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Grammar Instruction: Establishing Common Ground

Perhaps no instructional issue in English-language arts produces more contentious debate than the issue of how best to teach grammar. When most of us refer to grammar we mean the structure of the sentence, the components of the sentence, word choice, the order of words, style, and usage. Some will also include punctuation, capitalization and even, perhaps spelling in the grammar stew.

All too often we bog down in our discussion over the issue of instructional strategies. Should we teach these skills explicitly through direct instruction? Should we teach these skills implicitly at the point of student need? Should we teach these skills in isolation? Should we teach these skills in the context of writing? What are the most efficient and effective means of instruction? Which instructional strategies produce the most retention? How can we differentiate instruction?

It may be that we begin, but quickly end the discussion of how to teach grammar because in posing these questions we are placing the “cart before the horse.” Perhaps a more useful starting point for our discussion would be to come to consensus about what we expect students to know and when. Establishing a common ground on this issue can help us determine what to diagnostically assess in order to determine our students’ relative strengths and weaknesses. Only at this point does it make sense to discuss the instructional strategies that will address the needs of our students.

This goal of consensus can be easier said than done. Teachers are inherently protective of their own instructional sovereignty. We all enter teaching to be “queens and kings of our own castles.” We are, by nature, independent thinkers. Collaboration requires some levels of releasing that sovereignty and replacing some of that independence with dependence. Additionally, we are all afraid of exposing our deficiencies. Many of us have received little grammar instruction and less training in how to teach the skills outlined above. Colleagues can be intimidating. It’s hard to admit our weaknesses. Much easier to keep our ostrich heads in the sand regarding grammar and focus our efforts on what we do know.

However, for the sake of our students we need to acknowledge our “elephants” in the room and begin to trust our colleagues. A climate of collaboration can be nurtured among teaching professionals. This risk-taking climate takes time and requires sensitive leadership. Group norms need to be established and practiced to ensure success. But, the results will be worth the efforts.

What Should Students Know and When?

At first blush, teachers will latch onto to Common Core Language Strand Standards. Fine as a starting point and undoubtedly more rigorous than previous state standards which tended to emphasize grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction only in the writing context; however, standards only offer a basic blueprint for grammatical instruction. The devil is in the details. Defining these issues in meaningful ways that will impact both instruction and learning necessitates detailed conversations. We need to get specific.

It makes sense to establish a set of skills and expectations to be mastered at each grade level. Defining a specific year-to-year instructional scope and sequence (the Common Core Standards are far too generic) with colleagues provides a game plan and also defines the content for assessment. See the following author tag for a comprehensive instructional scope and sequence for Grades 4-8. These skills and expectations need to be hammered out in the context of vertical teaming and articulation. The complexity of English grammar and the recursive nature of grammatical instruction necessitate grade-to-grade level discussion and consensus-building.

At my middle school, we began the conversation with seventh and eighth grade teams. We then got release time to meet with our elementary and high school colleagues. We began the process of building a scope and sequence to help us move students from Point A to Point B to Point C. Our goals were to adopt a common academic language, establish grade-level expectations, and build in review to address the recursive nature of grammatical instruction. We found much more common ground on these goals than many of us had expected, especially because we have not addressed instructional strategies at this point of the conversation.

How Do We Know What They Know and Do Not Know?

Having agreed to 72 skills and expectations for our middle schoolers in our comprehensive instructional scope and sequence, we then began designing diagnostic assessments to inform our grammatical instruction. Our criteria for the diagnostic assessments included the following: The assessments must specifically focus on the 72 “common ground” components of our instructional scope and sequence. The assessments must be whole-class, easy-to-administer, easy-to-grade, and easy-to-record. The assessment components should be “teachable.” One such set of diagnostic assessments, based upon 72 “common ground issues” that we are using as starting points are my own multiple-choice Grammar and Mechanics Assessments.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Having established what students need to know and when, and having developed diagnostic assessments to determine what students do and do not know, the real fun begins. At this point, we are beginning the process of sharing the instructional strategies that seem to best meet the needs of our students. Explicit or implicit instructional strategies? How can we establish benchmarks to formatively assess skill acquisition?  How can we differentiate instruction, according to the results of our assessments?

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

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).

Grammar/Mechanics, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How to Teach Grammar

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.

Definitions

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.”

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

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

Grammar/Mechanics, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why We Don’t Teach Grammar

First of all, grammar is a lot like Kleenex®. This brand name has been associated with many other similar products. If I ask my wife to “Please pass a Kleenex®, I would probably get irritated if she responded, “Is a generic tissue okay?” After all, I just want to blow my nose.

So, let’s agree on what we mean by teaching grammar. Grammar has come to mean a catch-all term that refers to everything English teachers would prefer to avoid teaching. This 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, and assorted oddities that we think students should know, but wish they learned elsewhere. But, why do most English-language arts teachers detest teaching this collection of instructional essentials that we label as grammar?

1. We fear the unknown. ELA teachers live in the day-to-day fear that one of our colleagues might ask us how we incorporate teaching past perfect participles in our persuasive essays. Teachers naturally tend to avoid teaching things that they do not understand. Most ELA teachers were trained to love literature, poetry, and writing (or at least one of the three). Few were trained in teaching grammar. Some of us have picked up a few tidbits here and there over the years or were educated in Catholic schools.

2. There is not enough time. Teachers have their comprehensive lists of standards and courses of study on their “to-do” lists. There are pressures from administrators, the omnipresent district or state testing, and our own colleagues to check off items on these lists. Of course, we have our  favorite novels and projects. Grammar instruction does not even make our Letterman’s Top Ten. “If I had unlimited time… then, maybe. But to be honest… Socratic Seminars, readers theater, and that Steinbeck novel would probably shove their way into my lesson plans first.”

3. The “research” says not to teach grammar. We trot out a “sound bites” from a study or two as convenient excuses to avoid teaching grammar (most of these research studies from 50 years ago). We gloss over the real language of the research conclusions, i.e., “teaching grammar in isolation outside of the meaningful context of writing is ineffective.” Some teachers do parrot these research conclusions accurately, but few actively address the variables of the research and actually teach grammar in the meaningful context of writing.

4. The fact that students are grammatically-challenged is someone else’s fault. “Students should know this stuff by now. The grade-level standards emphasize review of grammar, not introduction of grammar. I can only teach what I am supposed to teach. I can’t be responsible for other  teachers’ shortcomings. I have my grade-level standards to teach. If I spent all my efforts on what they already should know, students would never learn anything new. Hopefully, they’ll pick it up later, somehow.”

5. Students don’t like grammar and they don’t remember what they are taught. “Grammar is boring. I want to be a fun and interesting teacher. I’m angling for Teacher-of-the-Year and I’m not about to let grammar get in the way. Besides, the pay-offs from teaching grammar seem minimal, anyway. The students have learned the parts of speech every year and they couldn’t define or identify an adverb, if their lives depended on it. An adverbial clause? You’ve got to be kidding. I won’t drill and kill my students.”

6. We don’t know what we don’t know. Teachers teach from personal experience , as much as from professional development. Most teachers in their twenties, thirties, and forties had little grammatical instruction in their school years and few university professors have trained these teachers in grammar for the reasons already discussed. The pervasive “whole language” philosophy of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s de-emphasized grammatical instruction and relegated it to the editing step within the writing process. “I didn’t learn grammar, and I turned out alright” is an often-thought, if not spoken, rationale for ditching grammar instruction.

My response? We need to teach grammar and make time for grammatical instruction and practice. Anything students need to know has to be “taught, not caught.” 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 adverbs, we need to teach them (an intentionally ambiguous pronoun reference that indicates both subjects—students and adverbs). We don’t need any more student casualties as a result of any “Great Grammar Debate.” Our ignorance is no excuse. We need to learn how to teach grammar in a meaningful writing context.

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.

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).

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

Grammar/Mechanics, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How to Integrate Grammar and Writing Instruction

In my last article, I classified the chief divisions in grammatical instruction* as follows: 1. those who favor part to whole instruction and 2. those who prefer whole to part instruction. I argued that teachers need not accept an “either-or” philosophy of instruction, but can certainly be eclectic in their instructional strategies. Of course, kind and persistent readers of the Pennington Publishing Blog are naturally putting me to the test to flesh out how I balance instruction, using both forms of  those inductive and deductive instructional strategies.

Diagnostic Assessment and Differentiated Instruction

Teachers too often teach what some students do not know at the expense of some students who already know what is being taught. For example, students learn the definition and identification of a sentence subject over and over again from third through twelfth grade. Teachers legitimize this repeated instruction by arguing that learning is recursive and, thus, reviewing is necessary.

Instead of making excuses, teachers should address the problems inherent in a diverse classroom. Why not administer diagnostic assessments to determine who does and does not need extra instruction in sentence subjects? Then, use the data to inform and differentiate instruction. Targeted worksheets that correspond to the diagnostic assessment, as in my Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, with individual one-on-one follow-up conferences or in small group review just makes sense. How often and how much class time do I devote to grammar differentiation? Twice per week, 15 minutes per day.

Direct Instruction

Front-loading grammar and mechanics instruction is efficient and transfers to student writing when a teacher follows a coherent scope and sequence of instruction that builds upon previous instruction and writing practice. For example, here is a scope and sequence for teaching adverbs that builds in year-to-year review, and also helps students deepen their understanding of this part of speech to improve their writing:

  • Primary students should learn that an _ly word “talks about” a physical action verb and practice recognizing these words in their reading and adding _ly words to sentences.
  • Intermediate students should learn that an _ly word “talks about” a mental action (e.g. knows) or state of being (e.g. was) verb. They should also practice recognizing these words in their reading and adding _ly words to various places within sentences.
  • Upper elementary students should learn that adverbs ask How? When? and Where? to describe verbs and practice recognizing all forms of adverbs, including adverbial phrases, in their reading. They should also practice adding adverbs to various places within sentences and as transitions within paragraphs.
  • Middle school students should learn that adverbs ask How? When? Where? and What Degree? to modify verbs and adverbs and practice recognizing all forms of adverbs in their reading. They should also practice adding adverbial phrases and clauses to various places within sentences and as transitions within and between paragraphs.
  • High school students should learn that adverbs ask How? When? Where? and What Degree? to modify verbs, adverbs, and adjectives and practice recognizing all forms of adverbs in their reading. They should also practice adding adverbial phrases and clauses to provide sentence variety to various places within sentences and as transitions within and between paragraphs. Students should also practice elements of style, such as placing shorter adverbs before longer adverbs and placing general adverbs before specific adverbs within sentences. Students should also contrast comparative adjectives and adverbial phrases, identify dangling modifiers, and practice recognition and revision of these errors for SAT/ACT test preparation practice.

Sentence modeling from exemplary student writing and literature should be examined and emulated in brief student writing exercises with direct instructional feedback. Alongside of sentence models, contrasting sentences with writing errors should also be analyzed, but not in the context of an incoherent, scatter-gun D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) “program.” Download an example of my Sentence Lifting exercise at  Grammar Openers Toolkit Sampler to see how this direct instruction approach integrates grammar and mechanics instruction within the context of real writing. My Teaching Grammar and Mechanics curriculum has 64 Sentence Lifting lessons with multiple instruction layers of instruction (as in the adverb example above) to provide the teacher with resources that reflect leveled degrees of difficulty. How often and how much class time do I devote to direct grammar and mechanics instruction? Three times per week, 15-20 minutes per day.

Writing Strategies

Teachers should practice sentence manipulation and sentence combining. For example, re-writing subject-verb-complement sentence construction to begin with complex sentences, such as with adverbial clause sentence openers is excellent practice. I use Sentence Revision exercises such as in the Writing Openers Toolkit Sampler from my Teaching Essay Strategies curriculum to help students practice sentence construction and revision. Sentence Revision also provides exercises in writing style. How often and how much class time do I devote to Sentence Revision? Three times per week, 10 minutes per day.

Writing Process

I require students to include specific sentence openers that we have practiced within their writing process pieces. Students re-write sentences to reflect their practice within the revision stage of the writing process. Peer editing focuses on the specific grammar and mechanics that we have been learning in our Sentence Lifting and Sentence Revision lessons.

Here are brief overviews of the two curricular sources described above: Find essay strategy worksheets, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in Teaching Essay Strategies. Find whole-class diagnostic grammar and mechanics assessments with 72 targeted worksheets to differentiate instruction based upon these assessments and a full year of 15-minute Sentence Llifting lessons with standards-based mechanics, spelling, and grammar skills in Teaching Grammar and Mechanics. Download free previews or purchase on my website.

*By grammatical instruction, I refer to usage, word choice, grammar, syntax, punctuation, capitalization, spelling rules, and the like, as most teachers tend to lump together these writing skills.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

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The Great Grammar Debate

Although not as contentious as the debate on how to teach children to read, the debate on how to teach grammar* has its moments. In fact, elements of the reading and grammar debate do have similarities regarding how language is transmitted.

The lines of division within reading have been drawn between those who favor part to whole graphophonic (phonics-based) instruction and those who prefer whole to part (whole language) instruction. (Check out my blog on the Reading Wars to get up to speed on the current issues in this debate.) Similarly, the divisions within grammar have also been drawn between those who favor part to whole instruction and those who prefer whole to part instruction. By the way the writers of the Common Core State Standards certainly have made up their minds. Guess which side they favor.

Part to Whole

The essence of part to whole grammatical instruction is the inductive approach. Advocates believe that front-loading the discrete parts of language will best enable students to apply these parts to the whole process of writing. Following are the key components of this inductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar to provide a common language of instruction. If a teacher says, “Notice how the author’s use of the adverb at the start of the verse emphasizes how the old woman walks.” Some would carry the memorization further than others: “Notice how the author’s use of the past perfect progressive indicates a continuous action completed at some time in the past.”

2. Identification leads to 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. A teacher might suggest, “Let’s add to our sentence variety in this essay by re-ordering one of the sentences to begin with a prepositional phrase like this one shown on the LCD projector.”

3. Focus on the rules of grammar leads to application. 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.” Some advocate teaching to a planned grammatical scope and sequence; others favor a shotgun approach as with D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) instruction.

4. 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.

5. Teaching the components of sentence construction leads to application. If students know, can identify, and can apply key elements of a sentence: subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, and clauses they will better be able to write complete sentences which fit in with others to form unified and coherent paragraphs.

Whole to Part

The essence of whole to part grammatical instruction is the deductive approach. Advocates believe that back-loading the discrete parts of language as is determined by needs of the writing task will best enable students to write fluently and meaningfully. Following are the key components of this deductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar and identification of grammatical components, other than a few basics such as the parts of speech, subjects, and predicates, does not improve writing and speaking. In fact, teaching grammatical terms and indentifying these elements is reductive. The cost-benefit analysis indicates that more time spent on student writing and less time on direct grammatical instruction produces a better pay-off.

2. Connection to oral language is essential to fluent and effective writing. The students’ abilities to translate the voice of oral language to paper help writers to develop a natural and authentic voice that connects with the reader in an unstilted manner that is not perceived as contrived. A teacher might use mini-lessons to discuss how to code-switch from less formal oral language to more formal written language, say in an essay. For example, a teacher might suggest replacing the fragment slang “She always in his business” to “The couple frequently engages in a physical relationship” in an essay on teen dating.

3. Connection to reading and listening provides the models that students need to mimic and revise to develop their own writing style. Reading and listening to a wide variety of exemplary literature, poetry, and speeches will build a natural feel for the language that students place within their own “writing wells.” Students are able to draw from these wells to write effectively (and correctly) for a variety of writing tasks.

4. Minimizing error analysis. Teachers believe most grammatical errors will naturally decrease with  #2 and #3 in place. A teacher might say, “Don’t worry about your grammar, punctuation, or spelling on your rough draft. Focus now on saying what you want to say. We will worry about how you say it in the revision and editing stages.” Teachers are concerned that too much error analysis, such as practiced in D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) will actually rehearse errors.

5. Teaching the whole paragraph with a focus on coherence will best enable students to apply the discreet parts such as subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, and transitions to say something meaningful.

Of course, the Great Grammar Debate is not necessarily “either-or.” Most teachers apply bits and pieces of each approach to teaching grammar. Teachers who lean toward the inductive approach are usually identified by their “drill and kill” worksheets, their grammatical terms posters, and Grammar Girl listed and Purdue University’s OWL prominently in their Favorites. Teachers who lean toward the deductive approach are often pegged by their “ignore and write more” writers workshops, mini-lessons (if they ever get to these), and their writing process posters prominently display on the wall, next to their autographed picture of Donald Graves.

My take? I suggest an informed instructional balance of the two approaches is most effective. Using effective diagnostic assessments can narrow the focus and time commitment of the inductive crowd. Well-planned front-loading of key grammatical terms, with identification and application practice can transfer to better student writing without having to wait until the process of writing osmosis magically takes place.

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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.

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).

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

* For the purposes of this article, I use the term grammar as is colloquially used by most teachers, i.e. to mean syntax, grammar, word choice, usage, punctuation, and even spelling—a catch-all term that most English language-arts teachers use to describe the “stuff” that we “have to , but don’t want to” teach. For the “nuts and bolts” of instruction, knowledge of the above distinctions is useful; however, for the purposes of discussing the two philosophical approaches to teaching grammar, such fine-tuning of terms is not necessitated.

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Why Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) Doesn’t Work

Most teachers are familiar with Daily Oral Language, abbreviated as D.O.L. or under the guise of similar acronyms. Teachers like the canned program because it requires no teacher preparation, it provides “bell ringer” busy work so teachers can take attendance, and it seemingly “covers” the subjects of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. D.O.L. is probably the most popular  instructional technique used to teach grammar. The second most often used technique would be the “teach no grammar-nor-mechanics technique” as is frequently employed by writing process purists who save this “instruction” until the last step of a process piece, if they ever get to it at all. However, the subject of this blog is the former technique, and why D.O.L. does not work.

1. D.O.L. is proofreading, not sentence construction. As such, D.O.L. is error-correction, not meaning-making. Jeff Anderson, author of Everyday Editing, calls such activities “error-filled fix-a-thons.”

2. D.O.L. has no scope and sequence. It is random, repetitive, and hodgepodge. Many D.O.L. programs claim to offer grade level editions. Who determined that parentheses are at third grade instructional level and semi-colons are at the fourth grade instructional level? Check out the author’s Common Core aligned grammar and mechanics scope and sequence for one that does makes sense.

3. D.O.L. is implicit, part to whole instruction, divorced from any meaningful writing context. Correction is not teaching, and no D.O.L. program that I know of has effective teacher prompts to teach the grammatical concepts.

4. D.O.L. aims to teach writing without writing. Would a seamstress teach sewing by having her students spend all their time analyzing stitching errors? No. To sew, you have to practice sewing. To write, you have to practice writing.

5. D.O.L. involves little critical thinking. Writing involves decision-making about why and how sentences should be constructed for different rhetorical purposes. “Grammar is something to be explored, not just edited (Jeff Anderson).”

6. D.O.L. is not diagnostic. D.O.L. has too much repetition of what students already know, and not enough practice in what students do not know. Teachers need to use diagnostic assessments to determine individual student strengths and weaknesses in grammar and mechanics and then use instructional materials to effectively differentiate instruction.

7. D.O.L. rehearses errors and imprints them in the long term memories of students. The more visual and auditory imprints of errors, the more they will be repeated in future student writing.

8. D.O.L. correction does not transfer to student writing. Students fed a steady diet of D.O.L. throughout elementary, middle, and high school repeat the same old comma errors in the university setting. D.O.L. simply does not teach “deep learning.”

9. D.O.L. is bad test prep. Although teachers often advocate use of D.O.L. for this purpose, the multiple choice format of standardized tests is dissimilar. Tests generally ask “which is right?” not “which is wrong?” Check out the PAARC and SBAC tests for more.

10. D.O.L. uses bad writing models to teach good writing. It teaches what is wrong, not what is right. Although some error analysis can certainly be beneficial, at least as much time should be spent analyzing what makes good writing so good. Good “mentor texts” (Jeff Anderson) from both professional authors and student authors can teach what students should aspire to and emulate.

11. D.O.L. teaches from ignorance. “If they don’t become familiar with the concepts they are asked to edit for BEFORE they are asked to edit, of course they won’t do it well. How could they? How can you tell if something like a mark is missing if you don’t know where it is supposed to be in the first place?” and “But do we start history class with all the wrong dates and names on the board and ask kids to fix them? What about learning the concepts first (Jeff Anderson)?” Students cannot show what they do not know.

12. D.O.L. doesn’t teach the whys and hows of grammar and mechanics. Math teachers do not just teach the process of long division; they also teach the concepts behind the process, using examples, manipulatives, etc. to provide the “deep thinking” that students need. Students need to know why commas set apart appositives, for example. Students need to know how position of word choice affects meaning, for example.

13. D.O.L. isolates writing instruction from student writing. Students are invested in their own writing, not in that of pre-packaged print shown on the LCD projector, or SMART board®. Relevance and personal connection motivates student buy-in. “If the students care about their writing, are writing for a specific audience, and understand that “the importance of editing (and spelling conventionally) is to make their message clear and easy to read for their audience – or reader, they take this job seriously and work hard at making their writing clear (Regie Routman).”

14. D.O.L. does not provide enough practice. One isolated error correction does not teach to mastery. Good teaching involves instruction and immediate guided practice, followed by independent practice with teacher feedback. D.O.L. is throw-it-all-against-the-wall-and-hope-some-of-it-sticks instruction, not the targeted practice that students need to learn and retain the grammatical and mechanical concepts.

15. D.O.L. is boring. Ask students. They almost universally characterize D.O.L. as “repetitive, irrelevant, unhelpful, and a waste of time.”

16. D.O.L. has little research base to indicate that it works. Why use what does not work, when workable, effective alternatives are available for effective instruction in grammar and mechanics?

Here is the most effective alternative…

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 complete 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.

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

Grammar/Mechanics, Spelling/Vocabulary, Writing , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why Johnny Can’t Use Good Grammar

Some years back, the principal walked into my room while my student teacher was delivering a lesson. After a few minutes, the principal signaled me to step outside. “I would never hire Johnny to work at my school,” he said. Shocked, I asked him why. “On the board, he has a misplaced comma, and he ended a sentence with a preposition.” Sounds quite harsh, doesn’t it? That principal certainly had high expectations of his teachers.

Not every educated adult places the same level of importance regarding the proper use of grammar and mechanics as does that principal. However, many do. Proper grammar is a critically important tool for success in school, work, and life. We are judged, sometimes quite severely, by the words we use and the way we use them in both our speaking and writing. Misused grammar betrays us. The way we talk and write reflects our background, education, and ability to communicate. So what are the myths and realities of grammar instruction and most importantly, how can we improve student grammar?

The Five Myths of Grammar Instruction

1. Grammar is acquired naturally; it does not need to be taught. Oral language is not always an efficient teacher. In fact, it can be quite a mixed bag. For every proper modeling of the pronoun in the sentence: It is I, students hear at least five models of the incorrect: It is me. Grammar as it is caught must be complemented by a grammar that is taught.

2. Grammar is a meaningless collection of rules-most of which don’t work half the time. This myth may have developed from mindless “drill and kill” grammatical exercises with no application to real writing. Actually, our English grammar is remarkably flexible and consistent.

3. Grammar cannot be learned by students with some learning styles or disabilities. 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.

4. English grammar cannot 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.

5. Reading and writing a lot will improve grammar. Reading grammatically rich literature is wonderful, but learning is not passive and does not come by osmosis. Writing poorly may, indeed, reinforce poor grammatical usage.

How should we teach grammar to Johnny?  Don’t waste time teaching Johnny what he already knows. Find out what he does not know and target these areas of grammatical deficits. Use a good diagnostic assessment. Have Johnny practice those weaknesses with specific skill worksheets.

Teach the language of grammar and recognition of the common grammatical structures. Johnny has to know what a prepositional phrase is and how to know one when he sees one. In fact, over 30% of academic writing is composed of this grammatical form. Maybe learning “Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function” on Sesame Street® was not such a bad idea after all. Teach grammar in the context of writing. Using the common grammatical structures, have Johnny begin half of his written sentences with different sentence openers. This practice serves two purposes: It teaches recognition and manipulation of grammatical structures and it improves sentence variety.

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

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).

Grammar/Mechanics , , , , , , , ,