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The power of nouns

or how to rescue teaching from the grammar test...

Just like the two Saint Michaels of education (Morpurgo and Rosen), something in me baulks at the idea of testing seven year olds. And testing them on nouns seems to push the boundaries of pointlessness. Defining a noun and knowing what a noun phrase is: are these essential to the emerging writer? Of course, assessing whether a child can identify a noun and put a capital letter on the beginning when required is infinitely easier than evaluating the richness of nouns in their vocabulary, or their ability to use one in a powerful way. Thus the new sample Key Stage 1 grammar test (Paper 2), which commands children to "circle the three nouns" in a given sentence, and foregrounds knowledge of word classes in four other questions (6, 7, 12 and 15, if you're checking). Perhaps we should take comfort, though. In the original sample papers (published July 2014), children were told to look at a picture of a pair of yellow pixie-boots and write a noun phrase to go with them.

Noun phrases, however, are actually a very useful thing to learn about. Certainly, as writers, we cannot do without them. His Grammar Highness David Crystal says that ‘No other syntactic unit in English presents such possibilities for structural variation.' That statement alone (from The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, 2nd edition) seems like a good enough reason to explore them further. No doubt it's also a reason that noun phrases apparently haven't made it into the final version of test, given that syntactical variation makes things messier and greyer, rather than tidier and black and white. 

But - and I hope this isn't too controversial - all this test malarky doesn’t need to determine what or how we teach children about writing with nouns. When I looked at the sample question about noun-phrases with teachers in a training exercise (presenting them with images of a range of shoes, because everyone likes to pick a pair that they aspire to), it was of course the discussion around the noun phrases we generated that was of most interest. Black, shiny shoe or smelly, white trainer: how do we decide where to put the colour in our sequence of adjectives? Do we really need a comma between every adjective? Is this “a sandal with a high heel” or “a high-heeled sandal”? What difference does the definite / indefinite article make to our understanding?  Pretty pink ballet pumps or tatty, old tap-shoes: which nouns do we endow with a hyphen? Is “that brown and dirty brogue” any better or worse than “this dirty, brown brogue”? And so on…

This is the kind of discussion about noun phrases I’d like to have with seven year olds - and fifteen year olds, come to that. And it’s definitely possible if we don’t focus on naming and defining nouns. To focus on the seven year olds, ideally, before we got to any writing, we’d have been reading a book in which a character has donned some intriguing shoes (like Julia Donaldson's The Smartest Giant in Town) or has made an erroneous choice of shoe (like poor Karen in The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen). We might also have brought in some family shoes and shared experiences of our favourite shoes, expressing our likes and dislikes with reasons and anecdotes.

We would certainly have played a game: everyone pick a piece of footwear from a lovely higgledy-piggledy pile in the middle of the room and describe it orally to the rest of the class. We would certainly have made a collection of great noun phrases on the board as we went. We could have sorted the shoes and explained our classes and categorisation, creating bar charts to show the spread / variation / occurrence of different sizes, colours or fastenings. We could have measured the heels and tested the ease of balancing in each shoe (due risk assessment assumed) on one leg for one minute, or surveyed our shoes for their waterproofing qualities, enjoying a good old puddle-splosh at the same time. We might have imagined the little old lady who lived in a shoe’s shoe, and written response poems about living in the toe, under the laces or inside the heel (practising our adverbials of place along the way).

All this while, we could have listened to shoe songs (I can’t get Nancy Sinatra out of my head, but there’s also Blue Suede Shoes and Boogie Shoes and even One Two, Buckle My Shoe), while designing an item of footwear for people of the future, and creating our own percussive compositions using stomping, tapping and scuffing noises.

Maybe I am getting a little carried away. The point being that by the time we got to writing noun phrases, we would be steeped in vocabulary for talking about shoes. And that is what knowing about nouns does for an emerging writer: gives them choices. If we teach children about nouns so they can identify them and about noun phrases so that they can write one to order, we are falling into the “teach to the test” trap that governments like to place under our tired, aching feet (even if you haven’t been wearing your high heels). Instead, let’s celebrate the power of the noun and the purpose of the noun phrase. Good writers choose their noun phrases very carefully, knowing that a man wearing “stout, green gumboots” is a very different kind of chap to the one slipping on his “polka-dot wellies”. The visual picture placed in the reader’s head is dependent on that noun phrase, and, we must teach our young writers, should be determined not by the random addition of adjectives or selection of wow-words, but by the picture they want to put in their reader’s head.  Is your character a dainty child, a whispering giant or a gruff, old wizard? Is he wearing a pair of worn and faded flip-flops or some steel-capped leather boots?  Is it a dreary, wet evening or a glorious, sun-filled morning? Choose your noun phrase appropriately, and revel in its power to make a picture.

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