June 16th, 2014
Welcome 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:
- Will knowing this concept improve my students’ writing today?
- Does it make sense to teach this standard during word study?
- 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.
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.
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