Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Joy of Grammar

When I started my PGCE course there was one thing in the course booklet that scared me: an audit of my skills. Tucked under one, comic sans-size 12-heading was ‘Grammar’. The booklet casually asked, smoking a pipe and wearing a cravat, to comment on my confidence and knowledge of grammar. My breath stopped. My skin went pallid and I felt beads of sweat forming on my wrinkled brow. Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on your perspective), I am a product of the 90s education system. English teaching, during that time, threw out books about grammar and focused on other aspects that were more appealing to me, like books.  Fifteen years later, I agonised and panicked and worried some more about answering in the booklet in a negative way. In truth, I could spot pathetic fallacy at a hundred paces, but ask me to find the subjunctive and I would have a mental block and start mumbling about how the simile on line ten is so profound and how it is the turning point of the poem. Literature terminology had always been a ‘get-out’ clause. It had been my ace up the sleeve. My top trump.

During the PGCE course and my NQT year, I’d have a grammar book close to hand.  I would clumsily attempt to teach simple, compound and complex sentences.  Yet, my relationship with grammar was that of a long-distant acquaintance I once met and can’t remember their name or hair colour. It was only when I was thrown in at the deep end that I fell in love with grammar. After two years of teaching English and I was made to teach A-level Language. From then on, I was infatuated and in love. I would gaze into a text and enjoy exploring the adverbial phrases or transitive verbs. Phwoar. It was like a coming of age moment. I saw things in a different way.

Whereas I loved the teaching of English Language at A-level, others feared and detested it. It wasn’t real English teaching in their eyes. It wasn’t students reading a novel and immersing themselves in it. They were right because it is something more. Every text was literature to me now.

Therefore, I am going to just share a few things I use to teach students different grammatical structures.

The ….., …… suitcase
Personally, I think writing poetry is one of the great ways to teach grammar and different grammatical structures. It is usually the repetition of the structure with a slight variation. Isn’t that what all writing is?

Recently, my Year 7 class have been describing walking through an attic, inspired by David Almond’s ‘Skellig’ . As a quick part of a lesson, I got students to explore word choice and impact and expand some noun phrases. I gave them the following structure:

The ____________ (object)

The ____________ , ____________(object)

The ____________, ____________, ____________ (object)

The ____________, ____________ and ____________ (object)

The ____________ (object)

Each line described a different object as they were experimenting with different ways to expand a noun phrase. It made some fun lines of description, fun bits of poetry and some ready made phrases for their writing.  

Here's an example:

The antique mirror
The decrepit, dull, dusty painting
The overflowing, battered and lonely suitcase
The abandoned pile of magazines

Under the …..
Type into Google ‘spot the difference’ and you’ll find loads of quick ready made starters of ‘spot the difference’ and a great way to teach prepositions or sentences that start with a preposition.

I tend to start a lesson with a spot the difference. Students spend a little time thinking of where the differences are. Introduce prepositions. Students have to tell me where the differences are by using a preposition. Then, I show them a new ‘spot the difference’ and they have to write the differences down using a preposition at the start of each sentence.

Under the teacher’s nose there is a fly.


If…, then
I tend to use ‘Simon Says’ to teach conditional sentences. I model first for them. Get them to do different activities based on a number of physical features. If you have short hair, stick your fingers in your ears. If you have green eyes, sit down. Then, I get them to write five of their own for another game of ‘Simon Says’.


The more …., the more
This is one of my fun lessons and it is quite simple really. I adapted it from a lesson about punctuation use in a Teachers’ TV video (RIP). It is all about exposing students to a large number of different grammatical structures at once. It helps them to create varied writing and uses a range of sentences for impact.  I tend to use it for drafting creative writing, and, even some bits of non-fiction. It is one of those lessons where students do all the work and they end up retaining quite a lot of sentences structure.

First, you prepare by writing down 15 – 20 different types of sentence structure on A3 sheets of paper. The more varied the better. I tend to jot down interesting sentences, whenever I find one. Then, you place the sheets around the classroom. ‘Writing Exciting Sentences’ by Alan Peat has helped me with examples.  Students have to write a sample sentence using that sentence as a template. As soon as they have written one, they move on to another sentence. At the end of the lesson, I get students to recall as many of the different sentence types. It helps if there is clear name for the sentence structure like ‘personification sentence’ or ‘preposition start sentence’. It is amazing how many they recall, which they can attempt to use in their writing.

Another way I use this is to create a piece of writing that has a clear function. For example, this week I used it for pairs to make a creepy setting. Students had to move around the stations and create a sentence to fit in with the description. Each sentence is varied and each sentence differs from the last.

Oustide….. ; inside
Feeding a sentence a time is another way to make grammar more interesting. When writing, I sometimes have a PowerPoint with lots of slides showing different sentences. Students are to then include that kind of sentence at that moment in their writing.

Statement / Exclamation / Command / Question
Students have four bits of paper and on each one they have statement, exclamation, command or question written on it. The only utterance they can make that lesson is one of those four things. As they use a question, they turn over their paper to show they have used it. It makes for hilarious results as students try to ask for something without it being a question. You might get a student interjecting and exclaiming they are stuck. Or, commanding you to help them.

Grammar Bets / Battleship Grammar
This I got from a friend of a friend and it has been brilliant starter, plenary or something in the middle ever since.  Simply write down 10 sentences down, making sure that each sentence is either grammatically correct or not. Students have to bet whether the sentence is correct or not. They start with an imaginary £5 and bet on the first line. When they have placed their bets, you then ask them for the answer. You do this line by line with students.

I love Battleships but this takes a whole lesson to do. Give each student a grid. They mark down some boats and battleships. Using a very big PowerPoint, students take it in turns to spot mistakes in a sentence. If they spot more than one, then they have more than one missile.

By the way, I am a pacifist and abhor betting, but I love grammar. 

Yoda and George Bush
These two ‘characters’ were invented for grammar lessons. Yoda’s syntax is fun to experiment and play with. Get students to unjumble his sentences to explore how sentences are formed and structured.

"When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good, you will not, hmmm?" Yoda

Type in ‘Bushisms’ in Google and you will get some hilarious mistakes in grammar. Copy and paste and you have an excellent starter. Or, focus on one at a time and you have a simple grammar lesson. Use them as a starting point for further exploration of grammar.
"Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" George Bush 


As an NQT I would spend ages on teaching students about simple, compound and complex sentences. Some would get it; others wouldn’t. What I didn’t get in my first year of teaching was how much more there is to teaching grammar. The National Literacy Strategy, I feel, was very reductive. A lot of teachers taught students what a complex sentence was, yet very few could write a really effective one. I think we should teach grammar that is explicit, but not in a reductive way. I’d rather have a student comment on a conditional sentence than a compound sentence, as there is so much more than you can say about it. A conditional sentence offers the reader an option. A conditional sentence can give you a consequence to your actions. A compound sentence can ….um…um….it – it just adds things together.

Now, I know there is much more to grammar than sentences and sentence structure, but I think it is a good starting point with NQT teachers and PGCE students. For pupils, sentences are the building blocks of the main construction. They are the most important things. And like the infamous book this blog’s title it is alluding to, there are so many different positions and options.  Each one brings a different joy.



  1. Having read this I thought it was very informative. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article together. I once again find myself spending way to much time both reading and commenting.

  2. Thank you. It is nice to be appreciated. I hope it helps you in some way.



  3. Really great ideas. Know what you mean about teaching English Language giving you a love for grammar. I'm the same.

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  5. Thanks a lot for sharing this. I enjoyed it from my deepest core of heart. Very educative post.

    Agrodut Mandal
    Thesis Writing


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