So, you are teaching grammar … so what?


So, what is the purpose of teaching grammar and if its not taught, what are the implications for our students?

Week 2 of the PETAA ‘Grammar and Teaching’ course with Jo Rossbridge and we have been introduced to that integral part of our language, the clause. That was after playing with lexical density and grammatical intricacy …. but more of that later …

All my life, I have always thought that a simple sentence was just one lonely independent clause. Did you know that a simple sentence is not always that simple? Its not always a single clause? Did you know that you can embed a clause, or two, into a simple sentence by adding a few relatives – relative clauses that is – and it is still a simple sentence!

Then on top of that there’s the extended family of clauses the dependent clauses. They’re the infirm ones who can’t stand alone. They hang on in sentences with when, after, because or if. But wait there are more dependent offspring; the non-finite clauses beginning with those pervasive non-finite verbs, the interrupting clauses which insert themselves inside independent clauses and like to be surrounded by commas and finally, the non-defining relative clauses who .. which, like to add more information where they please.

This is the part where the lexical density comes in. Jo says that when we’re speaking we are ‘in the moment’. Our context and purpose don’t need to be as explicit. We don’t need to use as many verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs to give meaning to our sentences. Our sentences are not as structured and we throw clauses in all over the place, leaving out pronouns and connectives as well as stopping and starting without necessarily completing our sentences. We are not as efficient with our language.

The way we order our clauses is very important as well … another piece of new awareness for me. Whatever is most important in a sentence needs to go first. When speaking we may not give as much thought to this but when writing, the order of the clauses can impact on meaning.

So what? Well … most of our students write as they speak. Without bamboozling them with the technicalities, if we as teachers understand language structures we can help move them towards writing in a more lexically dense and therefore efficient and meaningful way – from ‘spoken-like’ to ‘written-like’. By drawing attention to grammatical techniques through modelling, recasting, joint constructions and just playing around with clauses, our students will be better able understand how language works to make meaning in a variety of contexts.

As always, comments and questions are welcome … apparently next week is ‘processes and verbal groups’ … stay tuned.


7 thoughts on “So, you are teaching grammar … so what?

  1. Anna, I read your interesting post and felt the need to respond as I’m afraid I don’t agree with what you have been taught. A simple sentence contains one independent clause. No dependent clauses, including embedded clauses. I teach academic writing at Uni, as well as being an EAL/D teacher in an Intensive English Centre. I also just double checked with a friend of mine, who is an author and has a PhD in literature. She teaches academic and creative writing at university, and confirmed my thoughts. Check out this website, which may clarify the matter:


    1. Thank you for your feedback. I shall ask the powers that be this week at the next session. We are using the textbook ‘Grammar and Meaning’ by Sally Humphrey, Louise Driga and Susan Feez. PETAA 2012, and it definitely has an embedded clause in a simple sentence in the Table 3.3 on page 61. Maybe the rules have changed in recent times. I’ll let the experts battle it out. 😊
      Thank you so much for responding. Talking about grammar rules is often contentious.


      1. Hi Anna, thanks for your reply.

        I have done a bit more research as well as contacting my own academic supervisor, who is an expert in systemic functional linguistics. What is happening here is the collision of two different terminologies from two different grammars. ‘Traditional grammar’ terms like simple, compound and complex sentences are being reinterpreted under the framework of Hallidayean SFL, where texts are analysed according to their function and the term ‘sentence’ is no longer valid. So it is not so much that the rules have changed, but that the traditional terminology is being used to illustrate principles from the newer terminology. As a student and teacher of both grammars, it is fascinating but confusing to see the creation of a third ‘hybrid’ grammar.

        Another question, then, for the impact on our pedagogy. What do we teach our students? I have studied and taught SFL at Uni but only teach traditional grammar terminology to my EAL/D students. Why? Because this is what they have been taught in their own countries and it is a grammar language they understand. I try to illustrate different principles of SFL, particularly when it comes to sentence structure, but I do it using the old traditional grammar terminology. I hadn’t considered how the examples of different sentence types would be applied differently with SFL ideas. Anyway, while I am a steadfast Halliday devotee, I still choose to use traditional terms in my applied practice with my student cohort.

        I guess it is still early days in terms of making this knowledge more widespread and accessible to all teachers, so PETAA are to be applauded for courses like this, to bridge that gap. I apologise for my negativity – it is wonderful to see your enthusiasm and engagement with language, and your desire to instil the same enthusiasm in your students! Good luck with it all and thanks for an interesting topic!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you for looking more deeply into this Alison. So glad there is an explanation for the differing views. Very interesting, our ever evolving language and its systems.


    1. Hi, thanks for your question . Alright, here goes … here’s the test of my understanding …. One independent clause (simple sentence) -> “Only one person has commented.” … With a relative or two “Only one person, [[who has read my blog]]has commented.”(defining relative pronoun ‘who’) and maybe … “Only one person [[ [[who has read my blog, [[that was published last night]] ]] has commented.” (defining relative pronouns ‘who’ and ‘that’) … Happy to be corrected and set on the right track if I am wrong by any grammar experts. ☺️

      Liked by 1 person

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