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Why Grammar Doesn’t Stick

Last Wednesday, one of my favorite eighth grade English-language Arts colleagues burst into my fifth period seventh grade class. Herding ten of my previous students through the door to stand in front of my class, my clearly frustrated friend said, “My students can’t identify is as a linking verb in this practice sentence. I asked which students had you last year, and here they are.”

Now, you’ve got to understand my colleague. She did not interrupt my class to challenge my inadequate instruction in grammar and usage. She did not force students into a setting of public humiliation as a matter of punishment. She was not asking the question: Of what use is grammar and usage instruction?

She was simply asking the question: Why can’t students retain knowledge and application of simple grammar and usage from grade to grade? By the way… she knows that I taught is as a linking verb to those students.

You see, my colleague is not convinced by the research that purportedly indicates that direct grammar instruction has no impact on student acquisition of language skills. She recognizes the value of teaching language and wants her students to learn how to speak and write well. I share her views and her commitment to changing how she teaches to accommodate how her students learn. So do most English-language Arts teachers. So do the writers of the Language Strand of the Common Core State Standards.

So, what’s the answer to her question?

Why Doesn’t Grammar Stick?

No pat answers here; however, a few points should be considered. 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.”

http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf

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 lessons. The lessons also 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 PREVIEW THE TEACHER’S GUIDE AND STUDENT WORKBOOK  to see samples of these comprehensive instructional components.

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).

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Grammar Openers

District administrators and teachers are digging into the newly adopted Common Core State Standards and finding some unexpected buried treasure: the Language Strand. Of course, one’s pirate’s treasure can be another’s curse; nonetheless, this particular treasure seems here to stay, so we might as well figure out how to invest its resources into the lives of our students.

This treasure is English grammar. Now, by grammar we have lumped together a whole slew of things about how our language works: words and their component parts, rules, usage, word order, sentence structure, parts of speech, mechanics, and even spelling. Yes, language is probably a better catch-all term.

Specifically, the writers of the Common Core Language Strand do not advocate a specific instructional approach and I would argue that the writers go out of their way to affirm teacher autonomy with respect to the hows of instruction. “By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards leave room for teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached…” http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf (Introduction).

However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that many of us are going to have to teach grammar differently, given the Standards levels of rigor and specificity. For example, Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives (e.g., It was a fascinating, enjoyable movie but not He wore an old[,] green shirt). L.7.2. How many of us knew or taught coordinate adjectives before these Standards?

Much of the burden of grammar instruction is now in the hands of elementary teachers. However, secondary teachers do not get off easily. Although the number of language standards decreases in middle school and high school, the Standards clearly mandate recursive instruction (review), as well as differentiated instruction. “Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms” http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf (Introduction). Review has always been a given in grammar instruction, but differentiated instruction will be a new approach for many teachers.

Following is a brief analysis of the four most common means of current grammar instruction. Teachers will tend to agree with my summary and analysis of the three instructional approaches that they do not employ, yet disagree wholeheartedly with my characterizations of the one approach that they favor. Afterwards, I will identify and offer a rationale for the one approach that seems most conducive to helping students master the new grammar standards.

1. Do Nothing

Many teachers simply do not teach grammar. Some play the blame game and argue that previous teachers should have done the job. Some do not see the importance of grammar to reading, writing, listening, and speaking and argue that grammar instruction takes away time from more important instruction. Some are simply afraid of the unknown: they never learned it, don’t know how to teach it, and argue that they “turned out alright.” Some teachers just don’t like grammar.

2. Writers Workshop/Writing Process

Many teachers went “whole hog” after the whole language movement and constructivism in the 1980s and have remained loosely committed (although many are about to retire). These veteran teachers wield some influence; however, most will honestly admit that their cherished notions that grammar should best be relegated to a mere editing skill in the last stage of the Writing Process or to a small collection of mini-lessons (should the needs of their student writers so indicate) have simply been pipe dreams. Results of state standard exams and the SAT/ACT clearly attest to this failure. Freshman college writing instructors bemoan the lack of writing skills exhibited by students exposed to this whole to part instructional philosophy.

3. Drill and Kill

Some teachers do have the set of grammar handbooks, the four file-drawer collection of grammar worksheets pulled from an old copy of Warriner’s, or the online resources of Grammar Girl and OWL (the Purdue University Online Writing Lab) saved in their Favorites. These teachers teach the grammar skills via definition and identification and then drill and kill. “Tonight’s homework is to complete all the odd problems on pages 234-235.” These teachers do “cover” the subject’ however, student writing generally indicates little transfer of learning and test scores reflect only minimal gains.

4. Grammar Openers

Most teachers have adopted the Grammar Openers approach. Widely known as Daily Oral Language, there are many instructional variations. However, the basics are the following: a quick lesson targeting review of previously “learned” language skills (usually grammar and mechanics) in which students examine short examples of writing riddled with errors. Students practice error identification and the teacher interactively helps students analyze these errors via brief discussion and “reminders” of the rules. Clearly, this approach has significant problems: grammar instruction can’t be relegated to “error fix-a-thons” (Jeff Anderson), review without deep-level instruction is ineffective, the hodge-podge lack of an instructional scope and sequence reflects a shotgun approach that is incongruous with standards-based instruction, the lack of application of these skills in the contexts of reading and writing, and more… See Why Daily Oral Language Doesn’t Work.

So which of the four is most conducive to helping students master the Common Core State Standards in grammar? The Grammar Openers instructional model seems to offer the most promise. Teachers teach from what they know. Teachers are by nature eclectic and prefer tweaking, rather than starting over. And since the predominant means of grammar instruction is the Grammar Openers model, it seems practical to build on this foundation and encourage such tweaking.

Here are the positives of the Grammar Openers model:

  • It’s consistent. Many teachers cram in huge chunks of ineffective grammar instruction before standardized tests or as intensive grammar units of instruction. Any chance of transfer to writing or oral language developments is doomed by such an inconsistent approach. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Grammar Openers offers the little-at-a-time instructional approach, which does happen to have the best research-base.
  • It’s quick. Drill and Kill teachers get so wrapped up in the grammatical complexities, that grammar instruction consumes an inordinate amount of instructional time. All instruction is reductive. We do have other Standards to teach. Grammar Openers provide quick-paced instruction, two or three days per week.
  • It’s interactive. Teachers can help students access prior knowledge and teachers can assess levels of whole-class competence through the back-and-forth design of Grammar Openers. The interactive approach can be engaging and does require some levels of accountability. Also, the interactive process can promote exploration, not just practice.
  • It involves direct instruction. Writers Workshop/Writing Process purists will simply have to admit that the rigor and specificity of these Common Core State Standards necessitates some of this approach. Whole to part instruction just won’t do this job.
  • It does involve review. Teachers have long recognized the recursive nature of instruction, particularly in grammar and mechanics. Those teachers who only teach grade-level standards have their heads firmly planted in the sand. Grammar is especially dependent upon scaffolded skills. Students will not learn what an adverbial clause is and how to use it in the writing context without first mastering adverbs and adverbial phrases.

Necessary Tweaks to the Grammar Openers Model

  • Establish a meaningful scope and sequence of instruction aligned to the Common Core State Standards Language Strand, including a comprehensive review of the asterisked review mandates.
  • Move beyond the definition and error identification approach (essential ingredients, by the way) of Grammar Openers to include identification of effective writing skills via Sentence Modeling. There is no doubt that constant exposure to incorrect grammar, mechanics, and spelling reproduces the same in student writing. For example, how many teachers have found themselves questioning how to spell their after years of seeing this spelling mistake in student writing?
  • Change the focus of Grammar Openers to interactive discussion and writing application. For example, try using simple sentence diagrams, sentence revision, sentence combining, and writing openers during the Grammar Openers, with sentence dictations as formative assessments. A balance of contrived and authentic writing practice/application makes sense.
  • Require systematic application of the grammar skills learned in Grammar Openers within the writing context. Students should be required to use what they have learned in their own writing during the Grammar Openers lesson and should be held accountable for applying these skills in short writing strategy practice, as well as on writing process papers.
  • Provide connected reading resources that demonstrate how mastery of the specific grammar skills adds depth and meaning to what the author has to say. Identification of the grammar is not sufficient. Recognition of how the grammar affects meaning is necessary and provides a meaningful purpose for grammar instruction.
  • Establish formative assessments to inform and adjust instruction.In addition to the direct instruction provided in Grammar Openers, teach to specific diagnostic data and differentiate instruction accordingly. Rather than relying upon solely implicit assessment of what students know and do not know, add on explicit, whole-class diagnostic assessments and teach relative weaknesses via small group or individualized instruction. Here, targeted grammar handbook, online, or worksheet practice (Drill and Kill) in conjunction with writers mini-conferences (Writers Workshop) certainly does make sense.

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 lessons.  The lessons 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 PREVIEW THE TEACHER’S GUIDE AND STUDENT WORKBOOK  to see samples of these comprehensive instructional components. Check out the entire instructional scope and sequence, aligned to the Grades 4-8 Common Core Standards.

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).

 

 

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