Young children initially learn chunks of language, which combine vocabulary and grammar, in a holistic, unanalysed way. The learning of grammatical patterns is implicit, based on formulaic sequences and unanalysed chunks of language which are embedded in the context of lesson routines and activities, such as songs, rhymes, chants, stories and games. As children progress, they begin to transfer chunks to new contexts and to use them creatively. All this happens naturally, without any explicit reference to grammar or language analysis which, in any case, would be beyond the conceptual reach of young children.
This holistic learning of language chunks provides young children with a potentially rich, internal resource of language patterns as they grow older. It lays the foundations for developing a strong, intuitive feel for what is or isn’t correct. It also helps children later on when they are likely to be required to pay attention to specific grammatical features and apply more explicit analytical skills to the way they learn.
One of the key issues and challenges during the primary years is when to move beyond the implicit teaching-learning of language chunks to more explicit language awareness and analysis. Another is how to develop children’s understanding of aspects of grammar, in order to begin to systematise their knowledge and potentially enrich and extend the creative ways in which they are able to use language.
In terms of when, this is unlikely to be appropriate before somewhere between the ages of 8 -10 in most contexts and depends on a range of factors. Some of these are:
- the cultural context, including attitudes and beliefs about language learning;
- the educational context, including the way the curriculum and learning outcomes are specified;
- the children’s L1, including the writing system, and how this compares to English;
- the cognitive maturity and conceptual readiness of the children;
- the level and the number of hours spent studying English;
- the approach used in teaching L1 e.g. whether this includes explicit analysis of parts of speech and the use of metalanguage which may usefully be transferred to the learning of English;
- the formal requirements of internal assessment procedures or external YLE exams.
In terms of how we teach grammar, we need to find concrete, rather than abstract, child-friendly, ‘hands on’ ways which naturally develop children’s interest and curiosity in how English ‘works’ and to use these as an integral part of building up their understanding of language meaning and developing language use. Whether learning holistically when younger, or developing more conscious language awareness and powers of analysis as they grow older, the most important thing we can do is to give children rich and varied exposure to language, as well as plenty of opportunities to practise, recycle, memorise, extend and experiment with language, in meaningful contexts and for relevant purposes, throughout the primary years.
Having said all that, there are no “right” answers and so … over to you!
It would be really interesting to hear your views and how you go about teaching grammar in your classes!
This posting is adapted from the introduction to grammar activities in 500 Activities in the Primary Classroom, Macmillan Education. The illustrations of grammar bugs are from Big bugs 3, Macmillan Education.