GRAMMATICAL EXPLANATIONS AND DEFINITIONS
A Key Teaching Principle
Discussion is fundamental in encouraging critical conversations about language and effects.Talk to:generate ideas and vocabularyexplain authors’ language choicesexplain own language choicescollaborate in writing tasksbuild conceptual understanding
Problems with Definitions
Two different problems:1. Grammatical definitionsfrom grammar books are often complicated, very abstract, and use other grammatical terms to explain one termAnoun phraseis aphrasewith anounas itshead.Aphraseis a group of words that are grammatically connected so that they stay together, and that expand a single word, called the‘head’.Thephraseis anoun phraseif itsheadis anoun.(fromthe GrammarGlossary)2. Everyday definitionsare easier to understand but they mislead children and ultimately create confusion‘An adjective is a describing word’Yes, sometimes, but verbs, adverbs and nouns also have a descriptive functionAn example:Look at MichaelMorpurgo’sdescription of the sword Excalibur (inArthur, High King of Britain). There are no adjectives used to describe the sword; descriptive detail is created through the choice ofproper noun; through anadverbial phraseand throughsubordinate clauses:ThatisExcalibur. It comesfrom the half-world of Avalon,the blade forged by elf-kind, the scabbard woven by the LadyNemueherself, the Lady of the Lake, and my lady too.’
‘Everyday’ Definitions to Avoid?
An adjective is a describing wordBut so are nouns, verbs and adverbs and syntactical structuresA verb is a doing wordBut the most common verbs in English arebeandhaveA noun is something you can see and touchBut lots of nouns aren’t:wind; game; elementA compound sentence is two simple sentences joined by a conjunction.But there are other patterns of co-ordination :I danced, sang and drank late into the night.About a main clause: ‘it makes sense onits own’ and a subordinate clause ‘it doesn’t make sense on its own’Almost everything makes sense on its own: bananas; red tape; jumping.An adverb ends in ‘ly’But many adverbs don’t:later; meanwhile; soon; now ,and adjectives can end in ‘ly’:lonely; lovely;chilly; friendly
Fine – so none of those definitions that we use are any good. So how do we explain grammar to our students?
An adjective gives us more information about a nounLots of prepositions tell us about place, where things areOne group of adverbs end with –lyand these are all made by adding –lyto an adjectiveNouns name people, places, ideas and feelings (but they don’t name actions because verbs do that)But with some aspects of grammar, such as verbs, it might be easier to avoid definitions altogether and build knowledge cumulativelyegMake sure all students knowthat be, am, is, are, was, being, beenandhave , has, had, havingare always verbsOver time, adddo, gotand modal verbs to this listThen introduce verbs that convey actions:jump; sing; eat; walketcOver time, add verbs that are less obviously ‘doing’:think; dream; believeetcUnderstanding clauses is heavily reliant on understanding verbs and verb phrases
The Potential of Examples
We learn naturally through seeing things in context:most of our vocabulary is learned by encountering new words in our reading and we don’t look up their definitions – we learn by repeatedly meeting that word in different contexts.Repeatedly seeing grammatical constructions and repeatedly hearing the teacher use the correct terminology may help embed grammatical understanding more effectively than definitions.Try showing the relationships through examples, rather than definitionsegCobwebsshivered in a shaft of moonlight piercing the gloom.Look at the four nouns here –cobwebs, shaft, moonlightandgloom. They are creating a visual description or picture of the crypt. What images do they create for you of the crypt?Look at that very descriptive noun phrase:a shaft of moonlight piercing the gloom.Can you see that picture in your mind’s eye? Could you paint it?Look at the two verbs –shivered, piercing.Is this a nice place to be? Why do you think the author has chosen those verbs? How might she want to make us feel?