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Grammar Research and Balanced Instruction

"Word Crimes (Revisited)" Video

“Word Crimes (Revisited)”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Writing and Reading Syntax

Syntax in Reading and Writin

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Syntax Programs

Pennington Publishing Grammar Programs

Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and High School) are full-year, traditional, grade-level grammar, usage, and mechanics programs with plenty of remedial practice to help students catch up while they keep up with grade-level standards. Twice-per-week, 30-minute, no prep lessons in print or interactive Google slides with a fun secret agent theme. Simple sentence diagrams, mentor texts, video lessons, sentence dictations. Plenty of practice in the writing context. Includes biweekly tests and a final exam.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Interactive Notebook (Grades 4‒8) is a full-year, no prep interactive notebook without all the mess. Twice-per-week, 30-minute, no prep grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons, formatted in Cornell Notes with cartoon response, writing application, 3D graphic organizers (easy cut and paste foldables), and great resource links. No need to create a teacher INB for student make-up work—it’s done for you! Plus, get remedial worksheets, biweekly tests, and a final exam.

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