Grammar for (academic) writing: sentences working hard…

This post is based on my part of a conference talk with Marcello Giovanelli at ResearchEd Warrington in April 2022 based on the work we have been doing for our forthcoming book, Essential Grammar, which will be released by Routledge in 2023.

In our book, we argue that grammar is the foundation of language. Grammar isn’t a narrow prescriptive set of rules; it is, in fact, about broader language awareness. Awareness of how language works equates to empowerment for students; if they have knowledge, they can make choices. If they can make choices, they can consciously craft language and say precisely what they want.

Grammar and the curriculum

I am frequently asked questions along these lines:

  • How do we make grammar meaningful and not a bolt-on to the curriculum?
  • How do we stop grammar from feeling like it’s not relevant?
  • How do we create a successful grammar program?

These questions are understandable, but they betray a fundamental problem in our thinking as a profession – they serve to position grammar as something which is additional to the English curriculum, rather than a part of it. We don’t have a metaphor ‘program’. We accept that metaphor as a concept is central to our subject. Why, then, do we see grammar as something which must be added or sit alongside the real curriculum? Grammar and its constituent parts should be positioned centrally, too.

Why doesn’t bolt-on content work?

Based on what we know from cognitive science, the brain’s ability to make explicit connections between different pieces of knowledge is incredibly important. As we encounter new information, we connect it to other things we know or have experienced. The connections form structures in the brain called schema. The more connections we make, the bigger and stronger the schema, the more resistant the new information is to forgetting. Every time we learn something new or re-encounter information, the brain modifies or re-wires those connections and schema become more complex. How does this relate to teaching grammar? If we teach something as discrete, separate content, students are less able to make those connections in the brain. If, however, we fully integrate grammar into the curriculum, those links are explicit and, therefore, student learning can be more successful. It makes sense that grammar (like any other knowledge) will benefit from being embedded into the main curriculum, frequently revisited, deepened and refined.

The work of Myhill among others has echoed this need for integrated, contextualised grammar teaching. Myhill argued that grammar teaching must be done in context, using ‘real’ texts rather than isolated models created just for grammar instruction. What does this mean in the classroom? Grammar should be one of our curricular threads which is mapped onto the substantive curriculum with everything else.

This is easily said, but is actually immensely complex to achieve. To map out grammar content in a meaningful way across a curriculum, you need to have:

  1. Really good knowledge of grammar (WHAT grammar content could you teach?)
  2. The ability to prioritise (which concepts are essential or desirable for your students in your cohort? CONTEXT IS KING)
  3. Where would these concepts be best placed in your curriculum? Do some things need to be taught before others? Where in your existing curriculum could these ideas be integrated in a meaningful way?

In my own context, and with the expert support from critical friends across my MAT English team (thanks Donal, Rach and Amy), we have mapped out the essential and desirable content we have decided to teach, and used a spreadsheet to show where each concept will be taught (T), and revised (R) in subsequent units. For example, we have decided that the best place to teach active and passive voice is in our narrative writing unit in Y7 half term 2. This makes sense to us because, during this unit, students will be able to engage directly with each of these concepts and make choices in their own writing. Student understanding of active and passive voice will be revised, deepened and refined through re-exposure or re-teaching in subsequent writing units, as indicated in the spreadsheet. You can download a copy of the spreadsheet here, but PLEASE NOTE – there are many areas of grammar which are not on there – we have made choices based on the needs of our cohort and what works for our curriculum and staff right now. This is in no way a perfect model which can simply be implemented elsewhere – curriculum is an ongoing tapestry.

In the classroom: grammar for academic writing

I am a huge advocate of live modelling for teaching writing. I also believe that, with something as complex as writing, it is important to ensure that our instruction is incredibly careful and precise. The strategy I share below is based on principles of visuospatial concept mapping – I talk about that in more detail in this post here.

The aim of teaching writing is that we support students to express their understanding with precision. The challenge there is that our brains hold multiple ideas at once, and are capable of combining them in interesting ways, but this isn’t always matched by our ability to reflect that complexity in writing. The best interpretations often come from combining concepts and indicating the way in which different elements of texts influence each other. In the modelling sequence I outline below, the intention was for students to be able to:

Construct sentences which can handle multiple concepts at once, demonstrate and elicit links, and explore the cumulative effect of a number of text features at once.

We often support students to write by giving them sentence stems such as: Shakespeare says… this shows… this also suggests… this might link to…

This might support students to write things down, but these stems do nothing to scaffold really hard working sentences which can do all of the things in the intention outlined above.

Look at these two sentences:

Blake’s attack on the great institutions of British power is simultaneously furious and devastating. Not only does he convey a powerful sense of anger – ‘every cry of every man’ – but he also highlights the lived reality of the most vulnerable in society through reference to ‘infants’, child labour of ‘chimney-sweepers’ and the stark lives of young unmarried mothers.

The process…

  1. I model the first sentence live under a visualiser. I then go back and highlight specific elements of the text. There are two adjectives at the end of this sentence which represent two separate interpretations. There is also an adverb: ‘simultaneously’ which serves those two adjectives – the use of that word enables students to handle TWO ideas, rather than just one.

2. I explain to students how the first section of the sentence is the ‘thing’ we are describing, and that we must consider the things we might want to say – these interpretations should be things which will enhance each other.

3. I teach the word ‘simultaneously’ as a deliberate word, explaining to students that it is hard working because it will carry two (or more) interpretations at a time. I use this simple visual to indicate this.

4. The next sentence in the model uses a subordinating conjunction. This is a really useful grammatical feature because, much like ‘simultaneously’, it sets up multiple ideas. A subordinating conjunction makes one clause subordinate to another. That means that a clause which might otherwise have been fine on its own, suddenly needs another clause in order to make sense. For example, this is a full sentence:

Blake conveys a powerful sense of anger.

If, however, we began this sentence with a subordinating conjunction ‘not only’, it would look like this:

Not only does he convey a powerful sense of anger

Suddenly, the sentence is rendered incomplete. It demands another clause to make it work. In the model, the completed version looks like this:

Not only does he convey a powerful sense of anger – ‘every cry of every man’ – but he also highlights the lived reality of the most vulnerable in society.

I use this very simple image to present this particular sentence structure for students.

When teaching subordinating conjunctions as a general concept, I also use the following simple image. Because a subordinating conjunction causes one clause to be dependent on another, I present this as one book leaning on another, more stable book. I must stress at this point that it is not the pictures themselves which support students. It is the way the pictures represent relationships between different concepts. The leaning book denotes a relationship between clauses. I sometimes talk about how the subordinating conjunction is almost like a hand which has pushed a book over into another, though this is far easier to explain in person using gestures!

5. The next section of this sentence begins with the word ‘through’, which introduces a series of linked ideas. By listing three pieces of evidence from the text rather than just one, we create emphasis – the strength of the interpretation swells with each additional reference, much like the wedge I have drawn below. The pieces of evidence have been selected carefully because, though the are separate elements of the poem, grouping them highlights how they combine and have a powerful cumulative effect. In this case, by highlighting all of the vulnerable people who Blake mentions in the poem, we can heighten the reader’s appreciation of this as a key theme in the poem.

6. The whole drawing is here. Part of the benefit of drawing this comes from the live action – students appreciate how it is constructed, what comes first, what direction the arrows are drawn in, etc etc.

This can be condensed to an even simpler visual like so:

I would get students to use this visual in a range of ways:

  • Recreate the larger and smaller version of the image from memory
  • Annotate the visual with examples and explanations of what they represent, from memory
  • Use them to recreate the original model
  • Use them to create their own writing which uses the same structure

Here is an example of this structure being used to write about a different text entirely…

What are the key takeaways from this session for the classroom?

If you would like the full slide deck from this talk, you can find it in the resource library here. The first half is the work of Marcello Giovanelli and explores the what and why of grammar teaching.

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