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Great grammar galore! Making grammar fun

by Noeline Pullen

Macquarie dictionary defines ‘grammar’ as ‘the features of a language (sounds, words, formation and arrangement of words etc.) considered systematically as a whole, especially with reference to their mutual contrasts and relations’. In simple terms, grammar includes spelling, punctuation, parts of speech and the way these are used and combined.

For the teacher

Many teachers may not feel that they have a great understanding of grammar, and so feel unqualified to teach it. It’s these teachers who may find that a simple but reliable reference book is a useful tool. While we all have an understanding of everyday terms such as ‘punctuation’, ‘verb’ and ‘pronoun’, a person couldn’t be blamed for not understanding what a ‘gerund’ or ‘synecdoche’ is. And while these terms may not seem relevant to the teaching of English and grammar to lower primary students, it is often useful (and, indeed, interesting) to have an understanding of these parts of language to complement one’s teaching. It’s for these reasons that having a reliable reference guide nearby is a good idea. And anyway, we all have a ‘fuzzy’ moment now and then when understanding of even the simplest term, spelling rule or correct use of punctuation seems out of reach. It’s for these moments that a grammar guide can come in handy.

For the students

The big question is ‘How can we make the learning of grammar fun for young children?’ In the early childhood classroom, teachers frequently read stories and poetry to children. They provide pictures and print in a variety of forms: big book texts with large illustrations, labelled colour photos, posters etc. These will automatically provide examples of nouns, verbs, adjectives, determiners, prepositions, adverbs, conjunctions, plurals, full stops, capital letters, question marks, commas, exclamation marks, apostrophes, pronouns and correct spelling. By immersing children in these concepts via different forms of print—visual and textual—children will begin to ‘pick up’ these grammatical forms incidentally.

Other forms in which children will see or hear grammar in context include humorous poems, songs, jingles and television advertisements. They will gradually become aware of the accepted forms of sentence structure and the correct use of parts of speech. They may be able to pick out language features like alliteration (tempting Tim Tams™, anyone?), and rhyming and onomatopoeic words (Bam!).

Individualised spelling and writing programs allow students to learn correct grammar while it is used. Each time a child has a text scribed, he or she is observing the correct use of grammar. Each time a child copies a text, he or she is using proper grammatical forms. Each time a child writes, or attempts to write, an adult will ‘edit’ the work, allowing the child to see his or her words expressed more briefly and with correct spelling and punctuation. Essentially, children learn grammar by being exposed to words.

However, I can picture you thinking ‘Ok, so, where’s the fun aspect of all this?’ Well … children love to play games. They entertain, keep children’s interest and teach concepts. Many games devised for children who speak English as a second language are useful for teaching and reinforcing grammar concepts, and utilise problem-solving and reasoning skills. Teaching forums and websites are an easy way to share and access games which other teachers have successfully trialled in their classrooms. Many commercially-made grammar games and boxed sets can be useful for your class. Try to seek resources (visual and audio; e.g. read-aloud books) that introduce humour into their text.

Games for teaching grammar

  • Try the following two action games to teach students about verbs or other parts of speech:
  • After providing a simple explanation of verbs and giving examples, ask the students to form a circle. Call out the name of a mammal or insect (or choose another noun), then throw a small ball or beanbag to one of the students. When the child catches it, he or she repeats the noun supplied and adds a verb, then throws the object back to the teacher, who selects another noun and another student. Examples of correct noun–verb complements for ‘frog’ are ‘jump’, ‘swim’ and ‘croak’. A simpler alternative for kindergarten kids could be to have children supply another noun.
  • Play hopscotch sentence making. Write the names of various parts of speech in the ‘boxes’ of a standard hopscotch pattern drawn in chalk on a school footpath. The students have to construct a complete sentence as they hop from box to box. Provide each student with a starting word, usually a determiner (e.g. an article [an, a, the] or cardinal number [seven, three]), that will help that student start the sentence. The student supplies the remaining words of the sentence according to which word part he/she lands on. The final box students have to arrive at (the ‘home’) can be a full stop to show the end of the sentence. A possible sentence could be: ‘Five (determiner) fluffy (adjective) kittens (noun) ran (verb) fast (adverb). (full stop)’.

Other activities

Many students are visual–spatial learners. There are a large number of ways to utilise this learning method to make grammar fun. Here are some short activities to use with your class:

  • Cut out pictures of the students’ favourite television characters, film stars, sportspeople and/or singers for display. (Use colour magazines, newspapers etc.) Have students supply appropriate adjectives to describe them. The words can be placed on strips of card next to each picture and left for future use by the students.
  • Icons or other graphical representations can be produced to model parts of speech, punctuation forms and figures of speech, with each illustration representing the function of the speech part, punctuation etc. (See page 8 for more information.)
  • Thinkboards are used extensively to gauge understanding of mathematical concepts. However, they can easily be adapted for grammar activities, too. Here are two examples of how they can be used for parts of speech and punctuation:
  • Students can use move-around words and punctuation to create sentences (similar to refrigerator word magnets). They can create sentences on a large cardboard baseboard, using words and punctuation drawn on smaller cards. Attach reusable adhesive to each card so they can move and replace the words and punctuation. Later, the students can illustrate their sentences.
  • Show clips of appropriate films and television shows which show the use of types of sentences (statements, questions etc.), or with which you can identify parts of sentences, or when a type of punctuation would be used if it was written. Be sure to include well-known catchphrases the students will be familiar with. Imagine how much more interested a child will be in learning the use of an exclamation mark if Homer Simpson’s ‘D’oh!’ was the text being discussed.
  • Use colour as a visual method for teaching students the different word parts in a sentence. Write five sentences on the whiteboard, using blue to write all the nouns, green for all the adjectives, orange for the verbs, black for conjunctions … and so on. Without telling the students what each colour represents, ask them what each of the words in the same shade have in common. (Perhaps provide a list of the names of the different word parts for the students to choose from and tick them off as they correctly identify each.) You could do the same for punctuation, such as drawing punctuation that finishes a sentence (full stops, question marks, exclamation marks) in red, or yellow for those that provide a pause. You could even use different shades of the same colour to differentiate among similar word types, such as dark blue for nouns and light blue for pronouns.
  • When teaching the use of indefinite articles to young children, students may be confused about the correct usage of ‘a’ and ‘an’. In a simplified version of the word card activity, provide each student with two cards, one with ‘a’ written on it and the other with ‘an’. Also supply them with cards with simple nouns written on them; for example: dog, cat, ant, egg, potato, orange. Model the correct way to use them several times and see if the students can infer on the rule. (Make sure they concentrate on the sound of each word’s opening phoneme [letter sound].) Once they have an understanding, let them play with the cards themselves. To make it harder, introduce words which sound like they open with a vowel even though they are written with a consonant—e.g. hour, honour—or the other way around; e.g. union.

When teaching the nuts and bolts of grammar, it is useful to remember that it’s not of prime importance that younger students use the correct terminology to describe sentences, but that they can read and write them correctly. For example, if they can’t always correctly identify the adverb in a sentence, but they can use them properly, then you’ve already won most of the battle. Once they have an understanding of their proper usage, then concentrate on the theory.