Grammar for Writing: Using Knowledge of Grammar to Improve Writing

By Lines, Helen; Myhill, Debra | NATE Classroom, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Grammar for Writing: Using Knowledge of Grammar to Improve Writing


Lines, Helen, Myhill, Debra, NATE Classroom


There's a definite emphasis on grammar knowledge in the draft National Curriculum for Key Stages 1 and 2. It's headed up in the Programmes of Study where 'Grammar and Punctuation' replaces 'Language Structure', and the Appendix is a fairly hefty list of concepts and terminology for teachers and students to use when they talk about writing. The clear assumption is I that children make progress as writers by 'adding to their knowledge of linguistic terms'.

Our Grammar for Writing research, carried out with Year 8 students, showed a slightly more complicated picture that you may well recognise from your own classroom. As we reported in the June edition of Classroom, some students wrote very well but couldn't explain what they'd done. Some explained intentions and effects very confidently but in their own, non-technical, words. Others used correct linguistic terms such as 'simple sentence' and 'complex sentence' --but didn't understand the grammatical concept behind the label.

However, in this last article in the Grammar for Writing series, the connection we want to focus on is between knowledge of grammar and improving writing. In the draft Programme of Study for Years 5 and 6, the requirement is that 'pupils should be taught to evaluate and edit' their writing, 'proposing changes to grammar, vocabulary and punctuation to enhance effects and clarify meaning.' Drawing on what the Year 8 writers in our study and their teachers told us, this article explores the assumptions behind this objective and the implications for classroom practice.

Evaluating writing

Evaluating writing means making a judgement about its quality: it's so essential to the process of writing and such a regular classroom activity that we might assume teachers and students know and agree about--what they're looking for. But in our study we found huge variation in the criteria used to characterise good writing. For example:

Year   Word Structure          Sentence
                               Structure

5      Converting nouns        Relative clauses
       or adjectives           beginning with
       into verbs using        who, which, where,
       suffixes (e.g. -ate;    why, or whose
       -ise; -ify)

                               Indicating degrees
       Verb prefixes           of possibility using
       (e.g. dis-, de-,        modal verbs (e.g.
       mis-, over-             might, should, will,
       and re-)                must) or adverbs
                               (e.g. perhaps,
                               surely)

Year   Text Struct              Punctuation          Terminology for
                                                     Pupils

5      Devices to build         Brackets, dashes     relative clause,
       cohesion within          or commas            modal verb,
       a paragraph (e.g.        to indicate          relative pronoun,
       then, after that,        parenthesis          parenthesis,
       this, firstly)                                bracket, dash,

                                Use of commas to     determiner,
       Linking ideas            clarify meaning or   cohesion,
       across paragraphs        avoid ambiguity      ambiguity
       using adverbials
       of time (e.g. later),
       place (e.g. nearby)
       and number (e.g.
       secondly)

* Some teachers looked for technical accuracy above all else; others thought creativity was more important, 'the one time we can throw accuracy and spelling out of the window and we can fix it later.' Some teachers rewarded personal effort, 'even if it's not perfect, to show that they've tried'; others judged effective matching of style to audience and purpose.

* Teachers recognised that evaluation was essentially personal and subjective, 'a matter of personal taste', so that 'Some people would be blown away by one piece of writing, and some people would hate the same piece. …

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