Scaffold grammar lessons and provide students with meaningful instruction.
Jumping into a grammar lesson with little framework for students will create problems.
Grammar belongs in discussions about literature, writing, and speech. It cannot be taught for a few minutes and never explicitly connected to the rest of class.
Teachers can weave grammatical terminology into the rest of class, but this may not be a natural action for ELA teachers. Hopefully after reading this, you have specific ways to scaffold grammar and in the process, make grammar a natural part of an ELA class.
Start with what students know. Students who speak and write English* can relate to the study of words and structure. Not only does a small activity activate prior knowledge, but it also shows you what direction grammar lessons should go.
You may need to differentiate the presentation of prior knowledge. For example:
- Give students a simple sentence without any phrases: Tom went home.
Acknowledge what students know:
“Tom” is a person, a noun.
“Tom” is what the sentence is about, the subject.
“Tom” did something – “went” – the verb.
- Add to that simple sentence: Tom went home after baseball practice and ate dinner.
Now we have another verb, joined by a conjunction. Ask students to think of the word “conjunction.” It’s like a junction – it joins. Here, it joins two verbs – “went” and “ate.”
Add to the sentence dependent upon what concept you’re teaching. For example, you could add a dependent clause: Because he was exhausted, Tom went home after baseball practice and ate dinner.
This may seem like a waste of time, but if students put up walls before grammar lessons begin, you won’t accomplish much.
Show students what they already know, and they’ll believe they can learn more. If you still don’t have an accurate picture, give a pretest. You can see exactly where you should focus. Oftentimes, pretests surprise me. I form grammar lessons after I see the results.
Practice with different steps. One practice that newer educational standards emphasize is to add variety in the approach of solving a problem.
When I scaffold grammar, I show students different ways to approach a concept.
- Look at this long sentence, that could overwhelm students: KeKe found a puppy at the park and wanted to keep it; however, her mother convinced her to take it to a shelter.
That’s long and could easily shut some students down. Too often, that happens with reading nonfiction, and students skip over difficult sentence structures. First, acknowledge that the sentence has many parts. Second, break down different ways to approach the sentence. Model and talk students through the process:
- Look at multiple pieces: This sentence has a compound verb (“found” and “wanted”); prepositional phrases (“at the park” and “to a shelter”); and infinitive phrases (“to keep it” and “to take it”).
- Look at all nouns (or whatever part of speech): KeKe, puppy, park, mother, shelter.
- Look at the subjects and verbs: KeKe found, wanted; mother convinced.
Students should develop ways to break sentences apart that has meaning for them. First, review punctuation rules. (Students should especially know the various uses of a comma.) Looking at punctuation can clue students with sentence structure, but so can conjunctions, phrases, and clauses. Demonstrate the various ways to break down sentences so students can make those processes their own.
Later, when they are improving sentences in a speech or rearranging sentences in their writing, they will need an approach that works personally for them.
Model your thinking and approach of analyzing a sentence. Teachers model writing and reading habits for students. Speak your grammar analysis to your students!
For instance, if I gave students this sentence, I would model my approach for them: Our school’s board of education plans to eliminate the election of king and queen at prom.
I would say something like:
Looking at this sentence, I notice no commas or semicolons. That tells me that I might be finding only one subject and verb – and yep! “board of education” is the subject and “plans” is the verb. We have lots of prepositions, which means we have lots of prepositional phrases – of, of, at. I almost thought that “to” was a preposition, but then I realized that “eliminate” was a verb form and not an object of a preposition, so we have an infinitive. The verb “plans” is an action verb, not a linking verb. I could have a direct object, and yes, we do – board (subject), plans (verb) – plans what? “to eliminate.” That infinitive phrase is acting as a noun – the direct object.
Break down sentences for your students and encourage them to talk through the process. They may not have an internal dialogue concerning grammar! Model one for them and encourage them to hear their peers’ methods.
Step away. Of course, at the end of scaffolding, the teacher must step away. Naturally, you will focus less on basic concepts (finding the subject and verb) and work more on the tricky parts of grammar (using words in different ways, varying sentence structure).
As you do so, acknowledge that with students. Too often, students hear “grammar” and they think “mistakes.” Grammar is a tool, a study of language which can help students in reading and writing. When you step away from scaffolding, praise students for what they have learned. Future grammar lessons will be better because of it.
Grammar needn’t be a cumbersome activity to be finished as a bell ringer and never mentioned again. Try to scaffold grammar within lesson plans, and see how students relate the concepts to the rest of ELA content.
*I have never taught ESL. My references in writing this deal with native English speakers.