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Grammar Research and Balanced Instruction

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Okay. I may have crossed over to the dark side of The Force. For years, I smirked at the grammar fanatics who taught and had students practice the explicit grammatical components of the sentence. I insisted, along with my National Writing Project friends, that any grammar instruction outside of the authentic writing context was at best useless, and at its worst counter-productive. But now the Common Core State Standards have shifted my thinking. The separate Language Strand makes sense to me.

This balanced approach best makes sense of the grammar research. An approach that involves direct grammatical instruction in partnership with plenty of connected reading (sentence modeling) and writing (sentence manipulation). It’s working well with my students.

Here’s a quick summary of the two prominent theories of language acquisition and why I’ve “crossed over” to a balanced approach with grammar instruction.

My university professors taught me that all humans are born with an instinctive language acquisition device (LAD). Noam Chomsky’s “little black box,” tucked away in some corner of our brains, gives us the essential grammar rules and language organization that helps us master our native language. Cool. So all we teachers need to do is provide a literate environment, extensive modeling, and plenty of oral language practice for our students to effortlessly learn to speak and write “conventional” and “correct” English. Since the LAD is a universal grammar, the same instructional methods would work for English-language learners. Simple. Grammar that is caught is better than grammar that is taught.

Much better than the older B.F. Skinner approach that humans acquire language through the environmental interplay of stimulus and response, reward and punishment. With this behavioral model, teaching “conventional” and “correct” English would require learning good language habits. That would mean lots of direct grammar instruction, drill and kill exercises, and extensive teacher feedback (think boxes of red pens for error correction). Lots of work. Have to learn what a predicate adjective is… Grammar that is taught is better than grammar that is caught.

An eclectic approach to language acquisition theory that has gained traction in recent years has encouraged me to meld the above theories in my instructional practice. This interactionist approach posits the idea that “language develops as a result of the complex interplay between the uniquely human characteristics of the child and the environment in which the child develops” (Lightbown and Spada, 1999). In other words, a sort of umbrella approach encompassing Chomsky’s LAD and Skinner’s behaviorism. Now, this makes both instructional and practical sense to me.

In my class, I teach one mechanics and one grammar rule/skill. Students tell “what’s right” and “what’s wrong” in an interactive discussion, while they jot down the rules/skills with examples. They analyze how the grammar rule/skill is applied in a model literary sentence and in a student model sentence that I select and display (reading connection). Students complete a simple sentence diagram to see the function of the grammar within the sentence. Students read and analyze a mentor text, which uses the grammar, usage, or mechanics instructional focus. Then students apply what they’ve learned in their own short writing sample. I give dictation sentences that require students to apply the rules/skills and/or manipulate the sentence structure as a formative assessment. Students self-edit and self-correct from my display (writing connection). I often review the grammatical component with a humorous cartoon that focuses on the grammatical skill/rule. It’s working. This instruction takes 25 minutes per session and I teach this strategy twice per week. Much better than D.O.L. or D.L.R. because I have a planned, standards-based instructional scope and sequence. I’m not just “reviewing” what previous teachers purportedly have “taught.”

Oh, I also use a whole-class diagnostic grammar and mechanics assessment and differentiate instruction according to the diagnostic data through targeted worksheets. Shhh! Don’t tell my Writing Project purist friends. But, the extra practice along with my quick writers conferences to review each worksheet’s formative assessment is helping students to finally master (a split infinitive) what teachers have “taught” year after year. And it’s transferring to their writing. I give the students about 15 minutes, twice per week, to work on their worksheets and complete their writers conferences. Students see their own progress on the skills they need.

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

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

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.


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