Grammar Instruction: Beyond Identification
When was the last time you were asked to identify parts of speech or parts of a sentence in a real-world context? Or underline subjects, predicates and draw arrows from modifiers to the words they are modifying? My guess is that having this set of very particular skills may not prove extremely useful outside of completing grammar worksheets or trivia.
So isn’t all this time we spend on grammar just time wasted? Like my friends on social media say, “I don’t know all that grammar stuff, and I write good.”
Should we teach the structure of our language or not?
I believe that we absolutely MUST teach these skills. However, we must teach with the understanding that grammar instruction is a means to an end. But what end? I to put it simply, writing and talking
good well. The understanding of function and effect of parts of speech, phrases, and clauses far outweigh the ability to label them. This foundational understanding is also paramount for proper mechanics and usage. For example, if I know that adjectives modify nouns and adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, I can easily recognize that “I write good” would be better expressed as “I am a good writer” or “I write well.” A lifetime of simply identifying adjectives and adverbs wouldn’t have allowed me to come to that conclusion. I had to consider the function and effect of the words
There are countless examples of how understanding the effects and functions of language will help us correct usage errors. To name a few:
- Knowing the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions will help us refrain from unintentional fragments and run-ons.
- Understanding that pronouns in prepositional phrases are always written in the objective case will help us solve the many “who vs. whom” or “I vs me” debates.
- Realizing that that predicate nouns follow linking verbs will help us realize that “It is I” or “This is he/she” is the correct response to the phone call inquiry “May I speak with (your name?),”
These are just a few examples of how understanding the function of grammar elements impact the correctness of speech/writing. AND, more importantly, a thorough understanding the elements of grammar can enhance a writer’s style allowing them to bend and break rules for stylistic purposes (such as the often-chastised rule of never beginning sentences with a coordinating conjunction).
So where does that leave grammar instruction? How do we teach the effect and function of grammar without the emphasis on labeling and identifying?
Adapted from a presentation by Ginger Howe, ELA Coordinator at Moore Public Schools, here are some steps to follow to make sure your grammar instruction will impact and improve writing.
Using Similarities and Differences to teach Grammar:
- Desired Effect: Students describe how elements are similar and different and what new information they have learned as a result of their comparisons.
- Introduce any grammar concept: (proper nouns, dialogue, participial phrases…) This usually involves defining words and providing examples and non-examples.
- Find real text in which that grammar context appears: This text could be from a previously shared reading, a cold read, or even a student writing sample. The key is that it is real text where the sentences go together to form a paragraph (instead of traditional grammar exercises).
- Rewrite the paragraph either removing the grammar concept you are studying or using that concept incorrectly somehow: This could involve replacing proper nouns with pronouns, active voice with passive voice, removing quotation marks, or prepositional phrases, rewriting verbal phrases as dangling modifiers, using incorrect verb tenses, misplacing commas. You get the picture.
- Invite students to evaluate the text: Prepare questions designed for them to notice what makes this writing lack effectiveness. Or just ask them what they notice.
- Reveal the original text and have them compare similarities and difference: Ask specific questions related to the effect and function of grammar concept. If necessary, use sentence stems as a scaffold: “This sentence provided more detail by using ________.”
- End with writing:
- Ask them to summarize the difference between the effective and ineffective writing samples.
- Write a parody of the original paragraph or an original draft using same grammar concept annotating their use of the concept.
- Edit their own writing or a new sample to demonstrate their understanding of new the grammar concept.
- Identify this grammar concept in independent reading or their own writing and summarize the function or effect of the techniques the author used.
- Identify this grammar concept in independent reading and create an ineffective version similar to teacher’s example complete with follow up questions.