Blogstitute Post 1: Aimee Buckner on Grammar

June 16th, 2014

blogstitute2014Welcome to the first post of our 2014 Summer Blogstitute! We kick off our series with a post by Aimee Buckner on teaching grammar. Aimee is working on a book about the topic (yay!) and here she shares her thoughts on where, how, and when to approach this important topic. Aimee’s most recent book is Nonfiction Notebooks. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a package of free Stenhouse books from our Blogstitute contributors. That’s eight free books! You can also head over the the Stenhouse website and use code BLOG to receive 20% off and free shipping on your order.

Grammar on my mind



No peace, no peace I find

Just this old, sweet song

Keeps grammar on my mind

Okay, so that’s not exactly how Ray Charles wrote the lyrics, but sometimes that soulful tune amplifies my feelings toward grammar. It’s a tricky relationship, teachers and grammar. Some teachers are proud to be self-proclaimed “Grammar Nazis,” which I find intriguing. I mean, who in their right mind would ever, ever want to been known as any kind of Nazi? Then there are some who dread teaching grammar because they find it boring to teach (and kids will still make mistakes in their writing). And some teachers love teaching grammar because it’s the only subject in which you can run off a bunch of worksheets and no one will think less of you for it.

I’m not a “Grammar Nazi.” As a matter of fact, I envision my editor having lifted her eyebrow at my new book proposal about grammar and the writer’s notebook. I do pay attention to the green and red squiggly lines on my Word documents and fix them immediately.  I like finding interesting sentences and putting them in a sentence diagram tool online just so I can see how each sentence was put together. I also am a big fan of Grammar Girl’s blog and NPR podcasts like A Way with Words.

I guess you could say I’m interested in grammar and word usage. I’m interested in grammar because I’m interested in how to be a better writer. I’m interested in the concept of how to teach grammar well because I’m interested in teaching children to be better writers. But mostly, I’m interested in how to get my students interested in grammar concepts to help them become better writers.

If Not Workshop, Where?

Teaching grammar has been the thorn in the writing workshop side since its inception. It seems to be the one part of writing we can’t quite get right—possibly because we still think of grammar as a separate subject. Many teachers have writing workshop and grammar scheduled at two different times during the day. Other teachers have a day where they teach grammar instead of writing workshop. And then there are those who think that if kids are writing, they’ll pick up the grammar naturally.

We can do better than that. I’ve started thinking about grammar as a truly integrated sub-subject across the curriculum. Mostly, however, I find myself teaching grammar standards in one of three areas: writing workshop, word study, and test prep. I try to teach each standard in the area where kids will get the most immediate experience with it.

For example, prepositions can have a grand effect on a student’s writing. Once students learn how to use a prepositional phrase to extend a sentence, they’re automatically using a more complex sentence structure. The best part is that, no matter what my students are writing (even poetry), prepositional phrases can be applied—whereas learning how to form the past tense of a verb and knowing its irregular past tense may affect a student’s writing but won’t be used if he or she is writing in the present or future tense. (However, I can teach this during word study, as the Common Core State Standards refer to forming and identifying these kinds of verbs.)

It’s true that all grammar supports writing. However, in fifth grade, a student can still write well and not realize he is using a modal verb. Knowing a modal verb may help students be more analytic about their writing, but it’s not necessarily going to make an immediate impact for every writer. So I might teach this nugget during test prep.

In order to determine when and where to teach each concept, I simply ask myself these questions:

  1. Will knowing this concept improve my students’ writing today?
  2. Does it make sense to teach this standard during word study?
  3. Is this a standard that students will need to know in isolation for a standardized test?

The only RIGHT answer is the answer that helps your students learn the standard in the most meaningful way possible.

Grammar Is for Editing . . . Right?

I used to be a firm believer in teaching grammatical skills and punctuation when most of my students were editing. I’m rethinking that. I do think reviewing skills and elements that students have mastered should be retaught or examined during this phase. But, if I’m teaching a new concept, the editing stage is really too late.

I moved grammar work to when most of my students are drafting or revising, and I found that they are more willing to try the concept and play around with it in their writing. During drafting and revision, kids expect to make changes. They are mentally prepared to focus on their wording and try different ways of writing. During the editing phase, they see the light at the end of the tunnel. They want to fix mistakes—or even ignore them—so they can finish the project. They’re tired. They’re ready for it to be done.

I spent two mornings with a third-grade class working on informational posters about different countries. I entered their writing process when most students were drafting and revising their work. Because many of the students were listing items (cities, foods, sports, etc.), I showed them how to use a colon (which is a ninth-grade standard, but the writing called for it). The kids wanted to try it and started putting colons everywhere. They were rewriting paragraphs to set up longer, more complex sentences just to use a colon. We talked more about commas in those two days—as most of their new sentences really needed commas—than they had all year. Kids were asking each other, Is this a run-on sentence or does it work?

This kind of talking, writing, and rewriting is exactly what writers do when they revise. Although the concept of using a colon may not be part of the curriculum for third grade, the conversations about commas and run-on sentences are definitely third-grade skills. These two days inspired me to keep thinking about how we can get kids excited about writing and rewriting based on a grammar and punctuation lesson.

Thinking Through

We need to keep thinking about grammar and punctuation concepts and how to teach them well. They’re not going away, and, quite frankly, writers need to know them. Based on the teachers I have visited, nationally and internationally, no one seems content with how they are teaching grammar. It’s not good enough to teach it in isolation and hope it seeps into student writing. It’s not good enough to ignore it and pray that kids will somehow get it. It’s also not good enough to take a month out of the year, stop writing, and teach the entire grammar curriculum. These approaches may keep us afloat, but I think our kids deserve better.



Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

94 Comments Add your own

  • 1. V  |  June 18th, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Grammar is essential. We must teach it. Their writing becomes much more powerful once we give them that information.

  • 2. V  |  June 18th, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Grammar is essential. We must teach it. Their writing becomes much more powerful once we give them that information. And it’s that easy to give them the power to choose.

  • 3. Cindy Melcher  |  June 18th, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    Love your work…also phrase Grammar Nazi! I might resemble that remark. 🙂

  • 4. Marilyn  |  June 18th, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    Everything you said validates the work our curriculum mapping committee did this year developing a scope and sequence for grammar to complement each of our writing units. We also drafted a suggested ‘road map’ that shows where each grammatical skill can be taught during the writing process and recommended that students try out these conventions of writing in their own writing. For example, during immersion, students create two lists in their notebooks, one for genre characteristics and one for grammar. During generating, students apply the grammar skill taught during a mini-lesson in a notebook entry; etc. As the owner of all of your books, I can hardly wait for the newest one to be published!

  • 5. Maryann  |  June 18th, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    The concept of approaching grammar in a triarchical manner is brilliant. It all boils down to when and in what way is it most effective to teach particular grammatical concepts. The specific examples shared, prepositions, etc., were very helpful.

  • 6. Amy  |  June 18th, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    This entry for the blog struck a cord with me regarding how I teach my 5th graders, grammar. I am going to attempt “the dance” as I call it. This means I’m going to try a mini lesson during our morning ELA block. Grammar will be at the helm. Thanks for the wonderful chance to discuss this with you. Again, thank you so much.

  • 7. Alison  |  June 18th, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    So glad I read your post today as I’ve been reflecting how to better integrate grammar instruction into writing with my English learners. Your questions about when and where are great — and I agree that the drafting/revising time is good. Reminds me of Leif Fearn’s ideas in his book Interactions about how to give students prompts to cause them to create particular types of sentences.

  • 8. Maria Wsdensten  |  June 18th, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    I’m also interested in teaching children and myself to be better writers!

  • 9. Karen Canapini  |  June 18th, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    This book is so timely! My colleagues and I have recently had numerous conversations about grammar and spelling. None of us have come up with a “perfect” solution. I look forward to reading your book and hearing your suggestions on this “hot” topic!

  • 10. Karol Eisenbeis  |  June 18th, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    It is important to create teachable moments with careful intentional planning and teaching. I plan on doing this by using my first grade morning message, a teacher generated chart size letter that leads into writing workshop. I think this will illustrate the usefulness of grammar and I will use formative assessments gathered in writing workshop to help me plan my letters. The books that are helping me with this idea are No More “I’m Done!” Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades and the book, Beyond the Morning Message.

  • 11. Lauren Freeman  |  June 18th, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your post and I’m excited about making some plans for writing next year. By any chance, do you have any clips of you teaching a lesson? ( I would love to see your work in action!)

  • 12. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 18th, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Food for thought; I love reading everyone’s ideas. I find that I try to point out specific grammar models through reading aloud mentor texts, and then asking kids to try it out and/or check their own writing for an example. Better yet, in small groups I can address what I see is a specific need.. I wrestle with finding the “right” way to reach as many kids as possible. Aimee, your Notebook series inspires me to strive for more; looking forward to your grammar edition. Like previously stated, I have used Jeff Anderson as a resource, but feel like I need something more to reach primary kids.

  • 13. Lorinda B.  |  June 18th, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    I agree with your belief that students need to play with text structures way before they get to the editing a piece of writing stage and that planned teachable moments are important. This year we had students write down a mentor text sentence in the language study section of their writer’s notebook as a warm-up 4 days a week and examine this sentence for
    grammatical structure and style (like Jeff Anderson recommends). We searched for sentences from a variety of popular and lesser-known texts that emphasized the grammatical concepts we were teaching at the moment such as using commas with subordinating clauses or dashes to set off extra information. I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of dashes and commas used correctly in their writing after seeing, analyzing, and imitating sentences for a six week period. I also found it so much easier for students to learn in daily snippets. Exposing my students to a wide variety of books that they were now eager to check out from the library was an added bonus!

  • 14. Ellen Arnold  |  June 19th, 2014 at 2:13 am

    I do think that in order for students to actually use the grammar lesson in their own work, we must use their writing and also follow up somehow (small conferring groups, perhaps) to support those who need additional practice. Great first blog post!

  • 15. Briana N.  |  June 19th, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Thank you for your post! I definitely had an “aha!” moment when you said to integrate it during the drafting process. Duh! So often I feel like I need to take it out of context to “check it off my list” but to give myself permission to wait and focus on a few grammar pieces during the writing process is so freeing!

  • 16. sharon  |  June 19th, 2014 at 10:39 am

    How do you (teachers) keep up with the ever-changing conventions of grammar to assist students in keeping their writing both lively and “accurate”?

  • 17. Laura  |  June 19th, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Aimee, thank you for your thoughts and stretching my thinking. As a first grade teacher, our writing lessons are very basic. Your comment about teaching grammar during the draft stage is right on!

  • 18. Susan  |  June 19th, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    I hate to admit it, but most of my grammar lessons are test driven. Your blog has definitely given me something to think about over the summer.

  • 19. Mary from Madison  |  June 19th, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks for the great post! It was affirming to hear someone else teaches what students need instead of deferring to the CCSS. I firmly believe that students’ needs come first. Loved the post. Looking forward to reading your book!

  • 20. Ginny H  |  June 19th, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Aimee, thanks for attacking the “grammar” issue. I totally love the idea of integrating grammar teachings during the drafting and editing stages of writing.

  • 21. Shari  |  June 19th, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Jeff Anderson’s book, Mechanically Inclined, has also been such a powerful resource in the teaching of grammar in context with writing workshop. Hopefully, more and more resources and guidance for classroom teachers on how to be successful teaching grammar in this way will continue! Thanks, Aimee!

  • 22. Sandie Knuth  |  June 19th, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    There are so many things to think about when teaching children. I hadn’t thought so much about how and when to teach grammar until I read this entry. I guess I need to think about it specifically from now on. I do agree that teaching skills when needed and as a part of a bigger picture is crucial.

  • 23. Donna  |  June 19th, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    I know that planning for ‘covering the grammar expectations’, and giving children what they need at the time that they need it is a fine balancing act. I need to know or have quick access to the grammar for each grade that I teach, but also be flexible in giving groups of children what they need at the time they need it. So, structured mini-lessons, as well as using student work as examples will help to introduce what I need to teach, and make it meaningful and relevant to my students.

  • 24. Liz Hoppe  |  June 19th, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    I am go glad to hear you acknowledge that grammar instruction is tricky to time. Sooooo true! I do like the idea of presenting it with drafting, almost the way we might use copy change with a poem. Reminds me of Harry Noden’s Image Grammar book.

  • 25. Julie  |  June 20th, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Hi Aimee & Everyone — It was great to read your post and all the comments. Teaching grammar is tricky; it’s especially tricky to help students reach the point of fluently applying the grammar they’ve learned to their daily writing. I love (and will try out) the three questions teachers can ask themselves when planning. I tried something new last school year that was engaging, interactive, and collaborative for my students — I “hid” three editing errors in our morning message, which they hunted for and corrected during morning meeting. These editing experiences became a common reference point for all of us and we’re much more playful and quick than “Daily Oral Language.”

  • 26. Julie  |  June 20th, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Looks like I didn’t carefully check my “spell check” — oops! I meant “WERE” much more playful” not “WE’RE much more playful”

  • 27. Janet  |  June 20th, 2014 at 8:22 am

    I like to do a sentence study (AKA grammar lessons) during reading workshop too. When students see interesting sentences in a text, we do a quick inquiry to see what the author did to construct it. This is a great time to throw in grammar terms with definitions because the example is right there. Later, when students are writing, they can use the model from the text to write their own interesting sentences.

  • 28. Mary Ann Conrad  |  June 20th, 2014 at 11:16 am

    I’m with Sarah Parker on the need to teach grammar orally. My students are largely second generation English speakers. I emphasize speaking in complete sentences and practicing with sentence stems and lots of repetition.
    I am old enough to remember my middle school tablets (the old paper ones with blue lines) full of sentence diagrams. To this day I find these visuals of complex sentence structure helpful. I wonder if diagrams will make a come-back to supplement grammar immersion.

  • 29. Dana Murphy  |  June 20th, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    This is really smart thinking, Aimee. We have this exact struggle in our district with ‘where does grammar fit?” and I feel like many teachers may just stop teaching it altogether since they’re not sure! I love the idea of categorizing the grammar skills using those 3 questions. This is very helpful!

  • 30. Julie A  |  June 20th, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Editing is too late too teach grammar…hits home. And we are “required” to do Daily Language Review 🙁 I find it very disjointed and no transfer to actual writing. The only value is that kids are introduced to grammar vocabulary.

  • 31. Dawn Sunderman  |  June 21st, 2014 at 7:59 am

    I have always taught grammar in isolation. I would have gladly not taught it do to the glassy-eyed looks of myself and my students. Of course I kept teaching it! I am excited to be incorporating it into my writer’s workshop and word study. I have been thinking about this and reading some books on how to make my writer’s workshop more successful throughout the start of my summer break.

    I recently read Notebook Know How and will be reading it again before I return to the classroom this fall!

  • 32. Lacey  |  June 21st, 2014 at 11:10 am

    I completely agree that grammar needs to be taught at the right time and I also find this the most difficult in figuring out. I am looking forward to your book on this subject!

  • 33. Lois Pipkin  |  June 22nd, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Working grammar into the writing workshop is certainly tough. After observing an “as needed” approach for many years, I must say that I am uncomfortable with it. It is too random. Depending on what teacher a student has from year to year, their grammar knowledge varies.

    Teachers are overwhelmed with grammar and don’t know where to start. We need an outline or suggested path to follow.

  • 34. Teresa  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Great thoughts on incorporating more grammar through writing workshop. Grammar is definitely an area to focus more on.

  • 35. Shirley McPhillips  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Thanks Aimee for wise thinking. What a thought: We learn about grammar when we need to use words, when we are working on our craft in writing. The real world. So glad you wrote a thoughtful book about the subject.

  • 36. Ann H  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks so much. There is always so much being added to what is expected to be taught it is difficult to figure out where/when to do it all. I really like and will use your 3 questions to help guide me.

  • 37. Elsie  |  June 24th, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    Love the ideas here! It puts grammar into focus, thanks Aimee!

  • 38. Debra Pellerin  |  June 26th, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    I was inspired to read your blog because of the Wayland Literacy Institute today. As a teacher leader, I’ve led study groups on all,three of your books. The practical strategies you offer teachers can be used immediately and transform reluctant writers into writers that ask for more time to write. I like the idea of teaching grammar as another notebook strategy. I agree that it is too late during the editing phase and that such instruction is more effective when it transforms a draft. When do you expect to publish this book?

  • 39. Barbara L.  |  June 26th, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    I am encouraged by professionals, like you, Jeff Anderson and Dan Feigelson, who take on these not so jazzy topics like grammar and punctuation. Thank you for giving us meaningful ways to teach these necessary skills every time kids write, not as a separate subject.

  • 40. Allison Cohen  |  June 26th, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    (hmmm….not allowing me to post…)
    In case this doesn’t go through for the 14th time…I am always on the hunt for a fun, engaging way to teach grammar to my third graders, although I have nightmares of Warriner’s Grammer books still! Does anyone else remember those books? 🙂

  • 41. Katie Bast  |  June 27th, 2014 at 7:45 am

    Wow! Fantastic ideas!! Love seeing you at the Wayland Literacy Institute!!
    Thank you!

  • 42. Chitra  |  June 27th, 2014 at 7:49 am

    Loved reading Aimee’s post- has me thinking about grammar and how to integrate lessons in my work with students.

  • 43. Melanie  |  June 28th, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    Love all of your books on notebooks Aimee so I am so excited you are working on a new book on grammar! I also struggle with incorporating grammar instruction on a more consistent basis in my classroom so I look forward to hearing all of your ideas!

  • 44. Lois Pipkin  |  July 5th, 2014 at 9:30 am

    I was taught specific grammar, with a “language” book , as I went through school over 40 years ago. We were even taught to diagram sentences. As a very visual learner, I loved the diagramming and it solidified my understanding of the way that the parts of speech interacted.

    When I got my Masters in ELA in 1985, we were discouraged from teaching grammar specifically. The concept was that we should teach grammar only on a “needs to know” basis. The concept was that work on grammar does not transfer to writing and speech.

    After teaching for 30 years, I don’t think that this casual approach worked very well. There was no systematic program to make sure that all students arrived in 9th grade with the fundamentals of grammar. I am afraid that the student grammar was more a product of the language spoken in the home than anything else – further compromising the written language of the already compromised.

    I applaud the concept of teaching grammar and think that the Common Core is a step in the right direction offering grade level goals for all students.

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