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Grammar knowledge and students’ writing

Janet Fellowes
Lecturer, School of Education, Edith Cowan University

There are many methods for teaching grammatical concepts to middle and upper primary school students. However, the rationale for doing so should always be based on assisting students to best achieve text purpose when using written communication.

In learning about grammar, children develop an understanding of how language works and they are subsequently able to use language more effectively; they are more readily able to construct understandable texts. 


Language

Children come to school having learnt about communication through the cultural and social contexts in which they have been using language. They have a variety of resources for using oral language to communicate in these settings. However, not all children will communicate using Standard Australian English. Children’s language will vary according to the language of their family and community contexts and they may therefore speak a language other than English or a social or regional dialect variation. It is often the case that, in these situations, different grammatical rules to those of Standard Australian English are applied in the communication of meaning. It is important that the children’s home language is accepted and given equal status in the classroom as it is part of their identity and significant to their functioning in their home and community setting. However, it is equally important to assist children to become competent in Standard Australian English, because this is the language which will give them access to power and certain life opportunities in society.


Written language and grammar

Grammar, knowledge and students' writing figure 1

Writing is an expressive mode of communication and involves the construction of texts in ways that ensure that specific purposes are realised and that clear messages are effectively conveyed to the reader/s.

Writing is functional. A writer chooses a particular text type or genre according to the communicative purpose for writing. Writing for the purpose of reporting on an event requires the use of a different text type to writing for the purpose of telling a story or entertaining. When constructing the chosen text type, there will be variation in the overall structure and the grammatical and lexical features it contains. Meaning is gained at the different levels of a written text: the lexical, grammatical and overall text levels. All need to be taken into account in the writing of a text in order to successfully achieve intended purpose.

Grammar is only one element of the English language system. It is one resource available to the writer for effectively achieving the social purpose of a text. Observing the grammatical conventions of writing and being able to manipulate words and clauses in a text is beneficial to the meaning-making function of writing. Knowledge of grammar allows the writer to more confidently and adeptly add, delete, substitute or combine words and clauses in sentence as a text is constructed with intention.


Teaching grammar

The teaching of grammar to students has little benefit to their writing development if it is taught in isolation through exercises that focus on learning ‘the rules’. Grammar, along with punctuation, is best taught within the context of actual writing. Writers need to be able to see the effect of grammatical changes in relation to a text. They need to understand how grammar is an important consideration in achieving writing quality and more successful written communication.

Grammar teaching assists students to think reflectively about writing purpose and structure in effective communication. It serves to develop students’ understanding of the rules binding the use of Standard English. Learning about grammar can take place in a variety of classroom situations.

Teaching relevant grammatical conventions to support students in being able to manipulate words and clauses in a text is best done through strategies that involve whole texts and use discussion-based contexts. Depending on the need, the teacher can work with students on an aspect of grammar in small group mini lessons, during student–teacher conferences and through demonstrations and class discussions. The main considerations are to understand the needs of the children as determined by assessment of their writing and to use the written text sample as the central tool.

Teacher demonstration, joint construction, mini lessons, student conferencing and writing workshops are all strategies that use whole texts and that can involve the teacher in assisting students to draw on the ‘tools’ of grammar in constructing an effective text.

Writing demonstration involves students observing the teacher engaging in the writing of a text. During this demonstration, the teacher indicates grammatical features of the sentences she constructs and shows the students how to change sentences around with the intention of best achieving text meaning and purpose.

Joint construction entails the teacher and students working together to create a piece of writing. Similar to demonstration, students are assisted in better understanding how to use grammar knowledge to create a polished text and achieve meaning.

Mini lessons focus on a particular grammatical concept and are carried out when a teacher has determined a specific area of need. These lessons can use commercially produced short texts to show examples of the grammatical concept that the teacher wishes to address. The use of a previously produced text allows for the exploration, critique and annotation of the grammatical tools used by the writers; insights into the structure of English can be gleaned from different types of analysis.

Teacher–student conferences are significant for teaching students how to revise their own work at the grammatical level. Grammatical concepts and their application to writing can be taught as the students are carrying out their own writing. Here, the teacher works with one student, supporting and contributing during the revising stage of the writing process.

Reading plays an important role in developing students’ knowledge about the structure and patterns of sentences. Students need regular opportunities to hear language in use. The reading of literature and non-fiction texts supports students’ understanding of the grammatical and lexical features of different texts.


Grammar concepts and metalanguage

‘Grammar refers to the rules and systematic relationships that are used to organise a language and its meaning.  Grammar is used to make meaning during reading, writing, listening, speaking and viewing.’ (Annandale et al  2005, p. 183).

The teaching of grammar needs to begin, not with structures, but with students. The ultimate purpose for learning about the grammar of written English is to improve the communicative effectiveness of students’ written texts. There is no benefit to systematically working through a list of isolated grammar rules and structures with students. Some grammar knowledge will have little bearing on students’ writing development. Teaching word classes will do little to improve a child’s writing, although it may help in the development of children’s metalanguage. However, the teaching of certain grammatical concepts such as word groups, clauses and linking words is useful to the novice writer. If taught in context and at the appropriate time, this extension of language knowledge will have bearing on students’ writing development.

The grammatical concepts listed below, and further explained in Table 1, provide a useful array of areas on which to focus in assisting students to develop their grammar understanding and writing adeptness. An understanding of these grammar concepts serves to assist students in reading, understanding and revising their writing on the basis of structure.

Grammar, knowledge and students' writing figure 2
  • Tense (past, present and future)
  • Clauses
  • Types of clauses
  • Sentence types (simple, compound and complex)
  • Word groups
  • Conjunction (linking words)
  • Subject / verb agreement
  • Pronoun
  • Modality
  • Referent (personal pronouns, demonstratives, comparatives)
  • Ellipses
  • Substitution
  • Text connectives
  • Direct and indirect speech

In order for students to be able to discuss specific grammatical concepts and language use within a text, it is advantageous to provide them with a standard grammar vocabulary. The language for talking about, and describing, language is referred to as metalanguage. Developing students’ metalanguage will better equip them to engage in text and grammar analysis and dialogue, leading to the improvement of the structural aspects of their written texts. In order to develop students’ metalanguage, the teacher needs to use the terminology consistently and regularly, whenever text grammar discussions take place.


Conclusion

Students will naturally develop an extensive knowledge of grammar through the oral and reading experiences in which they participate.  The written text in the second figure demonstrates this.

This narrative is written by Year 3 student, Grace. She has had no explicit grammar teaching at school but has developed her grammar knowledge through oral language and reading experiences. In her writing, Grace instinctively uses many grammatical concepts characteristic of Standard English and the narrative text. Her text serves the purpose for which it is intended and was produced in a book format for others to read. While the text is meaningful and displays many qualities of a developing writer, the richness and structural aspects of the language could be further improved through specific discussion and assistance with revising of grammatical features. Knowing ways to improve her writing at sentence level would assist Grace to more independently revise her writing for effectiveness in relation to writing purpose. Work with grammar can always take the student one step further in their ability to produce a quality text.


Reference and further reading

Annandale, K, Bindon, R, Broz, J, Dougan, J, Handley, K, Johnston, A et al 2005, Writing Resource Book, 2nd edn, Reed International, Port Melbourne.

Celce-Murcia, M & Larsen-Freeman, D 1999, The Grammar Book, 2nd edn, Heinle & Heinle Publishers, USA.

Collerson, J 1997, Grammar in Teaching, PETA, Newtown, NSW.

Droga, L & Humphrey, S 2003, Grammar and Meaning: An Introduction for Primary Teachers, Target Texts, Berry, NSW.

 

Table 1: Grammar concepts and their meaning for developing written communication with students
Grammar conceptMeaningExample
Tense
(past, present and future)
Forms make reference to time.to be ( she is, she was, she will …)
Conjunction
(linking words)
Words that join clausesIt was hard to write a book together because we lived so far apart.
[and, but, because, although]
Word groupGroups of words that occur together in a clause.
Stick together for meaning.
so far apart
ClausesThe building blocks of a text.
They are made up of word groups and join together to form sentences.
Basic unit of meaning.
Mary danced very gracefully.

The building collapsed.
Types of clauses
(simple sentences)
Statement

Question
Command
Exclamation
Mary danced.
What did Mary do?
Dance, Mary.
That’s great!
Simple sentenceMade up of a single clause onlyThe building collapsed.
She wrote him a letter.
Compound sentenceMade up of two or more independent clauses of equal importance. They are often linked together by a conjunction. Could stand alone.He went to the party but I stayed home.
Complex sentenceMade up of a main clause and an independent clause.Peggy frequently calls because she wants to stay in touch.
Dependent clauseDepends on, or requires the presence of, another clause to which it is attached in some way – imbedded into independent clauses.The dealer promised that my car would be fixed for free.
Since we’ve fallen a week behind, we’ll skip the first chapter.
Independent clauseClauses that can get by on their own without any help.We'll skip the second paper.
Subject / verb agreementNumber agreement between the subject and the verb – associated with form, meaning and use.The boy runs.
The boys run.
He eats breakfast.
They eat breakfast.
ModalityWords that express degree of stance.Modals: Possibly, often, maybe, usually, always, never
ReferentRefer to/ point to something in a text. Make links by referring back to something previously mentioned by using personal pronouns, demonstratives comparativesThe boy wanted a new bike. One day he…
[he refers back to the boy]
PronounRefers to or replaces a noun or noun phrase.
There are many different kinds of pronouns.
My aunt … She
Personal pronounsRefer to a person or more than one person.Personal pronouns: I, me, you, they, them.
DemonstrativesGive the referent more emphasisDemonstratives: the, this, these, those, that
Comparatives Comparatives: same, other, more
EllipsisA word used to replace a component of a clause when it is missed out rather than repeatedWho wrote the letter?
Marty did.

(did replaces wrote the letter)
SubstitutionA word used to replace a clause component omitted.I plan to enter college next year. If I do …
(do replaces enter college next year)
Text connectivesWords that hold a text together so as to make the development and relationship of ideas in a text explicit.Connectives: then, in addition, furthermore, in conclusion, therefore, then …
Direct speechThe exact words a speaker used."Drink the milk," she said.
"Could you join us for lunch?"
Indirect speechReports what a speaker said without using the exact words.She told me to drink the milk.
He invited me to join them for lunch.

 

This article originally appeared in Practically Primary October 2006. Republished with permission.

 

Key Learning Areas

English

Subject Headings

Writing
Literacy
Handwriting
English language teaching