It is a truth universally acknowledged that students should leave secondary school with a firm grip on English grammar. What is a little trickier is the question of how schools can achieve this goal.
One of the greatest challenges of teaching grammar is that its roots run deep. Whilst it seems perfectly obvious to you and me where a sentence should end, how to explain this to a student is not so straightforward. Something as apparently simple as accurate sentence demarcation is actually underpinned by a secure understanding of how a sentence works. Amidst the intensity of a typical school week, it is almost impossible to find the time to sit down and work out how to unpick these intricacies of grammar.
A further challenge teachers face is that explaining how a sentence functions is one thing; ensuring that students can apply what has been explained is quite another. We all know students who can rattle off grammatical rules like when to use a capital letter, but very few of us teach classes full of students who habitually follow those rules.
Over the last few months, I have undertaken to design and develop a programme that aims to ensure students master the fundamentals of English grammar.
In my next post, I’ll share a lesson and some of the details of its construction. Here, I’d like to share three overarching principles which have informed the programme and how they are illustrated in the ‘matrix’ for the first Mastery Writing unit.
- Concepts are carefully broken down to first principles
- Concepts are practiced extensively and intensively before complexity is increased
- Concepts are interleaved across the unit to ensure they pass into long term memory
Concepts are carefully broken down to first principles
Since the start of our pilot, the English Mastery team has thought carefully about the kinds of sentences we want students to be able to write by the end of the key stage. Like all good curriculum design, our grammar programme starts at the end and works backwards, considering the minute steps students will need to master before they can progress.
These steps are then broken down as far as possible into first principles like what the subject of a sentence is. You can see in the matrix that skills such as ‘identifying when it happened’ (temporal clauses) are introduced before ‘punctuating when it happened’. This allows the teacher a better view of the misconceptions at each fundamental stage of the learning, misconceptions that otherwise may never be addressed.
Concepts are practiced extensively and intensively before complexity is increased
Many of us are now familiar with the knowing-doing gap. Essentially, in order to transition from knowing how to do something complex to actually being able to do it across multiple contexts, we need lots of sustained practice.
In this programme, students practice concepts not until they can get them right, but until it is hard for them to get them wrong. For you and me, where a full stop comes in a sentence is difficult to explain because we have placed them correctly so many times and in so many different contexts that we no longer have to think about it. This is what we want for our students; you can see from the matrix that students practice pronouns, for example, in 30 exercises in this unit alone. This ensures that students not only know how to use a pronoun correctly, but can also do so without really having to think about it.
Concepts are interleaved across the unit to ensure they pass into long term memory
As ‘the forgetting curve’ demonstrates, humans forget things over time. Returning to new material at strategic intervals can help us to remember it. In each grammar lesson, students complete exercises on different aspects of grammar, rather than completing a whole lesson on, say, avoiding run-on sentences. This is so that concepts are repeatedly recapped over the course of a term, over the course of a year and so on. This repetition also ensures that students are gradually exposed to the nuances of each concept through increasingly complex examples and contexts until they are able to transfer them to their own writing, not just now but in years to come.
It is my hope that this programme removes the time-consuming challenge of unravelling and sequencing grammar instruction, so that teachers can focus on the individuals in their classroom and ensure that their students will leave secondary school with a firm grip on English grammar.