"Grammar is the skunk at the garden party of the language arts." --NCTE
Grammar has had a bad reputation for good reason: most kids don't love it, and no matter how much teachers review the rules, the knowledge doesn't seem to stick.
Years of research shows that teaching grammar in the traditional sense simply does not work (article). Yet, for various reasons, teachers have struggled to let go of traditional grammar practices: rote memorization, worksheets, workbooks, online "practice," and grammar drills can still be found in most schools.
The Atlantic recently published an article titled "The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar." In it, Michelle Navarre Cleary summed up the research explaining how traditional grammar instruction can produce "a strong antipathy to English."
So what should teachers do to improve their students' writing and empower them to understand the inner-workings of the English language? The key is to teach grammar in context through authentic experiences with reading and writing (check out the research: here, here, and here).
Here are three powerful ways to empower students by teaching grammar through reading and writing:
1. Provide models.
"Provide adolescents with good models for each type of writing that is the focus of instruction" (Graham & Perin).
Modeling is the key to good writing. When students examine examples of what they are going to be writing, they have a deeper understanding of expectations, they can mimic the experts, and they are more likely to take risks with their writing. It is just plain good practice to provide students with mentor texts OR give them time to find their own.
Often, the focus of mentor texts lies on form and overall language; however, moving the focus even deeper to examining the constructs of grammar will empower students to understand the language the author is using.
Throughout the school year, students in my 7th grade ELA classes used the authors of their independent reading novels as grammar mentors. They looked deeply at how language rules applied, and even how they were broken, then tried to mimic those rules in their own writing.
Using authors as grammar mentors was an authentic, meaningful experience. Students saw language being used and experimented with, and they noticed grammar in context. We focused on one aspect of grammar each week, and slowly learned the same terms we might attempt to learn from traditional worksheets, but now students were applying and examining grammar at a deeper level, in an authentic context, and truly learning.
To help facilitate grammar exploration in our reading, I used Grab & Go Grammar Foldables, which can be found here. They allow students to write directly in their novels as they're reading, noticing grammar in real time.
2. Teach grammar through writing.
"We need to teach students how to write grammatically by letting them write." —Michelle Navarre Cleary
The research shows that the most effective method of teaching grammar is to give students the time and space to see language, use language, revise and edit language, and strengthen language through writing. Working through the writing process is the closest ELA teachers can come to a hands-on experience with grammar.
To formalize my grammar teaching through writing, each of my students has a proofreading list that outlines 45 rules of grammar as they apply to our writing. For example, my students might proofread their writing to check that they have commas between two or more items in a series. Students are learning the grammar rule in a context that matters. When they make the correction, their writing becomes clearer and stronger, and the proofreading list gives them the language to identify the rule behind their revisions.
Proofreading lists have become our method of applying feedback as well. Lists are numbered with comments, and when grading, I simply leave the corresponding number from the rule list next to any errors. When I return student writing, students make a tally mark next to each rule that they broke in their writing, then they edit by applying the rule and fixing their error. Students then set goals related to the common errors they make. Instruction is grounded in grammar, individualized, and makes students writing better.
Giving students the rules to identify the way grammar works in their own writing empowers them.
3. Teach targeted lessons that students can apply to their own writing.
“Grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones." —The Atlantic
Target a grammar skill. Teach a mini lesson. Then, give students time to apply that rule through writing new examples and/or revising writing they’ve already done. Avoid writing for the sake of grammar; instead, use grammar as a tool to improve meaningful writing.
Starting class with a bellringer in which students review a rule and apply it to their own writing has been the most effective way of targeting specific skills in my students' writing. After reviewing one rule, students find that rule "in action" in their writing OR add an example to their writing if they can't find one. This practice allows me to target specific skills that students need, and it allows students to see how grammar “lives” in their writing.
I call this practice our “grammar intervention.” I don’t teach the same grammar unit every year; instead, I target the grammar rules that my students struggle with the most, and we practice finding and correcting errors that fall under that specific grammar rule. As a result, my students are better writers.
Teaching grammar is meaningful when grammar is taught through reading and writing, instead of in isolation. Grammar doesn't have to be the skunk at the garden party of writing. Instead, it can be the water that feeds the flowers.