A couple of weeks ago, I attended a PE course delivered by an England hockey coach. One thing he made very clear was that children should be taught hockey skills through playing the game. He talked about the relevance of learning new skills (see my earlier blogpost here) and explained how children learn these new skills best in the context of a real game. Yes, they will make mistakes (many of which he advised should not be picked up on immediately), but they will also learn through the game itself. Many skills will materialise naturally, and then can be used as teaching points for the rest of the class.
I was reminded of this “learn through playing the game” maxim during a twitter conversation the same week about teaching grammar.
@kvnmcl asked: “Have any other primary schools brought in grammar, punctuation and spelling as distinct timetabled lessons?”
I responded: “Lunacy. It needs to be taught in context!” Ok, I concede that ‘lunacy’ may have been a misjudged choice of word, but I firmly stand by my belief that good teaching and learning of spelling, grammar and punctuation should be in context rather than in isolated lessons.
Over the course of the day, the conversation and its number of participants grew. Words were twisted out of context and my original meaning was picked apart. I felt that I was being backed into a corner, and I received 11 DMs asking me if I was ok or advising me to ignore some of the comments. I chose to bow out of the conversation, but I have been mulling the subject over ever since.
I strongly believe that the most effective way of teaching grammar and punctuation is in context: linked to engaging texts and taught through an approach to English as a whole subject rather than through a series of disjointed elements.
I’ve seen lessons where children are shown a new sentence type, and are then asked to write out numerous examples of that sentence type with no context. I’ve seen lessons where children are told what an adverb is and then spend the rest of the lesson underlining adverbs in given sentences. I’m not suggesting that this is widespread, but it happens. One of the points made on twitter was that we wouldn’t teach young children a sound in isolation, without putting it into the context of words. That’s how I feel about the teaching of grammar in isolation.
Yes, sometimes skills need to be explicitly taught and then practised by the children. But that doesn’t mean that those skills and the practising need to be in isolation from the rest of the teaching of English. And yes, that does happen.
I try and teach through texts as often as I can in English (see my blog post here). At the moment, my Y4/5/6 children are reading ‘There’s a boy in the girls’ bathroom’ by Louis Sachar. Through the text, they have learned 3 new Alan Peat sentence types, which have given me plenty of scope for using the metalanguage of grammar they will need for their Y6 SPaG tests. We have looked at apostrophes for possession and omission; we have looked at antonyms and synonyms; we have explored modal verbs and we have looked at the punctuation of direct speech. And those are only the planned bits! There have been so many asides and so much incidental learning brought about by discussion of a rich text and children immersing themselves in writing in different genres in response.
And, not a single “grammar” lesson in sight.