Speaking of Grammar…

Recently I have been working with teachers on using mentor sentences to look closely at conventions and style in writing, and some teachers want to teach the parts of speech. Is teaching the parts of speech wrong? Well, that depends on how you look at it.

My experience with the parts of speech included the little grammar book that I remember as a student and later as a teacher. What I noticed, as both a student and a teacher, was that learning and teaching the parts of speech was like throwing a bunch of paper balls at a student and hoping something stuck. But it didn’t. So does that mean it’s completely useless to teach? Not at all, but it depends on how you teach it.

It never seemed to stick!

If you are using that little grammar book of lessons and practice, assigning worksheets, or even digital slides that are essentially worksheets, you may not be getting much to stick. That is because drilling out of context has been proven to ineffective. However, if you are using mentor texts and examining how the parts of speech impact writing and allowing students the time to go into their own writing, you are teaching grammar in context and you may find more success.

What Does This Look Like?

First, introduce a student-friendly definition. In this case, we are thinking about adjectives. Then allow students time to brainstorm. Whether they are in person or remote they can pick something in the classroom or in their home to describe coming up with as many examples as possible in a specified period of time.

They can also play tennis with the item they are describing. In person, name back and forth until the first person can no longer leaving it up to the other partner to keep going unit they can no longer think of any as well. In a hybrid classroom, breakout rooms can be used to partner up students.

Step one is quick…few minutes at most!

Find a mentor text to read to students and then examine just a piece of it looking closely for adjectives–words that describe people, places, or things.

Then remove the adjectives. Again this is just within a few minutes.

Ask students what effect the adjectives had on the text. Why did the author use the adjectives?

In informational text adjectives add precision and clarity to help readers understand

After studying this wrecked version of an informational text, we are showing not telling our students that adjectives provide precision and clarity in order to help readers understand. This would then lead to an invitation to revise.

If we are teaching the parts of speech in a way that teaches writers then we are more likely to improve writing, and isn’t that really the goal? Being able to name and identify parts of speech is not a life long goal; however, becoming a writer is. The research forever has proven that teaching grammar in isolation does not have positive effects on writing growth. In fact, it can cause more harm. Not only does it not stick, but the time wasted takes away from valuable writing time. Teaching grammar and the parts of speech in context of writing and using it as a means to transfer to student writing is a more effective approach.

Where Do I Start?

Think about the genre you are in. What are the parts of speech and conventions that will be important to learn and apply? The work is meant to transfer right into the current writing. For example, opinion and informational texts that need that precision and clarity will lend itself nicely to adjectives while strong verbs and strong nouns are necessary in narrative pieces. It might be useful to examine a mentor text for the genre and type of writing you are working in to determine what kids need. Studying realistic fiction, for example, might show me that strong nouns, strong verbs, paragraphing dialogue, and punctuating dialogue will be a helpful start. Think to yourself, what do they need now that they can go in and write or revise today.

Where Does Grammar Fit Into the Workshop?

The best way to teach and learn grammar, mechanics, conventions, style, rules, or whatever you want to call it, is to study and practice it in context. In our district, we support writers with the works of Jeff Anderson, Jennifer Serravallo, and the lessons found in the Units of Study, particularly in the If…Then…Curriculum of the Writing Units. While doing this work, we can pull mentor sentences from our read alouds, independent reading, and any other example of great writing.

What can we learn from great writing and great writers?

While reading the first chapter of Jason Reynolds’ Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, I was blown away by some of the great mentor sentences I could pull that reflect not only the elaborate style of “show not tell” but also the use of punctuation. Just look at this incredible example right on page one!

There are so many lessons that can be pulled from here, but sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. For example, look at the mentor sentence below.

By presenting a sentence and asking what they notice, it invites students to look at not just what authors do but also why they do it? What impact does the comma have on this sentence? What about the hyphens? Can we create rules for these or start an anchor chart? This is done best when students can talk it out with one another. In a remote setting it may be a slow discussion in Schoology or Google Classroom if not live.

Building an anchor chart over time

How about the comma in the mentor sentence below ? What do we notice? What impact does this comma have on the sentence? Can we continue to add to the anchor chart?

Not only are we focusing on the rules of punctuation, but we are examining beautifully written sentences that emphasize the magic of elaboration and “show don’t tell”.

Now how about this one? There are multiple commas. What do you notice about the commas? What impact does each have on the sentence? Can we add another rule to the anchor chart?

Jason Reynolds is my hero!

Look at more of the beauties I found just in chapter 1, focusing on similes, sensory details, commas, hyphens, dashes, italics, contractions, possessive nouns, types of sentences, dialogue, quotations, ellipses, and so much more!

Sentence stalking

Once you have students noticing and examining what authors do and how the writing is impacted, you can invite students to imitate and look into their own writing to use or correct.

You can also encourage students to pay attention to their own independent reading books for mentor sentences they can collect or even share with moves they can try to use within their own writing. Here’s one I found last night while reading.

What about grammar exercises?

There are many who learned grammar the traditional way with grammar textbooks, worksheets, and sentences to diagram or those who look to sites that are the modern version of those same things, but the research behind the effectiveness of that approach is very telling.

Teaching grammar will not make writing errors go away. Students make errors in the process of learning, and as they learn about writing, they often make new errors, not necessarily fewer ones. But knowing basic grammatical terminology does provide students with a tool for thinking about and discussing sentences. And lots of discussion of language, along with lots of reading and lots of writing, are the three ingredients for helping students write in accordance with the conventions of standard English*.

NCTE National Council of Teachers of English

For more on this, here is a short podcast/blog post “How to Deal with Student Grammar Errors” from The Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzales.

How do I know what to teach?

The best places to look include:

  1. The Writing Progressions for each genre found in the Units of Study online resources under the title Writing Pathways.
  2. Student Writing for patterns and needs based on pre assessments, post assessments, and entries in the writer’s notebook.
  3. The Eligible Content found in the PA Standards.
  4. The Scope and Sequence recommended by PATTAN (click here). Look to see when skills should be introduced, reinforced, and mastered. The development of a skill and the need for reinforcement is generally spread out over several grade levels.
any questions