Moving from grammatical knowledge to application in pupils’ writing

When the current national curriculum was introduced, there were a few raised eyebrows at the amount of grammatical content that had to be taught – from expanded noun phrases to fronted adverbials, from modal verbs to the passive.

But teachers and pupils alike seem to have taken it all in their stride. We’ve become familiar with the terminology, and knowledgeable about a range of grammatical structures as well as the punctuation needed to manage them.

Arguably, primary-age pupils now have more knowledge about grammar and punctuation than ever before. But do they always put this knowledge to good use in their day-to-day writing? And if not, what can we do to help them?

Creative imitation

One criticism sometimes levelled at grammar teaching is that it can lead to imitative, formulaic writing, with no real attention to purpose or impact.

But most writers borrow ideas from reading. It’s an apprentice model, a way of internalising patterns of language and trying them on for size to see how they might work in our own writing.

So don’t be afraid to use this approach. Give pupils a short, interesting text and tease out its grammatical features, unpicking the way it achieves its effects. Then use the grammar (and punctuation if you wish) as a structure for pupils’ own writing. This has the benefit of reducing the cognitive load and encouraging experimentation within a supportive framework.

Here’s an example.

As she hurtled round the corner, she skidded headlong into Mrs Keen: Bobbie was really in trouble now.

What do we notice about the grammar of this sentence?

  • It consists of two independent clauses, joined by a colon.
  • The colon works like a pair of headlights to show how the second clause elaborates on and makes sense of the first (Bobbie is in trouble because she has skidded into Mrs Keen. This leads the reader to infer that a) Mrs Keen must be an important person and that b) Bobbie may have been in trouble before).
  • The first independent clause contains a subordinate clause (As she hurtled round the corner), fronted to emphasise the dramatic action.
  • Preposition phrases (round the cornerinto Mrs Keen) and adverbs (headlongreallynow) help to create immediacy in terms of time and place.
  • The repeated use of the pronoun (she) hides the identity of the subject (Bobbie) until the final clause, supporting cohesion (she… she… Bobbie) and heightening the reader’s anticipation.

Here’s another example. Unpick the grammar and ask pupils to import it to a different context in their own writing.

A light flickered on the horizon. Cal glanced at the window, picked up the package and slipped outside.

The power of the passive

We know that passives can create a sense of authority and impersonality (The use of mobile phones is forbidden in the library). And, of course, agentless passives are a good choice when we don’t know – or need ­to know, or want to reveal – who was responsible for an action (The decision was made to cancel the event).

But because passives shift the way information is presented, typically from the perpetrator to the action itself, they can be a powerful part of a young writer’s toolkit.

For example, showing how the passive can create suspense in narrative by hiding the agent can be really empowering. Consider the air of mystery created by the passive in The door – securely locked the night before – had been forced open. You could help pupils to realise the creative potential of this versatile grammatical structure, which offers so much more than simply a mark of formality, by asking them to use an agentless passive to write a gripping opening sentence for their own suspense story.

Harnessing knowledge about grammar and punctuation

When modelling writing, it’s important to verbalise the choices we make as writers, including choices of grammar and punctuation. And how empowering it is to draw on our shared grammatical knowledge not only when exploring texts, but also when constructing our own.

Given pupils’ knowledge of terminology, it’s far more efficient to be able to use this metalanguage to discuss texts explicitly, both as readers and writers – and this will support the development of automaticity in recognising different types of grammatical structures.

I really like the atmospheric setting created by ‘in the early morning mist’, but I’m just going to try it at the front of the clause to see whether that makes it stand out more for the reader. That’s the great thing about adverbials… you can move them about to create different effects, or emphasise different things…

So I’m going to use a colon here, because I want to show how…

Once pupils are comfortable with the practice of exploring the way writers make grammatical choices, it’s just a short step to making deliberate choices about their own writing.

The choices writers make

In Bite into Writing, the teaching prompts that accompany each Spotlight text focus explicitly on the way a writer’s choices of grammar and punctuation support the purpose of the writing and its intended audience. For example, nouns and noun phrases can convey information with concision and precision, carefully chosen adverbs can subtly qualify description, modal verbs can suggest tantalising possibilities, and fronted clauses and phrases can foreground important information and heighten anticipation for the reader.

Asking pupils to talk through some of the grammatical choices they’ve made to enhance their own writing can help bridge the gap between knowledge and application – pupils might contribute to alternative suggestions or discuss the impact of such choices on the reader. Similarly, when writing for purpose and audience, pupils might be invited to share specific aspects of their writing – for example, vocabulary or grammatical structures selected for formality, or the use of adverbials to track time and place through a story.

Grammar and punctuation are essentially about making meaning. Just keep your focus on purpose, audience and impact, and you won’t go far wrong.

Written by Jo Shackleton and Margaret Fennell – highly experienced writing moderators and authors of NFER's Bite into Writing