Following many requests for help, Grammar Puss has decided to start a new blog for parents. Grammar Puss for parents

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Beware grammar books for children!

Last week I was shown four newly published grammar books for children.  But why would you want a child to read a grammar book?  Surely the best way for children to develop their awareness and understanding of grammatical elements and punctuation is through effective teaching, by a teacher with good grammatical subject knowledge, using quality, authentic texts that illustrate the feature you are focusing on?  In this way children can:

  • experience the effects of what has been written through shared or guided reading;
  • be guided through the vocabulary and sentence constructions the author has used to create those effects (hearing and using the correct grammatical terms where relevant);
  • experiment with using those models of construction to create effects in their own writing;
  • self and peer assess how successful they have been and how these constructions have improved their writing for their reader.

 Having said that, if you are intent on exposing children to grammatical text books, there are a few things you should bear in mind. 

Beware texts that describe verbs as ‘doing words’.  How is a child going to understand or identify the verb in the sentences ‘He has a cold.’ or ‘She was very unhappy with her new shoes.’  Verbs do not just describe ‘doing’, but also ‘being’ and ‘having’.  Trying to simplify this for children is not doing them any favours.

Avoid grammar books which provide lists of words and ask for the verb, noun, adjective or adverb to be identified.  Nearly all the grammar books I was shown did this and it can be so confusing for children.  To match a word with a word class, you have to see it in the context of a sentence.  A large number of the words in our language can have multiple functions, so we cannot make any identification until we see how it fits into the word order of the particular sentence.  One of the books I was shown used the word ‘run’ in a list of words.  The task was to identify verbs, but consider the following:
·         They run every day for fitness.
·         They go for a run every day.

Some words in our language are much more flexible.  Take the word ‘out’ for example:

  • He is going out.  (adverb)
  • The flowers are out in the garden. (adjective)
  • He should out himself if he wants to. (verb)
  • Given an out, she will take it.  (noun)
  • It jumped out of the box (as part of the prepositional phrase ‘out of’)
  • This car outmanoeuvres any other on the market. (a prefix, here as part of a verb)

So, it is always important when identifying word classes, to see the word in context.

Also beware books which tell you not to split infinitives!  One of the books I saw, from a reputable publisher, contained that advice.  To specifically prohibit such a useful construction for varying effects in sentences is, to my mind, completely wrong.  (See what I did there?)  ‘To prohibit specifically’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it!  This rule was devised by grammarians trying to make rules for English grammar and was influenced by their study of Latin grammar, where the infinitive cannot be split.  Sometimes in English, for the purposes of sense and how the sentence sounds, an infinitive should be split.  There are enough grammatical features for children to grasp without filling their heads with antiquated, unnecessary nonsense.

So, my advice on grammar books for children is as follows.  Don’t waste money on them; spend the money more wisely, buying good quality, enjoyable texts which will show off our wonderful language in all its glory.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Developing sentences with young children

I spent a great day with colleagues yesterday, considering books that we could use in literacy lesson.  One of my favourites was 'What Happens When...' by Delphine Chedru.

Teachers often ask me how to help children understand where full stops should be used. Well, where do we put a full stop?  At the end of a sentence, of course!  But that's not much help to children if they don't understand what a sentence is.  Where is the end of the sentence?  Well, it's where the full stop is!  When I use Excel, I sometimes get a message telling me I have a circular reference; the messages we give to children can also set up confusing loops in their understanding. So, how to we help children grasp the concept of a sentence - before they even start to write?

Sentences in English are all about the verb: something happens or just is.  We must be careful that 'doing' word does not become synonymous with 'verb' in children's minds, because the verb could also be a 'being' or 'having' word.  I think it's quite interesting that the verbs we use seem to fit into categories of the primary auxiliary verbs we use in our language (to be, to do and to have).  Do let me know if you think of other categories though!

We need to create sentences with children and discuss them so that children can understand their structure and the function of the words used, but this needs to be an enjoyable experience and foster a curiosity about their language.  'What Happens When...' is a wonderful book for developing sentences to discuss with the children.  On each double page spread there is a question and a picture of an object (great for developing questions too!)  The picture then unfolds to another double page picture which portrays one possible answer.  I would use the book in this way.

Look at the first question with the children: 'What happens when my balloon floats up, out of the zoo...?' Discuss what is happening in the picture.  What is the balloon doing?  What is happening? What is floating?  Where is it floating? What is the bird doing?  Where is the balloon?  Encourage them to answer in sentences by prompting for more information if they just answer 'floating' or 'in the sky'. Use specific praise for 'a good sentence'.  It's important to use the terminology 'sentence' with them as a matter of course, so they get used to hearing it alongside good examples and their own successes.

Ask the children what might happen next to the balloon.  Encourage them to answer in sentences and ask questions about the sentence.  For example, they might say 'The bird will pop the balloon.' This could lead to questions such as 'What will the bird do?', 'Who will pop the balloon? or 'What will the bird pop?'.  This gets the children used to talking about their sentences, but also develops an awareness of subject, verb and object (although, of course, not using this terminology).  Encourage peer questioning about sentences too.

When they have come up with some suggestions, turn the page and see what the author suggests.  This next picture could lead to further sentences and discussion.  For young children, this would make an ideal guided activity.

You could develop the exercise further to model writing one of the sentences and show children that, after a sentence with one thing 'happening', we need to add a full stop.  I would use the full stop screwdriver from the Sentence Toolkit to model the action of fixing my full stop at the end of my oral sentence and encourage them to use this at the end of each of their oral sentences.

The acting out of sentences with a mimed full stop added, followed by discussion about that sentence, can be incorporated into many different lessons.  For those of you who teach phonics, this discussion about what is going on in sentences is the grammatical equivalent of oral blending and segmenting.  These sorts of activities with children help them to create oral sentences, which can be gradually extended as their writing develops.  It's always good to 'test out' a sentence orally before writing, to see how it sounds and what sense it makes.  An early start in this will help writing composition later.  And the discussion about what is happening, and how many things are happening, in their sentences before they use their full stop screwdriver should help reduce the number of sentences which all run into each other, with no punctuation in sight!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Something a little more practical about relative clauses

After my rather heavy session yesterday with Mr. Gwynne's relative clauses, I thought I'd follow it up with something a bit more useful.  If your reader has to negotiate such a convoluted path and so many commas to understand what you have written, you would be better to rewrite the sentence.  However, relative clauses can really add variation and effect to children's writing, so let's forget about introducing brothers and sisters and see how we can help children understand this type of clause. (It might also be worth remembering that, if the draft National Curriculum is adopted in its current form, relative clause and relative pronoun will be terminology for Year 5 children.) 

Children use these constructions already in their writing and we encourage use through Talk for Writing activities.  For example, when we learn a story in class so that children can imitate or innovate the structure and language, we highlight function words such as 'who' with actions to help the children remember to add them.  If you name a character and follow it with 'who', you have to go on and add more information about that character.  Try it out and see:

There once was a young boy.  (This would be a rather boring start to a story.)
There once was a young boy, who...  (Well, now we may get something a bit more interesting!  The comma here indicates that the relative clause is going to add some additional information for the reader - a non-restrictive relative clause for those of you who want to know.)

And I would start off with relative clauses that add additional information.  Children will need to understand that they are expanding information about the noun (expanding the noun phrase).  I would use my sentence toolkit here and model expanding my tape measure to show how the noun phrase is expanding.  They will already have experienced the expanding tape measure as they will have used it with me to expand the noun phrase by adding determiners, adverbs and adjectives before the main noun (premodification).

Provide a basic noun phrase and recap how we can add information before the main noun:
  • the fox
  • the red fox
  • the wily, red fox
Challenge the children to add the word 'which' after the noun and expand the noun phrase.  Take suggestions and write one on the board.  Model using the comma screwdriver to demarcate the clause and question childen about whether this clause completes the sentence.  Does it make sense, or do we need to add something else.
  •  the wily, red fox, which hadn't eaten for a week
 Through discussion, help children to understand that this noun phrase only forms part of their sentence and they need to go on to say what the fox is doing/feeling.  Again, ask for suggestions and model completing the sentence:
  • The wily, red fox, which hadn't eaten for a week, slunk around the chicken house. 
Discuss how the commas now enclose the relative clause and can be used as handles to lift out the clause.  The sentence will still make sense because this clause just adds additional information and is subordinate to the main clause: The wily, red fox slunk around the chicken house.

You can also show how the whole structure of noun and relative clause is part of the noun phrase, because the whole can be substituted by a pronoun: It slunk around the chicken house.  That's a useful test of a noun phrase.

Once children have this knowledge, they can be challenged to use the relative pronouns in their independent writing.  They should use 'who' for people and 'which' for objects and places.  Peer discussion can identify what additional information is provided and whether this enhances the information or not.

Noun phrase expansion using the Sentence Toolkit

This activity is to help children understand how to develop a noun phrase and add more information for their reader.  The tools mentioned come from the Sentence Toolkit.
Use pictures which enable children to describe different people, objects or places with an element of choice about the description.  Many picture books will have illustrations that can be used for this purpose, so description can be linked to the unit you are teaching, e.g. ‘Tell me a Dragon’, by Jackie Morris.

Look at the picture and model describing something in it.  Start off by showing the children the page and telling them which person or noun you are going to describe, using just ‘the’ + main noun, eg the dragon.  Ask children to give you words that describe the picture.  After collection, explain that these are adjectives, which we use to paint in detail.   Model using the paintbrush.  Point out the tape measure from the toolkit display and explain that you can say more about the noun to add detail for the reader or to be more precise.  Model choosing adjectives to put before the main noun and, as you make your noun phrase larger, expand the tape measure.

Depending on what the children need to develop, you could use this activity to model the following elements:
  • Decide on adjectives of colour, size, shape, texture, etc. and make choices about the order you are going to say these.
  • Add adjectives which describe attributes, e.g. scaly, horned.
  • Choose a determiner other than ‘the’ to provide variation, e.g. this, that, several, each, one, my.
  • Choose adverbs to describe how much the adjective applies, e.g. extremely, very, quite, rather.
  • Decide where you need to put commas in a list of adjectives.  You can use the comma screwdriver from the Sentence Toolkit for this.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Gwynne's Grammar Test - Restrictive and non-restrictive postmodification

OK, I needed to sort this one out in my head, but think I'm there now!  Warning - this is one for true nerds and I don't really understand what it's doing in a general grammar test.

This question appeared in Gwynne's grammar test ( and reworded in The One Show's grammar test (  There has been a lot of fuss online about it, so let's see if I can shed any light on it.

"I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to my brother Mark who doesn't, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn." What gender is Evelyn?
1.  Evelyn is male
2.  Evelyn is female
3.  Impossible to know from the wording of the sentence whether Evelyn is male or female.

Interestingly the above wording appeared in the answer section, but the quiz now has a different wording, as has The One Show version:
" I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn't, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn."

When a noun is postmodified the information can be additional information, in which case it is enclosed in commas and referred to as non-restrictive or non-defining, or it can identify the noun, in which case the commas are not used and the clause is said to be restrictive or defining:
  • my sister, who lives in New York,  (the relative clause is providing additional information)
  • my sister who lives in New York, (the relative clause is identifying which sister - the one that lives in NewYork)
In the sentence "I should like to introduce you to my sister, who lives in New York, to my brother who doesn't, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn." we can deduce that there is only one sister and the writer has offered the additional information that she happens to live in New York.  However, by omitting commas after brother, the writer is indicating that he has more than one brother and is specifying the brother that doesn't live in New York.  We can deduce that Evelyn is male and also lives in New York.

Without the inclusion of the names 'Amanda' and 'Mark' this question would have been much more straightforward.  However, our language also allows something called non-restrictive and restrictive apposition.  Apposition is a way of linking grammatical elements, where each element refers to the same thing:
  •  Swansea, her home town, held a special place in her heart. ('Swansea' and 'her home town' are the same place)
  •  Cheetah, my chimpanzee, stole the banana ('Cheetah' and 'my chimpanzee' refer to the same animal - sorry to stereotype on the behaviour front all you chimps out there!)
When punctuating, the rules are the same as they are for relative clauses.  If the apposition is additional information, it is enclosed in commas; if it identifies the first element, no commas are added:
  • Mr. Northern, my teacher, will be at the meeting. (additional information - non-restrictive apposition)
  • Mr. Northern my teacher will be at the meeting. (It is Mr. Northern my teacher who will be at the meeting, not any other Mr. Northern that I know - restrictive apposition.)
So the fact that 'my sister Amanda' does not have a comma between 'sister' and 'Amanda' implies that there is more than one sister, as Amanda here is restrictive apposition and is identifying which sister the writer is discussing.

In the first wording 'my brother Mark who doesn't' is very confusing.  Mark is restrictive as is the relative clause.  Perhaps that is why it was changed.

In the second question 'to Mark, my brother who doesn't' implies another brother because the restrictive relative clause is postmodifying 'my brother'.  So can we deduce another brother and another sister?  Quite frankly, I don't care.

Why on earth was this question included?  The only possible, sensible reason I can think of is to highlight the ridicuous nature of grammar tests!

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Guardian Grammar Quiz

 Do these sorts of quizzes really help teachers or students or do they add to confusion about the way the English language is structured?

While I have no problem with many of the questions, why have they included the two below?

Question 5
Which of the following sentences uses a subordinate clause at the beginning?

1.  Male penguins keep warm by huddling together
2.  In order to stay alive, male penguins keep warm by huddling together
3.  Huddling together helps male penguis to stay alive and keep warm


I do hope this is not what we will find in the Year 6 grammar and punctuation test!

I also have concern about question 12.
Identify the main clause in the following sentence:
The rescuers, who were drafted in by the officials, were stunned by the destruction.
1.  The rescuers
2.  The rescuers were stunned
3.  Who were drafted in by the officials

Why do they not include the instrumentative 'by the destruction' as part of the main clause?  Surely the whole sentence, with  the relative (subordinate) clause removed, would read 'The rescuers were stunned by the destruction.'  This is a passive equivalent of the sentence 'The destruction stunned the rescuers.'

Testing children's knowledge of grammar is not going to make them better writers and, in my opinion, we shouldn't be wasting valuable teaching time on grammar tests.  Far better to explore, discuss and experiment with the wonderful variety of structures that English provides and consider how we can use these to create and vary effects for our readers.  Our language is very complex and to try and simplify it for tests is a complex business in itself.  Those who are driven to provide test materials and worksheets for teachers and children have a real responsibility to make sure that the aspect they are testing is unambiguous and the question only tests the structure they intended to test. 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Sentence Toolkit

With my first day of Sentence Toolkit training under my belt, I feel I will enjoy the weekend!  Those of you in Devon may well know what I'm talking about; if not you can link here for details.

It was very strange training teachers on ideas that were floating around in my head for so long before they made their way into this new glossy pack.  In fact it felt quite strange when I first saw and held the newly published materials.  Thanks to everyone for participating so enthusiastically yesterday and I hope you and your pupils find the toolkit useful and, above all, fun!  Keep me posted on how it goes!

Subordinate clauses

Teachers often ask me questions about subordinate clauses and complex sentences, so here are a few details.  

A subordinate clause is a clause that is not the main clause in a sentence and cannot stand on its own as a sentence.  Use of a subordinate clause will create a complex sentence.  In some grammar texts the subordinate clause is referred to as the dependent clause and the main clause as the independent clause.  Sometimes subordinate clauses may start a sentence; sometimes they may be positioned at the end of a sentence and sometimes they may be embedded within the sentence.

There are different types of subordinate clause: adverbial, relative and nominal.  You can link to these pages for a bit more information on each type of clause.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Prepositional List Poem

After I put up the last post (Prepositional Phrases, 7th May) I started thinking about ways to create prepositional phrases with children.  The prepositions indicating 'where' are the easiest to start with and I thought it would be fun to try a list poem about their journey to school, or another favourite destination that they know well.  The idea really is to help them understand that a prepositional phrase can be created by starting with a preposition and then adding a noun or noun phrase.  Once children know how to create 'where' prepositional phrases, they can develop their use in the adverbial positions in sentences, to give readers information about where the 'action' is taking place.

Preposition - Year 3 terminology in the proposed new curriculum
Provide an example of prepositions (this would be a useful addition to your literacy working walls) and discuss what they mean.  Elicit that they can be used to say where things are. 

Ask the children to make a list of the things they see on their journey and explain these are the nouns (or noun phrases if more than one word is used, e.g. the church).

Model putting a preposition with a noun/noun phrase and discuss how it informs the reader where you are while you are walking or driving.

Children can then experiment with creating their own prepositional phrases and writing each one on a strip of paper.  You could order these, with children holding their phrase, so that a poem is created physically around the classroom.  Children could re-order themselves to create different effects in their poem.

After this practical experience, children could develop their own poem, either listing phrases sequentially along their route to school, on a school trip, or creating an imaginary route.  The latter would give chance for their phrases to be ordered to create some rhythm or rhyme in their poem.

Here's my example of a sequential journey.  Not finely crafted, but it gives the idea!

My journey to work
Down the lane,
Across the bridge,
Along the road,
Into the village.
Through the lights,
Past the church,
At the roundabout,
Out of the village.
Up the hill,
Under branches of trees,
Over the top
on Woodbury Common.
Between farm shop and fields
Beyond pubs, parks and houses,

One more idea!  As the journey is sequential, it acts like a map and children could fairly easily learn this for performance.  Different ways of performing it could also give opportunity for communicating speed of the journey to listeners.