Grammar and writing: a teacher-created guide

By Michelle Casey

26 Sept 2022

Hands holding a pen and writing on a desk

Grammar is the structure and system of a language that oversees how words can be put together meaningfully.

An understanding of the language of grammar allows us to talk about the types of words and word groups that comprise sentences-not only in English, but in any language.

When you speak a language every day, it can seem unnecessary to give so much attention to the grammatical side of things. When we speak aloud, there isn’t a focus on punctuation and grammar as much as in written language - especially for native speakers of English, the structure of language comes naturally when spoken aloud. Added to this, the emergence of informal and slang terms further devalues the need to learn traditional grammar rules.

However, while these notions are acknowledged, they shouldn’t be seen as reasons to forgo the use of correct grammar. As a speaker and writer of English, it is important to use the language to get a message across and to do so properly. Ways of communicating that come naturally when spoken aloud do not always convey meaning as effectively when written. Following the rules of grammar allows us to communicate with others clearly and effectively through a variety of mediums.

Good grammar leads to effective communication. Without it, the meaning of a sentence can become ambiguous. Grammar can be the deciding factor in determining the meaning of a sentence.

Tables are for eating customers only. No loitering!

The grammar used in the signage above may make you think twice about eating in this restaurant! Grammatically, the implication of this sentence is that the tables are for consuming customers as your meal. We can assume the writer of the sign did not mean that, but rather wished to make it known that the tables are for customers who are eating food purchased in the establishment.

To be grammatically correct, and thus clear, it would be better to read:

Tables are for those customers consuming food bought in our restaurant.

Poor grammar can be distracting. It can negatively impact an otherwise good piece of writing. Bad grammar can also slow the reader down and may even make them lose interest in the piece of text.

If speaking to someone aloud, think about how it would come across if they began taking unnecessary pauses in their sentences. It would distract you from what they were actually saying, reducing the effectiveness of their communication. It would be the same, for a sentence, to be written like, this - it isn’t grammatically correct, so it doesn’t flow nicely when read and readers are distracted from the meaning.

A good grasp of grammar helps the writer achieve clear sentences and paragraphs, which are relevant and accurate. It makes it easier to scroll through sentences, both as the writer and the reader. This helps avoid any distraction from the intended message.

Good grammar can increase your credibility. When you use grammar skills correctly, the message you are trying to convey is perceived as more trustworthy. People are more likely to believe what you say, or write, if you can use good grammar to put your message across with clarity and precision.

Poor grammar, on the other hand, can be viewed as careless and sloppy at best, incompetent at worst. This reduces your credibility and thus the credibility of the message you are trying to convey, even if you are otherwise correct.

That’s why explicitly teaching grammar to your learners is so crucial to their progress in every subject. Even if they are fully prepared for the contents of their exams, examiners are less likely to view them as knowledgeable if the information they have learned is not conveyed using correct grammar.

According to ‘grammar guru’ William B. Bradshaw, ‘…the better the grammar, the clearer the message, the more likelihood of understanding the message’s intent and meaning.’

Using good grammar makes your argument easier to read and understand. If the reader must constantly work to figure out what you mean in your poorly written sentences, then there is a lot of opportunity for miscommunication. Furthermore, the reader won’t necessarily have time to work out the meaning so chances are if you’re not clear, they will move on to someone who is.

This means that in order to equip learners with the skills to make their voices heard in a changing world, as we all want for our learners, we must arm them with the tools to make their opinions understood - accurate grammar skills.

Bad grammar can render sentences meaningless, leaving the intended message unclear. This can result in misinterpretation on the part of your intended audience. English teachers in particular will understand the battle to avoid ‘waffle’ in learners’ written responses. While many strategies to prevent this waffle focus on essay structure, explicitly teaching grammar can also tackle this issue, leading to more concise and effective essays.

Good grammar makes reading your message easier for others, leading to the communication process being both productive and enjoyable.

Where possible, grammar should be viewed as a tool to empower learners and help them to express themselves fluently. As teachers, we should try to give positive feedback on grammar successes and not just feedback where they have made grammatical errors. Note and praise a strategically used semi-colon, varied sentence structure for effect or the use of words in creative and unique ways - well-placed praise can be much more effective than correcting learners’ mistakes.

In April 2021, The Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group published a report highlighting the importance of oracy within a learning environment. This Speak for Change report defines oracy as “our ability to communicate effectively using spoken language. It is the ability to speak eloquently, articulate ideas and thoughts, influence through talking, listen to others and have the confidence to express your views.” It is an important skill which should be nurtured and developed in all learners.

The skill of oracy directly feeds into writing. In England, the National Curriculum’s writing objectives state that learners should compose and rehearse sentences orally before committing them to paper. If learners are unable to construct sentences orally using conjunctions or fronted adverbials, then they will find it difficult to implement these in their writing.

Learners should be given the opportunity to practise oracy - to make mistakes and learn from them. They should be introduced to high-quality talk experiences and strategies from an early age. Providing opportunities for oracy should be firmly embedded in whole-school practice.

Learn more about providing opportunities for structured talk in our free webinar.

A good paragraph enhances the readability and coherence of a piece of writing. The National Curriculum in England: Key Stages 1 and 2 Framework document states that “pupils should be taught to … draft and write by using a wide range of devices to build cohesion within and across paragraphs.”

This involves getting to grips with skills and strategies such as:

  • Making the first sentence of a paragraph the topic sentence
  • Building on the topic sentence in the rest of the paragraph
  • Using the last sentence of a paragraph to conclude the paragraph or transition to the next paragraph
  • Being aware when to start a new paragraph
  • Using words for coherence such as pronouns, conjunctions, adverbials and synonyms

Knowing how to vary the structure of your sentences to enhance readability is all part of grammar. Starting sentences the same way too often can become very monotonous for the reader.

Sentence variety can breathe life and rhythm into writing.

As well as varying the structure of the words, you can also vary sentence length. Longer sentences add rhythm to a piece of writing while shorter sentences can be punchy and used for emphasis.

Good writing is made up of a mixture of both sentence types.

For example, highlight the creative choices learners can make while writing fiction to highlight the power of alternating sentence lengths. The sentences, “Julia kicked Olivia; Olivia leapt back, hurt” and “Julia, feeling angry, extended her leg and kicked Olivia, who jumped back, feeling hurt” feel very different from one another. Give learners the opportunity to have fun with the choices they can make while writing.

Using the active voice within sentences and replacing conjunctions with punctuation such as a dash or a semi-colon are further ways to vary sentence structure. Rhetorical questions within a piece of writing also add variety.

English grammar is made up of lots of details and minutia. However, there are five fundamental principles which underpin using grammar to communicate clearly and without ambiguity.

The five fundamental principles are:

The meaning of a sentence or expression is mainly dictated by the order of the words. This is also known as syntax. For example:

My friend Seb is reading a good book by Khaled Hosseini.

We could change the order of the words to read:

My good friend is reading Seb, a book by Khaled Hosseini.

This example shows how the word order changes the meaning but remains grammatically sound. In the first example, the friend’s name is Seb - in the second, the book’s name is Seb. This demonstrates that word order underpins what meaning we take from a sentence.

In simple sentences, specific punctuation isn’t always necessary to make the meaning clear. But if the sentence becomes complex, punctuation may be essential for clarity. For example:

While I am passionate about basketball, baseball is my favourite sport.

Using a comma to separate the two clauses is essential here, or else we end up with a sentence that makes little sense.

I went to the shop and bought plums, tomatoes and plum tomatoes.

Here, we can see that the comma separating “plums” and “tomatoes” prevents us from misunderstanding the sentence, especially when the specific noun “plum tomatoes” is introduced later - this comma is necessary to clarify meaning.

Tense and aspect underpin the use of verbs, and verbs are vital in any sentence. Furthermore, a verb is the only word class that can stand on its own as a meaningful sentence, for example, ‘Look!’ or ‘Listen!’.

Tense and aspect indicate if the statement refers to present tense, past tense or future tense. It also lets us know if the statement is a one-off action (he eats red apples) or a regular or repeated action (he is eating red apples).

Determiners are used in conjunction with nouns. Without a determiner in a sentence, the noun is often rendered meaningless.

A determiner gives the noun definition or determines it. If you just write ‘car’, the reader would have questions - What car? Which car? It needs to be determined by a determiner as a car, that car, his car, the red car etc.

A phrase is a small group of words which usually form a component of a clause. They have little meaning when used out of context.

A clause is a group of words that has a subject and a verb. It may form part of a sentence or stand as a complete sentence on its own.

Connectors are used to link words, phrases and clauses. There are three different types of relation between these linked words, phrases and clauses: coordination, subordination and correlation.

  • Coordination is shown by using connectors such as and, but, or, yet.
  • Subordination is shown by using connectors such as because, although, if, who.
  • Correlation is shown through pairing connectors such as either…or or both…and.

Understanding when and where to use certain types of connectors helps your learners craft coherent responses in every subject - in this way, the explicit teaching of grammar benefits your learners across the curriculum.

Empowering learners with a well-sequenced, well-resourced and engaging grammar curriculum can be challenging and time consuming. At Bedrock, our innovative and robust grammar curriculum is designed to solve this issue. It teaches a deep understanding of language and how it works. It helps learners to understand the impact of different grammar choices and helps improve written accuracy and fluency.

Learners follow a linear curriculum, encountering new grammar techniques in context through the use of engaging videos and writing activities. Their progress is tracked throughout the curriculum through the use of a holistic assessment, as well as several low-stakes tests throughout their learning.

New information can be retaught and revised in learners’ practice areas - teachers and parents can see via their teacher/guardian dashboard new grammar skills and techniques learners have encountered, as well as their proficiency using them.

Not only do learners encounter grammar in context and complete grammar activities, but they are also encouraged to use grammar skills in their own writing - as well as this, they are prompted to question and critique the use of certain grammar and its effects.

As learners become more proficient in grammar, not only is their writing more readable but it also empowers them to make more stylistic choices.

Literacy is the language of learning. The benefits of good grammar cause learners to make progress in every subject throughout the curriculum. To find out more about how your learners can benefit from a consistent, self-marking grammar curriculum, get started with Bedrock Learning.

Bedrock teaches grammar and vocabulary side by side to boost learners' literacy skills