The power of a good book – leading the way to successful grammar teaching

    Published: 29 March 2017

    In this blog, Kathy Roe looks at the invaluable role that high quality texts can play in supporting children’s knowledge and understanding of grammar. 

    I was taking a staff meeting the other night with an English subject leader in her school. After the meeting, we encouraged the teachers to come and look at the stack of books I’d brought for them to browse. Some were asking which ones would work well for their year groups or topics and I heard the English Subject Leader laughing. “What’s so funny?” I ask.

    “You say ‘that’s my favourite book!’ or ‘you have to use this one’ for all of them!” I pondered this for a moment and realised she was right; I hadn’t even noticed. I also realised that in that moment, I have a tendency to pull said fabulous book to my chest and cuddle it, whilst making said gushing endorsement. It got me thinking; where did my love of children’s literature begin?

    I’ll never forget reading Michael Morpurgo’s Butterfly Lion (maybe a Morpurgo underdog? But it’s my favourite) in my NQT year with my year 3/4 class as part of our Teaching Sequence. We got to the bit in the story where the boy must frighten his beloved companion away in order to protect him. I could feel my voice cracking and I thought ‘uh-oh, I’m going to cry here!’  I looked up from the book at the children sitting on the carpet in front of me, to see if I could distract myself for a moment and regain composure (perhaps someone would be picking their nose and would need to be told off!). I peered up to see 30 little faces staring at me, rapt, each pair of eyes also glassy with tears. So I carried on and we all had a little cry together. That was such a pivotal moment in my teaching career and I often credit that experience with the beginning of my passion for teaching all things literacy though rich narrative.

    I think perhaps the answer to my earlier question is here:  finding a book that you love, that you can get children to love too. Once you have that, and the pitch is just right (it needs to be nice and challenging – but not intimidating), you can plan a series of lessons that will ignite your class’s interest in reading. In my experience, there is a vast difference in the quality of writing that comes from a Teaching Sequence rooted in rich narrative than that produced in discrete or one-off ‘cold’ tasks.

    There is no doubt that the 2014 National Curriculum presented many of us with a challenge as there seemed to be such a shift in emphasis when it came to grammar. I thought that it presented opportunity. I have always loved grammar and used it as an integral part of my English teaching to improve the quality of children’s writing.

    Some children (and adults) just seem to have a natural way with words; they are probably avid readers and can just write well – without really thinking about it. These people may not always need the grammar instruction that I’ll be sharing later on. They confidently use fronted adverbials and figurative language, without knowing those terms, just because it sounds right. But then you have those writers who do not feel confident; they don’t possess the gift of natural flair and haven’t necessarily read widely. . These are the children that need good quality grammar instruction because if they’ve received it, instead of saying to them ‘make your writing better’ (how frustrating must that feel?) you can say ‘why don’t you try adding a noun phrase to tell me more about that character?’ or ‘how about a prepositional phrase there to give the reader a picture in their mind of that setting?’. In other words, you will impart them with control and knowledge with which to write, and write well. It’s empowering for them. Once you have that, coupled with an inspiring book, you are well on your way to achieving superb results with a class – of even the most reluctant writers.

    So where and how do we start? Number 1 – Find that book! Number 2 –  Look really carefully at the writing that your class is already doing and work out which aspects of grammar are holding them back from achieving that next step. (There are a few HFL resources I would look to here to support those 2 steps: the KS2 guided reading toolkit and the narrative text recommendations are rich with pitch-appropriate book lists for each year group, up to date for NC 2014; the grammar emphasis document will support you with knowing which grammar elements from your year group’s curriculum to prioritise) hopefully you will have used your lovely books to do lots of immersion tasks in phase 1 of your teaching sequence and the children will have done some response writing (those letters in role, character studies, wanted posters etc). Now you’re ready to hit the grammar; by now your pupils will be immersed in the world of your text and their heads will be full of vocabulary that they’ve acquired from the book and they’re ready to apply it.

    Let’s imagine that your Year 6 class have been reading Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide; (if you haven’t looked at this yet for your Year 6 class – please do!) they’ve perhaps written a letter to a boggart, written an eye-witness account of a run-in with a merman, added some captions to the beautiful diagram of the changeling in phase 1 and presently we’re looking for some discrete grammar work on expanded noun phrases as you’ve identified that as lacking in their writing. Look at this beautiful sentence taken straight form the text, in the ‘Sprites’ section.

    Dazzling in colour and about the size of large insects, sprites have glistening membranous wings.

     I would explore why the writer has chosen to put the subordinate clause at the start of the sentence. Then I would ask: “What effect does the word dazzling have on you as a reader?” and “tell me what picture those precise adjectives glistening membranous put in your mind”, “tell your partner how the writer has achieved such detail without overusing adjectives in that noun phrase”. There follows a beautiful double page spread of exquisitely detailed diagrams of sprites. I would ask the children to choose a sprite and write some detailed noun phrases about one of the images, in the style of the writer. I would challenge them to bring the subordinating clause to the start of the sentence and explore the effect on the reader. By teaching in this way, you are not only bringing the ITAF statement about precise language choice into a context and giving it tangible meaning for the pupils, you are also supporting the grammar curriculum in a memorable way in the hope that pupils will retain and replicate the learning.

    Let’s look to an example from Year 4 now.  I love Robert Swindell’s Ice Palace as the wintry, snowy setting and the haunting presence of Starjik have captivated all those who I have taught this with. In phase 1, I would have generated word banks and collected phrases from the text, exploring the setting through drama, freeze framing and talk. I would have written notes in role as Ivan, written character descriptions of Starjik and perhaps innovated some recounts about the journey with the pupils. For one of my grammar foci in phase 2, I would certainly be looking at fronted adverbials, with a comma at the end of the adverbial. This text is rich with examples; I might share these with the pupils:

    For a long time, Soon after that, Moments later, All that day, Far away, When morning came,

    At midnight, After a moment, When dawn came, All at once, Long ago,

    When they drew near,

    I might choose an event in the story, for instance when Ivan imagines dancing with the villagers, and ask the pupils to write a retelling of the events, using a selection of the adverbials collected. These examples, taken from the book, will doubtless elevate the quality of their writing and hopefully leave a trace and be used again independently in phase 3.

    Similarly, in Year 3, I have had great success with The Princess and the White Bear King by Tanya Robyn Batt as that haunting, snowy setting holds so much appeal. This is a dreamy, fairy-tale-like book whose repetitive language supports children with adopting a literary, narrative tone in their own writing. In phase 1, I would: collect vocabulary; write free-form poetry; create freeze-frames and response pieces; chart the journey that the princess takes etc. I might want to work on effective use of a wider range of conjunctions in phase 2, so the pupils are varying and extending their sentences more. I might share these examples from the text:

    The princess explored the castle until she grew heavy with sleep.

    Her eyes had hardly closed when she was stirred by the gentle padding of paws.

    The queen’s words lay heavy with the Princess, for she had trusted the bear, but now doubt poisoned her mind.

    Not only are the pupils then seeing conjunctions used purposefully in a context, but they’re also inadvertently exploring the writer’s use of other powerful language such as the verb choices padding and poisoned. I might ask the children to prepare a sentence on a post-it note ready for a conscience alley with the question: Should the Princess heed her mother’s advice? I would encourage them to use a conjunction in their sentence and provide a model such as: Do not listen to your mother’s advice for no good will come of mistrusting your host. Pupils could follow this up by writing a short balanced argument about the dilemma, using conjunctions to provide reasons.

    These example activities embrace the grammar elements of the 2014 curriculum and harness the model that is your chosen piece of literature. Drawing activities and examples from your text should ensure that grammar instruction is robust in your class, and best of all – the pupils will enjoy the process. You will see them magpie-ing the writer’s skill in their own work and there is nothing better for a child’s self-esteem than producing a piece of work that they’re really proud of. You might also get a few reluctant readers sold on picking up a book for pleasure…

    Kathy Roe is an Teaching and Learning Adviser for English at Herts for Learning

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