The Grammar for Writing Pedagogy

At the University of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Writing, we have been investigating the contested issue of grammar teaching over many years. The research we have carried out is underpinned by a view of the importance of teaching grammar in the context of children’s writing, not as a body of separate knowledge learnt for its own sake. Contextualised grammar teaching is explicit about how language works, and about how language choices construct meanings in different contexts, using the correct grammatical terminology as part of that explicitness. But the teaching focus is on the writing being undertaken rather than on a grammar feature or terminology itself. 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 four key principles underpinning planning and teaching are:

  • Make a link between the grammar being introduced and how it works in the writing being taught.
    For example:
    - How prepositional phrases can establish a clear picture of a setting;
    - How past and present tense are used in newspaper reports for recount and comment;
    - How a single-clause sentence can open a paragraph by clearly stating its main idea.

 

  • Use grammatical terms but explain the grammar through examples, not lengthy explanations.
    For example:
    - Show the modal verbs: can; could; may; might; must; shall; should; will; would; ought to. Use them to speculate what a character in a shared fiction text might do at a key moment in the story, discussing how modals express different degrees of certainty or possibility;
    - Highlight the relative clauses used to describe an event or person in a news report and discuss the nature of the additional information they provide, then look for patterns in how they are formed and positioned, and draw attention to relative pronouns and parenthetical commas.

 

  • Build in high-quality discussion about grammar and its effects.
    For example:
    - Discuss as a whole class the different grammatical choices in two students’ drafts of the ending to an argument piece;
    - In pairs, students read the account of the battle in Chapter ‘Twenty-five past three’ in Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. They find the six shortest sentences and then discuss where they are placed. What part do they play in the narrative structure of this incident? How well do they work for the reader?

 

  • Use examples from authentic texts to link student writers to the broader community of writers.
    For example:
    - Use the class shared book or GCSE set text as a source for exploring how grammar shapes meaning;
    - Examine patterns of language in real-life texts, such as the use of modal and imperative verbs for persuasion in charity leaflets or co-ordination of three clauses in political speeches.

 

Three other important principles emphasise the creativity afforded by a close focus on language. We want all young writers to push language to its limits, to use their knowledge of grammar to make conscious choices from a repertoire of possibilities rather than simply follow prescribed formulas or rules. These principles are:

  • Use model patterns for students to imitate, as a scaffold for their own inventiveness.
    For example:
    - Show how using one-word sentences followed by a rhetorical question can be an effective opening to an emotive campaign text e.g. Beaten. Neglected. Starved. Will you help feed a dog like Archie until we can find him a home? (RSPCA advertisement)

 

  • Support students to design their writing by making deliberate language choices, stressing intended effect for the specified audience and purpose.
    For example:
    - Plan activities that encourage students to consider alternative possibilities, such as different ways of sequencing sentences for rhetorical effect in the closing paragraph of an argument.

 

  • Encourage language play, exploration, experimentation and risk-taking, both to emphasise the elasticity of language and to embed new knowledge.
    For example:
    - Collect – and create - humorous examples of faulty punctuation (e.g. ‘Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog’ – on cover of ‘Tails’ magazine);
    - Create a new poem from an existing one by ‘stealing’ and rearranging words, phrases and clauses to make new meanings.

Download a PowerPoint which explains and illustrates the pedagogy: The Grammar for Writing Pedagogy (.pptx)

Follow links to Learning objectives and text examples and Sample lesson plans and schemes to see these principles in practice.