researchED 2017 workshop 2: primary grammar - what really matters in transition

    Published: 18 September 2017

    Martin Galway outlines his presentation at this year’s researchEd conference on primary grammar and the transition to key stage 3.

    Last night I blogged at some length on workshop 1 (the reading comprehension session) which covered the complexities of difficulties in reading comprehension.  It also touched on how research can quite swiftly end up mangled and distorted as it is amplified across various media.  As a result, I trod as carefully as I could.  I am not going through all that again.  Life is short.  The timetable is packed.  I think we need to crack on.   So I have selected some slides that give a flavour of my second session.  I’ll provide some commentary but it was a jam-packed session content-wise so it is hard to capture it all.  If you want to know more, do get in touch.   You will find my details in the title slide and at the bottom of this blog.

    So we started here – the whole point of the session was to streamline the 90-odd pages of primary curriculum for our lovely KS3 colleages, chomping at the bit, poised to grasp the primary writing relay baton and give Usain Bolt a run for his money.


    Of course, we need to acknowledge that the primary English curriculum is , as I like to say, girthy.  Some figures tend to describe the primary curriculum as “slimmed down”.  In some ways this is true.  It is true in that the requirements for art, for example,  now occupy a single page of curricular space.  But when it comes to primary English,  we are carrying a pretty wide load.


    It would therefore seem rude not to outline the various documents that have shaped the lives of primary English teachers over the past three years.  In order to help make clear the essentials of the progression that sits beneath these various documents, I provided a slide that outlined the headline movement from early (and I mean pre-school here) naming and early language development through to the heady hob-knobbing of the requirements relating to formal/informal writing in years 5  and 6.  I haven’t shared that slide here as in itself it is an outline,  a simplification.  It needs some commentary.  It’s a “you had to be there” slide.


    We then explored an activity that allows your year 7 intake to demonstrate something of what they know.  Rather than assume that “they know nothing” and start from scratch, a noun/verb Venn diagram allows you to identify how well they are able to handle the ways in which the function of words shift according to the (sometimes unfairly derided) context. Context counts. Without question.  Consider where ‘swimming’ or ‘tower’ sit on the diagram.  In the middle ground. They could only be placed in the left or right sections if the context dictates it and in this activity we haven’t provided the context.  This allows us to hear how our students deliberate over where to place the words.  This alone can give some really powerful student feedback on what they know.  You will want to listen out for how adept the children are at using context – placing the words into phrases and clauses – in order to justify or challenge one another’s decisions.

    Within the word list supplied we also see how well our students might handle fixed verbs like “to have” or the harder-to-define “being verbs” such as  were/are/am.  Yacht  and others  provides a means to assess the less regular or trickier spellings of the statutory primary word lists.  Throw in word families (from a spelling point of view disappear/disappearing/disappeared/disappearance is a good one – and it extends to include nominalisation – now we are heading into academic register) and you are assessing facility with language.  Even more so if you look at homophones  – ask your class to place be/bee or steak/stake and those that ask “which spelling?” are showing a real, in-the-moment facility with language.

    Want to go deeper – how about discussing how words navigate word classes over time.  Consider something transitional like ‘text’.  There are still some that see “I’ll text you later,” as an affront to language.  Around this we can talk about how one of the joys of language is its fluidity – its movement with the ebb and tide of ‘progress’.  In longer sessions (ranging from whole day courses, to cluster sessions, and to twilights). I use activities like these to help nudge participants on from rigid notions of right/wrong, to think more in terms of conventions, and this can be really helpful in reducing pretty common-place anxieties around  the term ‘grammar’.  It’s about meaning – and that extends across dialects and accents.

    In any case, as an example of formative assessment early in the year, this is so much better than asking a leading question along the lines of : ‘who thinks that commas mark the places where we are supposed to breathe?’  A sea of hands goes up? Well we are none the wiser. It was a leading question and how do we isolate the influence of peers in a newly strange environment?


    This section explored how grammar also supports reading comprehension  which is jolly important.  Look how potentially confusing those pronouns are!


    And don’t get me started on how utterly bizarre an image is conjured if the preposition ‘on’ is misunderstood in this tricky clause: is anyone picturing a dinner party on top of a giraffe on top of an eleven year old? Of course not – but that is because you are a proficient reader.  Some children are not so lucky.


    At this point I spoke at length on my core approach to helping children to get a firmer grasp on the concept of a sentence.  I started by looking at simple clauses. This is represented by a simple, singular block of colour  which stemmed from early work using simple display border roll.  Border roll is one of the best tools I have used to teach grammar.  It allows for plenty of handwritten experimentation and can be manipulated really very easily (tearing up our writing and reforming it in such a physical way seems to be incredibly liberating for some children – and adults).  I didn’t linger too long on the border roll approach and focused on its graphic representation.  But I shared these tips:

    • good old fashioned border roll – not this new fangled corrugated stuff with the wavy edging
    • no more than 3 colours at a time; ideally two, one to highlight the concept or feature being taught and one for everything else

    In the slide above, I moved on to the magic roundabout that is co-ordinated sentence parts.  This nascent foray into graphic design is my attempt to show how I managed to help a group of six year olds to remember the underlying  concept behind co-ordination: the conjunction does not allow itself to get involved with the words/phrases/clauses that it seeks to bring together.  It keeps them at arms lengths.  In the picture, you see two whiteboards and a post it.  Simple.  Memorable. Every time.

    From there,  I shared how we move on to the realm of subordination (year 2 + but ideally handled orally in year 1 and earlier) ) where the subordinating conjunctions are happy to get involved in the clauses that they initiate. Again,  a complex journey is mapped out in simple visual codes that in time become minimally intrusive cues for contextualised practice that reflects the text type or literature we are focusing on.


    I haven’t shared all of the slides from this section, but suffice to say, we explored how a carefully designed and systematic approach to (deliberate) sentence practice can be hugely beneficial.  Small chunks of regular, creative ad crafted sentence work in the form of warm ups or interludes.  From a research point of view, we could arguably say that we are working with dual coding, cognitive load theory (stripping back to the essentials of the specified learning), deliberate practice, and spaced learning – though  I didn’t know that at the time that these approaches were developing in the classroom.  In the slide above, I looked at how we can anticipate likely difficulties that children will encounter: “Despite feels like although but does the syntax behave in quite the same way? No.  So what do we need to model? ”


    In conjunction with our wonderful Secondary English colleagues, we are in the early stages of  a research project to look at how explicit grammar teaching and practice in year 7 (+)  might help children  that leave KS2 without having achieved ‘age-related expectations.  Early indications suggest that increased variation of sentence structures is one of the key effects of the interventions. We are currently poring over the case studies produced for the first year of the project.  It is something that we are going to refine and repeat as the early indicators are so very promising.


    In the session  – as delivered to our research partners in the project mentioned above – I moved on to use simple graphics to exemplify abstract concepts.  This might be prescribed verb forms (above)/tense/aspect, or the newly trickier requirements around ambiguity and  relative clauses (restrictive and non-restrictive)  or marking speech (below).  This was born out of some, at times painful,  in-class lessons of helping children who simply could not grasp certain concepts.  Increasingly,  the power of simple visual prompts gained traction.  At the time, I associated it with mathematical thinking (grammar is riddled with systems and patterns) and so thought of it in terms of the concrete-pictorial/abstract continuum. I like to make links to maths and the mathematically inclined.  It adds another dimension to our English teaching and – alongside sensitive work on register that values all home language conventions – helps to make our English lessons a more democratic space for rich learning.


    As the session drew to a rapid close – so much to say; so little time – I flagged some core spelling elements that I felt would be most supportive in underpinning academic register.  I also highlighted one or two other elements that I felt would be beneficial and that, given more time, I would have covered: the passive voice; modal verbs and the notorious ‘fronted adverbial’.


    Rounding up, I shared a reading list.   Here it is


    Having spent the past few years helping primary colleagues to adapt to the new curricular expectations, it has been very heartening to move on to begin working with secondary colleagues.  We are now seeing how some of the strategies shared above can help Year 7 make a stronger start in their writing.  We’re also seeing how some of the representations of more advanced concepts such as time signatures can help year 10 and 11 students in honing their analytical skills – just so long as we keep the explicit grammar talk in check and focus more squarely on what they add to the text.

    If you would like more information about the presentation or its content, or if you would like further information about our transition project do get in touch:


    twitter: personal  – @galwaymr

    professional – @HertsEnglish and @HfLSecondaryEng

    Thank you so much for reading

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