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Grammar games: a practical guide to teaching grammar in context.


In Western Australia, the release of the Australian Curriculum: English has caused some angst, especially as regards the Language strand. This is because for many years the explicit teaching of grammar has not been a focus.

My colleague, Ms Patricia Kershaw, tells a story of how, as a young teacher in the late 70s, she was observed teaching an engaging grammar lesson with her students. Afterwards, the feedback that she received was that grammar was no longer to be explicitly taught! Unfortunately, this attitude persisted for so long that we now have over a generation of teachers trying to teach grammar without having been taught it themselves. No wonder there is some angst!

It was out of this context that Grammar Games (O'Rourke, Hill, McGirr, 2006) was born.

Grammar Games is a full day, professional learning opportunity for teachers facilitated by myself and Pat. It aims to:

* Allay teacher concerns regarding the teaching of grammar.

* Introduce teachers to a functional approach to grammar.

* Link this functional approach to the Australian Curriculum: English.

* Demonstrate ways grammar can be taught in context.

* Show how the teaching of grammar can be fun!

Grammar Games is a mix of theory and practical activities. We begin by introducing the idea of a functional approach to grammar, based on the work of linguists such as Beverley Derewianka, John Polias and Brian Dare who were all influenced by Professor Michael Halliday. Functional grammar is based on the assumption that language is a dynamic, complex system of resources for making meaning (Derewianka, 2011); not a set of rules to be learnt. Analysis begins at the whole text level, using whatever is being studied in the classroom, and moves downwards to the clause level and then the word level. This approach seems to make more sense to students because they can see patterns within texts, differences between texts and how language can be manipulated to create a variety of meanings, depending upon the writer's purpose.

However, traditional grammar is not ignored because functional grammar emphasises the ways in which language functions to assist meaning, but also relies upon knowledge, understanding and the use of terms of traditional grammar (Campbell & Ryles, 1996). Traditional grammar provides students with a language to describe language, a metalanguage (Winch & Blaxell, 2011). A useful way of visualising the relationship between functional and traditional grammar is the Language Ladder (Education Queensland, 2007).


The relationship between functional and traditional grammar can also be seen in the Australian Curriculum: English content descriptors. The sentences and clause level grammar descriptors tend to use functional language while the word level grammar descriptors use the metalanguage of traditional grammar.

The majority of our workshop then focuses on clause level grammar and the basic components of a clause--processes, participants and circumstances--because this is the basic unit of meaning within a sentence. A clause must contain a process (a verb) and it typically contains a participant (a noun). It 'represents a slice of experience' (Derewianka, 2011, p. 13).

Once participants have established this definition, we write some single clauses on the whiteboard and ask similar, functional questions about each. Parts of the clauses are colour coded according to functional grammar. In the following examples, the process is made bold, the participant is underlined and the CIRCUMSTANCE is written in uppercase (in the workshop, colours are used to highlight the parts of the clause).
EXAMPLE 1: Jared surfs every day.

* What is happening? What is the action? What does
Jared do?

* The answer, surfs, is the process and is written (or
highlighted or underlined) in green.
Jared surfs every day.

* Who is participating in the action? Who surfs every

* The answer, Jared, is the participant and is marked
in red.

Jared surfs every day.

* How often does Jared surf?

* The answer, EVERY DAY, is a CIRCUMSTANCE
surrounding the action and is marked in blue.

Jared surfs EVERY DAY.

EXAMPLE 2: Yesterday, Mum baked some cakes.

* What happened? What did Mum do?

* The answer, baked, is the process and is written in

Yesterday, Mum baked some cakes.

* Who was involved in the action? Who baked the

* The answer, Mum, is the participant and is written in

Yesterday, Mum baked some cakes.

* What did Mum bake?

* The answer, some cakes, is also a participant and is
written in red.

Yesterday, Mum baked some cakes.

* When did Mum bake some cakes?

surrounding the action and is written in blue.

YESTERDAY, Mum baked some cakes.

Together, we work through this process with several more sentences composed of single clauses and then get teachers to compose their own. Picture books containing lots of action are great stimuli for this activity. Then, when teachers are confident composing their own sentences, we extend the activity and provide patterns for them to follow. For example: red, green, red; red, green, blue; blue, red, green, red; blue, red, green, blue.


The above activities refer directly to one of the Year 1 content descriptors in the Australian Curriculum: English: 'Identify the parts of a simple sentence that represent 'What's happening?', 'Who or what is doing or receiving the action?' and the circumstances surrounding the action' (ACARA, 2011).

Three terms, three colours. Students seem to grasp the process quickly and can use it to not only deconstruct others' texts but also to ensure their own writing contains complete sentences.

As part of the theory component, the different types of processes (doing, thinking, saying and relating verbs) are reviewed, as well as how processes are made up of verb groups (and may contain primary and modal auxiliaries), agreement of subject and verb, the relationship between processes and tense, the different tenses, how to form both regular and irregular forms and which text types generally use which tense. Such detailed examination makes teachers aware of how much knowledge is required to effectively teach the somewhat general descriptions found in the curriculum.



Participants are made up of noun groups which, as explained in the Year 5 content descriptor, 'can be expanded in a variety of ways to provide a fuller description of the person, thing or idea' (ACARA, 2011). Noun groups can be expanded in a number of ways by adding determiners, quantifiers, describers (subjective and objective), intensifiers, classifiers and qualifiers. Knowing there is an order to this assists teachers in explaining to a student why his noun group 'just doesn't sound right.' Similarly, knowing the difference between a describer and a classifier (a classifier cannot be intensified) also helps with ordering.

One way of developing a noun group can be seen in the following activity (Derewianka, 2011). Students love building big pyramids and laying them out on the classroom floor.


* Begin with a thing (who/what)

* Add a pointer (which)

* Add a quantifier (how many)

* Add a describer--subjective (what like)

* Add a describer--objective (what like)

* Intensify either describer

* Add a classifier (what type)

* Add a qualifier (more information)

* Complete the sentence
   Those dogs
   Those three dogs
   Those three smelly, noisy dogs
   Those three smelly, noisy, young dogs
   Those three really smelly, noisy, young dogs
   Those three really smelly, noisy, young, pet dogs
   Those three really smelly, noisy, young, pet dogs with
   messy droppings

And the complete sentence:

Those three really smelly, noisy, young, pet dogs with messy droppings were taken


Circumstances are the surrounding details of a clause. They answer questions like: How? Where?

When? Why? With whom? With what? They include prepositional phrases, adverbial groups and noun groups. They do not contain a process and, like noun groups, there is an order to their placement in a sentence. They can be left out of a sentence and they can be moved. As such, they are fun to play around with.


We have some big dice and teachers label the sides with the words, where, when, why, how, with whom and with what. They choose a process and a participant, roll the dice and add a circumstance. For example:


Rory runs EVERY DAY.

Rory runs TO KEEP FIT.

Rory runs QUICKLY.


Additionally, circumstances can be placed in different positions or more than one circumstance can be added to the sentence. For example:


We finish our workshop by looking at the different types of sentence constructions: simple, compound, complex and compound-complex and the different types of conjunctions that are used to join them. My favourite acronym is FANBOYS, which cues us to the 7 conjunctions ( for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) used to join compound sentences!

I also love DART (Education Queensland, 2007) because you can say to students, 'Let's DART a sentence!' DART stands for delete, add, rearrange, trade and can be used with any book being studied. When darting, the meaning must be maintained. The following example comes from Anthony Browne's book, Walk in the Park (1998).

D   We walked.
R   IN SILENCE, we walked HOME.
T   Charles, Victoria and I trudged HOME SILENTLY.


While the focus in this article has been on the practical component of Grammar Games, the importance of the theory aspect cannot be underestimated. Many teachers come to Grammar Games believing they have little knowledge about grammar. They leave, realising they did implicitly know a lot of it, acknowledging they have learnt a good deal and feeling empowered that they can now explicitly explain grammatical patterns rather than say, 'It sounds wrong' or 'It doesn't make sense'.

As a professional learning workshop, Grammar Games has proven very successful, so much so that individual teachers have gone back to their schools and organised for Pat and me to conduct the workshop with their whole staff. The release of the Australian Curriculum: English has therefore been a catalyst for many teachers to up skill in the area of grammar and for a number of schools to adopt a whole school approach to the teaching of it.

I think that can only be a good thing!



Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2011). The Australian Curriculum: English. Retrieved from

Browne, A. (1988). Voices in the Park. New York: DK Publishing, Inc.

Campbell, R & Ryles, G. (1996). Grammar in its Place, Melbourne, Victoria: Melbourne University Press

Dare, B & Polias, J. (2011). How Language Works: Success in Literacy and Learning, Tutor Training Program.

Derewianka, B. (2011). A New Grammar Companion for Teachers. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association (e:lit).

Education Queensland. (2007). Functional Grammar. Retrieved from

Herbert, B & Kershaw, P. (2011). Grammar Games: A Practical Guide to Teaching Grammar in Context, AISWA publication.

Kettle-Muspratt, F. (nd) Step-by-Step with Functional Grammar. Retrieved from

O'Rourke, V, Hill, S & McGirr, B. (2006). Grammar Games, Pen 152, PETA.

Winch, G & Blaxell, G. (2011). Primary Grammar Handbook (3rd Edition). South Melbourne: Oxford University Press

Beth Herbert has been employed by AISWA as a curriculum consultant. Her role is to assist teachers and schools with the implementation of the Australian Curriculum: English. Prior to taking on this position in 2011, she taught at Bunbury Cathedral Grammar School for 8 years. In 2010, BCGS was a trial school for the Australian Curriculum and so she had the opportunity to develop and implement programs based on the draft document. She believes very strongly in having a national curriculum and likes the fact that it appears a lot more rigorous, challenging and accountable than the Curriculum Framework.
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Author:Herbert, Beth
Publication:Practically Primary
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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