How grammar can deepen creative and literary experiences

By Sara Snelling

06 Feb 2023

Students writing in the classroom

Grammar is a set of structural rules with the power to unlock creativity. It can deepen our understanding of the world, make reading a richer experience and unlock creative writing skills.

In this article, we focus on grammar’s role as a mechanism for meaning-making through literacy experiences.

Grammar describes the patterns we use to combine words to make meaning. As with most patterns, there is scope for creativity.

From a structural perspective, grammar rules define how we put together words to form phrases, clauses or sentences. When everyone uses the same rules, it’s easier to understand each other, through the written and spoken word.

Looking beyond its function as a form-making, structural tool, grammar also plays a prominent role in creative meaning-making. As children develop through primary education, they gradually make this association. They are first formally introduced to grammar in its form-based guise through SpAG instruction, and later move on to understanding the creative impact of grammar and vocabulary choices and how they can deepen literary experiences.

How knowledge of grammar can unlock creativity

It’s this understanding of the link between grammar choice and effect that can inspire creativity. A playful approach to experimenting with form and structure demonstrates grammar’s potential – paving the way for deeper understanding and giving writers access to a universal tool to create and share meaning.

Here are a few examples of grammar that can be used creatively:

  • Contractions can create urgency in how someone speaks, building pace and suspense.
  • Prepositions and conjunctions feed into literary techniques, such as the simile’s use of ‘like’ or ‘as’.
  • Punctuation can add irony or hyperbole to a sentence.
  • The comma is a hugely versatile punctuation mark that can direct the reader’s attention to key pieces of information, illustrate relationships between words, phrases and clauses, and add emotion and tone.
  • The traditional subject-verb-object word order of sentences can be turned on its head. The writer and director George Lucas famously used this in his ‘Star Wars’ series for his Yoda character. The ‘object-subject-verb’ word order in many of Yoda’s sentences – “Much to learn you still have.” – identifies him as a character of mystery who stands apart from the other characters.

Developing a deeper understanding of the world

Some researchers point to the wider knowledge-related benefits of teaching grammar. These include understanding how language works, deepening understanding of the human mind, and facilitating students’ reasoning and stimulating critical thinking skills.

There is ongoing research and discussion around the merits of non-literacy-related reasons for teaching grammar, but most would agree that literary experiences themselves help develop a deeper understanding of the world around us. Literacy elements, such as grammar, help unlock that literary experience.

In this context, literary-related outcomes can be achieved by using grammar and other literary devices to open up new worlds, provide intellectual insight, and create a roadmap for thought.

Take J.B. Priestley’s play, ‘An Inspector Calls’, as an example. It is a moralistic play set in 1912 that highlights the inequalities of society and conveys the author’s socialist views.

It features the Birlings, a powerful and wealthy family from the higher classes. Their status is evident through the self-assured speeches of the patriarch, Mr. Birling. Priestley used long, complicated sentence structures to reflect Birling’s position of privilege and his expectation that people would listen and make the effort to extract his intended meaning.

Following are examples of Mr Birling’s long-winded sentences:

  • “Why, a friend of mine went over this new liner last week – the Titanic – she sails next week – forty-six thousand eight hundred tons – forty-six thousand eight hundred tons – New York in five days – and every luxury – and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.”
  • “But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive – community and all that nonsense.”
  • Inspector Goole is the character through whom Priestley delivers his moral message. In contrast to Birling, he speaks plainly and bluntly in short, simple sentences. This gives him an air of authority and power over the other characters.

Following are some examples of quotes from Inspector Goole:

  • When he describes the victim’s death by drinking disinfectant, his speech is harsh and to the point: “Burnt her inside out, of course.”
  • In response to Birling’s affront at being questioned about his actions, he asserts his position of power: “It’s my duty to ask questions.”
  • He knocks back Birling’s daughter’s belated wish that she had helped the victim: “It’s too late. She’s dead.”
  • The contrasting grammar structure between the Inspector and the Birlings throughout the play helps subconsciously embed the class divide of the time. It gives power to the Inspector, who is used to convey the author’s views on the upper classes and capitalism.

Enjoying the written word on a deeper level

Grammar is the glue that joins words, sentences and paragraphs together to create meaning. Understanding grammar helps learners access that meaning, and results in a deeper literary experience.

Grammatical structures and punctuation create cohesion of ideas, signposting key information, and softly pointing out other relevant details that contribute to the inference process (I’m looking at you, embedded clause). When a reader reaches fluency, they’re reading with accuracy, automaticity and prosody, and grammar knowledge contributes to each of these skills.

Understanding grammar, therefore, leads to a more rewarding literacy experience during which readers access deeper meaning. For example, they can:

  • Find the internal logic of a novel or poem through patterns of language use
  • Understand a situation from different characters’ perspectives.

Mark Haddon’s book, ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’, is an example of how grammar knowledge can give readers an understanding of a character and experience the world from their perspective.

The book is written in the first person, with the protagonist Christopher Boone also the narrator. Fifteen-year-old Christopher is autistic. This is not explicitly stated in the book but is conveyed through Christopher’s narration of his interactions with the world as he investigates the murder of his neighbour’s dog.

Some sentences are very short and precise, reflecting Christopher’s matter-of-factness and frank manner. Others are long and rambling and have a childlike quality. Many begin with a conjunction, such as the repetitive use of ‘and’ in the quote below, reflecting his dry style of communication and logical reporting of events that might be expected to elicit more emotion.

And Mrs. Alexander said, “Your mother, before she died, was very good friends with Mr. Shears.”

And I said, “I know.”

And she said, “No, Christopher, I’m not sure that you do. I mean that they were very good friends. Very, very good friends.”

The flow of the sentences shows us that Christopher is reporting in a detached manner and misses the key connection between Mr. Shears and his mother. The reader, on the other hand, is left in no doubt.

Grammar usage throughout the book cleverly takes the reader through the story from Christopher’s perspective, while facilitating coherence and inference that goes beyond Christopher’s perception of events. The reader experiences the story from and beyond the narrator’s point of view.

Writing creatively and playfully

Research links creative and meaningful teaching of grammar with enhanced writing skills.

The key to unlocking the creative writing benefits of grammar is to teach it within a writing context, not as a separate topic. Professor Debra Myhill and the team at the University of Exeter talk about introducing young writers to ‘a repertoire of infinite possibilities’. This involves explicit demonstration of how choices in sentence structure and word usage generate different possibilities for meaning-making.

Playing with different grammar structures demonstrates the possibilities and can help young writers find a distinctive voice. It can help them:

  • Avoid cliches by having the grammar knowledge and confidence to explore their voice and style of writing.
  • Improve imagery by understanding how descriptive language and grammar interact; for example, through interesting sentence structure, use of strong nouns, verbs and modifiers, and careful selection of punctuation.
  • Think deeply about word choice and how to place their chosen words within sentences in such a way as to create their desired effect (or as Yoda might say, Meaning they will make!).

Michael Rosen, poet and Professor of Children’s Literature, suggests that ‘imitation, parody and invention’ are great ways of using grammar to improve writing. With this in mind, exposing learners to examples of grammar within creative texts demonstrates its potential and provides the basis for imitation and parody.

Charles Dickens is an example of a writer who used grammar creatively and with a distinctive voice. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a lively text bursting with strong imagery. Written in the Victorian times, when reading aloud was common in families, there is a musical pace to the ‘Carol’ and throughout its ‘staves’.

In the opening line, he makes innovative use of well-placed punctuation to build curiosity - Marley was dead: to begin with. The order of the sentence and the pause in the middle grabs the reader’s attention from the start and hint at the supernatural theme to come.

Shortly after this, he uses alliteration through repetition of the adjective ‘sole’ to hit home the extent of the solitary life Marley had lived.

  • “Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner.”

Conventional writing instruction might suggest students refrain from over-use of adjectives and focus on strong nouns, but as this example shows grammar can be used cleverly, creatively and unconventionally to great effect in writing. We must master the rules in order to break them.

Creativity and gamification are great vehicles to reinforce literacy skills in learners, whether they are in primary or secondary education. However, providing sufficient creative resources to learners to ensure grammar skills are mastered can be time-consuming and tricky to maintain.

Bedrock teaches its explicit grammar curriculum through creative tasks, teaching videos and bespoke texts. We recognise the importance not only of equipping learners with the skills to understand and recreate grammar rules, but also to think creatively and critically about how grammar is used. Learners experience grammar embedded into real texts and situations, and are encouraged to analyse the purpose of certain grammar techniques.

As well as this, these grammar techniques are taught alongside explicit Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary, giving learners the skills and the confidence to express themselves through literacy.

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