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Grammar matters
Grammar matters

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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?
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SFL in the classroom
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  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.