Grammar: Teaching Grammar Effectively

by | Jan 8, 2019 | Interactive Notebooks, Writing | 0 comments

There are few subjects as widely discussed in the world of education as grammar. Everyone is asking, should we teach it? If so, how? What is the most effective?

Recently, I’ve read some of the research about grammar, as well as discussed grammar instruction with teachers, to gain a better understanding of how grammar is taught in schools and how or if should even be taught.

Grammar: To Teach or Not to Teach, That is the Question

Let’s start with whether we should even teach grammar in schools or not. Some say that teaching grammar isn’t effective, so why take the time out of your reading/writing blocks to do so? There is research to back up the idea that teaching grammar does virtually nothing to improve students’ writing.

Some of the research indicated that better readers end up being better writers – that exposure to good writing through reading transfers to improved writing skills. As there is also plenty of evidence backing up the connection between time spent reading and reading skills, it seems logical that increased reading would improve writing skills as well.

However, in my own experience both as a writer and a teacher, I feel this connection isn’t always made without some instruction. 

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Just this week I was helping my son with his grammar lesson and realized I had never ever been taught the grammar rule he was studying – and I am an avid reader. Without the lesson explaining the rule and giving examples, I would never have picked up on that punctuation rule.

Grammar does need to be taught somehow.

Our students will one day apply to colleges. They need to have a well-written essay to apply. Without our help creating a solid foundation of grammar, our students will have a much harder time being successful in this manner. There is a large percentage of college students who drop out of college before getting through their entry level classes, often due to students’ poor writing skills.

Our students will eventually be in the working world. We all know an email with proper grammar and punctuation is regarded as far more professional than those without. It is our job to prepare them for this.

So the question quickly becomes not should we teach grammar, but how do we teach grammar? Should we teach grammar in isolation, or do we combine grammar into reading/writing?

Why Grammar Shouldn’t Be Taught in Isolation

There are nearly 100 years of research telling us the traditional “skill and drill” instruction of grammar is not effective. On the contrary, it may actually hinder our students’ abilities. Students can get so caught up in learning the rules that they don’t gain an understanding of how to use the rules in real life.

Teaching grammar in isolation alone may lead to our students memorizing rules for a good test score, but ultimately this does not lead to an understanding and an ability to use these rules in the future. In other words, without the application of the grammar in writing and reading grammar rules, students forget the grammar rules as soon as the test is over.

Also, your students may memorize the rules for a test without geniunely understanding the joy that comes with writing. Students need to see how grammar affects meaning and style of writing. Grammar can make the same words mean different things – it can be playful and fun. If we can get our students to a place where they are excited to learn about grammar and writing, they will be far more successful in the process.

The research supports the idea that grammar should not be taught in isolation, as a list of rules to be memorized. This does not lead to an overall understanding of the English language nor does it cause students to transfer the knowledge to reading and writing.

Teaching Grammar Effectively

If grammar should not be taught in isolation, then how should we teach it?

I believe, and other teachers I’ve spoken with do as well, that grammar should be taught both in focused mini-lessons, as well as in conjunction with writing. Students need to be able to take the rules they have learned in mini-lessons and put them into practice in writing.

Constance Weaver wrote Grammar for Teachers: Perspectives and Definitions. She believes that students don’t need to learn every grammatical rule, but they should learn grammatical constructions and sentence types to improve their writing. She suggests teaching grammar in conjunction with writing.

Teaching grammar in conjunction with writing or reading provides students with a framework that connects to the reality of the world. Grammar is no longer just a list of rules they have to memorize, but something they can use in real life.

Tips for Teaching Grammar

Grammar can be a stressful subject for our students. It can be very disheartening to receive a paper or assignment back that is full of red marks and ways to improve.

One teacher decided to change her feedback to not only what needed to be fixed grammatically, but also to remark on the thoughts that her students were bringing into their papers. Increasing the confidence of her students had a dramatic effect on their willingness to work on improving their writing skills. They were much more open to feedback and to learn the rules of grammar once they felt their teacher was on their side.

This goes back to the idea of bringing a desire to learn into grammar. What if, instead of dreading the subject, our students welcomed it?

A well-design grammar lesson would incorporate a targeted lesson explaining the skill, examples of the rule in published texts, and applying the rule to students’ writing. Yes, students also may have a practice worksheet or two, but the mini-lesson would really turn into a mini-unit that makes connections to both reading and writing – it wouldn’t be a week’s worth of skill-and-drill and never be seen again.

But Grammar is Boring

Some say that grammar is a boring subject, both to teach and to learn. I would argue that the way grammar has been taught for the last 100 years might be boring, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep teaching it that way.

There are many ways we can make learning grammar more natural and more exciting. After reading the experiences of different teachers, I’ve come up with a short list of how to make grammar more engaging.

1. Start Simple

Our students need to have a thorough understanding of sentence structure before we can impose punctuation on them. Why bother with forcing a comma after a word like “however” when they don’t understand which parts of a sentence are a noun or verb? Help yourself and your students by making sure you are all on the same page.

2. Be Subtle

There are many moments that we see our students correcting grammar. Our students have an innate sense for what is proper grammar. But ask them why the correction is right, and they won’t be able to tell you why. They just know what the correct form is. Use that moment to teach them the grammar rule that goes with the situation.

3. Focus on One Thing

Instead of correcting every grammar error in a paper, focus on one or two rules. Follow up with students to make sure they understand their mistakes and know how to correct them.

4. Use Different Strategies

You will have some students who thrive under what would be considered the “skill and drill” of days old. The elements of logic that some math-minded students appreciate will help them learn. Other students dread worksheets and diagramming sentences. As in every subject, your students learning styles will vary, and we need to be prepared for that.

Many teachers (and schools) threw grammar instruction out the window after research showed it didn’t affect students’ writing abilities. Unfortunately, many students need targeted grammar instruction to help them make the connection between grammar and writing. Instead of teaching grammar in isolation (skill and drill), teachers should integrate examples and practice of grammar skills in both reading and writing.

One of the studies I found (and sadly I can’t find it now) discussed how one teacher made students enjoy grammar. One of the most significant factors in getting students engaged in grammar was the simple fact that the teacher enjoyed grammar. In other words, if teachers hate grammar, their students will hate it, too. The teacher made grammar fun and exciting by applying grammar rules to writing and showing how authors use the rules in writing. The classes discussed how the rule affected the meaning and style of writing. (I am pretty sure it was a secondary classroom.) However, I think this is important to remember: kids know when teachers are interested in a subject, and their enthusiasm is contagious.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll continue discussing grammar. I will talk about methods of teaching grammar, as well as which grammar topics are taught in elementary grades and how to best teach grammar at different grade levels.

Looking for Grammar Resources and Interactive Notebooks? 

Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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