Everything Your Brain Should Know about Teaching Grammar

The debate over grammar is not over whether it should be taught, but how.  This post introduces a number of tactics. But let's start with the fundamentals. There are 4 major ways grammar is taught: 

  1. Decontextualized Exercises - Includes worksheets, handbook exercises, daily oral language, and bellringers.
  2. Contextualized Exercises - Problems chosen from students' essays. These can also be bellringers or daily oral language exercises that are selected from students' papers.
  3. Mini-Lessons - Short lessons based on assessments of students' needs, followed by application to student-created essays. See more about creating mini-lessons here
  4. Games - Paper-based, tech-based, class teams, and (see jeopardy) puzzles.
Main Principles of Grammar Instruction

Can you force people with different languages and dialects to adopt the official language of the state?  Let's see.

Missionaries landed on the Islands of Hawai'i in 1820 and started schools where they attempted to indoctrinate natives into "spiritual advantage" and pushed them to abandon their "beastly" language. When missionaries tried to teach Hawaiian natives standard English, most of the Hawaiians resisted. But some subverted the language lessons and aligned them with old literacy practices.

Native children of those forced to learn English formed a “creole” language, called pigeon English, creole English, HCE, or known simply as pidgin.  A creole is a natural language developed from a mixture of different language. Here is what it sounds like in Hawai'i

If forcing people to adopt a language doesn't work, how can we teach second language students or those with African American Vernacular English to code-switch into the language of power? 

What Doesn't Work?

  1. Decontextualized grammar drills only help elite high school writers improve their writing.
  2. Just having students read good literature is not enough to improve their writing (Carter & Miller, 1998). 
  3. Teaching formal grammar has a negligible effect on the improvement of writing (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer, 1963, as quoted in George Hillocks, 1986, p. 133)
  4. Students require a deliberate and systematic approach to grammar instruction.

What Does Work? 

  1. Students require a deliberate and systematic approach to grammar instruction. Students need extended time to write.
  2. Then instructors should teach conventions late in their writing process.  

Grammar Teaching Ideas
  1. Posters. Have students make grammar posters. See The Oatmeal for inspiration. Hang the best ones up in the classroom for reference. 
  2. Playing with Text. Have students manipulate text. For example, have learners color all the adjectives in an essay green to see if the prose is colorful. Or direct students to collect their favorite verbs and adjectives from a book, then incorporate these words into their own writing.
  3. Cover tracker. Every student turns in a personal cover sheet with all their essays. The cover sheet is used to record strengths and weaknesses. With each essay, students are asked to attend to their biggest issues (recorded on the cover tracker)--this is the way of making writers accountable for a consistent trajectory of improvement. 
  4. Focus on the 20 Most Common Grammar Problem. Here they are, with exercises, from The Everyday Writer.
  5. Daily Oral Language. Have students correct non-standard English sentences for a few minutes every class. Here are some free DOL resources
  6. Sentence combining. "Alternative procedures, such as sentence combining, are more effective than traditional approaches for improving the quality of students’ writing.” (Fern & Farnan, 2005) See a sample exercise from Commnet: 
      • Here is an example of two sentences...: "Lewis's fame and fortune was virtually guaranteed by his exploits. Lewis disappointed the entire world by inexplicably failing to publish his journals."
      • Here are those two sentences combined: "His fame and fortune virtually guaranteed by his exploits, Lewis disappointed the entire world by inexplicably failing to publish his journals."
More Resources for Teaching Grammar
  1. Mechanics ("How to Get an A on a Paper") by Jack Lynch, from Rutgers
  2. English Language - Downloadable Exercises
  3. English Teacher Melanie
  4. Wacky Web Tales - Like Madlibs
  5. Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.
  6. English Grammar Secrets
  7. Funbrain's The Grammar Gorillas
  8. Using English (Free Worksheets)
  9. Perfect English Grammar
  10. English Grammar by the British Council
  11. Grammar Videos by the British Council
  12. Common Errors in English Usage
  13. OWL - Purdue Online Writing Lab
  14. Grammarbook.com
  15. Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips
  16. Grammarly Handbook
  17. Writing Forward Grammar Tips
  18. Word Origins
  19. Grammar Gold for Grades 1-5
  20. Grammar Bytes by ChompChomp - Interactive Review
  21. Mark Israel's English Usage
  22. Road to Grammar, Jr. 
  23. Daily Grammar Archive
  24. Grammar Ninja - A Delightful Review of Grammar
  25. BBC's Skillwise - Grammar Tips for Adults
  26. Road to Grammar (Quizzes)
  27. Top 10 Reviews of Online Grammar Checkers (2016)
  28. 50 Writing Tools Quick List by Roy Peter Clark at Poynter.org
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Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd’s Brain at www.todd-finley.com || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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