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How (Not) to Teach Grammar

I’m a grammar nerd. I listen to the Grammar Girl podcast just for fun. I’m delighted by TED talks about grammar — keep reading for some of my favorites. I even use the words affect and effect properly most of the time. So, I’m always taken aback when people think I don’t care about grammar when it comes to teaching students to write or when they tell me that grammar doesn’t matter in writing workshop.

I do care and it does matter.

I only want them to love it and see it as a superpower, not as their kryptonite — something that makes writing even more challenging.

Here are quotes from two of my favorite books on teaching grammar:

“Students don’t often see grammar as choices they craft to create. Instead they glean that conventions are valued only if they’re “right”. This fear of missing the mark causes your students to act like zombies, eyes glazed over, slowly trudging toward us, holding out their papers, chanting, “Is this right? Is this right? Is this right?”
—Jeff Anderson, Patterns of Power

“But given that our language and our culture are in flux and changing rapidly, we serve students best when we empower them to make purposeful choices and decisions based on a complex, nuanced understanding of the effects those grammatical choices will have on both our minds and our hearts and the way they can affect and reinforce meaning.”
—Mary Ehrenworth and Vicky Vinton, The Power of Grammar

I chose these because they each come from books with the word “power’ in the title, and they both talk about choice. Too often, kids are taught that grammar conventions are about rules they must follow rather than decisions an author makes that affect meaning. Learning grammar conventions as merely a set of rules is problematic.

Here are just some of the problems:

  1. The rules are not static; they’re always evolving. This Reader’s Digest article lists rules that have changed in just the last decade.
  2. Grammar rules are not universally standard. Just ask any grammar nerd what they think about the Oxford comma. (Team Oxford Comma!)
  3. Teaching grammar as a set of rules takes away writers’ agency over conventions and strips them of their ability to use grammatical conventions to convey meaning.

Given these problems, I think it’s worth looking at and challenging some of our traditional grammar practices. Isolated grammar worksheets, daily editing or daily oral language (why is it called that when there’s nothing oral about it?), and editing our students’ writing for them, are three things that I used to do in my classroom.

I finally let all three go when I realized that I rarely saw any of this work transfer to my students’ actual writing. They could correct random incorrect sentences like nobody’s business, but correct their own? No way! I had to ask myself why I continued to spend time on these activities when I got zero return on the investment. In addition to not seeing these skills transfer, I was also taking time away from kids to work on their actual writing. They were spending too much time practicing drills and not enough time on purposeful writing. Finally, it dawned on me that I was doing all the work — prepping activities, crafting sentences with intentional errors, and editing writing — when it should’ve been the kids doing the work. None of this means we don’t need to teach kids grammar usage.

Instead of teaching kids that grammar is a static set of rules using outdated pedagogies, we can teach them, as Jeff Anderson’s book title suggests, as patterns of power. “Rules allude to absolute right and wrong. Patterns show and rely on purpose rather than outside authority,” he explains.

To teach these patterns, we can think about how we teach any writing strategy. One way is to introduce a convention in a mini-lesson using direct instruction and modeling. The teaching point might sound like this: Today, I want to teach you that writers show who’s speaking and what they’re saying. They do this by punctuating dialogue as they write. This makes it easier for the reader to understand what is happening in the story. The teaching point names why you’d want to use this type of punctuation.

Another teaching method we can use is inquiry. Writers can study mentor texts and notice how an author uses conventions and what it does for the reader. Then writers can try it out in their writing. Unlike editing incorrect sentences, looking at mentor sentences reinforces the correct usage. Maybe you’re like me and loved to diagram sentences when you were in school, but grammar is a pretty dry subject for most people. Studying it using beautiful texts can make this work much more engaging.

“But there’s no time!” you might be saying. Let’s take a look at some places where we can make time for this.

  1. Dedicate one or two minilessons in a unit to teach high-leverage grammar conventions. What convention do students need help with that would be particularly helpful for the genre we’re working in? For example, punctuating dialogue might feel more important to introduce in a narrative unit.
  2. Don’t forget the mid workshop teach or the teaching share as places to do this work. Rather than waiting until the writing process’s final editing stage, we can remind writers to edit throughout the process. The mid workshop teach could be a quick reminder to make sure writers have ending punctuation in spots where they really want their readers to stop. The teaching share could be a week-long inquiry into paragraphing. The first day could be to study a mentor text, naming ways in which an author has used paragraphs effectively. The next day could be a look at another author. A third day could be practicing it using a shared writing of a class text. Writers can then look at their own writing to make paragraphing decisions. The last day could be a mini-celebration!
  3. Highlight interesting examples of conventions anytime of day. Add it to a bulletin board where the class can collect mentor sentences or excerpts.

I’d like to leave you with this TED talk from Mary Norris, a former copy editor for The New Yorker.

Even within the strict guidelines and standards held by The New Yorker, there’s still plenty of room for debate, for choice, and for writers and editors to wield their grammar superpowers!

How will you help your students find their grammar superpower?

If you’re a grammar nerd too, please share this article with your colleagues. You might also enjoy these too:

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