The new question-of-the-week is:
How should we teach grammar to students?
Our students need to learn grammar, but the real question is how to teach it in ways that don’t bore them out of their minds.
Today, Jeremy Hyler, Sean Ruday, Joy Hamm, and Sarah Golden share their recommendations.
I’d also like to share my favorite grammar-instruction strategy—concept attainment.
In this inductive learning strategy, the teacher places examples, typically (though not always) from unnamed student work, under the categories of “Yes” and “No” and displays them on a document camera.
The teacher starts by covering up the examples and shows them one by one. After students see each new one, they work in pairs to try to determine why some examples are under “Yes” and others under “No” until they identify the “rule.”
The class constructs their own understanding of why the examples are in their categories. It’s a great tool for many lessons, and I like it especially for grammar and other writing.
Here’s an example I used in my English-language learner class to teach about the appropriate placement of adjectives:
Concept attainment effectively turns instruction into sort of a “puzzle.”
Now, it’s time for today’s guests:
Using Social Media
Jeremy Hyler is a middle school English and science teacher in Michigan. He has co-authored Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools (Routledge/Eye on Education), From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age, as well as Ask, Explore, Write. Jeremy blogs atMiddleWeb. He can be found on Twitter @jeremybballer and at his websitejeremyhyler40.com:
The question on how we approach grammar instruction has been debated for over 100 years. The debate has always been whether grammar should be taught in isolation or in context with the reading and writing that is being done in the classroom. Even the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has a position statementon not teaching grammar in isolation.
Let’s be honest, it is impossible to try to shove every grammar skill into our students’ brains. And, yes, that is what often happens as we try to rush through the curriculum we have in front of us. As an educator with over 20 years experience, I don’t know every grammar skill in my heart. We have to begin very simply with two practices: Teach students the difference between formal and informal spaces and show students how the grammar skills they are learning can be applied to their own writing. Students will not see the value in grammar unless we actually show them how it’s applied. Furthermore, as teachers, we need to respect the spaces students write in day to day.
Seven years ago while at a conference, I created a template using Google Slides of the spaces students typically write in from day to day. The template ranges from Facebook to text messaging to Snapchat. I feel in order for students to have a better understanding of grammar skills, they need to know whether the spaces they write in the most are formal or informal. This discussion with students often leads to great conversations and insight about audience and who they are writing for when in a given space. When students are able to grasp how writing might change in these spaces, we then examine the grammar skill such as adjectives and how it is used in a mentor text we are reading at the time.
Students not only need to understand the different writing spaces they themselves write in, but how authors are using grammar and why authors might choose to make certain moves in the books we are reading. Once this is established, students then get to “play” with the mentor sentence and how it might look in the different spaces they write in on a daily basis. The template is a way for teachers to formatively assess student writing, and at the same time, it gives students a way to see how skills could be applied to different writing spaces.
As students grasp the current grammar lesson through the template, I then have them apply the skills to a formal piece of writing in class such as a literary analysis, compare/contrast, or argument paper. While students are writing, I ask them to use the highlight feature in Google Docs, so I can see they have correctly applied the skill they learned to their own writing. Plus, it makes it easier for me as their teacher to grade.
Though what I do takes more time than what most teachers want to take, students do grasp the concepts and retain the skills I am trying to teach them more so than if I were rapidly going through grammar and flooding their backpacks with worksheets. By scaffolding, I am building students toward the reason grammar is important while at the same time respecting the spaces they write in daily.
Sean Ruday is an associate professor of English education at Longwood University and a former classroom teacher. He has written 11 books on literacy instruction, all published by Routledge Eye on Education. His website is www.seanruday.weebly.com:
When I conduct workshops for teachers on grammar instruction, I ask participants to begin with a fast write on “teaching grammar.” A theme that often emerges from these responses is the challenge of teaching grammar in ways that are both engaging and effective.
For example, one teacher expressed, “Sure, I know some ways to teach grammar, but I definitely don’t know the best way. I can use textbooks and workbooks, but that doesn’t get any kind of results with my students.” This insightful point is reflected in research on grammar instruction, which has found that out-of-context grammar instruction with no connection to authentic writing often leads to student disengagement (Woltjer, 1998) and has very little impact on student writing (Weaver, 1998).
To address this issue, I use a five-step approach to grammar instruction that uses mentor texts to help students see grammatical concepts as tools that authors purposefully and authentically use to maximize the effectiveness of writing. After students are able to think of grammatical concepts in this way, they can analyze the importance of these concepts in published works, use them strategically in their own writing, and reflect on the impact those concepts had on the effectiveness of their pieces. The steps of the process and their descriptions follow:
1. Discuss the fundamental components of a grammatical concept.
Before students begin thinking about how published authors use a specific grammatical concept and why it is important to effective writing, they must understand the fundamentals of that concept. To facilitate this, I recommend conducting mini lessons with anchor charts and accessible examples to illustrate key attributes of grammatical concepts such as prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, or specific nouns. Knowledge of these fundamentals will then enable students to think more analytically about grammatical concepts.
2. Show students examples from literature of that concept.
The next step in this process is to show students examples from literature of the grammatical concept you’re discussing. It’s best to select examples from texts that interest your students and are at their general reading levels. This practice is especially effective because it shows students that grammatical concepts don’t just exist in isolated grammar exercises—instead, they are found in literature and are tools published writers use authentically.
3. Talk with students about why the grammatical concept is important to the piece of literature.
This instructional practice is a logical follow-up to the previous one; after you show students examples from literature of a particular grammatical concept, talk with them about why that grammatical concept is important to the pieces of literature. The specific conversation you’ll have about this topic will vary based on the grammatical concept, but each conversation should be based on the same “big idea”: How does the use of this grammatical concept enhance this piece of literature?
4. Work with students as they apply the concept to their own writing.
After students understand why a specific grammatical concept enhances a published text, the next step is to ask them to strategically use that concept in their own writing. To do this, students identify instances in their works where the piece could be enhanced by the concept and use it in those situations; this requires students to approach the concept as a purposefully used tool just as published authors do.
5. Ask students to reflect on the concept’s impact.
Finally, I recommend asking students to reflect on the importance of the focal grammatical concept. To engage students in this kind of reflection, I first ask them to think about how they used the grammatical concept in their own writing. To facilitate this, I ask the students to find an example of the concept in their writing and explain what it does to enhance the piece. After students share their responses with the class, I ask them to reflect on why this concept is an important tool for effective writing.
Teaching English-Language Learners
Joy Hamm has taught 11 years in a variety of English-language settings, ranging from kindergarten to adult learners. The last few years working with middle and high school Newcomers and completing her M.Ed. in TESOL have fostered stronger advocacy in her district and beyond:
Grammar is best embedded through targeted expressive and receptive practice in the context of content. Begin with formatively assessing students’ prior grammar knowledge by gathering at least three writing samples per student in order to analyze grammar patterns. Often multiple proficiency levels are in the same ESOL class, so target one grammar error largely observed, such as past tense irregular verbs or repetitive sentence structure. Next, provide students with multiple opportunities and modalities to learn and practice the new grammar concept using the four language domains.
For example, your analysis may reveal that your ELs need instruction about conjunctions. First, create an anchor chart of conjunctions as a visual display and begin with a read-aloud mentor text full of conjunctions (visit Jenn Larson’s blog for examples). Pause often to think aloud as students listen and begin to make connections. Display other samples on the board or as tangible sentence strips and get small groups talking about how sentence meaning changes based on the conjunction used, etc. Next, provide guided practice where students combine sentences using modified content-area text examples and share their results with the class. Also, use this interactive time for brief moments of direct instruction as needed.
Once students have lots of receptive exposure to the grammar concept, begin their expressive application through typed writing prompts or peer speaking activities which are related to your content material. Your EQ should emphasize using a variety of conjunctions along with answering the content prompt. (Continue to exhibit the anchor chart of conjunction vocabulary as a scaffold!) Additionally, provide students with ownership by modeling your own writing. Display your PC computer screen and use the Ctrl+F keys to search how many times you used different conjunctions throughout your writing. Discuss with students how you could combine sentences or create new meaning by using a different conjunction from the anchor chart. Finish with students going back to their own writing and using the Ctrl+F keys to revise their own writing.
During speaking practice, have ELs record using speakpipe.com, another free online tool, or their phone. After recording their responses to the EQ content prompt, students will relisten to themselves or another student’s recording and focus on the variety of conjunctions or complex sentences heard. After students evaluate and provide feedback for one another, they will rerecord themselves and send me both recorded links. I always require both because I often grade my ELs on the progress made between the first and second recording. This is also more equitable for multiproficiency levels in one class.
Sarah Golden is currently the coordinator of language arts for the lower and middle school divisions at The Windward School’s Manhattan campus. She is on the faculty of The Windward Institute and presents the workshop Expository Writing Instruction: Part Two – Grades 4-9:
Grammar should be taught to students in context using specific sentence activities such as sentence combining and expansion. I have found this to be most effective in my own practice teaching students of all ages, and it is also supported by research. Utilizing the direct (explicit) teaching model, a specific grammatical concept should first be taught and modeled by the teacher, in the context of a specific sentence activity. This is most effective when done in a whole-class lesson that promotes a high level of student participation. Then, students should practice the newly learned concept, so they may reach mastery and generalization of the skill. With plenty of guided practice at the sentence level, students will ultimately begin to incorporate the learned structures and concepts into their independent writing.
Very young students could begin learning basic sentence structure, sentence boundaries, and the components of a sentence by engaging in oral or written activities that require them to identify sentences and fragments. When students identify fragments, they must always be required to change the fragments into a sentence (MacDermott-Duffy, 2018). As students move up through the grades, this activity can be used to teach other grammatical structures such as dependent clauses.
Another way to introduce students to or reinforce grammatical concepts used in writing is through a strategy, which in the Windward Expository Writing Program (MacDermott-Duffy, 2018) is called sentence expansion. In this strategy, students are provided with a short unelaborated sentence and prompted, using question words, to add words, phrases, or clauses to the given simple sentence. This enables students to learn and practice skills like appropriate pronoun use, adverbial clauses, and the use of appositive phrases or relative clauses. Additionally, students can practice different sentence structures if they are prompted to start with, for instance, the subordinating clause or information generated by a specific question word.
A third strategy, and one which is particularly effective and strongly supported by research (Saddler, 2007 as cited in MacDermott-Duffy 2018), is sentence combining. In this strategy, students combine simple sentences into more complex, and therefore longer, sentences using a variety of strategies that help students learn grammatical concepts including punctuation, tense and number agreement, parts of speech, coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, and relative clauses (MacDermott-Duffy, 2018; Scott, C. et al., 2006 as cited in MacDermott-Duffy, 2018).
Thanks to Jeremy, Sean, Joy, and Sarah for their contributions!
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