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Grammar | Teaching in the Social Context

Language Conventions Literacy Centers

Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers

If we consider the traditional four communicative contexts of English-language arts (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and add on a fifth, the visual context, thanks to the interesting research of Kress and van Leeuwen, we find that language never takes place in isolation. Even when my wife talks to herself, she does have an audience (and I’m rarely included).

A few examples (with good instructional links and the related Common Core Standards) will remind us of how we teach the language interactively:

We teach students to actively listen to a speaker by asking relevant questions.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.1.C
“Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.”

We teach students to speak to their audience, using specific techniques to interest our listeners.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.4.4
“Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience in an organized manner, using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.”

We teach students to engage their audience in writing assignments.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.3.A
Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.

We teach students to maintain a dialog with the author when reading.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.5.4.A
Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.

We teach students to analyze media and consider the choices in terms of content, editing, and production made by, say, a filmmaker, videographer, or graphic artist.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.7
Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium’s portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).

So, why are teachers so reticent to abandon teaching grammar in isolation?

Now, most of you are thinking that I’m referring to teaching grammar in isolation via drill and kill worksheets, divorced from listening, speaking, writing, and reading. I’m not. As an aside, while I certainly try to apply my grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction to the instructional subject, I (like all teachers I work with at my school) find that some grammatical instruction is most efficiently accomplished in isolation. For example, when I teach sentence variety through modeled grammatical sentence openers in the context of revising process paper drafts, I always find that some re-teaching is necessary for some students. If half of my students still don’t know the definition of an adverb, its function, proper adverbial order, and some examples, they won’t be able to use a few of my grammatical sentence openers revisions to improve their process papers.  I see no reason not to bust out a down and dirty adverbs worksheet for those seventh grade students who need it.

What I mean by teaching grammar in isolation is didactic direct instruction (teacher talks to the class) or individual students complete a grammar worksheet and turn it in to the teacher to grade instruction.

Instead of those types of isolated learning experiences, I contend that grammar is best learned, interactively, in a social context.

Not to get to hung up on definitions, but let’s cite one:

“A grammar is the rules and constraints on what can be represented. A grammar is a social resource of a particular group” (Kress and van Leeuwen).

If grammar provides the tools (“the rules and constraints”) for communication, it makes sense that these tools would best be defined, identified, practiced, and applied in the context of collaborative communication (the “social resource of a particular group”). The classroom teacher certainly provides one important source of communication, but students themselves are often an untapped source of learning. Students can learn grammar from each other.

Academic Literacy Centers for Grammar and Mechanics

Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers

Literacy centers provide an ideal social context for cooperative learning about grammar: parts of speech, syntax and sentence structure, standard and non-standard usage, word choice, dialect, punctuation, capitalization, etc. Now, of course your students need the right tools. We can’t have the blind leading the blind.

How about a few interactive grammar lessons to test-drive with your students in a cooperative group or literacy center? Your download includes four grammar and mechanics lessons, the unit test (with answers), directions, and literacy center leadership roles.

Get the Four Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center Lessons and Test FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Interactive Grammar

If I’m going to entice you to read this article by offering some how-to’s and free resources to teach grammar interactively, we had best get on the same page about what we both mean by grammar.

I like to think of grammar as a community’s language tools.

The tools of grammar are usually known as language conventions. A convention means “a general agreement about basic principles or procedures; also : a principle or procedure accepted as true or correct by convention the conventions of grammar” (Merriam-Webster). The Common Core authors use “Conventions of Language” for the first two Language Strand Standards:

L.1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

L.2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Two other points will keep us on that same page:

  1. Teachers usually separate usage from grammar as in standard and non-standard usage, or word choice, or figures of speech, etc.
  2. Teachers usually separate mechanics from grammar and usage. By mechanics, teachers mean punctuation and capitalization. Some would also throw in spelling under this category.

Since our language conventions tools are always applied in a social context, it makes sense to teach and learn grammar how we use grammar: in the social context. Specifically, I find literacy centers to be ideal collaborative settings in which students will actually use their language skills to learn what the tool is and its purpose, be able to identify it, know how to use it, and use it a bit to see its value and, hopefully, remember it.

Academic Literacy Centers for Grammar and Mechanics

Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers

For grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, I’ve developed twice-per-week, twenty-minute Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers to teach the Common Core language conventions standards

Instructional Format for Interactive Learning: The How To’s

The Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center provides 56 lessons. Grades 4–8 alignment documents follow the lessons. Each Language Conventions lesson consists of four pages and takes 20 minutes to complete. Students work collaboratively to learn two tools per twenty-minute lesson: a mechanics skill and a grammar or usage concept, rule, or skill.

The first page is in Cornell Notes format and provides the content and skills in the Mechanics Notes and Grammar and Usage Notes sections. The Links and Response sections provide online resources for additional grade-level practice. Space is provided in this section for students to list key ideas, comment, make connections, and write questions. Additional space is provided at the bottom of the lesson for students to summarize the key mechanics and grammar content or skills.

The second page duplicates the lesson text of the first page, but adds examples for the students to copy in the spaces provided on the first page. The Links and Resources sections provide online resources for extended learning (acceleration) and additional practice (remediation).

The third page provides students with practice for both the mechanics and grammar content and skills. Students individually apply the lessons with identification, error analysis, sentence revisions, and sentence combining in the writing context.

The fourth page consists of the practice answers. Students self-correct as a group to learn from their mistakes.

The program provides biweekly unit tests in which students must define, identify, and apply the tools they have learned. Students use their lessons on the test. Teachers may elect to have students take the test individually or as a group.

The FREE Resources

How about a few interactive grammar lessons to test-drive with your students? Your download includes four grammar and mechanics lessons, the unit test (with answers), directions, and literacy center leadership roles.

Get the Four Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center Lessons and Test FREE Resource:

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Grammar and the Common Core

I hear the same two comments at English-language arts conferences all the time: 1. “I’ve heard that research has proven grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary instruction doesn’t work.” 2. “I teach grammar and they seem to get it. They pass my tests and do okay on the standardized tests, but they don’t transfer the learning to their writing or speaking. And they just don’t retain what we’ve covered. Their next-year teacher always asks why I don’t teach grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling.”

So, should we bother teaching grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling? Some would say “No.” This is what Dr. Stephen Krashen recommends, at least until high school. Dr. Krashen finds that students learn grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary most efficiently through free voluntary reading, not explicit instruction or even writing, as my old National Writing Project colleagues would advocate. Now, to be fair, Dr. Krashen does see the value of teaching some usage issues and grammatical terminology. And he advocates teaching students how to use language resources, such as language handbooks, to correct errors and improve writing style. But he, and others of his ilk, certainly support the overall position described in the first comment listed above. My view is that the collective jury is still out on this research question.

Irrespective of the research into the effectiveness of explicit grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling instruction, the writers of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) certainly affirm the need for instruction in these skill and content areas.  In fact, grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary now have their own CCSS Language Strand in the English Language Arts Standards. Apparently, language instruction is back in style.

According to the CCSS writers, “Students must have a strong command of the grammar and usage of spoken and written standard English to succeed academically and professionally.” And, despite the comments of the CCSS writers designed to placate English-language arts teachers clinging onto a teach-grammar-only-through-writing approach, the pendulum has definitely swung back toward explicit instruction of these Standards.

Even the most recent National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) position statement in the NCTE Guideline now stresses the importance of direct instruction in these areas with the caveat that instruction must be connected to reading, writing, and speaking. Regarding instructional approaches, the NCTE position might surprise some die-hard anti-grammar fanatics:

Experiment with different approaches until you find the ones that work the best for you and your students. Some teachers focus on showing students how phrases add rich detail to sentences. Other teachers find that sentence diagrams help students see the organization of sentences. Some use grammar metaphors (the sentence, for example, as a bicycle, with the subject as the front wheel and the predicate as the back). Some emphasize the verb as the key part of speech, showing students how the sentence is built around it and how vivid verbs create vivid sentences.

But, back to the teacher comments at the English-language arts conferences. The second comment listed above reflects the common experience of so many English-language arts teachers in their own classrooms. There just is no doubt that students tend to have troubles transferring their learning of grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling to writing and (with grammar and usage) speaking, not to mention next-year’s-teacher.

The CCSS writers acknowledge and validate this common experience. The CCSS writers explicitly recognize the cyclical nature of formal and standard language acquisition in their narrative and in the Standards themselves. To wit, the Standards include specific “Progressive Language Skills” to review, practice, and build on key Standards precisely because of the “recursive, ongoing nature of grammatical knowledge.”

However, simply acknowledging the fact that students have trouble with language transfer does not solve the problem. Teachers do need to take a fresh look at instructional approaches. One approach would be to take a hard look at how students have learned some grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling and then devise instructional approaches to replicate this success for other un-mastered language content and skills. In other words, find out what has worked and do more of that.

What Works

1. We know from language acquisition research and classroom practice that new skills are best acquired when students notice and understand, before practice. That is, input is more important than output for student mastery of skills and/or content. This appears to be true for both primary language and secondary language students. Production, that is writing and speaking application and practice, should come after a certain degree of mastery has been acquired.

Application: Provide comprehensible input via oral language to learn grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary content and skills. Teaching grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary through active listening and interactive discussion with plenty of examples makes sense. Use mentor texts to analyze how writers and speakers use the language skill and content.

2. We have to teach through successive approximation and build upon prior knowledge.

New learning best takes place in context of the old. The CCSS “Progressive Language Skills” identifies the key Standards to scaffold instruction. Expect the need to re-teach foundational language skills and content.

Application: Begin the year with extensive review of language skills and content. Reference and practice prior Standards, then build upon these foundations to extend learning.

3. Students can chew gum and walk at the same time. Teach language form and meaning concurrently. Form influences meaning and meaning influences form. The CCSS Standards integrate form and meaning: traditional and descriptive approaches to language learning.

Application: Target the specific skill or content to be learned and teach, then practice in all of the communicative contexts. Teach the academic language, show and practice the variety of grammatical structures, validate the different purposes and forms of communication and contrast to Standard English, and provide a meaningful rationale for learning “correct” English to motivate learning.

4. Practice output in both contrived and meaningful contexts.

Application: Use canned, repetitive practice in limited doses. Most students don’t have to do “all of the even number exercises on page 223” to master a skill and/or concept. “Drill and kill” worksheets never killed anyone. But, contrived practice needs to target specific skills, inform the student as to “what is correct and what is not” via immediate feedback, provide a basis for formative assessment, and help the student practice skills and content already learned (#s 1 and 2 above.) Teachers do need to provide authentic writing tasks to practice what has been learned and give immediate and specific feedback regarding task application.

5. Assess learning, adjust instruction to re-teach, and differentiate instruction.

Application: English-language arts teachers need to buy-in to formative assessment to teach at the point of individual student needs. What good is it if we’ve “taught it,” if they haven’t learned it? That next-year’s teacher does have a point. And tracking students into remedial, regular, and honors classes does not address this point. Tracking, whether beneficial or not, is about delivery of content and skills, not about differentiating instruction according to what students have or have not learned.

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 grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary Standards. Diagnostic assessments and targeted worksheets help your students catch up while they keep up with rigorous grade-level direct instruction.

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