Playing with Grammar in the Early Years : Learning about Language in the Australian Curriculum : English

Exley, Beryl & Kervin, Lisa (2013) Playing with Grammar in the Early Years : Learning about Language in the Australian Curriculum : English. Australian Literacy Educators' Association, Norwood, South Australia.

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As teacher/researchers interested in the pursuit of socially-just outcomes in early childhood education, the form and function of language occupies a special position in our work. We believe that mastering a range of literacy competences includes not only the technical skills for learning, but also the resources for viewing and constructing the world (Freire and Macdeo, 1987). Rather than seeing knowledge about language as the accumulation of technical skills alone, the viewpoint to which we subscribe treats knowledge about language as a dialectic that evolves from, is situated in, and contributes to a social arena (Halliday, 1978). We do not shy away from this position just because children are in the early years of schooling.

In ‘Playing with Grammar’, we focus on the Foundation to Year 2 grouping, in line with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (hereafter ACARA) advice on the ‘nature of learners’ (ACARA, 2013). With our focus on the early years of schooling comes our acknowledgement of the importance and complexity of play. At a time where accountability in education has moved many teachers to a sense of urgency to prove language and literacy achievement (Genishi and Dyson, 2009), we encourage space to revisit what we know about literature choices and learning experiences and bring these together to facilitate language learning. We can neither ignore, nor overemphasise, the importance of play for the development of language through: the opportunities presented for creative use and practice; social interactions for real purposes; and, identifying and solving problems in the lives of young children (Marsh and Hallet, 2008). We argue that by engaging young children in opportunities to play with language we are ultimately empowering them to be active in their language learning and in the process fostering a love of language and the intricacies it holds.

Our goal in this publication is to provide a range of highly practical strategies for scaffolding young children through some of the Content Descriptions from the Australian Curriculum English Version 5.0, hereafter AC:E V5.0 (ACARA, 2013). This recently released curriculum offers a new theoretical approach to building children’s knowledge about language. The AC:E V5.0 uses selected traditional terms through an approach developed in systemic functional linguistics (see Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004) to highlight the dynamic forms and functions of multimodal language in texts. For example, the following statement, taken from the ‘Language: Knowing about the English language’ strand states:

English uses standard grammatical terminology within a contextual framework, in which language choices are seen to vary according to the topics at hand, the nature and proximity of the relationships between the language users, and the modalities or channels of communication available (ACARA, 2013). Put simply, traditional grammar terms are used within a functional framework made up of field, tenor, and mode. An understanding of genre is noted with the reference to a ‘contextual framework’. The ‘topics at hand’ concern the field or subject matter of the text. The ‘relationships between the language users’ is a description of tenor. There is reference to ‘modalities’, such as spoken, written or visual text. We posit that this innovative approach is necessary for working with contemporary multimodal and cross-cultural texts (see Exley and Mills, 2012). We believe there is enormous power in using literature to expose children to the richness of language and in turn develop language and literacy skills. Taking time to look at language patterns within actual literature is a pathway to ‘…capture interest, stir the imagination and absorb the [child]’ into the world of language and literacy (Saxby, 1993, p. 55).

In the following three sections, we have tried to remain faithful to our interpretation of the AC:E V5.0 Content Descriptions without giving an exhaustive explanation of the grammatical terms. Other excellent tomes, such as Derewianka (2011), Humphrey, Droga and Feez (2012), and Rossbridge and Rushton (2011) provide these more comprehensive explanations as does the AC:E V5.0 Glossary. We’ve reproduced some of the AC:E V5.0 glossary at the end of this publication. Our focus is on the structure and unfolding of the learning experiences. We outline strategies for working with children in Foundation, Year 1 and Year 2 by providing some demonstration learning experiences based on texts we’ve selected, but maintain that the affordances of these strategies will only be realised when teaching and learning is purposively tied to authentic projects in local contexts. We strongly encourage you not to use only the resource texts we’ve selected, but to capitalise upon your skill for identifying the language features in the texts you and the children are studying and adapt some of the strategies we have outlined.

Each learning experience is connected to one of the Content Descriptions from the AC:E V5.0 and contains an experience specific purpose, a suggested resource text and a sequence for the experience that always commences with an orientation to text followed by an examination of a particular grammatical resource. We expect that each of these learning experiences will take a couple if not a few teaching episodes to work through, especially if children are meeting a concept for the first time. We hope you use as much, or as little, of each experience as is needed. Our plans allow for focused discussion, shared exploration and opportunities to revisit the same text for the purpose of enhancing meaning making. We do not want the teaching of grammar to slip into a crisis of irrelevance or to be seen as a series of worksheet drills with finite answers. Strategies for effective practice, however, have much portability.

We are both very keen to hear from teachers who are adopting and adapting these learning experiences in their classrooms. Please email us on or We’d love to continue the conversation with you over time.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 65565
Item Type: Book
Keywords: grammar, early years, children's literature, knowledge about language, language for interaction, text structure and organisation
ISBN: 9780977546831
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > EDUCATION (130000) > CURRICULUM AND PEDAGOGY (130200) > English and Literacy Curriculum and Pedagogy (excl. LOTE ESL and TESOL) (130204)
Divisions: Current > Research Centres > Children & Youth Research Centre
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Education
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2013 Australian Literacy Educators' Association
Deposited On: 23 Dec 2013 02:08
Last Modified: 12 Jul 2017 16:55

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