Archive for November, 2009

Why We Don’t Teach Grammar

First of all, grammar is a lot like Kleenex®. This brand name has been associated with many other similar products. If I ask my wife to “Please pass a Kleenex®, I would probably get irritated if she responded, “Is a generic tissue okay?” After all, I just want to blow my nose.

So, let’s agree on what we mean by teaching grammar. Grammar has come to mean a catch-all term that refers to everything English teachers would prefer to avoid teaching. This includes the part of a sentence, the function of these parts (such as the parts of speech), the arrangement of words with the sentence, word choice, punctuation, and capitalization, and assorted oddities that we think students should know, but wish they learned elsewhere. But, why do most English-language arts teachers detest teaching this collection of instructional essentials that we label as grammar?

1. We fear the unknown. ELA teachers live in the day-to-day fear that one of our colleagues might ask us how we incorporate teaching past perfect participles in our persuasive essays. Teachers naturally tend to avoid teaching things that they do not understand. Most ELA teachers were trained to love literature, poetry, and writing (or at least one of the three). Few were trained in teaching grammar. Some of us have picked up a few tidbits here and there over the years or were educated in Catholic schools.

2. There is not enough time. Teachers have their comprehensive lists of standards and courses of study on their “to-do” lists. There are pressures from administrators, the omnipresent district or state testing, and our own colleagues to check off items on these lists. Of course, we have our  favorite novels and projects. Grammar instruction does not even make our Letterman’s Top Ten. “If I had unlimited time… then, maybe. But to be honest… Socratic Seminars, readers theater, and that Steinbeck novel would probably shove their way into my lesson plans first.”

3. The “research” says not to teach grammar. We trot out a “sound bites” from a study or two as convenient excuses to avoid teaching grammar (most of these research studies from 50 years ago). We gloss over the real language of the research conclusions, i.e., “teaching grammar in isolation outside of the meaningful context of writing is ineffective.” Some teachers do parrot these research conclusions accurately, but few actively address the variables of the research and actually teach grammar in the meaningful context of writing.

4. The fact that students are grammatically-challenged is someone else’s fault. “Students should know this stuff by now. The grade-level standards emphasize review of grammar, not introduction of grammar. I can only teach what I am supposed to teach. I can’t be responsible for other  teachers’ shortcomings. I have my grade-level standards to teach. If I spent all my efforts on what they already should know, students would never learn anything new. Hopefully, they’ll pick it up later, somehow.”

5. Students don’t like grammar and they don’t remember what they are taught. “Grammar is boring. I want to be a fun and interesting teacher. I’m angling for Teacher-of-the-Year and I’m not about to let grammar get in the way. Besides, the pay-offs from teaching grammar seem minimal, anyway. The students have learned the parts of speech every year and they couldn’t define or identify an adverb, if their lives depended on it. An adverbial clause? You’ve got to be kidding. I won’t drill and kill my students.”

6. We don’t know what we don’t know. Teachers teach from personal experience , as much as from professional development. Most teachers in their twenties, thirties, and forties had little grammatical instruction in their school years and few university professors have trained these teachers in grammar for the reasons already discussed. The pervasive “whole language” philosophy of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s de-emphasized grammatical instruction and relegated it to the editing step within the writing process. “I didn’t learn grammar, and I turned out alright” is an often-thought, if not spoken, rationale for ditching grammar instruction.

My response? We need to teach grammar and make time for grammatical instruction and practice. Anything students need to know has to be “taught, not caught.” Students are whom we teach, not ever-changing standards, courses of study, fads, personal preferences, or personal agendas. Therefore, if students don’t know how to define, identify, and use adverbs, we need to teach them (an intentionally ambiguous pronoun reference that indicates both subjects—students and adverbs). We don’t need any more student casualties as a result of any “Great Grammar Debate.” Our ignorance is no excuse. We need to learn how to teach grammar in a meaningful writing context.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

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To Read or Not to Read: That is the Question

In terms of teaching literature, I live in two worlds. I am an English-language arts teacher and a reading specialist. Although the two worlds would seem to be quite complementary, this is not always the case.

As an English-language arts teacher, I love teaching the nuances of the author’s craft. I live to point out allusions, symbolism, and an occasional foreshadowing. I am ecstatic when I am able to lead my students into the “ah ha” experience of how a passage reinforces the theme of a novel. I believe that we English-language arts teachers do have “content” to share with students. Go ahead… try to convince me that being able to identify the omniscient point of view is not a critical life skill. Make my day… My students need me; they are dependent upon me to teach them this content.

However, as a reading specialist, I also believe in the skills/process side of reading. In this world, my aim is to work my way out of a job. I have to change dependence into independence. The more students can do on their own to understand and retain the meaning of text, the better I have accomplished my mission. I need to train students to become successful independent readers in college, in the workplace, and at home.

Which leads us to our dilemma. When we teach a novel or short story, how much of our instruction should be teacher-dependent and how much should be teacher-independent? My thought is that we English-language arts teachers tend to err too frequently on the side of teacher-dependence and we need to move more to the side of teacher-independence.

As a reading specialist/staff developer at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, I have had to opportunity to see hundreds of teachers “in action,” teaching a novel or short story to students. From my experience, the predominant way that English-language arts teachers work through a text is by reading and dissecting the entire text out loud (an in class).

The reasons that we hang on to the teacher-dependent mode of reading out loud (or via student popcorn reading/CDs) and dissecting the text are varied:

1. We want to earn our pay-checks by being the ones responsible for student learning.

2. The text is too hard for students to understand it on their own.

3. We like being the “sage on the stage.”

4. Students lack sufficient prior knowledge.

5. Reading out loud is a behavior management tool.

In sum, we distrust the readiness of students to handle the challenging tasks of reading and thinking on their own. We know that we do a better job of understanding the text than our students.

The way we casually describe what we are teaching is informative: In the staff room, a science teacher asks what we are teaching. We respond, “I’m half-way through teaching Julius Caesar,” not “I’m teaching my students…”,” nor “I’m teaching Roman history through…”, nor “I’m teaching these reading and literary skills through…”, nor “My students are learning…” We tend to view the literature as our curriculum and not as an instructional vehicle. When the literature is treated as an end–in-itself, we are ensuring that our instruction remains teacher-dependent. After all, we are the keeper of the keys. We know “Julius Caesar” better than the students (and probably Will himself). A high school colleague of mine literally had memorized every word of the play and worked her students through the play from memory. That’s teacher-dependence.

How to Move toward Teacher-Independence

1. Lose the Guilt

We really need to relieve ourselves of the self-imposed or colleague-imposed guilt that we are not really teaching a short story, poem, or novel unless we read and dissect every word out loud.

2. Become a Coach

We need to become coaches, not spoon-feeders. Let’s coach students to become effective independent readers by giving them the skills to understand the text on their own. Here are some effective reading comprehension strategies that will move students toward that independence:…

3. Get strategic

Some reading out loud and dissecting text is essential. But when to do so and when not to do so?

A good guideline to help us decide how much to read out loud, with explanation and gap-filling, is word recognition. Simply put, if the novel, story, etc. is at 95% word recognition for the vast majority of students, then there should be less reading out loud, i.e., the reading is at the independent reading level of students. If there is lower word recognition, then more reading out loud/working through the text will be necessary (or the book selection is inappropriate for the students) for this instructional reading level. For more on how to use word recognition to inform instructional decisions, see my blog at… As a relevant aside, I feel that word recognition is a much better indicator of an appropriate student to text match than a lexile number.

4. Trust Your Judgment-Not Just Data

Of course, using this rather clinical criterion of word recognition has its limitations: maturity of theme, unfamiliar historical context, amount of allusions or figures of speech etc. After all, we all know students who “read” the last Harry Potter book and Twilight with enjoyment, albeit limited comprehension, when their word recognition rate was at the instructional end of the spectrum, so motivation is an important factor in determining what can be left to independent reading.

5. Focus on the Pay-offs

Independent reading of text has significant pay-offs. Reading independently at the 95% word recognition level of text will expose most readers to about 300 unknown words in 30 minutes of reading. Learning 5% of these words from the surrounding context clues of the text is realistic. This means that students will learn about 15 new words during a typical reading session.

6. Experiment with Alternative Instructional Approaches, But…

Reciprocal teaching, literature circles, GIST strategies, partner reading, jigsaw. Yes. But don’t leave out what should be the primary instructional approach: independent reading.

If our goals are to foster the abilities to read independently with good comprehension/retention and to inspire young adults to read for purpose and pleasure as lifelong readers, then we’ve got to cut the cords and become more teacher-independent and less teacher-dependent.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

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