Wondering how to teach grammar? People have strong opinions about whether or not it should be taught. Grammar has even been referred to by Grammar Alive as the “skunk at the garden party.”
Throughout time, grammar instruction has changed. This purpose of this post is not to debate why we should teach grammar. I’ve written about that in a previous article. Grammar is an important part of the English subject area, and it needs to be taught. But how?
I’ve found the best thing to do when research conflicts is to educate myself. I encourage you to explore the debates and figure out what you believe. Does the research you find support or conflict with your beliefs? Most importantly, use your intuition and collect data from students. What works for them? They will give you the most important feedback you will ever receive regarding effective instruction.
I’ve heard common questions about how to teach grammar. In this post, I’m addressing some common debates. This is what I’ve learned, which doesn’t make it “right.” Take what works for you, add it to what you know about your students, and use it to amplify your own grammar instruction.
What’s the best way to begin?
Some people have interpreted the “teach grammar in context” movement to mean that direct instruction no longer has a place. I’ve found that to begin studying a new concept, students need a mini lesson. Usually, this lesson takes place during class, but sometimes I create a flipped video for them to watch outside of class. This lesson is followed by scaffolded practice. Direct instruction is an effective way to lay a solid foundation and common understanding of a grammatical concept.
Direct instruction is sometimes confused with isolation. Teaching grammar in isolation means that students don’t learn how to transfer their command of grammar to reading, writing, and life. Instruction is focused specifically on verbs, for instance, and students never spend time analyzing author’s verb choices or intentionally playing with their word choice to apply grammar understanding. Obviously, isolation is not effective. Direct instruction is.
Why do we teach certain grammar concepts?
I frequently see people ask questions about why we teach certain grammar concepts, like parts of speech and parts of sentences. Because they are not directly relatable to life (for students), it’s understandable why this question would emerge.
The thing is…grammar is basically a set of building blocks. Picture laying the foundation for a house. What happens if we leave out the bricks we don’t like? Those holes would create major weaknesses in our foundation, and eventually, the structure would collapse.
The same is true with grammar. Parts of speech are building blocks for writing complete sentences. Parts of sentences (like direct objects and predicate nominatives) are stepping stones for phrases and clauses.
This concept is similar to math. Students need to understand their addition and multiplication facts. Without those, it is difficult to learn more complex problems, such as those they experience in algebra. If we choose not to teach certain grammar concepts because we can’t explain how they are relevant to life in the moment, we aren’t preparing students for what they will need in the future.
Explain this rationale to students. When the time comes and they can see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, they’ll be glad to have prepared.
Is memorization necessary?
First of all, memorization is not a dirty word. Because we are surrounded by technology, the urge to “just look it up” has caused many people to argue that memorization is outdated. I disagree. Memorization has brain benefits. It helps us to pay attention, to focus. It helps us to develop frames of reference and to make associations. In short, the more we know, the more we can know.
There are certain grammar concepts students need to know, and it’s just not practical for them to look up a list of prepositions every time they try to analyze or write a sentence.
Consider this example: Because I like golden Oreos.
If students recognize this group of words is a fragment, they will be able to explain exactly why it is a fragment if they have memorized their subordinating conjunctions and understand dependent clauses. More importantly, they will be able to correctly add onto and punctuate this sentence because they know that when a subordinate clause begins a sentence, it should be followed by a comma.
If we don’t ask students to memorize key grammar lists (i.e. – prepositions, linking verbs, conjunctions), we aren’t doing them any favors.
Are worksheets considered “bad teaching”?
Worksheets have gotten a bad rap. I understand why. They can be overused. I do everything I can to avoid killing students’ love for learning. At the same time, grammar requires repetition. Worksheets, in moderation, are an important way to make that happen. Plus, worksheets are not “the teaching.” They are a vehicle for practice. Instructional approaches can make or break a worksheet.
I have experimented with many educational trends, mostly because I love trying new things. I have a desire to always learn and improve. However, one bandwagon I’ve never jumped on is the one where we do away with all worksheets. It just doesn’t make sense. I love making learning fun just as much as the next person, but I’ve seen the effectiveness of a scaffolded worksheet. Sometimes, it’s what students need. Plus, there is no shortage of ways to make a worksheet interactive.
Yes, there are wonderful alternatives. Games, sorts, manipulatives, mazes, etc. – I’ve used them all. They work well, too, but as complementary activities – not replacements. To me, teaching grammar is about creating a menu. Worksheets are just part of one course.
How can I add rigor?
If we keep grammar lessons at a basic level, we aren’t giving students what they need most: transfer learning. Students have to be able to transfer their understanding of grammar concepts to reading and writing.
Adding rigor with writing…
Help students understand the power of grammar as it relates to writing. Show them how playing with language makes an essay hook or clincher powerful. Compare and contrast grammatical rules for formal and informal writing.
Mentor sentences are one way to study grammar in context, but not the only avenue. Try inductive learning approaches, and focus on the grammatical concepts you are teaching when conferring with writers.
Adding rigor with reading…
If you’re reading a whole-class text, take time to study the author’s craft. How does the author’s sentence structure impact the meaning or style of the passage? Ask students to find their favorite sentence in the chapter or story. Then, examine what grammatical elements the author used to create it. Also, how does the grammatical structure of the sentence(s) impact the mood or tone?
How can I build students’ confidence?
One of the biggest wins I’ve had with obtaining student buy-in when learning grammar is with building confidence. Students who “hate grammar” typically have had bad experiences with it in the past. When we get to know our students, it helps to be aware of which students need a boost.
The most effective ways I’ve found to build confidence are by providing scaffolding and proving growth. If students see that they have learned from point A to point B, they are more likely to own future lessons.
How can we measure learning? Try using a diagnostic assessment. Closely examine their writing. Are you seeing evidence of grammar rules applied to formal and informal situations? Listen to the way they analyze literature. Do they demonstrate an insight of author’s craft?
It’s a common misconception that students hate grammar. If you take time to teach grammar effectively, to study the language yourself, and to empower students as grammarians (and therefore also as reader and writers), you might be surprised how many “thank you’s” you’ll receive.
Teaching grammar? Clearly, some instructional approaches are more fruitful than others. If lessons are relevant and meaningful, there’s nothing even remotely skunk-like about it.
Interested in reading more? Lauralee from Language Arts Classroom shares her thoughts on the grammar controversy and how we should confront the controversy.