How To Teach Grammar Effectively is part two in a ten-part series covering a practical approach to teaching grammar in the middle school and high school classrooms. Read part one.
No, I am not going to tell you how to teach grammar in some weird, forced way. Looking at the history of grammar instruction and feelings about current grammar instruction is a starting point, though. Like anything in education, the reflection of what has worked and what has failed is important. The list below reflects my experience, and I would enjoy learning other teachers’ experiences with grammar.
Grammar is more than rules and lists, but it certainly can be taught that way. (It shouldn’t.) Here is a walk in history of some past and current manners of teaching grammar.
Unfortunately, I have done this before. Definition, memorize, practice, repeat. I didn’t enjoy teaching it, and I know my students were miserable. How to teach grammar? Please don’t drill your students.
The online teaching community buzzes with those who diagram sentences. Some teachers truly swear by this method. I have never taught grammar this way.
The worksheet, the workbook.
I personally think that “worksheet” and “workbook” are not bad words. They are simply instructional materials that when used with best practices, can help. In fact, some students prefer the straightforward approach. Pairing students allows students to speak to each other in a one-on-one setting, hopefully encouraging a productive dialogue, and a grammar worksheet can facilitate that practice.
Grammar worksheets and workbooks become problematic when no higher thinking is involved and students complete a page, turn it in, get a grade, and never think about it again. With my high school students, we do not complete a large workbook or packet. The standards are complex and specific. I tie lessons to student reading and writing, and I add direct instruction where necessary.
Sometimes students sing songs for me—most often “conjunction junction, what’s your function.” Again, these can benefit students if grammar lessons are taken to the next level. (Plus, my students never can finish the song; they never know what the function is!) If grammar instruction ends with the singing of a song, you might as well complete a worksheet: the song must use that song in another way.
More methods of teaching grammar? Probably, but we can stop there.
The commonalities of these?
These methods seem to rest on the lower parts of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Lots of rote memorization (memorizing prepositions or types of pronouns), with a bit of application, and a little analysis. Unless specifically included in a worksheet or workbook, no evaluation or synthesis takes place.
The method of learning the basics of grammar (which should be done) shouldn’t be the complete study of grammar, or even make up the bulk of instructional time.
We as teachers know this. So, why is so much of grammar at the bottom of Bloom’s?
Teaching What We Know!
Much of what and how teachers teach is what they have seen modeled, as teachers and students. Have the majority of us experienced analytical grammar? I never did, even in college. For my college grammar class, my book read like an electronics manual. It was boring, when language can be anything but boring. To teach grammar effectively, we should borrow activities from other portions of our English classes. As you teach grammar in a variety of ways, you will develop effective methods for teaching grammar.
Higher order thinking with grammar.
We teachers can think critically about our language, and we can get our students there.
I would argue that learning the basics of grammar matters less than how and if teachers carry out analysis, application, and hopefully, evaluation and synthesis. What sort of steps can you take to enhance higher level thinking concerning grammar? Here are ten ways to teach grammar with critical thinking, either with students as the writers or as the readers.
Encourage creative thinking.
I use a video to teach active and passive voice, and when I ask students to make clips that demonstrate their understanding of a grammar concept, the results are valuable. The goal, aside from entertainment for the class, is to take a difficult concept, separate it, and put it together in a new way.
Effective grammar instruction also includes stepping out of comfortable lessons—which means that you might teach grammar without a standard answer key. I use young adult literature to teach the power of adjectives and to connect grammar to writing. To begin, I give every student a book—any will work! Then, I have students find sentences with interesting and strong adjectives on a one pager. Our next activity depends on where I want the lesson to go: We might write creatively with the adjectives, or we might define them for a vocabulary activity. The opportunities really open up chances for students to choose their direction.
As a bonus, I can use the students’ one pagers to compile a list of mentor sentences for later use. Modern sentences from YA literature for the win!
Use graphic organizers.
Students can rearrange and organize their information in graphic organizers, and then they can build word walls or creative writing pieces from those organizers. Graphic organizers are often a scaffolding step for using grammar in other situations. For example, my grammar word walls are also vocabulary word walls. Doing a word wall allows natural conversations about using words properly and in different forms, like changing a noun to an adverb.
The graphic organizers remain an integral part of how to teach grammar effectively. I use graphic organizers to break down vocabulary, literary concepts, and writing terms—why wouldn’t I use graphic organizers with grammar lessons? Students enjoy completing them, and I can build other grammar activities from them.
Connect domain specific vocabulary.
Simply mention grammatical terms outside of “grammar lessons.” For instance, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tells Paris in Act IV, “I will confess to you that I love him.” “Him” is a pronoun. What is the antecedent? To Paris, the pronoun references Paris. To Juliet and the Friar, the pronoun references “Romeo.” Using the correct grammar terminology is simply a step to show students that grammar is more than a ten-minute activity.
Grammar is how we talk about language. What is the most famous example of subjunctive mood? I’d say “may the force be with you.” Using the concepts outside the grammar lesson makes a difference in students’ attitudes about grammar. When we teachers use domain specific grammar vocabulary in the rest of class, we are building students’ understanding of key concepts.
We do this with writing all the time! When peer revising occurs, you can model questions like, what if the author changed the linking verbs to action verbs? Are the predicate adjectives stronger than action verbs? What should change in this paragraph? How would you revise? What do you suggest? Revision is not simply beneficial for the student with the paper. When students are looking at another paper, they are also practicing domain-specific vocabulary and answering higher order questions.
Plus, when you do cover common grammar errors, you can present the methods as a practice to improve writing. I think of grammar lessons as empowering students; therefore, when I cover errors, I explain that students should know the best way to present their ideas. If readers are confused by their method of delivery (their writing), their points won’t come across.
Create an analogy.
Sentence structure is like. . . following a recipe. Using scripted sentences at the start might feel forced, but eventually, strong cooks will add their own seasonings. Instead of using garlic salt, I’ll use celery salt. Instead of using a coordinating conjunction, I think a correlative conjunction will be better. Talk through analogies with students, and soon, they will be understanding grammar in new ways.
You can even use analogies to help picture concepts. When I teach simple sentences, I talk about sentences with “scoops” of ice cream: a simple sentence has one scoop of vanilla, a compound sentence has two scoops, and on.
There is no one grammar method to teach grammar effectively, but creating analogies will help students understand concepts in new ways. Plus, you’ll build a fun classroom culture where creativity carries over into grammar lessons.
Ask writing questions (not about errors).
Look at student writing with a grammatical-lens. When students directly apply concepts—that are not mistakes—to their writing, do they like what they see? Consider sentence structure, verb choice, and modifier use.
You can ask a variety of questions. What alternative would work for this sentence? If a piece of writing has many complex sentences (for example), what would work better? Would simplicity help the reader? Is the sentence structure helping provide transitions? Sometimes, a grammatical question does not have a “right” answer. We can discuss our language, our preferences, and decide what works. Those conversations go a long way in helping students understand that grammatical knowledge helps on a variety of levels.
Evaluate a specific part of literature.
Part of the fun of understanding language is critiquing famous pieces of literature. For example, rank the author’s use of modifiers. Are adjectives and adverbs helpful to the image as a whole?
I often evaluate a specific part of literature with grammar with a famous person like Poe. Can we evaluate his writing with grammatical concepts to find why his stories are so spooky, so enduring? We discuss his sentence structure and use of modifiers.
Think big picture.
Sometimes, students simply do not understand how grammar and language matters to their lives. That fact is enough to keep me inventing new ways of presenting and teaching grammar. A little secret? Everything in students’ lives has language.
Whatever you present to students, you can connect to grammar in some way. I personally help students to think of the big picture of grammar with food packaging. We look at the language that was purposefully chosen to be on packaging. In what way is the language shaping consumers’ views of that food? We discuss if the food is healthy, fun, inspirational, or more. Students see food packaging every day, and they should be able to evaluate the use.
Jigsaw a chapter or pages of a short story.
Whatever you are reading, you can jigsaw it to study language and meet standards. Divide students into groups, and give each group a page or a section to read. Assign different groups to evaluate a specific grammar concepts. For instance, if you wanted students to look at sentence structure, you could assign a group to find simple sentences, another to find compound sentences, and on.
Then? Work past identification. In what circumstances does the author use simple sentences? What sort of sentence structure builds different effects? Not only will you be close reading with students, you will also be working on language.
Evaluate a specific idea.
Take students’ papers and ask them to evaluate what they read. What is the strongest transition in the paper? Determine how its sentence structure (or conjunction, or placement of clauses) makes it so. Grammar does not have to be “wrong.” Praise students for their wonderful and strong use of grammatical concepts.
If you can’t tell, one of my passions is teaching sentence structure. When we work to evaluate our writing with grammatical concepts, I give students pages to analyze types of sentences. These activity encourages in-depth discussion to reach the standards concerning application of sentence structure in writing. Students discover ways that types of sentences are used, analyze a sentence from a story, and analyze a sentence from their own writing. In the process, we work on comma placement, semicolon use, and more.
How to teach grammar effectively? Teach the basics with best practices, but remember to carry language instruction into the higher realms. We teachers have to be comfortable with the messiness of language. Language changes and evolves. Since language touches our lives, we need to ready students for those changes and versatile uses. We must talk about grammar in a variety of ways.
You are welcome to download these ideas for free! Sign-up below, and I’ll send you a copy to use in your classroom tomorrow.
In the third blog post in the series, I discuss how we as English teachers can connect grammar effectively to student writing and to what students read.