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Differentiating Grammar Lessons: An Approach

You’re on the stage teaching one of your rock star grammar lessons, and everything is going well…or so you think. As you look out on the sea of faces, you start to notice your students are giving you strange looks. You think, Am I speaking a foreign language? Do I have something stuck in my teeth? Did I spill mustard on my shirt? Do I smell like pickles? Then, it hits you. Your students have no idea what you’re talking about.

When this scenario strikes, it can be slightly disheartening…and uncomfortable. Grammar is a tricky subject to teach. That’s why differentiating grammar lessons is important. Even when all of your classes are categorized as being the same track – “regular,” “academic,” “accelerated,” (choose your title) – you’ll inevitably notice that some classes catch on more quickly than others.

Each teacher has a unique approach for differentiating grammar lessons. If you’re not sure what your style is yet, experiment, and get a feel for what works. Reflection is a critical element of the process. Over the years, I’ve done some reflecting. I’ll walk you through my basic approach. Let’s use conjunctive adverbs for the sake of a having a specific example.

Plan your lesson for the strongest group first.

Figure out which class is your strongest with grammar. Picture them as you design your lesson. This week, I taught conjunctive adverbs. As I created my lesson, I included a direct instruction presentation that gives an overview of:

  • what conjunctive adverbs are
  • examples of conjunctive adverbs
  • the four uses of conjunctive adverbs
  • punctuation rules
  • application

After the direct instruction portion of the lesson (which also included some on-the-spot practice sentences on the board), I assigned students 10 practice sentences to complete on their own. Within those sentences, students had to use conjunctive adverbs all four ways (as a beginning transition, as an interrupter, to combine independent clauses, and as a closing thought). My advanced students were able to complete the homework independently with ease.

Start inserting scaffolding.

I have a few classes that I knew would struggle with the original lesson, but they didn’t necessarily need me to hold their hand. So. I differentiated the lesson by asking them to have their homework questions out while we completed the notes.

After we discussed conjunctive adverbs as transitions, I walked them through their first homework question about that concept. We continued in that fashion – switching back and forth between instruction and practice – until we had covered all four uses for conjunctive adverbs.

Students did the thinking, but this approach opened up doors for redirection and, ultimately, reduced frustration.

Break it down into small chunks.

You might notice that one or more of your classes struggles when given this much information at once. Conjunctive adverbs are not difficult, but if students have never heard of them, it’s an intimidating approach to teach all four uses in one day. In this case, I recommend breaking down the concept into small chunks.

One day, teach students how to use conjunctive adverbs as transitions. Talk about the punctuation required. Write sentences together. Punctuate practice sentences. Then, ask them to complete a few independently. The next day, move on to the second use, and so on.

Struggling students become frustrated when too much information is thrown their way at once.

Differentiate grammar lessons intentionally. Try this approach from Reading and Writing Haven in your secondary ELA classroom. #highschoolela #middleschoolgrammar

Provide definitions and acronyms.

When teaching conjunctive adverbs, I’ve noticed that students don’t always know how to use them correctly in sentences.

Incidentally, namely, consequently, furthermore, moreover.

These words need to be defined when differentiating grammar lessons for students who come to the table with less background knowledge or a weak vocabulary.

Instead of asking struggling students to memorize a list of twenty words, give them an acronym. While I would expect my advanced students to be able to list off at least twenty conjunctive adverbs with ease, I use the acronym THAMOS with students who need a modification. Each of the letters in that acronym can stand for one or more conjunctive adverbs.

Use manipulatives.

All students benefit from being able to hold sentence parts in their hand. When teaching conjunctive adverbs, I print out large commas and semicolons and give students computer paper. Then, I ask them to write independent clauses and play with the words and punctuation on their desk, a table, or the floor.

This type of differentiation is not only good for ability levels, but also for learning styles.

Explain the why.

I love it when students question why we are learning about grammar. Different grammar topics require different answers, but when teaching students who don’t have a natural love for it (let’s face it – that’s most students!), we have to be able to answer that question to their satisfaction.

I consider answering “why” part of the differentiation process. Some students need to hear it; others don’t. Obtaining buy-in from reluctant students is key.

Question: Why does it matter if I know how to use a conjunctive adverb? Can’t I write without them? 

Answer: Of course you can! But…do you like not having the option to do something due to a lack of knowledge? It’s frustrating to feel limited. When we understand sentence parts and can use them with a purpose, punctuate them confidently, and wield them successfully in our writing, we are empowered. You don’t have to sound elementary. You can develop your writer’s voice because you have the tools you need to make the choice. Do you want to use it? Maybe. Maybe not. What matters is that you have the option.

Take time to reflect.

Ultimately, reflecting upon our past grammar lessons brings us to a point of being able to better differentiate them in the future. Some of my best teaching ideas and inspiration have come to me in the middle of a run while I’m reflecting on the day’s lesson. What went well? What was frustrating? What can be improved? How can you address more learning styles? Where could students use more scaffolding?

It’s taken some time, but I can say I really do enjoy differentiating grammar lessons now. Call me a grammar nerd, but I find it challenging and interesting to anticipate areas of confusion. I try to differentiate as much as possible in advance, but some of the tweaking occurs on the spot. When you notice those faces of confusion, disinterest, and frustration, it’s time to switch it up.


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