by Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed. & NBCT
As an undergraduate, I was required to take a course in English grammar. At the time, nearly 30 years ago, it made sense. After all, my middle and high school English classes had grammar as part of our studies. I had spent hours with my Warriner’s textbooks, carefully copying sentences and then dividing them into subjects and verbs, or learning how to diagram prepositional phrases. Grammar is part of English, right?
Well, yes. But let’s be honest: there’s not too many of us that chose to become language arts teachers because we love grammar. I’ll bet that there are far more of us whose passion for English language arts stems from our experiences with reading and writing. Yet the question of where grammar fits into the curriculum comes up fairly often in the work I do with other classroom teachers.
The answer I have for them probably isn’t everyone’s favorite. In fact, if you’re among those amazing few who love analyzing sentence structures and grammatical constructs, I know you’re not going to like this.
The best form of grammar instruction comes in our work with reading and writing.
There’s research to back this up; it’s a subject that enough of us are interested in, that The Atlantic ran this story, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” in 2014. The article plainly states what I’ve been learning through observation, trial, and error: students gain just as much about grammar through reading and writing as they do through direct grammar instruction. When my eighth graders and I spend a class period looking at the construction of the Declaration of Independence, we’re not just studying parallel structure. We make note of how Jefferson used grammatical structures to emphasize his points. During the past week, I’ve been giving feedback to my sixth graders on drafts of informative consumer guides, and I embed little grammar “micro-lessons” into my comments, pointing out the use of the apostrophe in the contraction for “it is” and how there is no apostrophe in the possessive form of “it.” While my comments may have to be repeated on another writing piece down the road, the fact that I am helping them see the power of semicolons in their own writing makes the punctuation mark more meaningful to them.
I know this particular approach to grammar isn’t neat, clean, and orderly. I am not checking off boxes in front of my standards with this approach. There aren’t folders full of worksheets just waiting to be distributed.
So what does good grammar instruction look like these days?
- It’s embedded in the other activities going on within the classroom. When my sixth graders spend a couple of weeks researching the R.M.S. Titanic, for example, they learn that ship names are considered the same as novel titles, and are put into italics. When the seventh graders write narratives based on the illustrations from Chris Van Allsburg’s book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, we work on proper punctuation around dialogue. In those instances, I may model it using the document camera or my computer and projector, but the real lessons come in the individual feedback, through conferencing or comments on drafts.
- It’s timely and tailored. I don’t tend to give a mini-lesson on a grammar issue unless i see the majority of the class needs it. For too many years, I taught about commas and coordinating conjunctions in April, because that’s when we were talking about conjunctions. What works is teaching this to students when they need it.
- It’s done with an attitude of caring and improving. When I conference with students or write comments on their drafts, I make it clear that I am doing this because I want their papers to be the best they can be. Pointing out grammatical errors isn’t done in a punitive way, with a tone of, “You should know better.” Instead, it’s done to help and support the learner. I am not simply correcting the errors for the students; they are the writers and need to make those corrections themselves.
- It’s done in both reading and writing. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the focus I put on sentence fragments when we read Hatchet in sixth grade. Paulsen uses a good deal of sentence fragments in the novel, especially in the beginning, as main character Brian Robeson finds himself unexpected flying a plane across the Canadian wilderness. Almost every year, someone will ask me, “How come he gets to write sentence fragments, but we’re not allowed to?” I counter the question with one of my own: “Why do you think Paulsen does that? What is his purpose?” The discussion goes far beyond the standard grammatical construction of complete sentences. Students soon realize that those fragment are used a key moments, they reflect the way a person’s brain works when in a stressful situation. A 12-year-old boy having to crash-land a plane in a lake is not going to think in carefully constructed compound-complex sentences. His thoughts are going to come in fragments. By the time we finish our discussion, students understand that fragments have a place in writing and can be very powerful, when the timing and purpose is right.
As professional educators, we need to think carefully about our purposes and priorities. Being able to read, write, listen, and speak effectively is our goal. While grammar certainly has a role in all of those skills, it is a role that is dependent on context. Teaching grammar in isolation doesn’t help us achieve our goals; instead, it throws up barriers and tends to make students dislike our classes. By embedding our grammar instruction in natural ways, through the reading, writing, speaking, and listening we do, we are helping our students gain proficiency in strong speaking and writing skills. This is far more powerful than any subject-verb worksheet will ever be.
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