Word classes and teaching

Why is it important to know about word classes in order to teach English to pupils at KS3?

Word classes help us to discuss and explain more precisely the effects of our own and others’ writing.

The National Curriculum for English at Key Stages 3 and 4 has this requirement:

Writing: Language Structure

Pupils should be taught the principles of sentence grammar and whole-text cohesion and use this knowledge in their writing. They should be taught word classes or parts of speech and their grammatical functions.

The Key Stage 3 National Strategy: Framework for teaching English: Years 7, 8 and 9 contains the following objectives:

Year 7 Word level – Vocabulary

To continue developing their vocabulary pupils should be able to:

  • understand and have the terminology to describe the role of word classes, e.g. preposition, auxiliary verb;
  • investigate and apply lexical patterns, e.g. adding -ify to an adjective to create a verb;

Year 8

Word level – Vocabulary

Pupils should

  • understand and use the key terms that help to describe and analyse language, e.g. word class.….;
  • extend the range of prepositions and connectives used to indicate purpose, e.g. in order to, so that, or express reservations, e.g. although, unless, if;

Sentence level

Pupils should recognise and exploit the use of conditionals and modal verbs when speculating, hypothesising or discussing possibilities;

Stylistic Conventions of Non-fiction

Pupils should be able to identify key alterations made to a text when it is changed from a formal to an informal text, e.g. change from first to third person, nominalisation, use of passive verbs

Standard English and language variation

Pupils should understand the main differences between Standard English and dialectal variations, e.g. subject-verb agreement, formation of past tense, use of pronouns and prepositions.

Year 9 Word level – vocabulary

Pupils should be taught to know and use the terms that are useful for analysing language, e.g. type of phrase or clause, conditional verb

KS3 pupils’ strengths and weaknesses


· Most children in school know implicitly all they need to know about word classes in order to speak and understand.· Even the youngest school-age children already ‘know’ the word classes and their characteristics. They often extend the typical characteristics to new words. This can be shown clearly by using made-up words, such as wug. If a young child is asked, ‘Look here is a wug; now look at this picture – there are two of them – two…?’ the child will apply the regular pluralisation rules and reply, ‘Two wugs.’

· By Key Stage 3, most pupils are expert users of English grammar and rarely use words of the wrong class. This is clearly a vital strength to be built on.


KS3 pupils lack explicit awareness of grammar. It is only in school that pupils learn to talk about word classes and to use them as tools for thinking about language and using it better. Recognising how words work gives pupils the freedom to make conscious choices from a number of possible language effects

How to teach word classes

Teaching word classes will be more successful if the teacher starts from examples.

“Look, here’s an adjective – and here’s another; but this isn’t one, nor is this.

Now can you suggest some more?”

Starting from examples helps pupils to home in on the word classes they already know, as English speakers.

Using examples is more effective than attempting definitions, such as “an adjective is a describing word”. Such definitions rarely work; for example, verbs can be descriptive too. Definitions can be misleading, and divert attention from exploring grammatical concepts.

The KS3 National Strategy: Framework for teaching English years 7, 8 and 9 favours an approach which:

  • starts with examples,
  • allows the learners to explore their existing knowledge, and
  • aims at a deeper understanding of this knowledge.

It does not encourage memorised definitions; these are against the spirit of this approach to grammar teaching.


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