Teaching grammar: What does it look and sound like?

In thinking about the look and sound of grammar in classrooms, the key word is meaning. For some, grammar can be viewed as threatening and onerous, even boring, but it can just as easily be a wonderful tool to support conversations about how we can decide to make meaning in various modes. It is the talk about language, that can be engaging and empowering for both teachers and students (Myhill, 2021 and Rossbridge & Rushton, 2015).  In working with time poor teachers, I often think about where to start with professional learning about grammar. The first place to start is with context and how the context and purpose impacts upon language features selected by a speaker, writer, designer, artist etc.

By exploring real-world examples like recipes, stories, advertisements, or social media posts, students can see how grammar functions differently depending on the situation. Take a recipe, for instance. The way ingredients and instructions are structured reflects not only the process of cooking but also the expectations of the reader. Conversations about why certain words or phrases are chosen over others can lead to deeper insights into the role of grammar in conveying meaning.

The recipe genre in a cookbook or online always lists ingredients with noun groups, typically including numbers or quantities, for example 1 cup sugar. In the method or steps, commands or imperatives are often structured with an action verb at the beginning or sometimes a prepositional/adverbial phrase drawing attention to the when, where or how of the action.

Consider the following examples:

Cream the butter and sugar.

Cream the butter and sugar for 2-3 minutes.

Cream the butter and sugar on moderate speed for 2-3 minutes.

On moderate speed for 2-3 minutes cream the butter and sugar.

Note how the first example contains an action verb (cream) at the beginning of the clause. This homonym raises a conversation about the importance of context with cream being a context specific verb as opposed to a noun (I love eating cream.) or adjective (I wore my cream coat.) The verb directs the reader to focus on the action and assumes, with the choice of the noun group, (the butter and sugar) that quantities have been read in the list of ingredients.

The second example has a prepositional/adverbial phrase telling duration (for 2-3 minutes) added at the end of the clause. In comparison the third example has an additional prepositional/adverbial phrase, this time telling how (on moderate speed). This also implies the use of electric beaters. When compared with the fourth example, the groups in the clause are the same but the adverbials have been placed at the front of the clause.

All these possibilities are reasonable, but providing students with a specific context develops deep discussions about the best language choice. Language choices may depend on what is being made, be it cookies or cakes. Expert opinion differs on the ideal butter and sugar creaming time for various recipes. It may also depend on who the reader or audience is and how experienced they might be with baking. Perhaps an amateur baker will need extra detail about the manner and duration of creaming while an expert may not as they just need to know that creaming is the next step in the broader process. In fact, recently, I personally sought extra adverbial detail when reading a recent recipe. This led me to googling the ideal time to cream butter and sugar. Clearly, this shows my status as an amateur cook and the need to have those adverbial phrases up front!

Even with this short extract we can see the potential conversations that can arise if we think about grammatical choices in terms of their context, purpose and audience. Deep teacher knowledge of texts used in classrooms and more generally in-depth teacher knowledge of language and how it works, facilitates such critical conversations through teacher guidance. These conversations develop metalinguistic understanding (Myhill 2021) and support reading and writing as students investigate texts with reflection on language choice.

In practice this means using a range of strategies to talk out texts when moving between reading and writing as well las  the deconstruction of texts and joint and independent writing texts (Derewianka & Jones, 2023 and Rossbridge & Rushton, 2015). This is a significantly different approach to grammar being a set of rules or features to identify in which we are either right or wrong.

Once talk about language becomes part of the classroom discourse, conversations can be developed in any context where in-depth conversations about language are a normal, everyday occurrence. By looking at language features described earlier but instead in a narrative context, we can discuss:

  • how noun groups are extended to describe characters - the lonely parrot who longed to love another
  • how action verbs develop events and shift the plot but sensing verbs give insight into the internal thoughts of a character - waited, watched, left, explored, encountered  / considered, reflected, pondered, decided, loved.
  • how adverbials of time and place can be placed in the opening position of a sentence to show shifts in setting of time and place - everyday, for many weeks, one day / in the mirror, from the perch, into the wide world. 

Through guided discussions, students explore how these language choices contribute to the overall meaning and tone of the narrative. Students can draw on their knowledge of grammar to communicate their ideas more effectively. Sounds better than the old grammar textbook, worksheets or YouTube clips explaining a grammatical feature!

A starting point for planning is to think about the context, purpose and targeted audience of texts being read and written and then potential grammatical features. This differs in approach to beginning planning by identifying a grammatical feature without a clear focus on a context or function or student needs. For example, a focus on sentence structure that is not linked to a clear purpose often looks only at form and therefore diminishes the opportunities for thoughtful discussions about meaning. Grammar and Meaning, Appendix 1 (Humphrey, Droga and Feez, 2012) is a good starting point for looking at texts with a range of purposes and the typical grammatical features we would expect to see.

Often in curricula, grammar is embedded into reading and writing outcomes and content, particularly writing. However, whether written, spoken or visual, for many decades there has been an approach to grammar for describing how meanings are constructed and interpreted in the context of texts (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014 and Kress & van Leeuwen, 2021). Immediately, this implies classrooms filled with discussions about choices in texts, and not just at the word or sentence level.

In conclusion, teaching grammar should be about more than just memorising rules, viewing explanations or completing worksheets. It should be about fostering meaningful conversations about language, context, and meaning. By shifting our approach to grammar instruction and emphasising active engagement, collaboration, and real-world application, we can empower students to become confident, effective communicators in any situation. This certainly has an impact on how teaching grammar looks and sounds in classrooms.

A range of lesson sequences which look at developing deep discussions about grammatical choices in context through connecting reading and writing strategies can be found in the Resource Centre

If you are looking to expand your knowledge about grammar, register for Grammar and Teaching or Grammar, Language and Literacy on the Professional Learning page.



Derewianka, B & Jones, P (2016) Teaching Language in Context, (3rd ed.) Oxford University Press. 

Halliday, M. A. K. and Matthiessen, C. M. I. M. (2014) Halliday's Introduction to Functional Grammar (4th ed.) Routledge. 

Humphrey, S Droga, L & Feez, S (2012) Grammar and Meaning, (2nd ed.) PETAA.  

Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (2021) Reading Images: The grammar of visual design, (3rd ed.) Routledge. 

Myhill, D. (2021) Grammar Re-imagined: Foregrounding understanding of language choice in writing. English in Education, 55(3), 265–278. 

Rossbridge, J & Rushton, K (2015) Put it in Writing: Context, text and language. PETAA. 


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