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Lessons in Grammar `Hindering` Pupil`s Writing Development

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The University of Exeter has published a report stating that both primary and secondary schools are placing more emphasis on `grammatical acrobatics` as opposed to well composed sentences. The university has been investigating how schools teach grammar for a number of years, and has come up with some unsettling results.

Most schools teach grammar in a tried and tested manner, explaining how an adjective is a describing word, and a verb is a doing word: a didactic method familiar to everyone. What the University of Exeter`s study has revealed is that this way of teaching can actually confuse pupils, and is not conducive to a fluent and natural writing style.

Helen Lines is one of the authors of the study, and expressed her concerns with this formulaic way of teaching: `Quite often those definitions rely on a surface part of the structure, rather than addressing the grammatical idea behind the terminology.`

One example of this would be something called the `comma sandwich`, which is a simple rule that says a clause should be flanked by commas on either side. What this rule fails to take into consideration is the actual function relative clauses serve in sentences, while also permitting mechanical sentences to be constructed, without any consideration of creating an intelligible, flowing style.

Teaching grammatical rules in an abstract manner, away from meaningful sentences, can hinder a child`s understanding; and the report was critical of traditional teaching methods: `The necessity to use technical terms with pupils, such as `subordinate clause` or `subjunctive` remains a question open to research, but it is doubtful that attention to such terms is beneficial.`

Debra Myhill, who lead the study, said that `the key stage 2 teacher assessment creates a sense that good writing is about demonstrating grammatical acrobatics and getting things in.` The study concluded with the advice that pupils should certainly be taught grammatical rules, but this should be in conjunction with the context and style of the writing.

`Based on our research findings, we believe that an effective pedagogy for writing should include explicit grammar teaching which draws attention to the linguistic choices and possibilities available to children and which has at its heart the creative shaping of text.`

The report went on to list four key principles which could be efficacious in teaching grammatical rules - one of these was showing how grammatical terms are actually used in contexts the children can relate to. This could be done by using the past tense to talk about a holiday a child has been on - while contrasting another sentence describing a holiday they plan to go on in the future. Another technique could be showing how a single-clause sentence can begin a paragraph by boldly expressing its main idea.

Further points of the report suggested to refraining from teaching grammatical artefacts in a dry, academic way. Teachers should strive at all times to use them in sentences the children will be interested in. The modal verbs - can; could; may; might; must; shall; should; will; would; ought to - are notorious examples of linguistic features that are taught in a sterile manner, almost as if the children were learning them in isolation, as they might learn irregular verbs in another language.

I am adamant the best way for a child to become proficient in writing English (or indeed any language) is engender within them a love for reading it. Surely the best way for a child to learn the finer nuances of grammar is for them to be immersed in a story - to be carried away with enthusiasm page by page, so that the process of reading almost becomes transparent - invisible behind the tale. It would be a sad thing indeed if the rise of the smartphone put people off reading. Children take to them so naturally, and websites usually favour concision when it comes to actual text. For many they will always be more enticing than books - they are certainly easier on the eyes in the dark; but they may etiolate the imagination, and lead to many missing out on the joys of literature.

12 months ago
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