (great – she was getting it). That went straight on the board and we were then free to talk about how and where to add in adverbial and prepositional phrases (once we’d cleared up the differences between the two).

I elicited several examples of different subordinate clauses that could be slotted in and around the original sentence, and with a different coloured board pen I wrote them on the board with an arrow pointing where they could go, after getting students to explain why they could go there (I probably missed an opportunity here and should have let the kids come and write their ideas on the board whilst the class scrutinised and argued about what they were doing).

By the end of it we ended up with something like “Unfortunately, whilst sitting in the classroom, Carrie, who usually knows it all, couldn’t think of a simple sentence, but Tom, who thought he was much cleverer, kindly thought of one for her”. Clearly, this isn’t the most elegant sentence in the world, but it was just about what I was hoping for because every bit of it had been thoroughly discussed and explained by the students. We then discussed the potential changes in the meaning of the sentence if we played around with the adverb, so that Tom “savagely” or “cunningly” or “spitefully” or “violently” thought of one for her. This brought about lots of giggles.

As we were all in high spirits after this discussion, I decided to take a bit of a risk and gave them a new sentence to play with: “Mr Warner drove to work”. There were some fantastic responses to this, but I think my favourite was “Joyfully, Mr Warner, a barbaric savage, drove to work to brutally discipline the cowering children”. I thought this was a perfect sentence in regard to the traditional, old-fashioned, stereotypical grammar lesson we’d had (I bet this fictional Mr Warner was probably going to teach some good old-fashioned grammar after getting the discipline out of the way).

Unfortunately, I suddenly realised was that the lesson was almost over and we’d spent 40 minutes “just playing” with language. Everyone had had a good laugh, but most importantly they’d been “doing grammar”, which should be the cornerstone of all English teaching. And I’m pretty confident that all of the kids in that room now have a much better idea of the whys and hows of sentence construction.

Two years ago, in a blog entitled “Embedding Grammar: developing subject specialists in English”, I’d promised myself that I’d do a lot more of this kind of thing, but, like so many ideas, this went by the wayside in the race to cover content.  And yet explicitly teaching and revisiting grammar is so important. Moreover, it’s something that our students will need to be experts in if they are to do well in the new English GCSEs. But the best thing about it is that in actual fact exploring the effect of grammatical fiddling is actually a bloody good laugh. So, note to self: I MUST TEACH MORE GRAMMAR!

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

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