Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Down and Dirty with Grammar

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Down and Dirty with Grammar

Article excerpt

Preamble: Before we start ...

Read the primary student's work that follows. While there are lots of positives about the piece, try to decide what follow-up would be required to help the student write more effectively.


   Frogs jump and croke a lot. Ther skin is slippery and wet. They
   hide sometimes and ther big eyes blink. I no some poepel who are
   scerd of them. I am not scerd of them. I think they are vere cute.
   Thats what I think.

So, what did you think about this piece of writing? Spelling is an obvious area of continuing need and we could identify some possible patterns in the misspellings. For example, while there seems to be a fairly good awareness of sound-letter relationships, the student does not always make the correct choices (e.g. croke instead of croak, vere instead of very, scerd instead of scared). Use of apostrophes is another immediately identifiable area of possible need (e.g. Thats in the last sentence).

However, as important as these aspects of language might be, they are surface errors easily fixed. More significantly, the student appears uncertain about his purpose in writing about frogs. Is it to inform readers about 'the facts' or to reflect on how he feels about them? Consequently, he is uncertain about the genre in which he should be writing, and the subject matter is chosen and organised in a seemingly random way. Additionally, at a more micro-level, the student has difficulty in choosing the appropriate person (first or third?) and with patterning his sentence beginnings (Theme) and endings (Rheme). The result is a piece that demonstrates competent control of basic sentence structure, but the student needs to develop competence in stringing sentences together so that they create a cohesive, coherent text.

This brief example illustrates two points which underpin this article. Firstly, while it is important for students to get 'the basics' of spelling and punctuation right, this is not sufficient to enable students to become competent writers. Secondly, teachers require a deep understanding of language and how it functions within particular contexts in order to help students reach their potential as readers as well as writers.


Recent events such as the release of the results of the first National assessment program literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) testing and consultation regarding a National English Curriculum have propelled grammar on to the front pages of the media. However, for reasons that will be demonstrated, the NAPLAN Language Conventions Test and much of the current media discussion about grammar are dangerously limiting.

Originally, this paper was presented as the keynote address at a seminar on the Gold Coast, organised by ALEA's Brisbane Meanjin Local Council. My brief was simple and broad: enthuse teachers about grammar. The paper is not intended as a formal, comprehensive survey of how grammar should or could be taught, but it aims to:

* encourage the use of grammar in creative, practical ways to help students read and write more effectively;

* consider grammar as a resource for meaning making and text analysis, rather than simply a set of formal rules to be learned, and

* inspire your own experimentation with the vast possibilities of grammar.

So what's wrong with NAPLAN?

In the preamble, I indicated that, while the student did indeed have some problems with spelling and punctuation and required some improvement in these areas, these were not the main problems with the piece of writing. Rather, the student needs explicit help in identifying the purpose of his writing and then choosing appropriate genre, structure and language features in order to achieve that purpose.

It is an issue that Dr Lenore Ferguson (2001) raised in her analysis of 700 samples of the work produced as part of the Queensland Core Skills Test Writing Task. …

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