Teaching grammar in context

Decontextualised teaching of grammar which addresses the identification and labelling of word classes and syntactical structures is not helpful in improving writing.

Rather, a writing curriculum which draws attention to the grammar of writing in an embedded and purposeful way at relevant points in the learning is a more positive way forward. (Myhill, Lines and Watson, 2012, p. 30).

A view of grammar as a resource for meaning has long been a focus in Australia and implemented particularly through genre-based pedagogy (see for example Christie, 2002; Christie & Derewianka, 2008; Rose & Martin, 2012; Rothery, 1989, 1994).

Teaching about the generic structure of a text is not enough. Students in the primary school need to be taught about ways in which language opens up ‘a repertoire of infinite possibilities’ as they compose increasing complex texts (Myhill, Lines and Watson, 2012, p. 30).

This requires development of metalinguistic awareness, that is, ‘grammatically informed knowledge about language’ (Macken-Horarik, Love & Unsworth 2011, p. 11) which supports linguistic decision making (Myhill, Jones, & Watson, 2016).

EAL/D learners and grammar

EAL/D students do not come as ‘blank slates’ and have, either explicitly or implicitly, developed some form of understanding of grammar in English or their home languages. As they learn English and continue to develop proficiency in their home languages, EAL/D students typically have a well-developed sense of how language works (metalinguistic awareness).

Grammatical features will differ across students’ languages. For example, in English plural nouns are typically marked with 's' or 'es' as in 'girls' and 'daisies'. In Indonesian, pluralisation can occur by doubling the noun (buku-buku saya - my books) while plural forms do not exist in Mandarin. Thus, EAL/D learners may be unfamiliar with a particular form or may make meaning in a different way.

On the other hand, EAL/D learners may also be acutely aware that there are grammatical differences between English and their home language. They may be highly receptive towards explicit grammar instruction in meaningful contexts.

All EAL/D learners have different experiences of English. Some students come from countries where English may be an official language, or a language of schooling from Year 3. Some parents may introduce English much earlier in their children’s lives through private English language schools, tutoring, or short trips to English speaking countries. Other EAL/D students may have experienced interrupted schooling as a result of war and political unrest in their home countries but have moved around and lived in various camps where English and various other languages were spoken.

As with all teaching, it is important to assess students' prior knowledge and determine their point of need. Teachers may refer to texts such as Learner English (Swan & Smith, 2001) in order to inform themselves about the key grammatical features of the languages spoken by students in their class.

The importance of knowledge about language is recognised in the Language Strand of the Victorian Curriculum, English where ‘students develop their knowledge of the English language and how it works’ (VCAA).

Three Sub-strands:

  • Language for interaction
  • Text Structure and organisation
  • Expressing and developing ideas, provide further focus for this knowledge.
Language for interaction
Focus area:

    Language for social interactions

    How language used for different formal and informal social interactions is influenced by the purpose and audience

    Evaluative language

    How language is used to express opinions, and make evaluative judgements about people, places, things and texts

Text structure and organisation
Focus area:

    Purpose, audience and structures of different types of texts

    How texts serve different purposes and how the structures of types of texts vary according to the text purpose

    Text cohesion

    How texts work as cohesive wholes through language features which link the parts of the text together, such as paragraphs, connectives, nouns and associated pronouns


    How punctuation works to perform different functions in a text.
    Concepts of print and screen. The different conventions that apply to how text is presented on a page or screen

Expressing and developing ideas
Focus area:

    Sentences and clause level grammar

    What a clause is and how simple, compound and complex sentences are constructed through one clause (simple) or by combining clauses using different types of conjunctions (compound and complex)

    Word level grammar

    The different classes of words used in English (nouns, verbs, etc.) and the functions they perform in sentences and when they are combined in particular recognisable groups such as phrases and noun groups

    Visual language

    How images work in texts to communicate meanings, especially in conjunction with other elements such as print and sound

Literacy in English Video: Explained

Principles underpinning teaching about language

Humphrey, Droga and Feez (2012) present fundamental principles of thinking about language as a system of resources for making meaning, principles which also inform the language strand of the Victorian Curriculum:

  • Language is organised according to its function.
  • Language is a rich, multilayered resources with unlimited potential for meaning making. A text is language used to achieve a specific social purpose.
  • Grammar is the system of patterns and structures, a set of resources used to organise words into sentences that make meanings in texts.
  • There are many varieties of language. The variety of language we use at any time is determined by the context in which it is being used.  (Humphrey, Droga and Feez, 2012, p. 1)

In addition, students also need to know about developing an understanding of what is ‘correct’ usage in English (for example, subject – verb agreement - I go, he goes), or knowing the different word classes such as nouns, verbs, adjectives. Students also need to appreciate how language works at text, sentence and word level.

Macken-Horarik, Love, Sandiford and Unsworth (2017) outline three steps for directing talk about language at the different levels in written (and spoken) texts:

  • identify the form or class of word/s within a text (for example, ‘We made a plan’ where plan is a noun, or ‘We plan to go away’ where plan is a verb)
  • describe how the word or unit works or functions (for example, the noun groups tell us about the characters in the story, who they are, what they look like)
  • explain how the choices work within the text and why (for example, ‘Strong action verbs are used for one character but less powerful ones for another to show that one character was more of a leader and could be depended upon.’). (Macken-Horarik, Love, Sandiford and Unsworth, 2017, p. 15).

Model or mentor texts

Model or mentor texts should be used to illustrate language choices which students can appropriate into their own texts. This allows for clear links to be made between the texts that students read, the texts that they compose and the ways in which they talk about the texts they read and compose.

As teachers work with model or mentor texts, a common language for talking about language, or metalanguage, can be developed. Establishing a metalanguage not only supports students’ developing knowledge about language but also enables teachers and students to have focussed discussion about the texts they are reading and writing using a shared, understood language. 

Selection of model or mentor texts should reflect authentic examples of texts that provide illustration of the teaching focus. This can involve selection of an extract or extracts of a text for teaching purposes.

When using model or mentor texts, it is not necessary for a teacher or student to identify all the language choices or even all instances of a particular language choice, for example verbs.

Rather, highlighting selected examples which illustrate the teaching focus is an effective way to draw students’ attention to language and how it is being used within the text. 

In a narrative, this might mean looking at where action or doing verbs are used or where sensing verbs are used and what these tell us about a character and what he/she is thinking at different points in the narrative.  

Developing linguistic control

As children progress through the primary years, linguistic changes over their control of written language become evident. Key developmental shifts which occur in the linguistic control of writing from the early years of primary school to adolescence are detailed in the work of Christie and Derewianka (2008) and Macken-Horarik, Love, Sandiford and Unsworth (2017).

This research emphasises how grammar can be seen as a tool to understand how text works, and how this knowledge can support developing writers. 

 For teachers, having insights into linguistic development in writing equips them ‘to provide more effective feedback, as well as supports them to steer away from more cursory assessments which focus on ‘correctness’ (Macken-Horarik & Sandiford, 2016, p. 81).

Research into developmental trajectories in writing in areas such as sentence structure suggest that writing development can be more closely aligned to writing competence rather than age (Myhill, 2008, p. 284). However, milestones of development are generally met within indicative ages.

A summary of the key changes as they might occur within the primary years of schooling (aligned to the Victorian Curriculum Language Sub-strands) can be found here.

Changes in control of written language (docx - 31.5kb) - Christie & Derewianka

A summary of major language resources for narrative, recount, argument, procedure, information report, explanation (aligned to the Victorian Curriculum Language Sub-strands) can be accessed via the following links:


Butt, D., Fahey, R., Feez, S & Spinks, S. (2012). Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer`s Guide (3rd edition). South Yarra: Macmillan Education Australia.

Christie, F. (2002). Classroom discourse analysis. London: Continuum.

Christie, F., & Derewianka, B. (2008). School Discourse: Learning to Write Across the Years of Schooling. London and New York: Continuum.

Derewianka, B. & Jones, P. (2016). Teaching language in context (2nd ed.). South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press.

Humphrey, S., Droga, L., Feez, S. (2012). Grammar and Meaning. Newtown. PETAA.

Macken-Horarik, M., Love, K., Sandiford, C. & Unsworth, L. (2017). Functional Grammatics: Re-conceptualizing knowledge about language and image for school English. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Macken-Horarik, M., Love, K. & Unsworth, L. (2011). A grammatics ‘good enough’ for school English in the 21st century: Four challenges in realising the potential. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 34(1), 9-21.

Macken-Horarik, M. & Sandiford, C. (2016). Diagnosing development: a grammatics for tracking student progress in narrative composition. International Journal of Language Studies, 10(3), 61-94.

Myhill, D., Jones, S. & Watson, A. (2016). Writing conversations: fostering metalinguistic discussion about writing. Research Papers in Education, 31(1), 23-44.

Myhill, D., Lines, H. & Watson, A. (2012). Making meaning with grammar: a repertoire of possibilities. English in Australia, 47 (3), 29-38.

Rose, D. & Martin, J. R. (2012). Learning to write, reading to learn: Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School: London: Equinox.

Rothery, J. (1989). Learning about language. In R. Hasan and J. R. Martin (Eds.), Language Development: Learning Language, Learning culture (pp.199 – 256). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Rothery, J. (1994). Exploring Literacy in School English (Write it Right Resources for Literacy and Learning). Sydney: Metropolitan East Disadvantaged Schools Program.