Teaching grammar can be a frightening topic at any grade level! While in college, I wasn’t directly taught how to teach grammar. Instead, I was told that grammar was best taught in context with writing. Grammar, in isolation, I learned, was not the best approach. My education professors simply stated to teach grammar in context while teaching writing. However, I have learned a lot since then and now want to share my tips for teaching grammar with you.
Teaching Grammar in Context
I taught grammar in context while teaching writing for years. Around seven years to be exact. We examined real-life examples of writing, also known as mentor sentences, to learn how best to write. We labeled parts of the sentences, analyzed word choice, and looked at sentence structure. During the writing process, I would sit down one-on-one with students and edit their grammatical mistakes after we revised content. I explained why certain sentences were not grammatically sound as I worked with them during the proofreading process. It was a perfectly awesome way to teach grammar. Research supported this method as well.
“Decades of research (Elly, 1979, Hillocks, 1986, Freedman, 1993, Freedman and Daiute, 2001) have shown that instructional strategies such as isolated skill drills fail to improve student writing.”
“Learning punctuation in the context of writing is much more effective than studying punctuation marks and rules for punctuation in isolation.” When Children Want to Punctuate: Basic Skills Belong in Context (1980) by Lucy Calkins.
Teaching Grammar in Isolation
Later, I was introduced to a new curriculum at my new school. It was basically teaching grammar in isolation. I was extremely hesitant about teaching it this way because it went against everything I had ever heard of.
Yet, year after year, more and more students were coming to me not capitalizing or punctuating their sentences, with discombobulated subject-verb agreements, and inappropriate use of their, they’re, and there. Oftentimes, I was driven mad by how each generation’s writing was getting worse and worse.
Throw in the slang texting language and I felt like my middle schoolers’ grammar was worse than the third graders’ grammar whom I used to teach. The mentor sentence approach and the one-on-one editing approach worked for just a bit to get them back to the basics, but I needed more.
So, I decided to give this grammar in isolation a whirl, not only because I had to, but because I needed to try something new. That’s when I discovered first-hand that teaching grammar in context with mentor sentences AND also in isolation is a wonderful approach.
Teaching Grammar with Jingles
Within the grammar curriculum I was tasked to use called Shurley Grammar, students learned jingles to help them remember the parts of speech. Each part of speech was taught in isolation and later combined with the other parts of speech in order to learn how to classify sentences into its appropriate parts. For instance, in this particular curriculum, nouns and verbs are taught first. Next comes adjectives, articles, and adverbs. After that, students learned prepositions and the object of the preposition. Pronouns came next. Conjunctions and Interjections were the last parts of speech we learned in isolation.
Also, in addition to learning the parts of speech, capitalization and punctuation rules were enforced continuously. Other concepts were taught such as analogies, subject-verb agreement, and expanding sentences, to name a few. Key concepts such as comma splices and run-on sentences were mixed in as well.
Once the parts of speech were conquered, the curriculum built on itself and expanded into direct objects and indirect objects, predicate adjectives, and other more complicated parts of grammar.
While students conquered the classifying sentences by each part of speech, I would also use mentor sentences to help them learn to see the grammar in action and in the context of real-life writing pieces.
I was blown away that for the very first time students were easily able to pull out all the nouns in a passage. They were able to quickly identify all the adjectives in a paragraph. They could classify the entire sentence in one swift motion.
Before, when I taught grammar using mentor sentences only, students would often become confused, mixing up adjectives and adverbs. They were oftentimes unsure of the various parts of speech. I was often explaining and re-explaining parts of speech to them and they still weren’t quite getting it.
Teaching Grammar in Context and with Mentor Sentences
By teaching grammar in isolation first, then using mentor sentences, students were able to fully grasp and understand all of the basic parts.
I firmly believe teaching grammar can be fun. If you do not have access to the Shurley Grammar curriculum, click the link below. Sometimes I do not always utilize the jingles because some of my middle school classes find them silly, whereas other classes really love it. If you are teaching elementary school, the Shurley Grammar jingles on YouTube are absolutely wonderful.
Teaching Grammar: Scope and Sequence
In addition to the jingles, even teaching grammar in the same order that the Shurley Grammar suggests to teach it, would be awesome. This is the recommended order:
- Prepositional Phrases
Depending on the age level you teach would determine how in depth you would go with each part of speech.
Teaching Grammar: Introduction of Mentor Sentences
Once students have mastered the first four parts of speech is when I typically introduce mentor sentences back into grammar instruction, so students can learn from sentences in context and see the concepts they’ve learned reinforced.
- Nouns – An Ambush of Tigers: A Wild Gathering of Collective Nouns
- Verbs – Bullfrog Pops! by Gibbs Smith
- Adjectives – Many Luscious Lollipops: A Book About Adjectives by Ruth Heller
- Adverbs – Little Owl’s Night by Divya Srinivasan
- Conjunction – Milk and Cookies by Frank Asch
Within English class, we do a lot of writing. I take a break in between parts of speech that we’re learning to focus on various writing units.
The type of writing I receive from students from the beginning of the year compared to when I’ve taught even the first three parts of speech in isolation is a dramatic difference. Students are aware of the amount of adjectives they are using. They are aware of subject-verb agreement. They are also aware of how to expand sentences using prepositional phrases. Their sentences are more thought-out. Less time spent on the editing process. The proof is in the students’ writing.
In addition to combining grammar in isolation with mentor sentences, I like to utilize some other resources as supplementation.
Teaching Grammar: The English Grammar Workbook
The book, The English Grammar Workbook for Grades 6-8, by Lauralee Moss is an excellent resource for under $12.00! It is a steal compared to how much information is in this book. The practice problems and quizzes are simple, direct, and effective. Lauralee Moss is a high school English teacher. Her expertise is clearly evident in her book.
Teaching Grammar: Mad-Libs
Next, Mad-Libs are a cheap and effective resource to review the basics and also have fun with grammar! Mad-Libs are available at the dollar store and free online. Every time I pull out Mad-Libs, students act like I just gave them a piece of candy. They love the chance to be silly and creative, and I love the chance at allowing them to review the basics of grammar.
In addition to the above resources, I like to pull mentor sentences from what we are already reading in class. Whatever short story or novel you’re reading currently with your students, pull various sentences to examine the parts of speech, how the author structured the sentence and why, and even allow it to be a review on what you’ve been reading.
Lastly, by using writing units, students can see the grammar in action in their own writing, not just in others’ writing pieces. For instance, after learning the first five parts of speech, we complete a descriptive essay unit. We put the knowledge of adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases to expand our details.
Click above to read last week’s blog on how I taught my descriptive essay unit. Coming up, students will take their grammar knowledge to tackle a persuasive Christmas essay to persuade a store to buy their toy creation. I have utilized this in past middle school classes and it’s always a popular one around the holidays. Whenever you get a chance, incorporate writing units to practice the grammar skills you have taught.
Teaching grammar in isolation AND with mentor sentences is a wonderful approach. Albeit controversial, the proof is in my students’ writing pieces. Incorporating writing units to help solidify the grammar skills taught is just icing on the cake for a concrete grammar program.
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