Best Practices in Teaching Grammar

Here are a few recommendations English teacher might consider as a starting place to enhance
both their own knowledge and teaching of grammar:

By Marlene Asseline:

1. Examine your own knowledge and attitudes to the multiple aspects of grammar.
Specifically, reflect and come to terms with your stance towards "proper English," a
standard grammar, and a grammar standard. Develop your own professional knowledge
of grammar.
2. Use meaningful language as contexts for instruction, so that instruction is informal,
needs-based and significant to students. Process writing, literature study and research
projects provide meaningful frameworks for students to learn grammar. Traditional
methods such as sentence combining are much more effective in these contexts. Expand
your teaching of grammar to grammars. Design research projects for students focusing
on grammars in their world--in their personal lives, classroom, communities and the texts
they read. Use these projects to support students' critical thinking about grammars.
3. Use instructional methods that facilitate students' own generation of grammar
conventions such as sorting activities and peer teaching. Teacher-librarians can be
primary players in students' grammar development by being aware of and acting on the
importance of regular discussion about language and frequent and extended time to read
and write.

By Constance Weaver:

Suggestions:

“Promote the acquisition and use of grammatical constructions through reading”. Use texts
with sophisticated grammatical structures to show the richness of syntax.

“Minimize the use of grammatical terminology and maximize the use of examples”.
Give mini-lessons based on a specific grammar rule using a text at hand or student writing.
Discuss and investigate with students questions of usage, the power of dialects, genre
specific grammar rules, minimize exercises from a grammar book.
Do not be afraid to experiment with various approaches to grammar as long as they are
relevant to teaching writing

According to research, children develop the knowledge of grammar – both semantic and
syntactic elements – unconsciously, they form hypothesis about language structures as the
language input they are exposed to become more comprehensible. It is important to remember
that children’s competence in grammar is acquired gradually, and errors are inevitable
components of learning the language.

Moreover, as children enhance their writing skills every year, their writing growth will be
accompanied by more errors: “a child who may appear to have mastered sentence sense in
the fourth grade may suddenly begin making what adults call sentence errors all over again as
he attempts to accommodate his knowledge of sentences to more complicated constructions”
(McCaig 50-51). Thus, the teachers should not feel frustrated seeing “messiness” in student
writing as it represents growth in writing. To help the student relieve his anxieties, the teacher
can encourage him to continue the experimentation and risk taking and include more than one
draft in the writing process (Weaver 70-72).

Alternatives to error hunt:

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
when the students are satisfied with the content and organization of their writing, comment
on sentence structure and give editing suggestions (Weaver 83).
Consider enough time for all stages of the writing process, so that students can read both
formal and informal literature. The resources on grammar in your room can help students to
work with their own errors in an idiosyncratic way. Each student can spend as much time as
they need on a specific grammar issue and check off the check list as they go.
Model proofreading and editing on your own writing or bring a student’s paper on a
transparency, then discuss it as a class.
Hold mini-conferences with students
Help students learn to edit, e.g. read sentences from the bottom of the paper up, focusing the
attention on sentence-level errors rather than meaning.

“Even students with the least command of syntax do not necessarily need an entire program in
sentence combining or sentence generating, nor will such a program necessarily benefit them as
much as extensive reading and writing, with support and guidance as needed” (Weaver 137).

More tips on teaching grammar:

1. Engage students in writing, writing, and more writing.
2. Emphasize those aspects of grammar that are particularly useful in helping students edit
sentences for conventional mechanics and appropriateness. E.g.: concepts like subject,
verb, and predicate; clause and phrase; grammatical sentences vs. run-ons; usage.

3. Offer elective courses, units, or activities that allow students to discover the pleasure of
investigating questions and making discoveries about language.
4. Become a teacher-researcher to determine the effects of your teaching of selected aspects
of grammar or your students’ study of grammar as an object of inquiry and discovery
(Weaver 141-146).

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:

http://www.unitsofstudy.com/home.asp

 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.