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26th March 2016: The grammar teaching debate

The teaching of grammar has been a hot topic of debate in the news recently, with academics, authors and teachers all bringing their views to the table. Interestingly, when you speak to people about their own school experience, the majority feel that they didn’t receive much of a grammar education. Yet they have been successful- so why the debate?

If you look at the new framework, and indeed the SAT papers themselves, our ten and eleven year olds are expected to know how to construct passive sentences (because we use them often in our everyday lives!), subjunctive forms (think Beyonce’s If I were a boy) and progressive aspects of tense amongst other technical features.

As a secondary English teacher and Head of Department, I must admit I never taught any of these features of grammar, especially in isolation, because although we all know that it is much more meaningful to be taught in context (think Grammar for Writing all those years back), the average primary teacher has so much to fit into each day that worksheets are commonplace as a quick tick-the-box exercise. But how can we get round this?

In England and Wales, we teach a lot of Shakespeare. I think it pertinent to mention that somehow I managed to survive my secondary experience in Scotland without so much as a sniff of our nation’s most prominent playwright. Over the last couple of years, his work has become even more important, so much so that my department and local colleagues had training from The Globe. It was fantastic (if you ever get the opportunity then seize it with both hands) and really helped to bring the language to life in a way that my students would understand. We would analyse all aspects of the text and write about it: the language, the sentence construction, mirrored scenes, soliloquies. The list was endless and grammar laden. But not once did I need to point out features of grammar explicitly, though this is what we were discussing.

Bridging the gap between primary and secondary education is something that intrigues me. Now that I have taught in both sectors, I have a greater understanding of the different ways we approach texts, and to my dismay, I realised that the exam factory I knew well (and loathed at times) at GCSE level was the same factory as the KS2 SATs. As the test draws nearer, so does the panic- will enough children make it? Out come past papers; a paper churning exercise that would make all us eco-teachers internally (and sometimes externally if the mood strikes us) scream. Where is the context? Where is the fun?

What I aim to show teachers is that there is a way forward; a way of teaching children grammar that is meaningful and enjoyable. But in the meantime, warm up that photocopier!

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