“Grammar” is more than a key to better writing.
So often, teachers will tell me that grammar does not help student writing. I think in a certain way, that yes, grammar can help student writing. Do I think that once students can identify parts of speech or parts of a sentence that they’ll have perfect writing? Of course not. But, it is a misunderstanding that grammar is only for writing.
Grammar is the study of the way sentences are constructed, our language. Nothing in an ELA classroom should start and end with a worksheet, and grammar is no exception. Grammar (and all of its domain-specific language) deserves the same treatment as other elements in an English course. Just as we teachers discuss alliteration or theme or text structure across our content, we can do the same with grammar terminology. When we teachers apply grammatical ideas to all of our courses, we are providing an analytical tool for our students.
Think of grammar in another way. NCTE quotes Dennis Baron:
“When I teach grammar, I teach the complexities of it rather than the certainties of it.” He thinks it’s important for people to develop an explicit knowledge of the language and teaches grammar for linguistic reasons (looking at how language works in different contexts), but he doesn’t specifically teach it as a way to better writing because, he says, “that’s a magic bullet that’s just not there.”
I agree. While a knowledge of grammar can help writing, grammar is more than a boost to writing. Here are some ways to amp students’ understanding of grammar, to work past the worksheet, and to implement grammar into all components of class.
Evaluate the Written Word
Look critically at fiction and nonfiction with a grammatical lens. You can apply any grammatical concept to writing, but I evaluate our reading in two specific ways.
One, I ask students to identify the authors’ biases and tone. We do this by making a simple chart of verbs for both arguments. When the writer covers (insert first argument), the author uses these verbs. When the writer covers (insert second argument), the author uses these verbs. Then draw conclusions.
Two, I ask students to take notice of certain grammar devices such as ambiguous pronouns and sentence types. Why would a write use multiple indefinite pronouns? Is this author misleading readers (in nonfiction)? Is the author building suspense (in literature)? How did the author use sentence types to build characterization?
Use with Media Literacy
Media literacy comes in different lessons. Ask hard questions about language used. (By whom?)
Passive voice is tricky. Politicians use passive voice to avoid direct statements to constituents. Show 2-3 minute clips of a politician speaking. (You can start with this one.) Analyze the language. Ask students: is this person (who represents you), being truthful?
Another trend I see from my students is the rise of viewing YouTube channels. If students watch these channels without a critical eye, they may be duped. Many YouTube stars earn money through produce placement. What language do these star use when promoting products? Is the message hidden, subtle, perhaps deceptive? Show students examples of deceptive language.
Connect to Public Speaking
Creating a speech requires extra preparation than a research paper. Students can research, write, and add transitions. A speech requires so much more because the audience cannot reread. A speaker’s job includes using language that will resonate and movements to emphasize ideas.
While practicing a speech, break down the speech, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase. Which format will help the audience understand the speaker’s point of view: dependent clause and then independent clause? independent clause and then dependent?
Would a conjunctive adverb work better than two simple sentences? Where can the language be more specific? Where should simple sentence be used? When students understand the power of grammar, they can craft strong speeches.
Grammar is more than writing. Think about taking grammar discussions and lessons to a higher level. The next tier, the one where students analyze their language in writing and speaking? It is worthwhile to get there. It requires a new approach of talking about grammar and using grammar-specific language.
Some teachers dislike grammar, and while I understand the frustrations (it is difficult!), students deserve to own this powerful tool. Having an understanding of your language provides a new manner of viewing the written and spoken word.