Teaching grammar in context part 1

This post is part of a series where I answer questions that a school I am supporting send me. I live a long way away from the school so we decided the school would ask me questions and I would answer via a blog post.  This week’s question is:

We understand why we need to teach grammar in context, but how do we choose what to teach from a book?

This is quite a big question so there will be two parts to the answer; first the process of how we decide and then secondly some examples based on the biography books.

The first thing to be really clear about is what your children need to get better at because often that can help decide which text type you choose to use. For example, if your children need to get better at using speech punctuation you will need a text which includes it – normally fiction. If your children needed a clearer understanding of direct and reported speech you might use newspaper reports.

Once you have this, you then need to choose what to teach from the text, including the area you have identified.  It is important that we are driven by the effect of the device rather than just teaching the device itself so we read the book and complete a chart with the three headings:

  1. What is the effect?
  2. How is it achieved?
  3. Examples for teaching

The first column is a reader’s response to the text. This is about how you feel as a reader – frightened, reassured, in a safe pair of hands, persuaded, upset etc.  This is what we want children to focus on when writing – I want my reader to be tense at this point in my story rather than I need to use short sentences.

The second column is to list the devices used to create that effect/feeling.  If we continue with the idea of creating tension, this can be achieved through a variety of different ways but we need to look closely at what the text does.  Let’s take Boo! by Kevin Crossley -Holland, a story that many teachers in KS2 know from Short!  Writing the end of this short story defeats the whole object of this fantastic piece of writing. It’s all about the tension and how it ratchets up as I read more, so how does he do it?  Here are some of the things that I noticed:

  • It reads a bit like a list of sentences rolling on and on. Each sentence/clause is an action  to delay the act of getting into bed.
  • When I look more closely at the sentences they are mostly simple or compound sentences apart from the first and last one. Sometimes a semi-colon has been used to create the link between the clauses. This creates that list feeling in a variety of ways.
  • The use of ‘she’ rather than a name. It is an interesting way of withholding information from the reader and adds to the tension.
  • The setting of the scene in the first sentence with the words alone, sleep and old house towards the end of the sentence.  These three elements set up very clear expectations in a reader’s head.
  • The ambiguity over how you read the last sentence and therefore how the story ends. Do you read it in a voice that suggests it is all OK now or do you read it in a small voice, adding to the tension. How does the title relate to this?

This is a really important step that tailors what we do with the text/book. If I ask how do you create tension, many children in Yrs 5 and 6 will answer short sentences for emphasis but this is not what this text does.  What you can do as a result of working in this way is to build up a range of devices for creating tension so that eventually children have something to choose from.

In the third column, I would list the examples of sentences that I wanted to teach, e.g. ‘She undressed; she put on her nightdress.’ for the use of the semi-colon. This text is so short you could use almost all of it. If you are using a novel, record sentences to teach. There is nothing worse than spending Sunday night searching for something you thought you saw!

Sometimes, you do not want children to practise writing a whole story, just parts of it.  One example with this text might be to take a well-known traditional tale and model finding a place in the story where you could include writing that suggests tension. For example, you could take Little Red Riding Hood and create tension when she opens the door of Granny’s cottage or as she walks along and meets the wolf.  Children could then write this part.

The next part of this answer will focus on examples of these charts using the biographies for KS1, Lower KS2 and Upper KS2.

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