In the previous step we asked you for your thoughts about English grammar, and to share those thoughts with your fellow learners. Now, for many of you, learning about grammar may not be something that you’ll enjoy. You may have been asked to teach it, and you may be worried about it.
So it’s valid to ask the question: ‘What is grammar and why should we teach it at all?’
Let’s start with the question ‘What is grammar?’ Grammar is the study of the structure of sentences, so it looks at which are the bits and pieces, the building blocks of sentences, and how they are made up. We can’t put words in any order that we like, so I can’t say ‘Of study structure sentences grammar’. That’s not a sentence of English. We all know this, but what are the principles underlying how we build sentences? How are they constructed? That’s what grammar is about. When you teach grammar, what you need to bear in mind is ‘appropriateness’, though. In many grammar courses the aim is on what’s correct and what’s incorrect. But in this course we’re far more concerned with what’s appropriate.
Your pupils need to learn when they can use a particular form of language and when they can’t. So what that means in practice is that they need to learn about Standard English. There’s nothing wrong with speaking a particular accent or dialect, but we need to bear in mind that what children need to profit from is learning Standard English. This is the variety of English that is used in newspapers, in the media, and that is a form of language that you need to master if you want to get on in the world. Now we’re all experts in grammar already.
When I gave you that nonsense sentence a moment ago, when I jumbled up the words in the first sentence on this slide, you knew that that wasn’t English. So we already know a lot of grammar already. What this course aims to do is make that implicit knowledge explicit. So why study grammar? You may wonder about that. You may think well the curriculum is already overloaded. Why should we teach grammar on top of everything else that we already teach? Well, one answer is that language is central to all our lives. We use it all the time. I’m using it now to communicate with you, and if you didn’t know English you wouldn’t understand a word I was saying.
So language plays an enormously important role in all our lives. So it makes sense for us all to know a little bit about how it works, how it’s structured. And also by knowing a bit about language, which is so central in all our lives, understanding a little bit of who we are. It’s sometimes said the study of language, language is like ‘a mirror of the mind’. By knowing about language we understand a little bit more about who we are. Of course, language is also part of our culture and identity, the place where we live. It may not be your pupils’ first language, but whichever language is their first language, that language and also English, because they are learning English, will be central in their lives too.
And it’s very important, by the way, not to discourage their own use of language, and to celebrate diversity in your pupils’ use of language. Now we need to study grammar and language for the same reasons, I think, that we study literature and art and history. Those are not subjects that you really need to know. That’s not the reason really why we studied them. We studied those subjects because they enrich us. So there’s no need at all to have ever read any Shakespeare in your life or to have ever heard of Queen Victoria in your life when you can lead a very rich and rewarding life without ever having heard of Shakespeare or Queen Victoria, but it makes your life just that little bit less rich.
If you do know about these people, about history, about art, about literature then your life is enriched, and it will give you tremendous enjoyment. And for the same reason we should really know a little bit about language, because that too plays such an enormous role in our lives. Now, knowing a bit about grammar terminology gives you what we sometimes call a metalanguage to talk about language, and you might want to talk about language when you discuss poems or plays or novels at a later stage. And knowing how authors use language, knowing how they use the resources that are made available to them, can help you understand literature and poetry much better, so that’s another good reason for learning languages. Language also helps us learn foreign languages.
You can’t really learn Spanish without knowing about adjectives. Adjectives occur after nouns in Spanish; before nouns in English, so if you know a little bit of grammar, that really helps you learn foreign languages. Language may also improve writing ability. More research needs to be done about this, but there are some indications that it can help pupils learn to write better, and of course learning to write is absolutely centrally important in all our lives.
There are two attitudes to grammar: one is called ‘prescriptivism’ and the other ‘descriptivism’.
We firmly take the second course of action: we are interested in describing how language is used. We’re not really here to prescribe, to tell you what to say and what not to say, so ‘Don’t end a sentence with a preposition’ is not the kind of thing that we’re very interested in. We’re interested in describing language as it’s used, because after all it’s the language users that decide what a language looks like, and how it will look like in the future. So what makes for a good grammar pedagogy? Well, we believe there are two components to this. On the one hand a solid subject knowledge of the principles underlying grammar. And this means that you need to know about grammatical
form and grammatical function, which I introduced a bit earlier.
Grammatical form: the building blocks of language, and grammatical function is about how those units function in sentences. The two levels, and how they are related, will be a central theme throughout this course. Now, next to the subject knowledge we also believe that a good grammar pedagogy involves using online technology to ‘do grammar’. So what we mean by ‘doing grammar’ is to use exercise materials, to use games online that will enhance pupils learning about English grammar. So a playful way to learn about grammar, especially in the early years, will really make a big difference in your pupils’ enjoyment about learning about grammar. We like to link grammatical features to a discussion of meaning.
So if you use a fronted adverbial - and I’ll tell you a lot more about those later on - if you use a frontal adverbial, what effect does that have on the meaning of a sentence? And we’ll see that that maligned notion of a fronted adverbial can actually be really useful in in the teaching of grammar and the enjoyment that your pupils have of learning about grammar. We like to use age-appropriate examples. Obviously it’s no good using complicated sentences with complicated vocabulary for Year 2 or 3 students. They need to use, we need to use sentences that appeal to them. And finally, we need to look at grammar in context. How does grammar work in different narrative settings, such as stories, poems and so forth?
In the next video I’ll take a closer look at the specifications of the National Curriculum.