Join me on the “Write” side

Ah grammar, some of us love it some of us hate it but we all agree that our students need to learn it.  But how and how much are the controversial questions.  Over the past few weeks,  the WVCTE blog has been filled with interesting posts about the teaching of grammar.  There are some good ideas being tossed around concerning diagramming, and using grammar as bell ringers.   And as a teacher of writing, I challenge all of us to figure out the best way for our students to learn grammar.  We need to incorporate grammar into our instruction in a meaningful way.  The question though is how?

I come at this topic from a different philosophy and approach than other bloggers.  Sometimes I question does a student need to know the term appositive phrase or how to USE one?  What about subordinating clause?  Same question:  is it better to know the term or where to incorporate one into a sentence?  I think we often overlook application and focus on jargon and old style instruction.  I admit to getting a bit giddy when seeing a student string together gerunds and I will tell them using the technical terms to explain what they have done but do they really need to know that in life?

When I first started teaching many moons ago, the Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition was my go-to.  I still have it!   Ready or not, we all flipped open our books to page 1, exercise 1 and started correcting sentences.  I cringe  now thinking of the wasted time I spent with that method.  In 2000 I earned my fellow designation from the National Writing Project after a full year of intensive, doctoral level work in the craft of writing and my instruction profoundly changed.  I left my Warriner’s behind and embraced Atwell, Fletcher and Caulkins.

Enter, the writer’s notebook.

Like others who have weighed in on this subject, I want my kids to use more sophisticated sentence structure that reflects the complexity of their thinking.  I want to see them use participles and semicolons comfortably.  But where I differ is how I accomplish this goal.

Students enter class daily with a writing based bell ringer that is linked to my content for that day.  They might be challenged with a political cartoon, poem, statement, or short text and I want them to write and write non-stop for 5-10 minutes but what they are doing is crafting authentic text.  Afterwards, we talk about our writing and the ideas students have generated.  We write our thoughts on the board and it is there that I model how to improve their sentence structure or incorporate some of the fancier punctuation.  In context.   With their writing.

That is how I model and stretch my students.  I also meet them where they are at with their writing.  If one student is trying to use a conjunction while another is trying to string together subordinate clauses, they need different types of instruction.  Using a writer’s notebook facilitates that.

I have great resources to help me.  There’s my infamous “writing box” where I have created tip sheet s over the years to help kids with writing.  Some address style, some grammar but each are labeled and kids are told to go get the one they need to look at.  I also love Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined.  My kids know where I stash it on the bookcase and that they are invited to look at it when they need help but I also grab it as I’m roaming the room and show students how to approach different grammar challenges.  His visuals clearly explain punctuation and sometimes when I see a student get stuck, I’ll copy the relevant graphic and tape it on their authentic writing as a reference.  It’s a must have in my opinion if you are going to teach grammar.

writing box

If you talk to the “old school” fellows of the Project, we will most likely share out thoughts on Teaching Grammar in Context by Constance Weaver.  In her research, she examined different approaches to improving students’ writing and found consistently that working with authentic text in context was the most impactful approach to grammar instruction.  She furthered touted using the mini-lesson approach of Caulkins and Atwell for short bursts of grammar instruction that does not involve the correction of sentences.

teaching grammar in context

While her book is not a recipe for grammar instruction, it does help teachers understand the developmental stages of grammar acquisition and how we can nudge our students to incorporate more sophisticated grammar in their writing.  Her main points are that students need to be engaged in writing across the curriculum, submersed in good literature, taught grammar in context, and instruct through mini-lessons for reinforcement

You may be saying that this won’t work with your students but I bet it might.  My kids are 11th grade inclusion and this early in the year, their authentic text may only be a few sentences.  That’s ok.  We have a starting point for growing and stretching as writers.  My September Babies are still struggling with ideas.  Let them work through that first before hitting them with FANBOYS.  Find your kids’ starting points then start to build from there.  Live on the edge and have a toolkit of minilessons ready to go to teach to the appropriate child and the appropriate time versus something canned and ready to go for all students.  Let them write and encourage them to read.  Their grammar will improve the more they see good text.

So if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve been introduced to several approaches for teaching grammar.  Consider your options.  Evaluate your kids.  Give something new a try.  Or as I like to see when I’m teaching new fellows in the National Writing Project:  come join me on the “write” side!

Cheryl Stahle is a contributing blogger for WVCTE.  She teaches at Parkersburg High School and is the Co-Director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project based out of Marshall University.  She is a not so regular tweeter @msstahleclass.  Besides teaching American Literature, her other classroom goal is to teach 1970s classic rock to her students.

WVCTE is wondering how you teach grammar in your classroom?  What tips and tricks can you share?  Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!


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