Grammar matters
Grammar matters

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Grammar matters

7.1 Subject learning in schools

In the next activity you will watch a video (which lasts 20 minutes). You’ll see two classes – physical education (PE) and science. The school where the action takes place is Hamstead Hall Academy, an inner-city school in Birmingham. Hamstead Hall is a secondary comprehensive school (pupils are aged 11 to 18 years) with a diverse school population. Fifty per cent of the pupils have an English as an Additional Language background and prior academic attainment on entry is, on average, significantly below the national average.

In the PE lesson, you will hear some terminology which comes from SFL and which has not been introduced in this course. The teachers are recapping a previous lesson and are using the concepts of ‘macro theme’ and ‘hyper theme’ to remind students of how to organise what they write at the whole text level as well as within individual paragraphs. You should not need an in-depth knowledge of these terms to make sense of what is going on here. This approach of giving students a metalanguage – that is language to talk about language – to help to scaffold their understanding of how language works is typical of the Hamstead Hall initiative. You may also have noticed that this is also the approach taken in this course!

In both classrooms you will also see examples of how students are being supported to use nominalisation to make their writing more scientific. The focus is partly on the lexical element – vocabulary – but also on the grammatical element of nominalisation and the way in which lexical choices and grammar patterns work alongside each other in technical and scientific writing. Aside from the classroom sequences, the video features the teachers talking about their experience of making language more central to their teaching and why and how the school developed a language and learning policy. The teachers you will hear from include Mark and Lee, two PE teachers who you will see co-teaching a lesson, and Alistair Clarke, a science teacher who you will also briefly observe. In addition, you will hear from Eileen Mawdsley, the assistant head, and Helen Handford, a literacy and language consultant to the school.

Activity 11: SFL in action: examples from the secondary school classroom

Timing: 1 hour

As you watch the video, make notes on any points that strike you in relation to the following questions:

  1. What in your view are the pros and cons of the approach being taken in this video?
  2. If you are familiar with an educational context, including your own schooling or that of your children, how could this approach be applied to that?
  3. How far does this example of grammar awareness in practice back up Lise Fontaine’s claim, which you heard at the beginning of this course, that grammar is at the centre of everything we do?
Download this video clip.Video player: SFL in the classroom
Skip transcript: SFL in the classroom

Transcript: SFL in the classroom

MARK RAYNER (PE TEACHER)
We have pupils from various ethnic backgrounds, social backgrounds, and that brings its own challenges in terms of the amount of academic language they’re exposed to. And it became apparent to us that, without teaching it explicitly, they weren’t necessarily adopting the type of language that they’re going to need to use in an academic setting.
And, in the past, teachers may have felt that that was going to be tackled by English, and then we can just teach our subject: we can teach them the sports and the knowledge behind that.
We found that that wasn’t enough: pupils weren’t using sport-scientific language; they weren’t using the type of language that you need for a GCSE and beyond, because it may not have been modelled to them.

[Recap of previous lesson]

LEE JAMES (PE TEACHER)
[IN CLASS] So can anybody tell me … Put your hands up if you can you tell me what a somatotype is. If you had to describe what a somatotype is.
JOSH (STUDENT)
Your–
LEE JAMES
Go ahead, Josh.
JOSH
A body type. Like a body type.
LEE JAMES
Yeah. So it’s a type of body shape. So, hopefully, we can identify that different people have different types of body shapes. Can you remember what I got you to do at the start? What was the aim at the start of the lesson? What did I make you do? [Student’s name].
STUDENT
To recall what the different somatotypes were.
LEE JAMES
OK. So we had a little look at what the different somatotypes are. And then, what did I get you to answer?
STUDENT
How to structure our [six-mark?] questions.
LEE JAMES
OK. So in terms of structuring, what kind of structuring did we use? Anybody else? Go on then, Don.
DON (STUDENT)
Macro theme.
LEE JAMES
OK, yeah. So we identified the different parts of our answer. So, remember, we talked about macro theme – that was our first paragraph. What were our next three paragraphs about?
STUDENT
Like, hyper themes.
LEE JAMES
So what was each paragraph focusing on?
DON
Each somatotype.
LEE JAMES
Good. And what are those three? Can you remember?
DON (STUDENT)
Endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph.
LEE JAMES
Brilliant, yeah. So then we identified that each paragraph we need to talk about after our macro theme is focusing on one thing, and that was going to be one of the different three somatotypes. What did we put right at the end? What was our last paragraph?
STUDENT
Conclusion?
LEE JAMES
A little conclusion. So revisiting that macro theme to kind of finish our answer off. Can you remember what we do at the start of our paragraph?
STUDENT
Introduce what you’re going to talk about.
LEE JAMES
Good. So we introduced the somatotype. That was the first thing we did. What do we do after we’ve introduced, say, the ectomorph?
STUDENT
Describe what the somatotype looks like.
LEE JAMES
Brilliant, yeah. So then we describe what the somatotype is; we give the characteristics. What did we do after that? Will?
WILL (STUDENT)
Give the sporting example.
LEE JAMES
Brilliant. We gave the sporting example that was related to that question, because we had the pictures on the top of the question. And then, finally, what did we do after we named the sporting event?
STUDENT
Explained why it was beneficial.
LEE JAMES
Awesome.
MARK RAYNER
Using SFL has really clarified my teaching practice. So what we do is we think about the topic, and we start with a finished model text, and then, essentially, once we have that end product, we work backwards. And then through that, I can then investigate, deconstruct the language and see what pupils will need to understand in terms of language features to be able to produce that.

[Modelling and deconstruction]

And when I say ‘understand language’ that will also carry the information that pupils will need to be able to respond, because you can’t disconnect the language and the subject content.
MARK RAYNER
[IN CLASS] First of all, just listen to the first paragraph: ‘An extreme endomorph is one somatotype. It is characterised by its fatness and a narrow shoulder, wide hip-frame composition. Endomorphs are suited to power events, such as sumo wrestling. This is as a result of their additional body fat causing an increase in overall body weight and therefore greater difficulty in being pushed out of the ring by opponents.’
So that’s your more academic one. Now listen to the less academic one: ‘An endomorph is one way of describing the shape of a body. It has a lot of fat and narrow shoulders and wide hips. Endomorphs are suited to taking part in things where power is needed, such as sumo wrestling. This is because they are fatter, which causes them to weigh more, making it more difficult for their opponent to push them out of the ring.’
OK. So, similar paragraphs in terms of what they’re trying to express, but one of them does it slightly differently. Can you, using your highlighters, identify what features of the language, or what parts of those sentences, have changed in order for it to become a more technical piece of writing? OK?
[SIDE CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN STUDENTS]
MARK RAYNER
OK. What else has changed in that first sentence?
STUDENT
It changed ‘shape of a body’ to ‘somatotype’.
MARK RAYNER
‘Shape of a body’ is changed to ‘somatotype’. Exactly. We’ve packed all that information, way of describing the shape of a body, into ‘somatotype’.
MARK RAYNER
[IN INTERVIEW] Teaching it explicitly really brings them to the level that you would like them to without, you know, making any blocks to your current practice: it doesn’t slow the lesson down; it doesn’t … it’s not adding things on top, it comes with it; it carries the subject content at the same time.
MARK RAYNER
[IN CLASS] Elliott, what have you got in the next sentence?
ELLIOTT (STUDENT)
Fatness.
MARK RAYNER
So you’ve got ‘fatness’. And tell me what that’s changed from.
ELLIOTT
Fat.
MARK RAYNER
In there as well. Another word that comes before it, which, Callum, you used initially?
ELLIOTT
Characterised.
MARK RAYNER
‘Characterised’. OK. So, again, a good word’s become before it. And instead of ‘fat’, we’ve nominalised that into ‘fatness’. OK? The next bit is similar, ‘narrow shoulder, wide hips’. But what word comes at the end?
STUDENT
Composition.
MARK RAYNER
So we’ve got … What’s this word here?
STUDENT
Composition.
MARK RAYNER
‘Wide-hip-frame composition’. Anyone break down what the word ‘composition’ means? How did you decide to use that? Why do you think it’s been added?
STUDENT
More technical.
MARK RAYNER
It’s more technical. OK, if we think of the word ‘composition’ it’s about how things are put together, and that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about somebody’s body shape: how their body shape fits together, how it’s made.
LEE JAMES
Although some teachers might think that it’s a kind of a disadvantage and it eats up a lot of time to plan all the extra stuff that you need to, to do the teaching and learning cycle, I think it’s actually quite beneficial because you are, in essence, improving their learning. So, because you are using the teaching and learning cycle, it is actually contributing to them learning more in terms of your content, and, as well as that, hopefully, once you’ve done the planning, it can be used for other teaching groups as well. So you can use the materials over and over again.
LEE JAMES
[IN CLASS] Give us a definition or a description of what ‘nominalisation’ is.
STUDENT
Is it when you’re describing something, but using less words?
LEE JAMES
OK, that’s kind of what it does, yeah. That is, to be fair, one way that we pack information into smaller parts in our sentences, but what kind of words do we try and change into a different kind? Do we know?
STUDENT
Verbs into nouns.
LEE JAMES
Brilliant, yeah. So it’s turning verbs into nouns. And sometimes we can change adjectives into nouns.
The second one, ‘fat’. So if I am saying somebody is fat, how could I change that into a noun?
STUDENT
Fatness.
LEE JAMES
‘Fatness’, good, yes. So ‘fatness’ is a noun. OK? So we’re trying to convert the adjectives or the verbs into a noun to make it sound more academic. OK?
MARK RAYNER
It just empowers them, really, in terms of their ability to see it in exams, but also outside of that, socially, to be able to communicate, get across their meanings, in a very clear and technical way.
MARK RAYNER
[IN CLASS] So, the original is ‘It is really thin and has got narrow shoulders and hips.’ What do you want to change it to, Josh?

[Joint construction]

JOSH
‘Is characterised by thinness’.
MARK RAYNER
Excellent. So we’re putting that keyword in straightaway: ‘is characterised’. And what have you changed there?
JOSH
I turned it into a noun.
MARK RAYNER
OK, ‘thinness’ is changed to a noun. Excellent. We could put ‘frame’, or we could perhaps put ‘composition’, talking about how it’s put together. So either one of those alternatives is fine there. (Just missed the ‘e’ off that one, so …)
[LAUGHTER]
OK.

[Independent construction]

ALISTAIR CLARKE (SCIENCE TEACHER)
The biggest mental leap for me, really, is for me to take responsibility and realise that it is my responsibility to teach children to write scientifically. If I want them to write science, I need to teach them how to write science, and I need to teach them how to talk science. And that’s where we begin.
In a lesson I recently taught on correlations, children needed to be able to identify and describe correlations and then to go on and do what a scientist would do, which is to ask the question ‘Is there a causal link?’ Is this correlation pointing to a causal relationship and exploring that relationship in more detail?
ALISTAIR CLARKE
[IN CLASS] The longer your hair, the more shampoo you need.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
[IN INTERVIEW] The more time students spend revising, the higher their GCSE grades. So your job is to have a look at them in a bit more detail and think about what all of these statements have got in common with each other.
Before learning about this way of going about things, I might have assumed … I might have made assumptions about whether they knew what a correlation was, jumped straight into using technical language, or going straight into answering an exam question without scaffolding their skill set to enable them to address that question.
Now I know a better way of doing it, which is to lead them through a teaching-and-learning cycle by exposing them to knowledge about the field, deconstructing texts, jointly constructing texts; finally, allowing them to independently construct texts themselves at a high standard. And this approach has really been paying dividends. I’ve seen it work across lots of different lessons, lots of different literacy skills we’ve worked on, along with the science content.
STUDENT
If you, like, spend time revising, then you get a higher GCSE grade.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
[IN CLASS] So do you think they’ve all got an outcome?
STUDENT
Yeah, they’ve got an outcome.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
Have they all got anything else?
STUDENT
An ‘income’.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
An ‘income’. Interesting. OK. Have you just made up a word? Have you heard that word before?
STUDENT
Yeah.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
You’ve heard that word before, yeah?
STUDENT
Income tax.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
Income tax. So that could be a bit like ‘outcome’, but the opposite of an ‘outcome’?
STUDENT
Yeah. Yeah.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
So that’s why you’re using it here?
STUDENT
Yeah.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
I really like the way you’re using that word. We might come up with a different word for what you mean.
STUDENT
So if–
ALISTAIR CLARKE
OK? But that’s really good. (Yes, you can.)
STUDENT
–if there’s an income, there’s always an outcome.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
Huh?
STUDENT
If there’s an income, there’s always an outcome.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
Yeah. We’re not going to call it an ‘income’, but the idea that you’re using is a really important one. Well done.
So in everyday language, that’s what we’d call it: a link between two things. Some of you have already started to use more technical language, words like ‘outcome’. OK?
The link itself could sometimes, in more sophisticated language, be called a relationship. So this line … Do you remember the word we used for this line?
STUDENT
Oh, yeah.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
Moving from left to right. Can you remember it?
STUDENT
Spectrum?
STUDENT
Continuum?
ALISTAIR CLARKE
Continuum? What was the word before it?
STUDENT
Continuum spectrum?
ALISTAIR CLARKE
Not quite. But, yeah, it’s a continuum, moving from left to right, from everyday spoken language, up to more written, more scientific, more formal language on the right. We called it the ‘register continuum’.
STUDENT
Oh, yeah.
STUDENT
Yeah.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
Yeah? OK. Right.
EILEEN MAWDSLEY (ASSISTANT HEAD OF SCHOOL, LANGUAGE AND TEACHING)
As a school, we felt we needed to develop a whole-school language-development policy for a variety of reasons, really. And whilst English results were very good at GCSE, we had history results that weren’t reflective of ability, PE, science. And we tried to analyse that, as a school, and figure out precisely what it was.
And we felt it was the language and literacy side of their understanding; and for teachers, as well, because they were teaching science or history, but not addressing the language. And knowledge is realised through language, and you’ve got to prove what you know through the language you use. And so we felt we needed to delve into the language much more deeply, that what we were doing was really quite superficial. So that’s what made us look at it across the school.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
[IN CLASS] ‘The more, the further’. When this increases, this increases.
STUDENT
Positive correlation.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
That is a ‘positive correlation’. OK? If it was, ‘the more, the less far it goes’–
STUDENT
Negative correlation.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
–that would be a ‘negative correlation’. What if it was ‘the more fuel you put in your car’ … Sorry. What if it was ‘the less fuel you put in your car, the less far it will travel?’
EILEEN MAWDSLEY
As we’ve worked with this approach to language we’ve discovered, in terms of the impact, that one of the most powerful outcomes is the children are able to take control of the language they’re using and understanding. This, for us, was one of the drawbacks, if you like, of the previous approach to literacy that we’d had. You know, things like ‘writing frames’ sentence structures, which have their place, but they can also be quite limiting.
For part of what we were trying to achieve was the most able children, you know, getting to As and A*s, achieving the very, very top grades, and any child getting to the best level they possibly could. And you can’t do that, if you’re relying on a formula, if you like. So what we wanted to do was to give them something that would enable them to control language for themselves, to be independent, to be autonomous, so they have a whole repertoire of language skills, and whatever context they’re in, they are able to select language appropriately – and that might be an exam answer in a GCSE exam, it might be a presentation in a classroom, it might be outside of school.
So, for us, we don’t want to limit it to just exam results; it’s about beyond that: the communicators they’ll be when they’re adults, and having that foundation and that understanding of how language works, so they can present what they know articulately and clearly, in the best way for any context they happen to be in. And we’ve seen the difference it makes in terms of their control of language, but also the progress they’re making in subjects; because now they control the language, they control the knowledge and they present that in the right way in different situations. So we’ve seen the progress increase massively.
ALISTAIR CLARKE
[IN CLASS] It’s not about one increasing and the other one increasing. It could be about one variable decreasing and the other one decreasing. That’s still positive. It’s about the direction of the changes: if they’re both changing in the same direction, both going up, it’s positive; both going down is also positive.
HELEN HANDFORD (EDUCATION CONSULTANT)
So one thing that I’ve observed both in my time as a teacher in school, but also then later as a trainer and a consultant, is that when it comes to literacy and language development, we tend to dabble in some things. So we’ll take on one kind of intervention for a while, maybe do that for a year, and then we’ll try something else, and then we’ll try something else.
And what they’re doing at Hamstead Hall is different to that, because they are not dabbling. They’ve decided to stick with this approach, because they understand that, in order for you to make strides in equipping children with the academic language that they need, that takes time. It’s an incremental process.
And we’re into, now, our third year. And I would say that teachers now are starting to say, at the start of year three, ‘Hmm, didn’t quite get it in the first year; struggling in the second year’, and now, they say things like ‘I’m starting to understand, and I’m starting to see the point of this.’ So we feel like we’re making headway.
And we’re on a long journey. So although you’ve got this very long journey equipping teachers with more knowledge about language and honing their own language skills, and acquiring a metalanguage, you’ve also got along the way flashes of immediate improvement within that you can see amongst learners, and that is really, you know, heartening.
EILEEN MAWDSLEY
We are aware that some people feel that this kind of approach might inhibit creativity for children. It’s the complete reverse of that, because it gives them the tools through which they can be creative. Because, they might want to be creative, but if you don’t know how language works, if you can’t draw upon a repertoire of language skills, then how can you realise that creativity? It stops. There’s a brick wall there.
Whereas now they’ve got the tools, and they’ve got this whole range of language, ideas and skills, then they can call upon them whenever they wish, in whatever way they want to be creative.
And it also helps them to be critical thinkers as well, because what we present them to read, they can interrogate it, because they understand how texts work; they can understand, you know, the structures of the whole text, of the paragraphs, of the sentences. And because they can do that, they can understand better what a writer is doing and how a writer might be manipulating ideas. So it allows them to interrogate and come to their own conclusions much better, as well. So in all kinds of ways, they’re more independent.
End transcript: SFL in the classroom
SFL in the classroom
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Discussion

  1. There are certainly a number of very positive claims made in the video about this approach. In particular you may have noticed head teacher Eileen Mawdsley’s emphasis on how the approach has enabled students to take control of language for themselves and to be independent autonomous communicators who can judge how to use language in different contexts, both inside and outside school. Eileen was also particularly insistent that, by becoming more aware of how language works, rather than students losing their creativity or criticality, the inverse occurs. On the down side, it’s clear that this kind of approach requires teachers of different subjects to really take on board their responsibility for teaching children to write in their subject. This seems to involve a new mindset and considerable training, meaning that the whole approach may take a long time to fully embed in a school.
  2. You may be able to recollect experiences at school where you felt you understood some of the concepts being taught, but found it hard to express these in a scientific manner. Perhaps the technical vocabulary in some subjects put you off. The Hamstead Hall example provides evidence that difficult language issues across the entire school curriculum needn’t be such a barrier. The idea that PE teachers, for example, would be engaged in supporting students’ literacy, may seem radical but there is a lot of evidence that it is not helpful for schools to leave language learning and development only to the English department.
  3. This example is school-focused, but it does show that attention to grammar and language awareness can be of great use in a range of different areas of human activity and knowledge. If we extend this notion to the later stages of education and training – to university studies, professional and vocational training and beyond – it is not difficult to see how awareness of grammar can play a central part in our communicative lives at home, in the community and at work.
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