Looking to spice up your grammar instruction? I have a few ideas for making engaging grammar lessons that might help.
There are approximately 23 million blog posts and articles about how to make grammar instruction fun (maybe not…I don’t know…I don’t sit around and count these things), but still…there are a lot. In today’s post, I’d like to add to that massive bank, but hopefully provide some ideas that are not only practical, but also easy to implement and, best of all, not a waste of instructional time. I’m not saying that making grammar “fun” is a waste of time, and really, there are some excellent ideas and resources available to do that. However, in my experience, like math, grammar is learned in large part through spiraling, analysis, and repetition (which is not always fun).
Having said that, I keep my grammar instruction fairly simple. Despite the recent movement away from teaching grammar (which I fought tooth and nail), I feel like people are starting to realize that grammar is a necessary life skill. We need it! Plus, it’s emphasized in the Common Core Standards: phrases, clauses, punctuation, sentence types, parallelism, dangling modifiers…all of it.
A Basic Weekly Structure
There are strategies to engage students in grammar content while still achieving the repetition and practice needed to master the concepts. Before I go into those, I’d just like to mention that preceding any of these activities, I conduct a minilesson about the skill of the week. I do these on Mondays…and, consequently, have dubbed them “Monday Fun-days.”
The rest of the week, I spend time reinforcing the skill I introduced on Monday, and whenever possible, I embed the grammar skills into my literature, vocabulary, and writing conversations. This approach is a method I’ve found successful, and even though my students pretend to groan about Monday Fun-days, I know they secretly enjoy them. (You can find my sequence for grammar lessons here.)
Without further ado, let’s cover some of these contemporary-traditional (that’s a thing, right?) engaging grammar lessons:
1. Combine Grammar Instruction with Appealing New Vocabulary Words
One of the ways I have hooked students who don’t enjoy grammar (yes, there are students out there who do enjoy it) is to tie grammar instruction into other areas of ELA content. It makes sense. Grammar, writing, vocabulary, reading…they are like milk and cookies.
A light-hearted approach for this is through something I’ve called “Grocabulary.” With each grocabulary worksheet, my students are working on a particular grammar skill, but they are also determining unknown word meanings based on context clues provided in the sentence. Here’s an example in which students were first supposed to identify the simple subject and simple predicate and then answer the questions that follow:
The sentence might read: I do not like to be bothered by childish frippery, like who gets to ride in the front seat.
- What context clues are included for the bold-faced word?
- Based on the context clues, make an educated guess about what this word means.
- What part of speech do you believe this word is?
- Now, look up the definition in a dictionary. Compare your guess to the denotation.
Why is this technique effective? Many students love funny new words. I try to use words that either sound humorous or that have an entertaining definition in my sentences. These are not words that I put on the final exam. Rather, it’s vocabulary that engages the students in the worksheet so that they want to dig into the context clues, guess the meaning of the word, and then check their answers. Many of my students walk away from grocabulary worksheets talking and laughing about the words they encountered. To me, this is a success because they were also working on the grammar skill for that day. You can view the Grocabulary exercises here.
Context Clue Work
Outside of grocabulary conversations, we can also talk about parts of speech as a context clue strategy when encountering new words. Give students a passage with a vocabulary word, and ask them to use the context to determine the part of speech of the unfamiliar word. How is it functioning in the sentence, and how does that understanding lead us toward a revelation of the word’s meaning…or even its connotation?
2. Frame the Grammar Mini-lesson with Free Writing
When I conduct a mini-lesson for a grammar skill, I like to begin by engaging students in a writing task. For example, if I were introducing fragments, I would give students a writing prompt (about an odd news story, an interesting question, or a political cartoon, for instance), and students would free write for about five minutes. Then, I would have them put their response aside and proceed with that day’s grammar topic. (By the way, I don’t tell them what grammar concept I am covering for the day until they have completed the free write).
Upon completion of the mini-lesson instruction, I then have them pull their free write back out and look for growth areas (such as fragment)s. If a student says, “I don’t have any,” I have them trade with a partner and check each other’s work. If I’m covering material that is appropriate to students’ ability levels, there are generally mistakes related to that day’s lesson that can be fixed.
This type of lesson generally resonates with students because it answers the question, “Why do I need this?” perfectly.
3. Emphasize Students’ Interests
When it comes to engaging grammar lessons, this one is big. My students know I am receptive to their ideas, and they frequently request that I make sentences that use their names or that are about a certain topic. It’s the nerd in me, but I absolutely love that and do my best to accommodate. My Rules for Commas and Semicolons lesson uses student names, for example. During homecoming week, I try to incorporate grammar sentences about the football game, the variety, show, the pep assembly, and the dance.
Along the same lines, I try to pay attention to television shows and movies my students enjoy. One of my kiddos one year was SOOOOO disengaged it wasn’t even funny. Randomly one day, he asked me if I would make some of the grammar practice sentences about the show My Strange Addiction. Trying to hide my excitement, I responded, “Sure” with a little smile and then turned my back before my face broke into the kind giant grin you always see on Christmas morning. (I ran home and made that puppy right away!) I wish you could have seen his expression the next day when he realized I had, indeed, made the sentence types activity he requested.
Any time we can incorporate topics that interest students, the lesson will go more smoothly.
4. Use Mentor Sentences from Nostalgic Children’s Books
As students grow older, I always look for ways to keep them engaged with light-hearted, classic picture books. Truly, there is something special about children’s literature, and I strongly believe it should be read and cherished at all ages, not just preschool.
When I use picture books with my high school students, I look for ways to embed the story into higher-level concepts. Speaking solely about grammar instruction right now, I like to use mentor sentences from picture books to teach various concepts, like prepositions and infinitives. Generally, I’ll introduce the concept through a mini-lesson, and to reinforce the skill, I will read the picture book to the class and have students identify the grammatical element we are studying as they listen. To illustrate, they might raise their hand or flash a red card if they hear a prepositional phrase. After reading, I have a practice worksheet ready that contains sentences from the book.
Analyzing author’s language choices in picture books is a powerful way to underline the value of literacy and the power of grammar choices in writing. Here’s a mini-lesson you can use to get started, and it will work with almost any picture book.
5. Play Grammar Games, Sparingly
I can’t write a post about engaging grammar lessons without mentioning grammar games. Games are the best, really. My students always ask for them, and I love to use them…sparingly. I won’t go into too much detail because when you do a search for “fun grammar activities” on Google, you’ll only get several million search results.
I incorporate games once in a while (with learning station activities and as interactive review) because they encourage active learning and relationship building. Once students have a solid handle on the material we are studying, I feel confident in letting them answer questions on their own in small groups without constant supervision.
The game I enjoy the most right now is my Grammar Games (a parody of the Hunger Games title) dice activity. It’s a unique way to get students to think critically about specific test concepts regarding phrases, clauses, punctuation, and parts of speech. There are several versions I like to use before final exams to help review the concepts we covered over the course of the semester. Another unique approach to grammar is playing Truth or Dare. It gets students students interacting in humorous ways while still talking about grammar meaningfully.
6. Show Students the Building Blocks
Sometimes, engaging grammar lessons are as simple as providing necessary scaffolding.
Building one grammar element onto another is much less intimidating than starting from scratch. It’s scaffolding. When we want students to truly see the transfer between grammar and its power in writing, we can show them how each grammar element really is a simple building block. Authors make choices that impact their message.
Sentence expansion activities that include short video tutorials and models can help students to walk through the building blocks at their own pace, a natural way to differentiate for our learners.
7. Manipulate the Language
If you ask students about their preferred learning style, many of them will tell you they are kinesthetic learners. While they can learn in other ways, giving them manipulatives elevates their engagement and thinking. We can do this with grammar lessons.
Some of the most powerful small group intervention activities I’ve done with language involve small (or large) strips of paper. Sometimes students hold them. Other times, they arrange the strips on their desks or the floor. When we color code the grammatical elements (types of clauses, for example), students get both a visual and tangible connection with their options as a writer.
If you’ve never done this, I challenge you to try it. You’ll see learning increase. This conjunctive adverb lesson contains an example activity.
8. Tie it to Good Books
Students (my own children, included) seem to enjoy studying grammar in the context of books they like. For instance, as I recently read a young adult mystery novel with my son, we came across a paragraph in which the author used the word maybe to begin about ten sentences in a row. In this part of the book, a defense lawyer was making the point that the prosecution had no evidence. Their entire case was built upon “maybes,” which means that there was reasonable doubt.
After reading this passage together, we paused. My son started saying, “Maybe…” a few times, showing that repetition had stuck with him. It led to an impromptu but thought-provoking discussion about sentence structure, sentence variety, and the occasional power of an anaphora.
I’ve had many rich conversations about language like this with students as well. If you aren’t reading a story together, you can still have meaningful conversations about language in students’ books by asking them to do a little detective work. See if they can find examples of the grammar topic you are studying.
Or, give them mentor sentences that focus on leads. After studying common examples, tell students to turn their attention to their own choice reading novel. What is the first sentence of the book, and how does the author craft it to pull in the reader?
You can grab twenty opening sentences from high-interest young adult literature in this free resource.
I hope this post has given you some inspiration for engaging grammar lessons. Teaching and learning is always more fun when everyone is engaged in active, thought-provoking activities.
Interested in reading more about engaging grammar lessons? You might enjoy these articles:
- Why Teach Grammar?
- How to Sequence Grammar Instruction
- How to Structure a Grammar Lesson
- Make Grammar Part of Your Writing Culture