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How to Teach Grammar

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Within the field of English-language arts, there is probably no more contentious curricular issue than that of how to teach grammar. The “Reading Wars” and “Writing Wars” get all the press, but teachers are much more unified in their teaching philosophy and instructional practice in those areas, than they are with respect to “The Great Grammar Debate.”

Even those who have decried the direct instruction of grammar believe that the subject needs to be learned.

Some say grammar is best learned through reading. Dr.  Stephen Krashen finds that students learn grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary most efficiently through free voluntary reading. However, Dr. Krashen does see the value of teaching some usage issues and grammatical terminology, especially at the high school level. And he advocates teaching students how to use language resources, such as language handbooks, to correct errors and improve writing style.

Some say grammar is best learned through writing. Even those who still trot out forty-year-old research studies to argue that explicit, direct instruction in grammar has no statistically significant effect on writing maturity such as the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Writing Project, Six Traits, or the Writers Workshop folks trot out their own grammar mini-lessons to fill the gaps when students have egregious errors in the editing state of process papers. I have previously written about why teachers avoid teaching grammar, but plan to boldly advocate how to teach grammar in this article. However, some consensus-building is necessary before I do so.


Grammar has come to mean a catch-all term that refers to everything English teachers would prefer to avoid teaching. Essentially, grammar 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. Grammar is the study of how our language is used and how it can be manipulated to achieve meaning.

Most of us would agree with these… 21 Curricular Assumptions

1. Good grammar is important. Whether grammar is chiefly taught or caught is beside the point. When it is simply caught by students, “They dint always catched it very good.” Grammar as it is caught must be complemented by a grammar that is taught.

2. Grammar should, as much as is practical, be integrated with authentic writing instruction. Students learn best when instruction is perceived and practiced as being relevant to their needs.

3. Not all students have the same grammatical skill-set. Simply teaching grade-level standards is not enough. We teach content, but we also teach students. We need to both “keep them up” and “catch them up.” It makes sense to develop and administer diagnostic assessments to determine who does and does not need extra instruction and in what skill areas. Yes, we need to differentiate our grammar instruction.

4. Both part to whole and whole to part instruction will work. We learn grammar from writing, but we also learn writing from grammar.

5. Grammatical instruction is necessarily “recursive.” Students need both the review and the new. Solid foundations require maintenance as much as does any new construction. You know the teacher(s) before you taught those parts of speech, even though some of your students still don’t know them. I’ll let the writers of the Common Core State Standards make these points regarding the recursive nature of instruction in grammar and usage:

“Grammar and usage development in children and in adults rarely follows a linear path.”

“Native speakers and language learners often begin making new errors and seem to lose their mastery of particular grammatical structures or print conventions as they learn new, more complex grammatical structures or new usages of English.”

(Bardovi-Harlig, 2000; Bartholomae, 1980; DeVilliers & DeVilliers, 1973; Shaughnessy, 1979).

“These errors are often signs of language development as learners synthesize new grammatical and usage knowledge with their current knowledge. Thus, students will often need to return to the same grammar topic in greater complexity as they move through K–12 schooling and as they increase the range and complexity of the texts and communicative contexts in which they read and write.”

“The Standards account for the recursive, ongoing nature of grammatical knowledge in two ways. First, the Standards return to certain important language topics in higher grades at greater levels of sophistication… Second, the Standards identify with an asterisk (*) certain skills and understandings that students are to be introduced to in basic ways at lower grades but that are likely in need of being retaught and relearned in subsequent grades as students’ writing and speaking matures and grows more complex.”


6. 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. Check out the instructional scope and sequence from the author’s Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

7. Teaching grammar is more than test prep. In fact, too much of most teachers’ grammar instruction (not you, of course) is testing, rather than teaching. However, we live in the real world. Consider the timing of your standardized test when planning your instructional scope and sequence.

8. 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.

9. The fancy names for grammatical constructions are less important than knowing how to use these constructions in one’s own writing. However, memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar provides a common language of instruction. Of course, use of the verbage needs to be age appropriate. A fourth-grade teacher should be able to say, “Notice how the author’s use of the adverb at the start of the verse helps us see how the old woman walks.” A high school teacher should be able to say, “Notice how the author’s use of the past perfect progressive indicates a continuous action completed at some time in the past.”

10. Analyzing both good and bad writing is instructive. Sentence modeling and error analysis in the context of real writing, both by published authors and your own students, can work hand-in-hand to provide inspiration and perspiration.

11. Writers manipulate grammar in different ways and at different points of the writing process. Sentence variety is a component of mature writing. Check out these grammatical sentence openers.

12. One’s knowledge and experience with grammar helps shape one’s writing style and voice.

13. Degree of oral proficiency in grammar impacts writing ability.

14. Direct instruction is not enough—coaching is necessary to teach students how to write. The “sage on the stage” has to be complemented with the “guide on the side.”

15. Identification of grammatical constructions can help students apply these in their own writing, but exclusive practice in identification will not magically translate to correct application. If students can readily identify discrete elements of language, say prepositional phrases, they will more likely be able to replicate and manipulate these grammatical constructions in their own writing. However, students need to practice writing prepositional phrases in the context of real writing to solidify the connection between identification and application.

16.  There are certain grammar rules worth teaching.  If students understand and practice the grammatical rules and their exceptions, they will more likely be able to write with fewer errors. Knowing the rule that a subject case pronoun follows a “to-be” verb will help a student avoid saying or writing “It is me,” instead of the correct construction “It is I.”

17.  Some grammar instruction gets better “bang for the buck” than other. Teaching the most common errors certainly makes sense.

18. 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. While it may be true that students learn language differently, at different rates, and vary in proficiency, there has been no research to show that some students cannot learn grammar.

19. What we say shouldn’t always be the way that we write. Students need to learn to distrust one’s own oral language as a grammatical filter. “Whoever John gives the ring to will complain” sounds correct, but “To whomever John gives the ring, he or she will complain” is correct. Knowing pronoun case and the proper use of prepositions will override the colloquialisms of oral language.

20. English grammar can be learned by second language learners. Some teachers think that students who speak other languages get confused between the primary language and English grammars. The research proves otherwise. Intuitively, many of us have significantly increased our own knowledge of English grammar by taking a foreign language. However, teaching English-language learners requires special consideration.

21. Teaching grammar shouldn’t take up an entire English-language arts course. Most of us would say about 20% or less of our instructional time.

How to Teach Grammar in Four Simple Steps

1. Develop a Plan

Establish a coherent scope and sequence of instruction with your colleagues, including those who precede and those who follow you. Base your plan on your more general state standards, but get as specific as possible. I suggest integrating grammar, usage, mechanics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction into the plan. Include both “review” and “new” layered skills. Here’s a very workable model: the instructional scope and sequence from the author’s Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) grades 4-8 programs.

2. Do Direct Instruction “Sage on the Stage”

The skills detailed in the above instructional scope and sequence can be taught, modeled, practiced, and assessed in 25 minutes, 2 days per week. Daily Oral Language will not get this done. Grammar instruction need not take up a teacher’s entire class.

3. Individualize Instruction “Guide on the Side”

Use an effective diagnostic assessment to identify grammatical and mechanical skills that your students should already know. Chart their deficits and find brief, targeted instruction that students can independently practice. Develop brief formative assessments for each skill. Allocate 15 minutes, 2 days per week, of teacher-student mini-conferences to review their practice and grade their formative assessments, say on Wednesdays and Fridays. Have students keep track of their own mastery of these skills on progress monitoring charts. Re-teach and re-assess skills not-yet-mastered.

4. Do Independent Practice

Require students to practice the grammatical skills introduced in your direct instruction in their writing that very week. For example, if teaching adverbs, on Monday, students can be required to write three adverb sentence openers in the story, letter, essay, or poem they compose on Tuesday.

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.

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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  1. March 15th, 2016 at 23:47 | #1

    By far the best ways to teach any type of grammar is through the use of either realia or real life settings and contexts. Why would a student be motivated to learn the conditional tenses if he has no idea why he s learning them, in other words, he doesn’t understand when and where he’ll have use for them? When teachers use real life settings and objects students will know the grammar structures they learn will be useful for them.

  2. March 21st, 2016 at 17:20 | #2

    Realia is one, but not the only tool, to teach grammar and usage.

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