Here are a few recommendations English teacher might consider as a starting place to enhance
Keeping the writing process in mind, guide the students through each stage of writing,
focusing on a specific component of their writing (planning, drafting, revising), and only
Grammar rants as an alternative to grammar instruction
Nowadays it is very common to find alternative studies of grammar instruction (or also called teaching sentence structure, syntax, combining sentences) that emphasize students’ ability to “recognize issues of race and class that determine acceptable usage and [to] learn the importance of audience in their own language use (Lindblom and Dunn 71). The article Analyzing Grammar Rants: An Alternative to Traditional Grammar Instruction suggests several ways to develop students’ rhetorical knowledge of audience and context with the help of analyzing grammar rants.
“Grammar rants” are defined as complains of journalists, cultural critics, politicians about the teaching of grammar, spelling, writing and speaking. Professors Kenneth Lindblom and Patricia A. Dunn at Stony Brook University propose to start teaching grammar not with “a list of prescriptions for language use” (traditional approach), but studying grammar rants. Grammar rants are usually taken out of authentic contexts, mass media or home/ school discourses, therefore students are more likely to get engaged in the analysis of the grammar rants. Second, grammar rants urge students to reflect upon the forms of language they use on a daily bases, and to realize how the choices they make can influence the value judgments powerful people make about students’ intelligence based on their language use. Lastly, these educators support inductive reasoning. They believe that the analysis of grammar through rants will help students to be more motivated in trying to find answers to grammatical questions, arising during the research, in traditional grammar or reference books, as the these answers will help students to better understand real world language use (Lindblom and Dunn 72).
The analysis of grammar rants starts with choosing a grammar rant from the media and goes on to posing and answering a number of questions related to the language use, author’s worldview, social, racial and political contexts surrounding the rant, e.g.: “What does the author of the grammar rant think is important about language and communication?”, or “How do the author’s claims about language relate to the socioeconomic class in which speakers and writers have been raised”. After modeling the analysis of a grammar rant in class using one of the rants, students are sent to “find examples of phrases ‘in the field’ by [asking] them eavesdrop on conversations in the school cafeteria, list phrases used by friends and relatives, and note their own language” ((Lindblom and Dunn 73). Their purpose is to create lists that the author of the “study” rant would consider as “proper” and “improper” language usages. Then students examine what several grammar and usage hand books say about the “errors” they collected. Their classroom practices show that grammar rants serve as springboard for the “in-depth exploration of specific language” and that students seem to “better understand the ramifications for their use of language”
Best Practice for K-3:
A Summary of Writing for Readers: Teaching Skills and Strategies
An excellent reference for teaching writer’s workshops in grades K-3 is Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Primary Writing: A Year Long Curriculum. Each session contained in these books begins with a 10-15 minute mini lesson, at least 30 minutes writing time, and 10 minutes of share time at the end. There are narratives in the side margins where Calkins shares actual events during the workshops she conducted in classrooms with co-teachers.
The first two books in the series are about launching the writer’s workshop and teaching personal narratives. Book three in the series deals specifically with teaching punctuation and is titled Writing for Readers: Teaching Skills and Strategies. It should be approached with verve, but you as a teacher must decide if your class is ready to focus on improving punctuation in their writing.
The overall theme of the third book is inspiring children to write for readers. In order to do this, they must understand that their writing requires legibility, they must have spaces between words, and the punctuation marks they use will inform the reader how the author intended the piece to be read.
One valuable activity that Calkins asks teachers to do is separate stories into two piles: readable and unreadable. Have your students do this, as well, and discuss what makes stories readable. Create charts together to hang in your classroom that will enable students to recall what they need to do to make their writing easy to read.
Other beginning lessons focus on how to stretch words to include all the letters heard when they are spoken. Next there is guidance for teaching students how to use sight words and the importance of recalling words instantly. Word walls are an important tool, and students are encouraged to first try to spell sight words,then check the word wall to see if they’re correct.
Calkins stresses that it is wonderful to celebrate work that still has lots of problems. The message must be conveyed that we’re always ready to celebrate hard work and progress, and perfection is not expected. Throughout the unit children should receive the message that our attention when writing should be balanced between content and convention. Referring back to what students learned in the Small Moments unit is a strong reminder of this.
Session 10 marks a big change where students begin to write for their peers. They will work with partners, forming relationships that will help them strive to write more readable drafts. There is a lot of modeling and practice involved in this process. Students are also introduced to mentor authors at this time and are asked to view Eric Carle, Mem Fox, Bill Martin, etc. as writing teachers. They choose authors they would like to learn from.
Session 14 specifically addresses punctuation. After a pep talk on everything students have learned, Calkins announces that students now have “grown-up” problems. The emphasis is on how capitals and periods are used as signs to our readers to show what we were thinking as writers. Teachers may feel periods should be easy to learn, but they’re not. We should teach that a period is not merely a pause, it’s tied to meaning in the text. Determining where sentences end is complex, whereas question marks and exclamation point locations are easier to determine.
The sixteen sections in this book conclude with an author’s celebration, as do the other books in the series. Students share their writing and then each one rings a bell in celebration of everything they have learned in this unit.
In addition to the teaching sessions, there is an assessment rubric that can be used to check off skills your students have exhibited during the unit, such as beginning and ending punctuation and using spaces between words. There are also assessments after each of the sessions which will help you decide whether you should go on to the next session or teach reinforcement lessons. Each year the way you teach the unit will look different depending on the needs of your class.
For more information on the Lucy Calkins teacher resources, go to:
For lessons on using writing conventions to strengthen writing in grades 3-5, see Breathing Life Into Essays, book 3 in Units of Study for Teaching Writing Grades 3-5.
Below is a look at best practices for teaching punctuation in primary schools, as well as what English teachers might do if their school or district mandates the "formal"--or disjointed-- teaching of grammar.