Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Thing that Should Never be Named

Before I was a teacher, I worked in the building trade and I was responsible for selling concrete and bricks to builders. Before I worked in the building industry, I worked in a call centre for a car insurer. Before the insurance company, I worked in pub. With every job I have had, I have always had the same conversation in a social situation or pub.  What do you do for a living?  Then there would always a quick ‘interesting’ and then the exchange would move on to another topic of conversation. But, teaching, means that this conversation takes a different turn:

Me: Great party?
Guest: So, what do you do for a living?

Me: Umm… teach English.

Guest: Ahh, I loved English at school. What was that book I loved? Let me think about it. Lord of the Nothings. Lord of the Macbeth. Lord of the Amazons.  That’s it: ‘Lord of the Flies’. Bloody ace book.

Me: What do you do?

Guest: Oh yeah and then there is Shakespeare. Well, Shakespeare.

Me: Do you work?

Guest: Yeah we did Hamlet. To be or not to be and all that. Loved it. We had a brilliant teacher and he made us learn the whole play.

Me: Do you actually work?

Guest: I remember the bit at the end and looking at ….

[Exit the teacher]

That is only one scenario that I have often faced. Another comment I get is how brave I must be to teach teenagers. They look me up and down and think I am a 5ft nothing and, therefore, incapable of controlling a class of teenagers. Then, more often than the other comments I get, I get people telling me about their hatred of English at school. It is as if I have to justify why there is evil in the world. Then there are lots of variations of on a theme:

I hate reading. I’ve only read one book in my life.

I can’t spell to save my life.

My handwriting is shocking.

It is as if there is a prepared script for how to talk to an English teacher in society.  Yet, I never get somebody saying their grammar is terrible. People can’t wait to tell others that their mental arithmetic is bad and that they can barely count the change in their pocket. Or, tell people that they have only read two books in their whole life. It is as if reading only two books is a badge of honour to be proud of. Even celebrities flaunt this by getting a ghost writer to write their novel and still manage to make loads of dosh, while boasting that they never read books. What message does this give young people today? 

It seems that grammar is the thing that people cannot mention by name. Nobody says that their grammar is bad, yet they freely, with gay abandon, tell me they can’t spell, they don’t read on a regular basis and they have hand writing that even Bletchley Park couldn’t decode. It is almost as if society accepts certain failings, but will not even touch grammar with a very large and long barge pole. It is like ‘Voldermort’. We can’t speak about it, yet we know it is a problem. In truth, I am a Death Eater. I talk about it often and long for the days when my ‘Voldermort’ rules.

Part of the problem is the ‘Grammar Bully’ - a phrase coined by Marcus Brigstocke in his episode of ‘Room 101’.  (check it out at: A ‘Grammar Bully’ is someone that sets out to highlight all your mistakes in a condescending manner. You can find them easily on Facebook and Twitter. They lurk waiting to spot the slightest typo or error over homophones.  Everybody assumes I am this kind of person. People often prefix a piece of writing with, ‘there might be a few mistakes’. Or, ‘English is not my strong point.' 

It is true the fear of getting it wrong is too much for people. The hidden rules are there to slip a novice up. Pretend it doesn’t exist and it isn’t a problem. A bit like the ‘Fight Club’. First rule of the Inept Grammar Group: don't mention Inept Grammar Group. My main fear, in my NQT year, was that my lack of knowledge of grammar would trip me up in a big and embarrassing way. I felt that everyone, and anyone, was there to spot my mistakes, so I would do what I was confident and secure with. Only later, did I discover that grammar isn’t only my worry, but many others. My last blog generated a lot of lovely comments on Twitter and people said how they too worried about grammar. I think we should make mistakes and make some more. Then, read and read some more. These two things have helped me to go from Muggle to Death Eater in months. I not only enjoy the Dark Arts – I now embrace it.

Again, I have focused on the sentences for some ideas on how to teach grammatical structures. Some are my own and others are things I have picked up along the way.

Visual Learners
Give students different structures like these to help them vary their sentence construction. It adds the puzzle element to writing, so it is a challenge to do. It takes a lot of thought from the writer.

For example: Mark, a widower, prefers to meet people in clubs. (_____, _____, _____________.)

__________ (___________) ________________; _________________________________ .

__________________________________ :____________________.

_________ -________________________________ .

I tend to pick a page from a novel and draw the sentence out like above and students have to fit that structure. This can range from a simple structure to an incredibly complex one.

Starts and Ends
I can’t stand boring writing that always starts with ‘the’, ‘this’ or ‘it’. It is fine once in a while, but used all the time it can make writing pretty boring. Boring writing is not what we, English teachers, want to see. See what students can do with starting one sentence with the last word from the previous one. One benefit of doing this is that you have some way of building cohesion between sentences in a piece of writing. Writing an example has been tricky so I haven’t bothered, have I?

Comma Cheat
 I am probably going to go to English teacher’s hell for what I am going to tell you:  sometimes, I teach less able students about words that are easily linked to commas. Often students struggle with finding where to place a comma, so I tell them that the following words ‘tend’ to have a comma before them when they are in the middle of a long sentence.

                                ___________,but_______________ .             

___________,so_______________ .

___________,which_______________ .

___________,while _______________ .

I think it is a good starting point for level 2 or 3 writers. Then, later I get them to see where else there might be a pause in a sentence.

I think it is also important to teach the rules of specific words. For several years now I have taught ‘connectives’ in fun and interesting ways. Students have learnt how to use a connective, yet they can get it easily wrong. Take the word ‘however’. I regularly see it used incorrectly, so I think it is important to tell students how to use it correctly.

·         It usually is at the start or end or a sentence, near a comma – However,….. or …., however.

·         Used for parenthesis (or comma sandwiches) …., however,…. .

·         It doesn’t usually start an subordinate clause.

Grammar is about rules, but we have to be explicit about what these rules are.

Comma Splices
This is something that I used to be guilty of in my writing. I got into the habit of placing two sentences next to each other and using a comma instead of a full stop. I got into this habit because I was under the impression, as some students are too, that if you can place an ‘and’ there you could use a comma. Now, with more experience, I realise that you can do that with every single sentence. List them all together with a comma. That is usually why I see students using loads of commas but very few full stops.

I tend to teach students about comma splices and explain to them what they are and how they could solve the problem by using a semicolon or a full stop.  The biggest offending words for this are ‘this’ and ‘it’. I get students to look out for these words and check for punctuation near them.

Passive and Active sentences
Another favourite of mine: I tend to be quite physical with this one. Print the following words on coloured paper: the, man, was, attacked, by, and dog. Each word should be large and be on a different coloured paper. Get students to work out the news story. Then, get them to explore how the news story sounds when the words are reordered. Hopefully students will pick up the different reactions the headings could create. 

The dog attacked the man.  (Active)

The man was attacked by the dog.  (Passive)

Finally, I give students, in groups, other selections of words and get them to have a go at creating new sentences.


Fortunately / Unfortunately
Product Details
Image from
Becoming a dad has helped open up a whole new world of sentences. It is surprising how sophisticated the grammar can be in the most simplistic of stories. For students it is a trip down memory lane. For teachers, they can be a great tool for teaching grammar. Last week I was reading the story ‘Fortunately Unfortunately’ by Michael Foreman. It will make a great little grammar starter for students. I will read a bit of the book and get students to play around with this sentence construction.

Fortunately, I am a teacher. Unfortunately, I have to mark lots of books. Fortunately, I have the holidays. Unfortunately, I might have to spend a lot of that time planning and marking. Fortunately, I have wine.

I could go on and on, but I think you can see how this kind of sentence construction could help students writing non-fiction or fiction. Obviously, they wouldn’t use it for every sentence. Pick up a young children’s picture book and look at the sentence construction on the pages.   


Copy a sentence and make it your own

Pretty simple one this. Copy a large and complicated sentence from a text. Get students to rewrite it but change a few words. Then rewrite it again and change a few more words. Finally, they will have a whole new sentence and feel some ownership for what they have done and, hopefully, they will have internalised the structure of the sentence. If you feel the need to, you can highlight the components they need to change. 

 Looking at what is really happening in a sentence
When looking at horror writing with my Year 8s, I spent some time looking at sentences. I wanted students to analyse sentences in detail and think about how they affect the reader. Sadly, the class were too concerned with feature spotting and failed to spot the actual content of the sentence. They found it difficult to summarise what was going on. Therefore, I had to help them with this, but it made it easier for them to duplicate sentences and their layout.  The sentence in question started with a comment of the narrator’s fear. Then it described something sensory and it ended with a thought.  When students saw this broken down for them,  they were able to create their own sentences.

With fear in my heart, I carried on until a low grumbling noise made me stop and I knew this was the moment to turn back.

Tears poured down my face as I walked on and felt the cobwebs crawl on my skin as if dragging me back to safety.


Modal Verbs
I think that we assume that grammar teaching always has to be a written process but I like students to explore speech too. Students, in pairs, have to give each other some advice. It is better if it is something silly like how to get the best backcombed hairdo.  They have one minute to tell their partner the advice. While they say this advice, the other person ticks off from a small list of modal verbs. They then swap around and the other person has a go. Best if the partner doesn’t know what is being ticked off, so vary the modal verbs they are looking at.  


Starting with a clause
bronze,door knockers,doorknobs,faces,iStockphoto,keyholes,locks,wooden doorsI am too logical with my thinking sometimes so I do experiment with logic and take things from a different perspective. In the past I have always taught sentence structure by working through the different stages: simple, compound and complex. Why not try with a subordinate clause first?  Is that what we want students to write more often?

For example:

                                                                 walking to the door


How could we build that into a sentence?

I noticed the figure, walking to the door.

Walking to the door, I knew then that my whole life depended on this moment.

I felt something there, walking to the door, closer and closer to me.


The same clause created three different sentences. I could change the clause around and change the verb and then students could experiment further.


As luck would have it, I wrote the blog last week and this week I found on my desk an article called ‘Making Meaning with Grammar’ by Debra Myhill, Helen Lines and Annabel Watson. It explores how grammar can be used for teaching fiction, non-fiction and poetry. It looks like I have more Death Eaters to help us crush Goveabore  and release the thing that should never be named into the world.  

Thanks for reading and thanks to @Gwenelope for help and support.  
Xris32 / Snape










1 comment:

  1. Some really great ideas for teaching grammar in a non-yawn way.