In a weeks time I’m running a workshop on Functional Grammar at the ALEA/AATE National Conference in Hobart, sounds good right? OK, well here comes the clincher. The conference theme is “cutting edge” and I decided to present on grammar. So when I sat down to write what I would present, I kept finding myself coming back to the glaringly obvious question that I needed to address…
Is grammar really cutting edge?
When I think “cutting edge” I first think of things like; ICT, multimedia, communicating in unique ways, the newest innovations and people on hover boards wearing metallic suits. That last part is probably influenced by watching Back to the Future too many times. My point is, grammar isn’t viewed as cutting edge by many people.
Grammar walks into the room authoritatively. It takes a seat and judgemently stares at you. It is old school, but not in a cool way. It pulls its hair back in a tight bun and wears shoulder pads. It is the teacher with the pointer talking at students. It is the rules and regulations that need to be followed. It instills fear in students.
If you see grammar in this way you are not alone. This is how many people view grammar. It is classed as a “school skill” that you can do without in the real world. A lot of people chuck their grammar knowledge in the bin along with long division, Pythagora’s theorem and the other things that seem irrelevant. It is this opinion of grammar that I need to address.
Grammar is found in every form of communication we use. When we read, we are comprehending the grammar of a text. When we write, we are manipulating words using our understanding of grammar. Even when we speak the way we structure what we say is influenced by our grammar knowledge. So grammar is fundamentally linked to life.
Grammar is something that we use everyday and something we engage with everyday as teachers. When we teach students to read we teach them to unlock the grammar codes in language. Following this, we show students how to manipulate grammar to write. As soon as a student writes, reads or speaks they are using their knowledge of grammar to do so, a knowledge that we are committed to developing as literacy educators. Grammar is not a 10 minute lesson on a Tuesday morning it is in every lesson we teach.
This view of grammar is cutting edge. In the ’70s Professor Michael Halliday looked at the system of classifying words that was currently occurring and described as grammar. He saw this and realized that classifying words actually didn’t encapsulate the full breadth of language. Language changes, it is a flexible and living organism. So teaching rules and lists of words (“this is a noun…, this is a verb…”) will only get you so far.
As language changes how are we to keep up with this classification view of words. I think of Twitter straight away. If I, “Twitter about the bird twitter” I have used this word as a verb and a noun in the same sentence….so which list do I put that word in? Verbs or nouns? Halliday saw this problem and began a new way of viewing grammar. Instead of seeing language as based around rules. Halliday’s view of grammar focuses on the context of words and phrases. This grammar is called Functional Grammar.
Although this view of language has already been around for decades, the teaching world has been slow to adopt it. The Australian Curriculum, which was written fairly recently, was the first in the world to combine a traditional and functional view of grammar. Many teachers I have talked to have never been aware that they can teach grammar in a functional way, they often revert to the grammar education they experienced in their schooling (lists of words…blugh!).
When I have shared with colleagues how to teach grammar using a functional framework I have faced opposition by those that “Did very well at grammar in school thankyouverymuch!” and “Why change something that worked for me?”. I have met that version of grammar (if you are that version feel free to check for grammar errors). However, language continues to change, even if some people’s attitudes towards grammar doesn’t, so as educators we need to be prepared for that.
Functional Grammar is cutting edge. It is looking forward into the changing landscape of language. Functional Grammar is teaching the skills to look at language and question it to better understand how it works. Functional Grammar uses this understanding to equip learners. Functional Grammar is not that fuddy duddy teacher. It is the one wearing the metallic suit, zooming in on its hover board, welcoming the future of communication with open arms. Lets get to know it a bit better in this new series of posts on…you guessed it, Functional Grammar!