Grammar and the Art of Writing: ResearchED Literacy

Here is a write up of the presentation I gave at ResearchED Literacy in Swindon yesterday, in case anyone missed it and is interested in what I have to say about grammar (feel free not to be!).

 

What makes a good writer?

When I first began teaching English, I thought carefully about what it meant to be a great writer, and how I might be able to help my pupils get better at writing themselves. At the time, I was reading ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates. It has since become one of my favourite books, and I re-read it at least once every year. The story is good, but I adore Yates’ writing style. There’s something beautiful about the way it flows. Struck by a couple of wonderfully rich, yet concise, sentences of his, I came to a conclusion. I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses. So that is what I needed to help my pupils get better at: controlling clauses. By beginning with a clear goal in mind, it is easier to understand the direction and purpose of grammar teaching. From there, I began working out what knowledge pupils needed to know in order to be able to control clauses effectively.

 

Parts of Speech

Joe Kirby began sequencing a grammar curriculum into three parts: the parts of speech, syntax rules, and punctuation rules. I agreed that these were helpful categories.

 

One of the main criticisms grammar receives is that parsing sentences is a waste of time. I hear some teachers say that knowing that the word ‘run’ can be both a noun and a verb is unnecessary. I can understand why some may see it this way. On the surface, knowing the parts of speech doesn’t appear to be particularly useful. However, since I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come across a number of examples that demonstrate why this knowledge is in fact extremely helpful.

 

Take the following examples:

 

He married an intelligent, charismatic woman.

 

He wore a bright red coat.

 

Why is a comma necessary in the first sentence, but not the second? The parts of speech hold the answer: ‘intelligent’ and ‘charismatic’ are two adjectives and therefore should be separated by a comma. ‘Bright’, however, is an adverb modifying the adjective ‘red’, so no comma is necessary. Knowledge of the parts of speech also enables us to understand why we say a ‘bright red coat’ rather than a ‘red bright coat’. Red does not qualify the adjective bright; rather, the adverb ‘bright’ tells us how red the coat is.

 

Whilst most people will intuit this knowledge, many people will not. As teachers, we should be as systematic as possible to ensure that every pupil knows how to punctuate sentences properly. Even the humble listing comma cannot be applied correctly without an understanding of the parts of speech.

 

I gave more examples of this during the talk. I’ve attached the presentation to the bottom of this blog post if you’d like to read more on this.

 

Sequencing

Sequencing a grammar curriculum is key. I argue that it ought to have 20% of curriculum time at KS3. Over three years, pupils ought to study 9 units.

 

Year 7: The basics of the parts of speech, syntax and punctuation. These units should provide a broad overview. For example, when teaching the parts of speech, you wouldn’t want to go into the detail of types of nouns (proper, common, abstract, etc.) as this will overload pupils. Instead, simply teach them what a noun is. Come back to nouns in year 8 and then teach the different types.

 

Year 8: Detailed breakdown of the same three units. Here is your opportunity to teach the more nuanced aspects of what was taught the year before.

 

Year 9: Deepen pupils’ knowledge of the complexities of grammar. A strong emphasis should be placed on its impact on meaning.

 

A Grammar Lesson

Grammar lessons should be ‘DEaD’ good: that is, it should contain a clear definition, illuminating examples and unrelenting drills.

 

For example, when teaching adjectives to year 7, I would begin the lesson with a recap of the parts of speech that I have taught previously. I would do this by giving pupils a few phrases to parse, for example:

 

Our house

Lucy’s kite

A window

The door! Jamie!

Karen’s doll.

 

Next, introduce the concept. At Michaela, we have created a short story about grammar. In each chapter, a new part of speech is introduced in the form of a personified character. The Adjective Ladies are the eponymous heroines of this lesson. They are a group of gossipy old women who sit around and describe people. The story contains several examples of adjectives, all italicised.

 

The next step is to learn the definition. Pupils learn that adjectives describe nouns and we chant this together as a class. This is quickly followed by a sequence of examples and non-examples.

Once pupils are consistently giving correct responses to the question ‘adjective or not an adjective’, they are ready to practice. Begin by asking them to circle the adjectives from a list of simple words. Increase the challenge in subsequent activities by asking them to circle the adjectives in simple sentences, then more challenging sentences. Increase the challenge further by asking them to tell you which noun the adjective describes in every example.

 

Finish the lesson by carrying out further parsing activities, this time including adjectives. For example:

 

Our lovely house

Jane’s delicious meal

The music? Wonderful!

Matilda: a reader

Frightening, that ride.

 

To ensure pupils don’t forget this in between grammar lessons, and to increase the chances that they will apply grammar to writing across other lessons, carry out daily drill exercises. For the first five minutes of every lesson, pupils parse a few sentences/ underline all the subjects/ punctuate sentences with non-restrictive clauses, etc. as appropriate. On the whole, these should be aligned to the unit you are currently teaching them, but recap of previously taught content is also helpful.

Thanks to Tom Bennett, David Didau and Ruth Robinson for organising what was a brilliant event. I’d highly recommend looking into the work of James Murphy, Eric Kalenze and Dianne Murphy. I attended their talks yesterday and all three were totes amaze!

 

Here is the PowerPoint I delivered yesterday, which includes the sample lesson I have explained above: ResearchED Literacy Grammar

 

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31 thoughts on “Grammar and the Art of Writing: ResearchED Literacy

  1. This is a genuine question NOT a criticism. I understand that ‘bright’ is modifying the adjective ‘red’ which is modifying the noun ‘coat’. Please can you explain why it’s an adverb, as it’s not modifying a verb? I’d struggle to explain that without a secure understanding myself. Thanks.

    • That’s fine! Great question! You’ve hit upon a common misconception. Adverbs describe verbs, but they also describe adjectives and other adverbs. So if you said ‘I’m cold’, cold would be an adjective, but if you said ‘I’m really cold’, ‘really’ would be an adverb telling us how cold you feel. Hope that makes sense.

  2. I absolutely agree that grammar needs to be explicitly tasught to pupils. A favourite quote of mine is ‘Grammar is the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking’ (Stephen King). Too many children are taught to write ‘creatively’ with too little understanding of how to shape those thoughts through effective grammar.

    But. Your KS3 progression seems pitched below the expectation for primary (from the limited info here in this post, of course), considering what children are expected to understand by Year 6. The terminology (and the understanding behind them) of word classes is taught to children as young as Year 2. By Year 6, teachers are likely to have gone through common, proper and abstract nouns.

    I absolutely understand that not all children will come up knowing everything in the KS2 curriculum, but surely they are coming up knowing more than you seem to presume?

    And the understanding of commas is more sophisticated than you suggest, else everyone would use a comma in ‘little old lady’.

    • It’s a good point. I’d say the majority of our pupils have not mastered the fundamentals. But I accept that some of them have. We talk about the importance of over learning, securing foundations for future deep analysis of language, etc. Can also move more quickly through the unit if they already know it. This unit assumes they don’t. I hope it will become redundant in the future.

      • I’d have thought that the focus on grammar in KS2 these past few years would have fed through by now. From working with children across KS2 these past few years, it certainly seems the case that their understanding of grammar is improving rapidly, but dependent on the subject knowledge of the person stood at the front of the class, which is still very variable (although improving).

        (And it’s the case that the schools who I work with are usually very focused on improving grammar teaching, which probably skews my experience.)

        I’m with you on overlearning. Practice makes permanent, after all.

  3. Hi, I commented on Jon’s post regarding the “bright red coat” phrase, and so I feel I should do the same, but responding to your points as to why we need a comma.

    As far as I am aware, there are two categories of combined adjectives – coordinate and cumulative. The advice I’ve received on the use of the comma, is that coordinate adjectives are ones that can be applied in any order, and could have an “and” in the phrase: “a bulky and heavy” box or a “dirty and ripped coat” – these should have a comma. The other category have a distinct order to them (see http://wordpress.mrreid.org/2015/03/30/adjective-order-in-english/) as an example and would not be be split with and: “the old red truck”, “the small old man”.

    This makes sense to me – and I accept that there are also be adverbs that follow this rule – I’m just (still) not convinced colour modifiers are (or should be) adverbs, bright or not. We don’t say “very” red or “extremely” red to describe an absolute colour (unless we’re talking about the face of someone who has run round the track 4 times – and in that case we’re talking about a colour change).

    Just my thoughts. I think colour is a fascinating area of language as it’s so intrinsically linked to the physiological and psychological effects that colour has on our perception.

  4. While I am generally on your side on the crusade to allow teachers to give children useful knowledge as a key part of their education, yet I am constantly bothered by my attraction to the other camp’s insistence on letting kids explore, getting them to discuss, allowing them to question and challenge. And this “bright red coat” issue highlights precisely this crux — if you have a look at pedfed.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/teaching-grammar-proper-good/ and in particular the lengthy comment from mrweatherallscience, you’ll see that the issue of sub-modification within noun phrases (i.e. the way an adj like ‘red’ can be further modified by preceding it with other nouns [‘blood red’] or other adjs [‘brilliant red’] — because ‘red’ itself has a distinct ‘nouniness’ about it [‘this red is nicer than that one’]) is far from simple. So it’s dangerous simply to tell pupils that ‘bright’ in the e.g. ‘a bright red dress’ is an ; you would be telling them either a lie or a gross oversimplification. And when we teach kids we find that a vast amount of the Knowledge that we’d like them to ‘know’ is, in fact, fiendishly complex (physics, for example, or R.E. or French, or maths, or geography, or… well, you get the idea.) So, at first I read your piece and nodded and felt a warm glow of shared feeling with your argument. But then I started to question and explore — and I worry that the knowledge-based campaign will drive its juggernaut through the nuances, turning out new citizens who have not learned to question dogma and received authority, and who do not have the skills to analyse for themselves. That’s a scary prospect.

    • The very fact that you are able to so eloquently question the supposed ‘dogma’ I espouse here is a function of the knowledge you possess. The more knowledge one has, the easier it is to ‘speak truth to power’, and indeed, to question authoritative truths. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Whoops! In the middle of that post I used angle-brackets round the word ‘Adverb’ and the blog software thinks it is some weird HTML code! The sentence should read:

    “So it’s dangerous simply to tell pupils that ‘bright’ in the e.g. ‘a bright red dress’ is an {Adverb};
    you would be telling them either a lie or a gross oversimplification.”

  6. This is such an interesting discussion!

    As you know, from the off, I saw ‘bright’ as an adjective rather than an adverb. I still do.

    Crystal did not say that ‘bright’ is definitely an adverb. Important in Crystal’s tweet was the conditional ‘if’.

    ‪@stefguene If it’s the redness that’s bright’ (replaceable by ‘very’). adverb (intensifier). If it’s the coat that’s bright, then adjective.

    ^ So, how do we decide which?

    To me, ‘bright’ and ‘red’ both refer to the coat – but in a non-coordinating way. They are examples of list (string / multiple) adjectives in front of the noun. Truly, I can’t see how ‘bright’ modifies ‘red’ in this sentence. Rather, I understand that the initial modification comes from ‘red’. That is, ‘red’ modifies ‘coat’ to make ‘red coat’. This, in turn, is modified by ‘bright’ to make ‘bright red coat’. To me, therefore, the sentence seems to say that the ‘red coat’ is ‘bright’ and so ‘bright’ is an adjective.

    I think you see the sentence as saying that the ‘coat’ is ‘bright red’. Is that right? I’m confused! If so, I’m not sure that the sentence suggests that clearly.

    See Crystal’s blog on adjectives here:
    http://www.davidcrystal.com/?id=2761

    ‘bright’ passes the adjective test. As to describing ‘bright’ as an adverb (intensifier), it is worth noting that adjectives can also be intensifiers. Maybe ‘bright’ is an adjective intensifier rather than non-coordinating adjective? I still can’t see how it can be an adverb in this sentence.

    So what about this lot then?

    big green car
    big green coat
    big red coat
    bright red coat
    bright red car
    bright green car

    I’d love to know what others think. I’m a member of the eng lang list. I’ll post the sentence on there to see what others come up with.

  7. This is such an interesting discussion!

    As you know, from the off, I saw ‘bright’ as an adjective rather than an adverb. I still do.

    Crystal did not say that ‘bright’ is definitely an adverb. Important in Crystal’s tweet was the conditional ‘if’.

    ‪@stefguene If it’s the redness that’s bright’ (replaceable by ‘very’). adverb (intensifier). If it’s the coat that’s bright, then adjective.

    ^ So, how do we decide which?

    To me, ‘bright’ and ‘red’ both refer to the coat – but in a non-coordinating way. They are examples of list (string / multiple) adjectives in front of the noun. Truly, I can’t see how ‘bright’ modifies ‘red’ in this sentence. Rather, I understand that the initial modification comes from ‘red’. That is, ‘red’ modifies ‘coat’ to make ‘red coat’. This, in turn, is modified by ‘bright’ to make ‘bright red coat’. To me, therefore, the sentence seems to say that the ‘red coat’ is ‘bright’ and so ‘bright’ is an adjective.

    I think you see the sentence as saying that the ‘coat’ is ‘bright red’. Is that right? I’m confused! If so, I’m not sure that the sentence suggests that clearly.

    See Crystal’s blog on adjectives here:
    http://www.davidcrystal.com/?id=2761

    ‘bright’ passes the adjective test. As to describing ‘bright’ as an adverb (intensifier), it is worth noting that adjectives can also be intensifiers. Maybe ‘bright’ is an adjective intensifier rather than non-coordinating adjective?

    So what about this lot then?

    big green car
    big green coat
    big red coat
    bright red coat
    bright red car
    bright green car

    I’d love to know what others think.

    I’m a member of the eng lang list. I’ll post the sentence on there to see what others come up with.

  8. This is such an interesting discussion!

    As you know, from the off, I saw ‘bright’ as an adjective rather than an adverb. I still do.

    Crystal did not say that ‘bright’ is definitely an adverb. Important in Crystal’s tweet was the conditional ‘if’.

    ‪@stefguene If it’s the redness that’s bright’ (replaceable by ‘very’). adverb (intensifier). If it’s the coat that’s bright, then adjective.

    ^ So, how do we decide which?

    To me, ‘bright’ and ‘red’ both refer to the coat – but in a non-coordinating way. They are examples of list (string / multiple) adjectives in front of the noun. Truly, I can’t see how ‘bright’ modifies ‘red’ in this sentence. Rather, I understand that the initial modification comes from ‘red’. That is, ‘red’ modifies ‘coat’ to make ‘red coat’. This, in turn, is modified by ‘bright’ to make ‘bright red coat’. To me, therefore, the sentence seems to say that the ‘red coat’ is ‘bright’ and so ‘bright’ is an adjective.

    I think you see the sentence as saying that the ‘coat’ is ‘bright red’. Is that right? I’m confused! If so, I’m not sure that the sentence suggests that clearly.

    See Crystal’s blog on adjectives here:
    http://www.davidcrystal.com/?id=2761

    ‘bright’ passes the adjective test. As to describing ‘bright’ as an adverb (intensifier), it is worth noting that adjectives can also be intensifiers. Maybe ‘bright’ is an adjective intensifier rather than non-coordinating adjective?

    So what about this lot then?

    big green car
    big green coat
    big red coat
    bright red coat
    bright red car
    bright green car

    I’d love to know what others think.

    I’m a member of the eng lang list. I’ll post the sentence on there to see what others come up with.

    • I agree with you, Chantel Mathias — three times over I agree with you! As Prof Crystal notes, “bright” is functioning as an adjective if you read it as modifying the “coat”, or an adverb if you read it as modifying “red”. I think the label “adverb” here, however, is a bit misleading (as you point out): even if “bright” is a modifier of the word “red”, the problem here is that “red” can and often does funtion as a noun, which can then be modified by the adjective “bright”. Consider the noun phrase “a polished steel tip”: here we have a similar construction, in which we can either read the word “polished” as modifying the “tip” (so the tip is steel and it is also polished) *or* we can read it as modifying “steel” (the tip is made of polished steel). In this latter example, it doesn’t feel right to label “polished” as an adverb — it really, really looks and feels like an adjective. This can be explained quite reasonably: very often in English noun phrases, the head noun of the phrase can be modified by an immediately-preceding noun — a ‘noun modifier’ — which superficially might look like an adjective. E.g. “a blackboard rubber”, “a diesel engine”, “a metal plate”, “a gold earring” etc. Some linguists might treat these as compound nouns, thereby regarding them as occupying just the one position (the head-noun position) at the end of the typical English noun-phrase structure. Or we might not consider these as compounded units, but simply allow, in our theory of English noun phrase grammar, that head noun may be modified by preceding adjectives *and/or* nouns. If the head noun is preceded by another noun as in “red coat” then the noun “red” can be sub-modified by an adjective like “bright”.

      Of course, the “adverb”/”adjective” distinction is always under threat in modern English, because of sentences such as “Go quick and fetch it”, “She was walking slow when I saw her”, “I’d better take it steady” or “take it easy”.

      As an English teacher I have tried teaching this stuff to school kids in the classroom, but have failed dismally to engage them with it. As a linguist I find this fascinating, but I can quite understand that a 14-year-old will find it utterly mind-numbing.

  9. “I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses. So that is what I needed to help my pupils get better at: controlling clauses.”

    I was just wondering whether linking what expert writers do, with what learners need to do in order to become expert writers, is perhaps linking two separate entities? (i.e. expert readers tend to skim text quickly, jumping across words, but that’s not how we teach children to learn to read.) I have never thought of writing as being about controlling clauses. It’s more about controlling sound and meaning within a relationship with an audience. In reality this might be done by controlling the clauses, but teaching children to do it that way seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse a bit. I don’t think there’s any harm in learning how to control different parts of language, but I’m not convinced that this is the place to begin if you want to get to ‘great writing’ at the end. Just a thought.

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  11. This looks really impressive. We are currently trying to develop our explicit grammar teaching-can you suggest a good grammar textbook full of well sequenced, deliberate practice exercises?

      • In my view bright is an adjective modifying red – bright red. The dictionary seems to agree with me. I teach French and we have to teach children English grammar at the moment before getting onto French. If English teachers get stuck on these nuances in KS3 or 4 I don’t see how it helps anyone. They still find it hard to spot a verb and different tenses. Most English teachers I know don’t even know how to explain the imperative properly.

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  16. More amazing stuff. Also, it’s been fascinating to read the ‘bright red adverb or not debate’ – most interesting

  17. Dear Katie

    I have been following the exciting work of you and your colleagues at Michaela with great interest. I am attempting to design my first ‘knowledge’ unit on Great Expectations based on Joe Kirby’s blog post about your Oliver Twist scheme, but I wondered if you would be willing to share your slide resources to show me how this is done in practice. This would be of great help to an NQT.

    Cordial regards
    James

  18. I’d be very keen to see if any of these resources are shared, for the common good. Perhaps the writer is no longer monitoring this thread?

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