How to Teach English Grammar asks and provides possible answers to the most pressing When, Why, How, What, and Whom questions related to teaching grammar. Disclaimer: The author has developed numerous grammar-based programs.
Definition: Identifying the Scope of the Subject
Grammar has become a catch-all term that refers to everything most English teachers don’t like to teach, but still need to do. Admittedly, some still don’t teach it. They have their reasons. In this article the writer refers to grammar as most teachers do. Grammar refers to the sentence components and their functions, such as the parts of speech, subjects, predicates, objects, and modifiers. Grammar also means the arrangement of words within the sentence (the syntax), the formation of phrases and clauses, and word choice. Additionally, grammar includes study and practice in the accepted rules of proper usage, such as subject and verb agreement, pronoun and antecedent relationships, and whether to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions. Finally, grammar is used to identify and correct non-standard usage. Broadly speaking, grammar is the study of how our language is used and how it can be manipulated to achieve meaning.
The Great Grammar Debate in currently in the midst of an uneasy cease-fire. The authors of the Common Core State Standards attempted to toe the line between those favoring direct (part to whole) instruction in grammar and those favoring indirect (whole to part) instruction in grammar. My take is that the inclusion of a separate Language Strand, including K−12 grammar and usage Standards (L. 1, 2, 3), the focus on recursive skills in the Progressive Skills Review, and the accompanying Smarter Balanced and PAARC tests (which include grammar), have tilted educators toward the direct instruction camp. And this remains the case with more and more states dropping out of the Common Core testing consortia. For some reason, many educators and interest groups in red states who have dropped out tend to favor more explicit grammatical instruction that their respective colleagues in blue states which have hung onto the Common Core.
Given the plethora of Internet searches for grammar resources, the renewed interest in older teaching techniques such as sentence diagramming, and the popularity of grammar websites and discussion forums, it seems fair to say that part to whole grammatical instruction is now a trending topic.
When to Teach Grammar and Usage
More and more rigorous standards have shifted to the primary or intermediate elementary grade levels. Such is the case with grammatical instruction. Most middle school teachers would agree that the instructional scope and sequence of the Common Core Language Strand Standards for grades 2−5 would mimic that of most state standards a mere decade ago. In fact, after deleting the vocabulary Standards, the Common Core authors assign three pages for each of the first, second, and third grade Standards; one page for both fourth and fifth grades; one page for each of the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades; and only one-half page for each of the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. Check out a grades 4−8 instructional scope and sequence of grammatical instruction.
Why Teach Grammar and Usage
The academic vocabulary used in grammatical instruction offers an important language of instruction to apply in other areas of academic work: writing, speaking, and reading. For example, learning to define, identify, and apply dependent clauses effectively and correctly empowers students to write, speak, and read with greater coherence. In my view the research regarding the effectiveness of certain grammatical instructional techniques is inconclusive.
How to Teach Grammar and Usage
Both direct and individualized instruction are needed to teach students the grammar. Our students are not tabular raza (empty slates): Many will have had good language training from previous teachers and from literate home environments. We need to build on their strengths and individual instruction according to their weaknesses. Most teachers would agree that grammar is not “just something that needs to be fixed.” Grammatical instruction is more than just error analysis or correction. Grammar and mechanics instruction cannot exclusively be relegated to end of writing process as mere editing skills. Jeff Anderson, author of Everyday Editing, calls such activities “error-filled fix-a-thons.” Most of us who have tried Daily Oral Language or Daily Language Review would agree that this hodgepodge instructional approach does not transfer to student speaking or writing.
Most curricular specialists suggest short, interactive grammatical lessons (say 20−30 minutes twice per week with a focus on one grammatical skill or concept, including a brief review to connect to prior learning. Precise examples and quick practice in which students apply the grammatical skill or concept to identify what is correct and what is not makes sense. Mentor texts in which students see and hear the application of the grammatical lesson focus in the reading context and writing application in which students construct their own sentence(s) to apply the in the writing context is sound instruction. Short dictation sentences in which students apply the grammatical focus will serve as formative assessments to inform the teacher as to mastery or if re-teaching is necessary.
Effective diagnostic assessments will help teachers identify what grammatical concepts and skills students have and have not mastered from previous grade levels. Here’s an effective 40 question (multiple choice) diagnostic grammar and usage assessment and recording matrix. Teachers can create mini-lessons and/or assign remedial worksheets to correspond to items on the diagnostic assessment to “catch up” individual students to grade level direct instruction. Of course, my assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs provide these resources.
What Grammar and Usage to Teach
It makes sense share the load and to prioritize instruction. Layered, sequenced instruction makes sense. An establish scope and sequence makes more sense than a “shotgun” approach. Students need to understand the function of an adverb before they can write adverbial clauses. The Common Core State Standards provides a bare bones sequence of instruction and the Progressive Skills Review does an admirable job of setting critical Standards for annual review. District committees and instructional teams at the site level can align and sequence instruction. For those grades 4−8 teachers who don’t wish to re-invent the wheel, here is the comprehensive TLS Instructional Scope and Sequence Grades 4-8 of the entire Language Strand (grammar and usage, mechanics, knowledge of use, spelling, and vocabulary).
All instructional time is reductive. Instructional minutes in one subject area take away from instructional minutes in another. Most curricular specialists would allocate no more than an hour of direct grammatical instruction per week and no more than thirty minutes of individualized instruction per week. Teachers do have other subjects to teach. Of course, homework is always a possible option.
Whom to Teach Grammar and Usage
All students need grammatical instruction and at each level in K−12 instruction. As more and more of public education is divided up into need-based groups, such as special education, English-language development, remedial, and honors classes, students must receive equal access to all of the curriculum, including grammar. The notion that grammar can’t be learned by students with auditory or visual processing disorders or by students with certain learning styles is a myth. The notion that non-native speakers cannot or should not learn English grammar is also a myth.
For too long, grammatical instruction has been de-prioritized as school districts focus on the reading and math priorities of standardized tests
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 adjectives, we need to teach them (a vague pronoun reference). And we can.
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.