On Teaching Grammar

In Teaching English by Alex Quigley4 Comments

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I was drawn to teaching English for a whole host of reasons. Primarily, it was due to a deep love for the nourishing power of literature and stories. It was because the power of literature could, metaphorically, and sometimes literally, lift me out of a slough of despond, or buffer me against the depressing crashes of circumstance. Like Hector, from Alan Bennet’s ‘The History Boys‘, I wanted to “pass it on“. ‘It’ being an authentic love of literature and a deepening knowledge of the best of what has been thought and written.

My first thought on embarking upon my dodgem-like teacher training was not the teaching of noun phrases or the infinite complexities of syntax, it was what stories to choose and share. The seemingly functional tools of syntax simply didn’t inspire the same emotion or interest in students, so it became a secondary consideration. A distant second to the stories.

I’d liken the difference to architecture. I have been in awe-inspiring buildings, like St Peters in Rome. Stepping through the hallowed aisles inspires a feeling of something of the sublime. The whole building, the edifice of the ‘story’, was the thing. The unseen intricacies of the internal brickwork, plaster and marble construction, that hold up the whole edifice, become a secondary, more rational consideration. Such is the parallel between grammar and the ‘story’.

And yet the dichotomy of ‘story’, poetry and feeling separated from form, grammar and structure robs us of understanding.

Only recently, on reading a passage from ‘To The Lighthouse’, by Virginia Woolf, I was struck by the lyricism and beguiling rhythm of her sentences:

“She had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!”

Form and function created the feeling I experienced. It is the often implicit structures of syntax and grammar that are the very essence of literature. Geoff Barton has argued that we must make the implicit stuff of language explicit. Teaching grammar, and using the metalanguage of grammar, is one essential aspect of doing just that. I ask myself now how I could teach this lyricism of Woolf without a focus on syntax and structure.

The more I reflect on language and literature, the more I realise that being able to know, control and manipulate syntax is the master skill for all writers. It is therefore, in my view, essential to teaching and learning. It is an essential ‘threshold concept‘. We should revisit, repeat, ‘drill and skill’ with an explicit focus on syntax and the unending complexity of the sentence.

We are now putting the finishing touches to a new KS3 curriculum in our English department. From studying the story of the history of language, including the basic components of a sentence, to the complex, satirical sentences of Swift, then on to the poised, clear sentences of Orwell, syntax can be taught explicitly and repeatedly. We can tell the story of syntax. Simply compare a typical sentence in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, or ‘Great Expectations’, and compare it with typical contemporary prose. The variations are rich and instructive.

Many English teachers are uneasy about teaching spelling, punctuation and grammar. When I started teaching I was much the same. I hadn’t been taught grammar with regularity when I was at school and a truth for most teachers is that our experience of school is powerfully influential on how we come to teach. For most teachers, of every subject persuasion, there is an anxiety about teaching grammar due to an insecure grasp of that very body of knowledge.

The only answer is to learn more, know more and practice to make that tricky grammar knowledge permanent.

We need to balance the teaching of ‘story’ and the syntax, in English, and across the curriculum.

Put simply, you cannot have a great story without utter control and crafting of syntax and grammar (even when breaking notional formal rules of grammar). Form is inextricably intwined with function. We need to therefore plan, teach and explicitly repeat our teaching of grammar and syntax on an equal footing with the time and effort we give over to the teaching of stories.

I have much work to do to improve my teaching of grammar and syntax, but with a new assessment model looming into view that emphasises grammar more than ever, if we can teach grammar and syntax better then the rewards for our students will be immense.

Related reading:

– It is #Englishweek on the TES. Chris Curtis has written an excellent blog for the TES entitled ‘Grammar on the New Curriculum‘ – see here.

I also shared a short blog about the KS3 English curriculum we are devising at Huntington entitled ‘Twilight or Middlemarch?‘ We still have much to do in ensuring that grammar is taught successfully – see here.

Comments

  1. Not being an English teacher I can in no way criticise how to teach the subject – but I would be interested to find out how many of the “great” writer you mention were explicitly taught syntax as children?

    1. Author

      I expect the vast majority. Explicit grammar teaching and drills used to be a quite traditional, commonplace approach. Ever since education began, with the trivium, grammar teaching has been rooted in the practice of teaching. I am not advocating a traditionalist approach exclusively. I think we have a wealth of pedagogical approaches we can apply, but we shouldn’t shy away from being explicit about grammar teaching.

  2. I guess a lot of teaching happens at home. Some of the learning also happens through reading, while a big portion happens depending on the crowd you are around. The presence of all or any of these factors could affect a person’s knowledge in the language.

  3. Pingback: Teaching Grammar | lincolnshirelottie

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