Where to now? Functional grammar in the classroom.

I struggled at writing in school. I loved it. But I struggled. I remember writing a speech one day (Yep, you better believe it, I was in the debating team! First speaker rockz!) and I recall the freedom that came from writing a text that no one would read but me. I wouldn’t have to punctuate at all! I could capitalise whatever I Damn well Wanted to! I could write little notes for myself to help my phrasing. I would be using zero commas! Nope, none! Not one! Also, my care for correct spelling was gone…I was going to write this speech with freedom and enthusiasm. Watch out first speaker in the debate team gone wild! Nothing would restrain my writing now, the shackles of grammar be gone, free at last!


Small thrills sure. But this memory raises the question, to what extent does obeying language rules restrain a student’s writing ability? Do we ever let children throw caution to the wind and write confidently? Is there even a place for this type of writing in the classroom? Those questions could be a whole blog post in itself, so lets come back to that point later.

My purpose in sharing this story is not to devalue grammar. I believe this anecdote actually highlights how important grammar teaching is. Children like me are in our classrooms. The ones who can not understand why language is structured the way it is. They can read, read and read some more and not pick up on how to properly structure a sentence, how to punctuate a direct quote or where to place commas. They feel burdened when they start writing with their lack of understanding over these language features because they want to write well but don’t know how. There seems to be a secret code to language that everyone else was taught, except them. Not understanding these grammar features inhibits these students from truly being able to manipulate and use them. It stops students from being able to write what they want to write.


This is where colouring in clauses (completing a transitivity analysis) comes into its own.

When we colour in a clause we make grammar structures explicitly clear to students. We are able to explain grammar structures to students. In turn enabling students to comprehend and replicate their understanding in their own writing. Lets see what that means in each year level in Australian Primary School.

The following table lists outcomes from the Australian National Curriculum that require students to understand clauses. I have listed how colouring in clauses can assist this understanding in each year level.

Curriculum Colouring-in can…
Foundation: Recognise that sentences are key units for expressing ideas (ACELA1435) Highlight the process and make the meaning of a sentence clear (to explain something is happening).
Year 1: Identify the parts of a simple sentence that represent ‘What’s happening?’, ‘What state is being described?’, ‘Who or what is involved?’ and the surrounding circumstances (ACELA1451) Make the parts of a simple sentence obvious!
Year 2: Understand that simple connections can be made between ideas by using a compound sentence with two or more clauses usually linked by a coordinating conjunction (ACELA1467) Make clauses clear, allowing compound sentences to be more obvious.
Year 3: Understand that a clause is a unit of grammar usually containing a subject and a verb and that these need to be in agreement (ACELA1481) Use the functional grammar metalanguage as a bridge to understanding traditional grammar.Allow students to see the changing nature of words in clauses.
Year 4: Understand that the meaning of sentences can be enriched through the use of noun groups/phrases and verb groups/phrases and prepositional phrases (ACELA1493) Allow students to see that the components of a clause are not just single words but can be made up of word groups and phrases.
Year 5: Understand the difference between main and subordinate clauses and that a complex sentence involves at least one subordinate clause (ACELA1507) Identify clauses in order to investigate how these clauses combine to make different types of sentences.
Year 6: Investigate how complex sentences can be used in a variety of ways to elaborate, extend and explain ideas (ACELA1522) Use their knowledge of clause combination to analyse their own writing.

The curriculum requires us to open students eyes to grammar structures such as clauses. What is evident in the above table is that one way to do this is through colouring in clauses. This table also highlights that this tool for teaching can be used across all year levels…Wait what? I don’t need to reinvent the wheel for each year level? Nope. This is something I have been learning a lot about. Good teaching practices in Foundation are very similar to good teaching practices in Year 6. When a teaching strategy works it works in every year level. You get a transitivity analysis! And you get a transitivity analysis! Everyone gets a TRANSITIVITY ANALYSIS!


Because completing a transitivity analysis is so universal for primary school the practices I use when teaching students through them are pretty similar across the year levels. The only difference is that there might be slightly more modeling and guiding in younger years and more guided investigation in older grades. The following infographic has just a few little hints of where to use a transitivity analysis in teaching.


So, I have given you the boarding pass to the functional grammar train. You may still be standing on the platform or you may have already taken a seat. Regardless of where you are I hope this post has given you food of thought.

How will you (and I) continue to remove the barriers that inhibit student writing?

And this is only the beginning…wait till you see where colouring clauses will take us.

Where will this inquiry into functional grammar lead us?

Where to next?

For more info on this topic check out these fab resources:

Derewianka, Beverly M. (2011).”A new grammar companion for teachers.”

Exley, Beryl, Lisa Kervin, and Jessica Mantei. (2015).Exploring with grammar in the primary years: Learning about language in the Australian Curriculum: English. Australian Literacy Educators’ Association.

Exley, Beryl, and Lisa Kervin. (2013). Playing with grammar in the early years: Learning about language in the Australian Curriculum: English. Australian Literacy Educators’ Association.


3 thoughts on “Where to now? Functional grammar in the classroom.

  1. Another brilliant blog written with such honesty & enthusiasm. Sharing your own frustration & challenges with grammar make your teaching so personal & pertinent. Full steam ahead with the Functional Grammar journey. All the passengers are sure to enjoy the ride!


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