I’m enjoying my second snow day today (and hoping for at least one more after this – we got about 10 inches of snow and the temperatures are supposed to be COLD all week), but I’ve got teaching on the mind. Specifically, I’m wondering… How do you teach grammar?
Every year around this time, as we approach our end-of-course writing assessment date in early March, I start to panic about grammar and beat myself up over not covering it more. The truth is, grammar instruction is probably my weakest area as a teacher… I, obviously, value correct grammar in speaking and writing; however, I tend to fall more on the side of “we learn grammar best through regular reading” and am not a big fan of traditional grammar lessons. I can get on board with lessons on where to place a comma or even a colon or semi-colon and certainly “commonly confused words” (think you’re vs. your); but, even with a master’s degree in English, I have never in my adult life needed to use the term “gerund” or “participial phrase.” Honestly, teaching those things feels like a waste of valuable class time. (I realize I’m horrifying some of you right now.)
Of course, the state tests don’t necessarily agree with me. According to some of our pre-tests, they want students to not only know these terms, but also be able to pick them out of or add them to a sentence. This is in addition to being able to edit for correct spelling, punctuation, usage, etc. etc. etc.
On top of all that, I feel like grammar is one of those areas that kids let just go in one ear and out the other (or – worse – memorize for a test and then completely forget it). I teach the same kids for ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade and still feel like I have to start at the very beginning of grammar (with topics like parts of speech, phrases, and clauses) every single year.
It’s probably too late for this year, but I’m already thinking about how I can improve this area of my teaching-game for the future. I’d like to find some kind of grammar “curriculum” that starts with the basics and moves steadily into more complicated grammatical concepts that will a.) engage students, b.) not take up too much class time, and c.) be simple enough that students will remember it, but dynamic enough that they aren’t just memorizing for quizzes but actually APPLYING what they learn to their writing. Anyone have any ideas?!?
How do you structure your grammar units?
How much time do you devote to grammar in your classroom?
How do you make it applicable and useful for students while still meeting the requirements of standardized tests, etc.?
Thanks in advance for your help!!! Have a great day!
You know, before teaching middle school, I fell strictly into the “grammar within the context of reading and writing” school of thought. However, when I moved from teaching 11th and 12th grade to teaching 6th and 8th grade (and then back to teaching 10th grade), I definitely, definitely saw how critical deliberate grammar instruction is to helping students learn to write properly. Students needed to learn the language of grammar before they could use proper grammar.
For starters, I use a few different resources for grammar instruction: Dawn Burnette’s Daily Grammar Practive (DGP), Sadlier Oxford’s Grammar for Writing, the College Board’s SAT Question of the Day, and the OWL @ Purdue website.
I have used DGP since I began teaching seven years ago. When I first started using it with my 11th graders, it was mandated by the school curriculum, and I didn’t know what half of the stuff was. Thus, I did a crappy job of implementing it for the first year (like, “here is the answer and don’t ask me any questions” kind of job). However, when I made the move to 6th and 8th grades at an academically rigorous Christ-centered school, DGP was still a part of the curriculum, so I finally took the initiative to learn it. I think seeing how the system made me a better writer, a writer who could justify every punctuation move I was making, helped me understand the importance of students learning the language of grammar (infinitive phrases, adverbial dependent clauses, relative pronouns, and predicate nominatives and all!).
Over the years, I have definitely adapted DGP to fit my needs (we no longer diagram sentences, for instance), but when students have a common language for discussing grammar, they can understand how to edit their own writing–which to me is why we need to learn grammar. When I coach students on their writing, I can walk them through the parts of their sentences, which leads to them understanding their punctuation errors. For instance, if a student can see that they started their sentence with an adverbial dependent clause, they can then understand the comma rule in effect. Make sense?
So, to make a long story short, I teach grammar out of context so that students can then understand in context. However, the teacher has to be extremely deliberate in helping students see the connection–it doesn’t just come naturally.
There really is so much more to it than that, but those are my initial thoughts.
Karen Drake says
NoRedInk all the way. It is student paced, they get to choose their own personal interests for the questions, and it creates the practices, assignments, and quizzes for you. If you use edmodo, it’s a n app you can add. If not, you can go through the web. My kids (9th graders) love it and I love seeing their progress. We looked into the premium version, but for the cost, the free version is more than sufficient. Check it out!
Yes! I started using NoRedInk with my 7th & 8thh graders this year, and it’s been great! I highly recommend it.
Liz Balazs says
I’m in the same place you are! I had a great background in grammar, but struggle to find engaging lessons that get the right message across for grammar. I also teach an extremely high level of ESL students, and many have no concept of grammar rules within their first language and thus struggle learning such things in English. I have used Everyday Edits, and the DGP, and try to address grammar as we read literature or write essays. I am a big fan of peer editing, but this requires the students to have the background knowledge so I start with steps and model for them: first having them grade holistically and then breaking it down to grammar and punctuation. It really boils down to each class though. I find that some classes have a higher grasp of grammar and therefore need less dedicated instruction while others need so much grammatical help that I ask them to attend tutoring in order to work one on one. As with all things in teaching, we adapt to suit the needs of our students! I’m looking at NoRedInk and think I may try to use this actively in the future.
I actually got to hear the NoRedInk guy at an IATE event. He was pretty funny (and created NoRedInk when he had a lot of time on his hands due to a break-up…lol). It *can* be a really useful tool, and I love how to allows automatic tracking so teachers don’t have to add more to the grading load. It’s come a long way since it started a few years ago, so I think it’s a lot more helpful now.
We do mini lessons here. Often, we work on sentence patterns, and the students are charged with including examples of those patterns in paper assignments (underlined for grading ease!). That’s one way to help reinforce the need for grammar. It helps them utilize sentence structure and varying their structure for a more interesting paper. Pretty sure you can google them under Phyllis Hostmeyer Sentence Patterns. Those patterns also help create discussion for parts of grammar, etc.
First year teacher here! I will be teaching middle school language arts, and I have been planning on incorporating grammar through mini lessons as well. I feel like the direct implementation of the rule into their current paper is the best way to ensure they understand how to use the rule in real life and not just memorize the definition. With 40 min classes I feel like combining as much as I can is key! It is nice to see someone validate my plans so I know I am not completely off the mark with my ideas!
I really like Kelly Gallagher’s method – he presents three sentences at the beginning of the week which share the same characteristics. You “notice and imitate” – the students notice common characteristics/rules, and then imitate. This worked amazingly well with sentences for my 7th graders this year – they were writing really great complex sentences!
Use mini-lessons and IXL! It used to be geared toward lower grades and math only, but there is now language arts for up to 10th grade, and I believe 11th and 12th are coming soon. For my freshman, it’s such a fun and effective way to really target their problem areas. It’s self-paced and increases in difficulty as they score higher. My students love jumping on the computer for an IXL day once in a while, and even get really competitive with each other; they all work really hard in hopes of joining the “100% Club.” 🙂
The topics covered are extensive, and students get immediate feedback if they miss a question. The only drawback is you can’t use it TOO often or it loses its appeal if you know what I mean. I do a mini-lesson to target problem areas maybe once every other week, then have them do IXL practice with that skill.
colleen humphres says
I remember the days of direct grammar instruction. Uggh! While, I understand that students need to be taught proper grammar, punctuation, etc., it was something I did not enjoy teaching because my students we less than enthusiastic about learning it and they were not engaged in the learning process. They would memorize the rules of grammar for a test, but I rarely saw them using those grammar skills in their writing and forget about their speaking skills!
I agree with you that grammar should (a) engage students, (b) not take up much class time, and (c) be simple enough that students remember it. So, to answer your question. I no longer plan grammar units. Instead, I let student error(s) dictate what I need to teach each year.
Early this school year, I discovered that my students had no clue what the difference was between the active and passive voice and why the active voice is preferred in academic writing and speaking. I worked tirelessly with them helping them identify those nasty “to be” verbs that often, not always, keep them in the passive voice. Man! They could identify those “to be” verbs and, in most cases, could re-work their sentences; however, they still did not understand the difference between active and passive voice. So, I went back to the basics. I directly taught them that in the active voice, the subject performs the action on the subject. In the passive voice, the object receives the action of the subject. Yikes! That was too much. I found myself re-teaching what subjects and objects were. Now they got it. Sort of. When I told them that the active voice is specific and clear and leaves no room for misunderstanding, and the passive voice is meant to be vague and is difficult to understand, they started to get it and they began to engage in distinguishing between the two. Yahoo!
Students were beginning to understand the difference between passive and active voice, but I decided to take my lesson further. This year’s campaign speeches and debates was the perfect opportunity to not only teach this skill, but also to engage students in the campaign itself. One day, we watched and listened to the candidate’s speeches and debates. During class discussion, students admitted to one another they were confused about what the candidates said. They felt the candidates were either vague with their responses or didn’t answer the questions at all. Yes! I had them! Next, we read and annotated transcripts of speeches and debates. Again, they agreed that these were vague. So, I had them identify those areas where the passive voice was used—okay, that was most of each candidate’s speech—and then they had to re-write the speech using only an active voice. WOW! My students found that they had to look up topics to find specific answers and responses to the questions the candidates were asked. It was then that my students not only understood the difference between the active and passive voice, but they also understood why the active voice is preferred. The words my students used to explain why the active voice is preferred were brevity, clarity, and understanding. Suddenly the lesson took on a life of its own and my students discussed how the passive voice is so vague and difficult to understand that this must have an impact on voters who aren’t well-educated, or who don’t understand English well, or . . ..
I hope this helps a little! One other idea, I’ve had, but have not had the opportunity to try or the energy to create is to deliver an entire day’s lesson in the passive voice. I can only imagine the confusion and frustration students would feel!
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