Grammar Games: A Practical Guide to Teaching Grammar in Context

By Herbert, Beth | Practically Primary, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Grammar Games: A Practical Guide to Teaching Grammar in Context


Herbert, Beth, Practically Primary


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In Western Australia, the release of the Australian Curriculum: English has caused some angst, especially as regards the Language strand. This is because for many years the explicit teaching of grammar has not been a focus.

My colleague, Ms Patricia Kershaw, tells a story of how, as a young teacher in the late 70s, she was observed teaching an engaging grammar lesson with her students. Afterwards, the feedback that she received was that grammar was no longer to be explicitly taught! Unfortunately, this attitude persisted for so long that we now have over a generation of teachers trying to teach grammar without having been taught it themselves. No wonder there is some angst!

It was out of this context that Grammar Games (O'Rourke, Hill, McGirr, 2006) was born.

Grammar Games is a full day, professional learning opportunity for teachers facilitated by myself and Pat. It aims to:

* Allay teacher concerns regarding the teaching of grammar.

* Introduce teachers to a functional approach to grammar.

* Link this functional approach to the Australian Curriculum: English.

* Demonstrate ways grammar can be taught in context.

* Show how the teaching of grammar can be fun!

Grammar Games is a mix of theory and practical activities. We begin by introducing the idea of a functional approach to grammar, based on the work of linguists such as Beverley Derewianka, John Polias and Brian Dare who were all influenced by Professor Michael Halliday. Functional grammar is based on the assumption that language is a dynamic, complex system of resources for making meaning (Derewianka, 2011); not a set of rules to be learnt. Analysis begins at the whole text level, using whatever is being studied in the classroom, and moves downwards to the clause level and then the word level. This approach seems to make more sense to students because they can see patterns within texts, differences between texts and how language can be manipulated to create a variety of meanings, depending upon the writer's purpose.

However, traditional grammar is not ignored because functional grammar emphasises the ways in which language functions to assist meaning, but also relies upon knowledge, understanding and the use of terms of traditional grammar (Campbell & Ryles, 1996). Traditional grammar provides students with a language to describe language, a metalanguage (Winch & Blaxell, 2011). A useful way of visualising the relationship between functional and traditional grammar is the Language Ladder (Education Queensland, 2007).

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The relationship between functional and traditional grammar can also be seen in the Australian Curriculum: English content descriptors. The sentences and clause level grammar descriptors tend to use functional language while the word level grammar descriptors use the metalanguage of traditional grammar.

The majority of our workshop then focuses on clause level grammar and the basic components of a clause--processes, participants and circumstances--because this is the basic unit of meaning within a sentence. A clause must contain a process (a verb) and it typically contains a participant (a noun). It 'represents a slice of experience' (Derewianka, 2011, p. 13).

Once participants have established this definition, we write some single clauses on the whiteboard and ask similar, functional questions about each. Parts of the clauses are colour coded according to functional grammar. In the following examples, the process is made bold, the participant is underlined and the CIRCUMSTANCE is written in uppercase (in the workshop, colours are used to highlight the parts of the clause).

EXAMPLE 1: Jared surfs every day.

* What is happening? What is the action? What does
Jared do?

* The answer, surfs, is the process and is written (or
highlighted or underlined) in green. … 

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