It was August of 2005. I stared at my lesson plan book in frustration, having made a complete mess of my notes about teaching grammar. I was excited to begin my first year of teaching high school English, but I was so confused about how to structure the semester. Sure, I was given a curriculum map, and everyone at my place of employment promised to help me whenever I needed it. But I was ashamed. How could I be so confused about how to sequence grammar instruction?
Looking back, it’s a lot more clear. I had earned a degree from a respectable university, and really, their teaching program was solid. Still, no one had taught me how to sequence grammar instruction….(or how to teach it!).
I don’t think I was alone. For most instructors, one of the more confusing parts of teaching ELA is figuring out how to approach grammar. To all of our credit, there’s a lot of decision-making involved, and a large part of those decisions are based upon experience — learning the hard way what works and what doesn’t.
Lately, I’ve seen questions floating around on social media about how to sequence grammar instruction. Talented teachers who have never learned grammar or tried to teach it before are being handed the responsibility of figuring it out on their own.
I can relate. I’ve been there! In this post, I’d like to share my experience with figuring out how to sequence grammar instruction, in the hopes that it will help someone else. Of course, my approach is not the only possibility.
To provide a little context, my ninth graders come in with very little grammar proficiency, so in some schools, this same approach could probably be taken with middle school students. Likewise, it could be utilized for older students with a review of the basic elements and more focused instruction on the advanced skills.
Let’s get to it then.
1st Semester: How to Sequence Grammar
What’s the best way to begin?
I always begin with a pre-test. It features questions that cover all grammatical concepts I plan to teach throughout the year. Based on the results of the pre-test, I know what I can go through quickly and what needs more focused instruction. First semester is all about the building blocks – establishing a firm foundation that can be built upon second semester.
The 8 parts of speech are the basics of our language, so if students need a refresher, I begin there.
- The 8 Parts of Speech
- Simple & Complete Subjects & Predicates
- D.O. / I.O. / P.N. / P.A. (Subject Complements)
Students have to understand nouns, verbs, and modifiers to be able to identify the subject and verb of a sentence as well as to divide a sentence in two: complete subject and complete predicate. I cover direct objects, indirect objects, and subject complements next because infinitives and gerunds can function as some of these elements.
At this point, I only cover coordinating conjunctions with the 8 parts of speech because the other conjunctions rely upon an understanding of more complex grammar concepts.
Is there a recommended order for teaching phrases?
I wouldn’t say there’s one “right way.” This is how I do it because I think the concepts build on each other well.
While the content of complements and objects is fresh in students’ minds, I teach phrases. Gerunds, for example, can function as direct objects or predicate nominatives. I start with appositives because students find them approachable, and they are able to build up some confidence (this is also a good time to introduce the terms essential and nonessential).
Following, we learn prepositional phrases. When identifying elements of a sentence, I usually have students strike out all prepositional phrases first, as nothing besides the preposition and the object will be found in them. After prepositional phrases, I teach infinitives. Both infinitives and prepositional phrases can begin with the word “to,” so students often confuse them. Teaching them back-to-back allows for an easy transition into comparing the two types of phrases.
Infinitives, participles, and gerunds are all members of the verbals family, so I group them together. Personally, I find participles easier than gerunds because they are always adjectives, so I introduce those next. Because they are able to function as different types of nouns, gerunds usually prove to be the trickiest for my students, so we study those last.
During the phrases unit, I really feel like we are starting to make progress as writers because I am able to help students understand how to punctuate phrases, how to use them as introductory elements, and how to use phrases strategically in their writing to increase sentence fluency.
Why teach clauses after phrases?
You don’t have to. But, if you teach phrases first, it’s more clear to students what the difference is when you tell them that a clause must have a subject and a verb, but a phrase does not. They’re both fragments, so unless they can identify types of phrases, it will make it difficult for students to understand the difference between a clause that’s a fragment and a phrase that’s a fragment.
- Subordinating Conjunctions & Dependent Clauses
- Relative Pronouns & Relative Clauses
- Independent Clauses
During this portion of my grammar instruction, I have students memorize their subordinating conjunctions.
It’s a little old-school, but it’s the only way they will be able to analyze a sentence and definitively say that a group of words is a dependent clause. While students are memorizing the conjunctions, we discuss dependent clauses and practice identifying them in sentences. We also use them in our daily writing and try to find them in mentor texts.
Once my students have a firm handle on subordinating conjunctions and subordinate clauses, we move on to relative pronouns and relative clauses. If students can point out dependent clauses with ease, they are ready to move onto identifying sentence types.
Is it really necessary for students to be able to identify sentence types?
YES! I know some people might consider it somewhat antiquated, but the more students can understand about grammatical elements, the better writers they will be. I certainly don’t believe grammar should be taught in isolation…teaching all of these concepts, including sentence types, should be embedded in reading, literature, vocabulary, and other ELA instruction, but yes. My students spend weeks on sentence types, if necessary. Here’s the general order I use…
- Fused Run-Ons
- Comma Splices
- Choppy Sentences
- Stringy Sentences
- Compound (and conjunctive adverbs)
Actually, I talk to my students about fragments and run-ons from Day 1…because they are freshmen, and I know they’ve heard the terms and learned them before. Still, they haven’t always retained that information, so when I cover the four sentence types, it’s an opportune time to remind students about the difference between a comma splice and a compound sentence, for example. Having just recently taught phrases and dependent clauses, students can understand the concept of a fragment more easily.
If I’m working with a group of advanced students who really grasps these concepts, I also cover crots and blips, and we analyze how authors use fragments intentionally in their writing for effect. Then, students write their own examples as narrative leads.
What about the more “advanced” topics?
Correlative conjunctions pair well with parallelism.
I find that it confuses students to attempt to teach all four conjunctions in their own unit. They have to be well-versed in other grammatical elements in order to understand them. So, I teach coordinating conjunctions with parts of speech, subordinating conjunctions with dependent clauses, and conjunctive adverbs with sentence types and errors. I like teaching correlative conjunctions with parallelism because of the nature of that type of conjunction. Since they work in tandem, students need to understand that they link equal elements.
- For example: Conjunction + noun + conjunction + noun.
- Also Consider: Conjunction + adverb + conjunction + adverb.
- Then: Conjunction + infinitive + conjunction + infinitive.
- Plus: Conjunction + simple sentence + conjunction + simple sentence.
Why now? Understanding how, when, and why to use dashes, hyphens, parenthesis, ellipses, commas, semi-colons, colons, and quotations marks will empower students to take their writing to new heights.
I cover the punctuation unit later in the semester (or year, depending on how your classes are structured) because as I teach each individual grammar skill, I introduce the punctuation expectations that accompany it. I don’t want to add anything extra when we are honing in on the building blocks. With punctuation, I also take the opportunity to touch on when to use a comma with coordinate adjectives.
Misplaced & Dangling Modifiers
I don’t teach these with participles. Why? Well, I think it’s important for students to understand them, but not as important as the skills I am front loading earlier on. I don’t want to sidetrack from the focus on verbals and phrases to talk about misplaced and dangling modifiers because I don’t want my students to lose perspective.
When students have a good understanding of sentence types, phrases, and clauses, it’s easy to refer back to participles and discuss proper placement. Plus, misplaced/dangling modifiers are annoying, but not nearly as annoying as fragments, run-ons, and misused semi-colons.
*I don’t always get through all of these grammar concepts in one semester, but it’s the goal. Sometimes, the advanced concepts spill over into second semester. Like anything else, when thinking about how to sequence grammar instruction, it just depends on what your students need.
2nd Semester: How to Sequence Grammar
I like to talk grammar with other teachers. One of my good friends, Lauralee from Language Arts Classroom, has taught standardized test prep classes for years. So, I asked her how to sequence grammar instruction second semester. I wanted to know her approach.
Here’s what she had to say:
Lay the groundwork.
I start by laying groundwork and relating the concept of grammar to other ideas. I ask students what they want to do in college and as a career. Most jobs have some sort of test – any medical specialty, teachers, CPAs, lawyers, etc. Other jobs have certifications, which is similar. I explain that students will study for these tests, and that prepping for a test is not necessarily a bad thing.
Cover the basics.
I then cover the basics of the English test: punctuation, agreement, transitions, spelling, organization, focus, and other conventions. I then stress that we have already prepped for this test! Writing and applying feedback is the best practice for the English portion.
After I’ve connected the ideas of the test prep and prior knowledge, I encourage students. I want them to take ownership. I ask them to find something achievable, whether that is understanding comma rules or confusing words. Sometimes the goals are small, and other times I have students who strive for a 36 on the test. I know that each student will have an individual goal, and that is ok.
Practice key concepts.
We take a practice test so I can gauge what I need to review. Sometimes, I review their/there and its/it’s. Sometimes the concepts are more advanced – understanding the best transitions or organizing sentences in a paragraph. I try to set the students up to succeed. This allows them to be encouraged, makes test prep more achievable, and prevents them from quitting because they never see growth.
I don’t teach grammar in isolation. However, I do scaffold the concepts according to what is outlined in this post. As we explore each grammar concept, we analyze examples from literature and practice utilizing them in our writing.
Ultimately, figuring out how to sequence grammar instruction is a process of trial and error, but we are educators. It’s always beneficial to put our heads together and share triumphs and failures, working together to better our instruction for our students’ benefit and growth. If you have ideas for sequencing grammar instruction in general or for test prep purposes, please leave us a comment. Let’s do this together.
- How to Teach Grammar: Best Practices
- Ways to Differentiate Grammar Lessons
- How to Structure a Grammar Lesson