In a modern Biology class a teacher no longer draws and labels a hypothetical flower on the blackboard expecting the children to learn it by heart. Instead the teacher brings a flower to the class (or takes the children out) and lets the students examine it. 'Knowledge' of a flower is gained through exploring and discovery.

But even today grammar is taught in a more or less old fashioned manner. A hypothetical sentence is put on the board; required grammatical terminology is used. No attempt is made to grapple with real sentences in the real world. The end result is that the children's knowledge of sentences remains forever solely on the blackboard. This approach may not be tolerated in a Biology class, but is actively practised in grammar classes - and is by no means extinct.

What is Grammar?

Our approach to grammar depends largely on our understanding of the term 'grammar'. If we think of grammar as a 'frame work' or a 'structure' we end up teaching definitions, rules, and constructing similar exercises. This approach teaches students to 'parse' (analyse) a sentence by making a series of divisions within it.

For example:
'Ramu ate an apple' would be divided into -
Subject - Ramu (noun - proper)
Predicate - ate an apple

Predicate would further be divided into -
ate - verb (transitive- simple past)
an - article (indefinite)
apple - object (noun - common)

The divisions are made until all the features of the sentence have been identified. This approach, while it has its advantagesthe chief one being that it is possible to relegate words and structures into neat slots - leaves a feeling in one's mind that grammar is a dead and boring subject.

But there is another approach. If we could look beneath the formal patterning and abstract relationships of grammatical analysis, and discover the many facets of a language; if we could wonder how from a set of finite grammatical patterns even a young child can express an infinite set of sentences; how even a child of two is able to state very clearly his I her likes and dislikes without any grammatical hassle:

'I don't like milk'; 'I like only chocolate',

then grammar becomes a fascinating subject to teach, and to learn.

The essence of this approach is that one should not only be able to think and reason, but also to feel; for grammar is as much intuitive as it is mechanical. A more detailed analysis is given below.

Grammar can be taught creatively sans definitions and rules

I have always found it difficult to understand, and hence teach, grammatical concepts as definitions. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, definitions mean something definite. But in grammar, the definitions are far from definite. For instance, Noun is defined as a 'naming' word which denotes a name, place or thing. This leads to various questions.

What are feelings? Is fire a thing?

An alternate exercise in nouns which I have tried out in the class and found useful is as follows:

The children were asked to provide examples for the following categories -

Things one can see: Stone, building, rose, boy.
Things one can see but not feel: Light, shade, darkness, shadow.
Things one can see and feel (sometimes by association): fire-warmth, rose-smell, sugar - sweetness, home - security.

The advantage of this exercise is that children are actively involved in the learning process and unconsciously get to htow about Nouns. (Note - the above examples have been taken from the children's work. )

The second reason why it is inappropriate to teach grammatical items by definitions is that one cannot tell what class a word belongs to merely by looking at it. Everything depends on how the word behaves in a sentence. The word 'round' is a good illustration of this principle in action, for it can belong to any of the five word classes, depending on the grammatical context:

Adjective - Mary has a round face.
Verb - Round off the decimal to the nearest whole number.
Preposition - He lives round the corner.
Adverb - We skirted round for some time till the show began.
Noun - This is the last round in the game.

A good exercise to differentiate between the parts of speech would be to ask the students to use the same words in different contexts.

Here are a few samples from students' work -

- Lock - He stole a lock of her hair. (noun) Lock the room. (verb) - Light - The light has gone out of our lives. (noun) Did you light the candle? (verb)

Thirdly, definitions are so limiting in their function. For example, verb is an action word. The obvious examples that come to one's mind are 'run', 'jump', 'walk' etc. But, contrary to commonbeliefacliondoesnot characterise all verbs - 'sleep', 'love', 'own' are also verbs but there is no overt physical action. An exercise which children really enjoy doing is to make their own classifications. Here are a few samples from students' work:

Cool verbs - chill, refrigerate, ice, freeze
Happy verbs - laugh, smile, giggle, grin, cheer, chuckle
WWF verbs - slap, pulp, smash, slam, squash, scratch, sprawl, beat Leggy verbs - run, walk, crawl, limp, slide, hop, skip, trot

Anyone who uses a language fluently knows the grammar of that language, but it is an odd kind of knowledge. They can distinguish correct usage from the wrong. But they may not be able to define the grammatical principle behind it. Fluent language Users are like ball players who know how to catch or throw, but cannot solve the differential equation of motion to extrapolate the flight of the ball. Therefore the rules of grammar have to be made explicit and communicable in order to be natural.

'Treasure Hunt' is an informative yet enjoyable way to teach Prepositions. The children are told that the word Preposition (pre + position) itself means 'that which is positioned (placed) before'. Thus a Preposition is usually placed before the noun / pronoun it governs. The exception is when the Preposition is placed at the end of a sentence. The children are divided into three groups. Each group is asked to collect a maximum number of Prepositions (30-40 in number). Each group in turn then makes clues for a 'Treasure Hunt'. Each clue contains one or more Prepositions. Here are a few samples from students' work:

  1. Between the two football fields in the hole.
  2. Striking its roots above the earth and underneath it too; it holds within your next clue.
  3. On the threshold of books which mean fun, knowledge, information, entertainment, pastime.

The other two groups are asked to find the 'Treasure'. But their hunt would not be considered complete and valid until they furnish all the Prepositions in the clues.

Fascinating edges of language

Creativity in grammar classes helps us identify the fascinating edges of language, where grammaticality shades into ungrammaticality; where we find the many kinds of humorous and dramatic effects, both in literature and everyday language.

One example that has been well studied from this point of view is the use of the word 'ago' with a noun phrase to express various temporal meanings. It is possible to construct a continuum that has mundane uses at one end and bizarre uses at the other -

Several hours ago Mundane
Many moons ago
Ten games ago
Several performance ago
A few cigarettes ago
Two wives ago
A grief ago (Dylan Thomas)
A humanity ago Bizzare

The above example could be recreated into an exercise in order to teach Noun phrases. The children could be asked to continue with the above list and cite more examples.

Another creative exercise in grammar classes would be to make ambiguous statements or explaining the ambiguity in the statements. Here are a few samples.

  1. It is a growing concern. (It could be a growing business or a cause for concern. )
  2. Baby swallows fly. [Baby (adjective), swallows (noun), fly (verb); Baby (noun), swallows (verb), fly (noun)]
  3. Rose leaves. (Rose - noun, leaves - verb; Rose - adjective, leaves - noun).

This is essentially an exercise in construction, recognition and use of word classes. The meaning of the sentences / phrases depends on the word classes. Initially my students found it a difficult task. able to enjoy the exercise but were able to provide their own examples. Here are a few samples from their work:

  1. Green leaves. (Green coloured leaves or Mr. Green is departing.)
  2. White lies. (A harmless lie or Mr. White is being dishonest.)
  3. A growing branch (It could be the branch of a tree or a company.)

In conclusion, it may be said that given the intrinsic complexity of language, it is tempting to ignore grammar (in reality, many modern schools have done just that). But our understanding of language would be shallow indeed if nothing were known about the ways words combine together to form sentences / phrases. So, let us continue to teach grammar, but let us also try and make it as' creative' and 'lively' as possible.

In addition, we could consider the following questions in the teaching of grammar

  1. When is it a good time (age / class) to start teaching grammar?
  2. Should there be a language base (spoken?) before introducing grammar teaching?
  3. How much emphasis ( in terms of quality and quantity) should be given to the teaching of grammar?