Children can cope with learning grammar from the age of 5. Over the last 21 years, we have worked with schools to develop synthetic phonics programs and, latterly, grammar programs to cater for early years learning. We know that children at a young age display a good knowledge of how to use language: they already use perfect tenses such as “I have been playing”, they will use the continuous tense; “I was watching television”.
We shouldn’t view the teaching of grammar as difficult or something children will not be able to deal with but as something to get excited about. Grammar gives them a better understanding of what they are already using. Taking a child beyond their initial experience is all part of learning and hugely rewarding for child and for the teacher.
As the child constructs sentences with the tools they’re being given then a stability develops that doesn’t exist if the child is expected to just pick it up through reading in context.
Taking children through common and proper nouns, then moving on to abstracts and collective means that children become coherent in their use of language and grammar, and often their speech improves and they become adept at using language in a full and flexible way. We teach an action for proper nouns – you put index and middle finger where forehead meets nose – and we teach a different action for common nouns – tapping the top of our heads. We then play a game calling out proper noun or common noun and getting the children to use the corresponding action. You can add in verbs, adjectives etc as they are learned. This is also a good way of visually seeing who in the class is with you and who isn’t.
When teaching grammar it’s helpful to explicitly teach what a verb is and use it in simple present tense, then build on this by looking to past tense then future tense. Even at an early stage children can learn how to conjugate regular verbs. Conjugating your verbs means saying the pronouns in order, with the correct for of the verb after each one. Understanding what it means to conjugate a verb will not only benefit the children’s literacy skills, but will also help them when they come to learn other languages later on. A good way to introduce this exercise is by demonstrating how to conjugate the verb to run in the present tense and by doing the appropriate actions for pronouns: I: point to oneself you: point to someone else he: point to a boy she: point to a girl it: point to the floor
At first in the early stages of learning grammar it is sufficient to tell the children that an adjective describes a noun. Start by asking the class to think of a noun, for example ‘a cat’. Ask one child for a word to describe the cat, and say the words together, for example ‘a black cat’. Then ask another child for a second adjective and add it into the phrase, for example, ‘a noisy black cat’. After several examples the children will begin to understand how an adjective functions, especially when used directly before a noun.
Spelling is an integral element of grammar and benefits from being looked at explicitly rather than in the context of a story-book. It is good to reinforce the letters for each of the letter sounds, including the digraphs. It’s then an excellent plant to look at finer spelling patterns as well as developing the number of tricky words recognized. Tricky words such as ‘you, your, come, some, said, here, there, they go, no, so my’ can be practiced using the ‘look, copy, cover, write’ method.
Multi-sensory teaching works better than talk and chalk and it has been proven that children have accelerated learning if a kinesthetic component is introduced. The more links a child can make to a new piece of information the more easily they remember it. Punctuation is a key component in the teaching of grammar, and one which can benefit from being ‘acted out’. Say a sentence with your class, or choose a child to say a sentence. Write it on the board, discuss it and come to a collective decision on where it needs punctuation. Say the sentence aloud, pausing when punctuation is needed and doing the action (write the punctuation mark in the air), then carry on with saying the sentence. This is also a good activity when learning speech marks as well.