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Learn From The Masters

  • Learn From The Masters

Getting children fired up about punctuation and grammar doesn’t have to be a superhuman feat of planning. Just start with a good book, says James Clements...

With forty-nine pages of appendices and glossaries devoted to spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation, it would be something of an understatement to say the 2014 National Curriculum touches lightly on these aspects of English. It even lays out the specific terminology teachers are required to use for different features of English. From now on, ‘speech marks’ must only be referred to as ‘inverted commas’ and ‘complex sentences’ are to be known by the catchy ‘multi-clause sentences’. As for anyone caught referring to an embedded clause as a ‘comma sandwich’...

While the new curriculum outlines what should be taught to each year group in considerable detail, what it doesn’t do is provide teachers with the how, stating that all of this content provides merely ‘the structure on which to construct exciting lessons’.

So just how can we turn this apparently dry list of statements featuring fronted adverbials, auxiliary verbs and cohesive devices into ‘exciting lessons’?

In some classrooms, ICT programmes, games or songs will provide a way of firing up children’s enthusiasm for SPaG. However, one of the easiest and most effective ways is to start with a good book.

Learning about language through the context of a high-quality piece of writing, rather than through a series of discrete exercises on grammar and punctuation, enables children to see how language really works. It can help them to understand how and why writers have made specific choices with language, and they can also learn about the relationship between grammar and punctuation – that is, that they do not work independently of one another. Whether taught through whole-class English lessons or through guided reading, children can see English language features in context and practice using the challenging technical language in the National Curriculum with an adult at hand to deal with any possible misconceptions.

Key Stage 1- Elmer, by David McKee

Elmer is well-loved by children (and adults) the world over. It’s a popular choice in many Key Stage 2 classrooms. The teaching often focuses on the engaging story, beautiful illustrations, and message that ‘it’s good to be different’. However, the deceptively simple text is perfect for teaching English language in context.

At a simple level, Elmer features full stops and capital letters, question marks, exclamation marks, hyphens, commas, colons and direct speech, and this provides children with the opportunity to discuss how and why they are being used.

The real benefits of using a high-quality text as the starting point for teaching SPaG can be seen when children are given the opportunity to explore how different language structures can be combined to create effective writing. For example, looking at the first description of Elmer the Elephant:

‘Elmer was different. Elmer was patchwork. Elmer was yellow and orange and red and pink and purple and blue and green and black and white. Elmer was not elephant colour.’

Children can see that beginning each sentence with ‘Elmer’ adds emphasis to the description, and the short, matter-of-fact sentences contrast with the longer multi-clause sentence. They can then discuss how the very long sentence listing Elmer’s colours breaks ‘the rules’ about how many clauses a sentence should have and how many times you can use the word ‘and’, but that it does this deliberately for effect. Children will find reading the sentence aloud in one breath a real struggle – the jumble of words cascading out of their mouths emphasising just how many colours are in his patchwork. In fact the book is full of sentences constructed in different ways with embedded clauses and fronted adverbials adding extra information about the characters and story.

The final page of Elmer gives children the opportunity to identify how the tense and voice of a book can change. Up until this point the book has been in the past tense, telling the story of Elmer as a third-person narrative, but suddenly the voice changes and the author speaks directly to the reader: ‘On that day if you happen to see an elephant…’. Children can discuss why the author has chosen to end the story in this way, and the effect it has on them as readers.

Key Stage 2 - The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Like Elmer, this is a wonderful book with rich characters and a captivating storyline. It also provides many opportunities to teach children how different language features can be used to create a specific effect, locating them in a text and analysing the reason an author has chosen to employ them.

The opening few pages of chapter 3, for example, provide a rich example of how grammar, punctuation and sentence structure work together to create atmosphere. Children can work sentence by sentence through the scene where Mole finds himself alone in the Wild Wood, identifying and discussing how the language the author chooses shows Mole’s terror at what he finds there. Short, punchy sentences provide a sense of pace, while longer, multi-clause sentences convey Mole’s growing confusion: ‘He ran up against things, he fell over and into things, he darted under things and dodged around things.’ The scene features repeated one-sentence paragraphs to show the level of danger building, moment by moment:

‘Then the faces began.’

‘Then the whistling began.’

‘Then the pattering began.’

Repetition of words within sentences shows Mole’s hesitancy: ‘And he – he was alone.’ Throughout the chapter the author uses questions to put the reader into the role of Mole:

‘Was it in front or behind?’

‘Hunting, chasing, closing in round something – or somebody?’

‘Perhaps even safety, but who could tell?’

The whole scene is a masterclass in writing for suspense, and The Wind in the Willows is packed full of great examples of writing for different effects. Learning the specific terminology and rules of English shouldn’t just be an end in itself: the value lies in learning to use language for a specific effect. A good command of grammar and punctuation gives children the means to express themselves with clarity and to communicate their ideas to different audiences for a range of different purposes.

Ultimately, if children are going to learn to use language effectively, they should learn from the very best.

Teaching tricky objectives

Here are some other books that are great for breathing life into the language features outlined in the new National Curriculum:

Year 1 - Capital letters for names

Hairy Maclary, by Lynley Dodd – Each of these well-loved characters has a memorable name, perfect for children getting to invent their own dogs (and remember the capital letter!).

Year 2 - Correct use of present tense and past tense throughout writing Oh No, George!, by Chris Haughton – This wonderful book is perfect for exploring tenses as, unusually for a picture book, it is written in the present tense.

Year 3 - Using conjunctions, adverbs and prepositions to express time, place and cause The Last Polar Bears by Harry Horse – Managing to be wonderfully imaginative, funny and poignant in equal measure, this book, written in the form of Grandfather’s letters from the North Pole, is full of descriptions of time and place.

Year 4 - Use of commas after fronted adverbials Clockwork, by Philip Pullman – An intricate and engaging story-within-a-story that makes use of beautifully-constructed sentences with plenty of examples of fronted adverbials to give the reader additional information.

Year 5 - Standard English forms for verb inflections instead of local spoken forms I know What You Did Last Wednesday, by Anthony Horowitz – this story, featuring the Diamond brothers, is packed with opportunities to compare informal spoken language with Standard English.

Year 6 - Use of hyphens to avoid ambiguity Night of the Gargoyles, by Eve Bunting – This poetic picture book features examples of hyphens for a range of purposes. That’s not the only reason to read it, though – it is beautiful and full of exquisite language.

About the Author

James Clements is an English adviser and the director of Shakespeareandmore.com

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Pie Corbett