Posts Tagged ‘English grammar’

Simple Sentence Diagramming

Sentence diagramming can be a useful tool to make the abstract components of English grammar more concrete. Most students find that the visual image helps them better understand and remember grammatical terms, the parts of a sentence, and the basic rules of grammar. With practice, writers can use diagramming to diagnose their own grammatical errors and fix them.

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Programs

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

My Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and High School programs include a simple sentence diagram for each lesson (plus a mentor text, error analysis, practice in the writing context, and a formative assessment). The sentence diagrams are “simple,” because instead of requiring students to construct the entire diagram of a given sentence from scratch (takes too much class time), the simple sentence diagrams provide the drawing (the lines) and the words of the sentence that are not the focus of the grammar lesson.

Check out how much students can learn about grammar with these two simple sentence diagrams from my programs. Both examples focus on adverbs.

Simple Sentence Diagram Examples


Lesson Focus: An adverb can modify a verb and answer How? An adverb may be placed before or after the verb that it modifies. Modifies means to identify, define, describe, or limit. Examples: Carefully she answered. He walked slowly.

Complete the sentence diagram for this sentence: They happily played video games.



Compare your diagram to that on the display. Use a different color pen or pencil to place a √ above each correctly placed answer and change any errors.




Happily, they played video games. They happily played video games. They played video games happily.


Lesson Focus: Today we are studying adverb order. Remember that an adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb and can be a word or a phrase. When using more than one adverb to modify the same part of speech, usually place adverbs in this functional order: 1. What degree 2. How 3. Where 4. When. Example: She sings more enthusiastically on the stage each night.

Revise and complete the sentence diagram for this mixed-up sentence: “The track star runs quickly now.”





Compare your diagram to that on the display. Use a different color pen or pencil to place a check mark √ above each correctly placed answer and revise any errors.






The track star runs quickly now.

Whether you choose to include simple sentence diagramming as one instructional component of teaching grammar and usage in the reading and writing contexts, the following three 10-minute lessons will help your students better understand how sentences are structured.

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Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

Grammar Descriptivism and Prescriptivism

Descriptivism and Prescriptivism

As an English teacher, one of my go-to resources has always been Richard Nordquist’s prolific posts on the ThoughtCo site. As I write articles to explore my understanding of our language and how to teach the grammar, usage, and mechanics thereof, I can’t tell you how many times I dig into writing on a subject only to find that Nordquist has already done so. The same has been the case regarding the topics of this article; however, I do bring some originality to the discussion of prescriptivism and descriptivism. And, of course, I have ulterior motives (Don’t we all?) to promote my grammar, usage, and mechanics programs for grades 4–high school ELA teachers. Disclaimer up-front.

Let’s start with the definitions of prescriptivism and descriptivism, so I can stop using the italics thereafter. This is the best summary of each approach I’ve found from Stan Carey:

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are contrasting approaches to grammar and usage, particularly to how they are taught. Both are concerned with the state of a language — descriptivism with how it’s used, prescriptivism with how it should be used.

For English teachers, who teach with a prescriptive approach to grammar, usage, and mechanics, the notion of right and wrong guide their instruction. They believe in the difference between Standard and Non-Standard English. They reference style manuals and consult authorities, such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab. They favor direction instruction and practice of the rules of the language. These language traditionalists would teach a lesson on pronoun antecedents, one on avoiding double negatives, and one on the proper use of the semicolon and expect to see the fruits of their labor on the next assigned essay. They are inductive (part to whole) practitioners and use explicit instructional techniques.

For English teachers, who teach with a descriptive approach to grammar, usage, and mechanics, they focus more on the use of the language as it is and as it is evolving. They make fewer judgments upon correctness and emphasize communicative clarity over conformity to an arbitrary set of rules. They favor instruction in the tools of language on an ad hoc basis, such as a mini-lesson on mixing verb tense, prepositional idiomatic expressions, or comma usage on an as needed basis in the context of authentic writing or speaking. They are deductive (whole to part) practitioners and prefer to teach implicitly from reading and writing, rather than explicitly through contrived, outside sources.

What does the research say about these approaches? Having served as a teacher when both prescriptivism and descriptivism were en vogue, and research studies purported to advocate what was in and debunk what was out, I would simply say that any quick survey of this field of educational research would lead most teachers to voice, “Yeah, but…” for each and every study. With respect to grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction, the variables of instructional approaches, prior knowledge, language ability, etc. preclude any hard and fast This is the right way to teach conclusions. It’s easy to knock one approach to grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction by examining null hypotheses which have been confirmed; for example, “These studies indicate no statistically significant difference between direct instruction of capitalization rules and no such instruction”; however, where does that get us? No closer to guidance on how to teach capitalization. And most all, except the most ardent and consistent descriptivists, would rail against presidential Tweets in which every other word was capitalized. See my Word Crimes (Revisited) video, for a laugh.

So, where has the pendulum swung between these two instructional philosophies?

At this point in time, it appears that die-hard descriptivists have been benched. Prescriptivism is the predominant influence upon English teachers in most American classes. Teachers who never taught a lick of grammar ten years ago, or those who relegated grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction to writing openers, a la Daily Oral Language, are busting our Cornell Note lectures and assigning worksheets again. ESL and ELD teachers have been key advocates of this approach to language-learning.

Much credit for this pendulum swing to traditional grammar instruction must be assigned to the authors of the Common Core State Standards, especially with respect to the Language Strand.

These authors note:

To build a foundation for college and career readiness in language, students must gain control over many conventions of standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics as well as learn other ways to use language to convey meaning effectively… The inclusion of Language standards in their own strand should not be taken as an indication that skills related to conventions, effective language use, and vocabulary are unimportant to reading, writing, speaking, and listening; indeed, they are inseparable from such contexts (

Teachers reading the introduction to the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies,
Science, and Technical Subjects will note the oft-repeated “correct,” “correctness,” and “standard” references and these words are used throughout the Language Strand as well. A few examples from the Common Core Language Strand will suffice:

Examples of Language Standards Emphasizing Correctness

  • Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive). L.6.1.
  • 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.
  • Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in verb voice and mood. L.8.


Teaching Grammar and Mechanics for Grades 4-High School

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and High School Programs

I’m Mark Pennington, author of the full-year interactive grammar notebooks,  grammar literacy centers, and the traditional grade-level 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics programs. Teaching Grammar and Mechanics includes 56 (64 for high school) interactive language conventions lessons,  designed for twice-per-week direct instruction in the grade-level grammar, usage, and mechanics standards. The scripted lessons (perfect for the grammatically-challenged teacher) are formatted for classroom display. Standards review, definitions and examples, practice and error analysis, simple sentence diagrams, mentor texts with writing applications, and formative assessments are woven into every 25-minute lesson. The program also includes the Diagnostic Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Assessments with corresponding worksheets to help students catch up, while they keep up with grade-level, standards-aligned instruction.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Programs

Or why not get the value-priced Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 BUNDLES? These grade-level programs include both teacher’s guide and student workbooks and are designed to help you teach all the Common Core Anchor Standards for Language. In addition to the Teaching Grammar and Mechanics program, each BUNDLE provides 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 the grammar, mechanics, and vocabulary components.

The program 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.

Check out the brief introductory video and enter DISCOUNT CODE 3716 at check-out for 10% off this value-priced program. We do sell print versions of the teacher’s guide and student workbooks. Yes, we accept purchase orders. Contact for pricing. Read what teachers are saying about this comprehensive program:

The most comprehensive and easy to teach grammar, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary program. I’m teaching all of the grade-level standards and remediating previous grade-level standards. The no-prep and minimal correction design of this program really respects a teacher’s time. At last, I’m teaching an integrated program–not a hodge-podge collection of DOL grammar, spelling and vocabulary lists, and assorted worksheets. I see measurable progress with both my grade-level and intervention students. BTW… I love the scripted lessons!

─Julie Villenueve

Get the Diagnostic Grammar and Usage Assessment with Recording Matrix FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic Mechanics Assessment with Recording Matrix FREE Resource:

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English Adjective Order

Adjectival Order

English Adjective Order

Before we jump into our lesson on adjectival order, let’s get on the same page about adjectivesFirst, no one says or writes adjectival; however, since this is an article and teaching lesson plan on adjectives, we had better walk the walk and talk the talk. We all know that adjective is a noun and that, stylistically, we don’t put two nouns, such as adjective and order next to each other. Practically speaking and in common usage, we cram nouns together all the time and give the first noun a fancy title: attributive noun. This first position noun is also referred to as “a noun premodifier, a noun adjunct, and a converted adjective (Nordquist). If you just clicked on that link, you are just as much a grammar nerd as I. Ah, but I digress…


An adjective modifies a noun and answers Which one? How many? or What kind? Modifies means to define, limit, or describe. In other words, an adjective talks about a noun.


It can be a single word (delicious lasagna) or a compound-word (world-famous hot dogs). Note: Don’t use a hyphen if you can use the word and between the two adjectives.

When to Use Commas between Adjectives

When coordinate adjectives of a similar category are used in a list, they have to be separated with commas. To determine if adjectives are coordinate adjectives, try placing the word and between the adjectives. Second, try reversing them. If the phrases sound fine both ways, the adjectives are coordinate adjectives and require commas between each. Example: large, angry dog

Coordinate Adjectives  Limerick

When writing a series of adjectives,

Think and between each

and reverse

The adjective order

and if they sound fine,

Use commas between

every time.

When Not to Use Commas between Adjectives

When hierarchical adjectives build upon each other with different levels or degrees to modify the same noun, the adjectives are not separated by commas. To determine if adjectives are hierarchical adjectives, try placing the word and between the adjectives. Second, try reversing them. If the phrases make no sense both ways, the adjectives are hierarchical and do not use commas to separate them. Examples: A hot thick-crust sausage pizza.

Hierarchical Adjectives Limerick

When writing a series of adjectives,

Think and between each

and reverse

The adjective order

and if they sound bad,

Commas you never should add.

Adjectival Order

Before Nouns: In English, we usually place adjectives before nouns. Examples: comfortable coat, that cheeseburger

After Nouns: An adjective that follows a linking verb to describe a preceding noun  is called a predicate adjectiveExample: Mark is nice; he looks good; and he feels well. Because the predicate adjective serves as an object, it often has modifiers. Example: Joe was unusually cool.

…for elementary students

According to Function: When using more than one adjective to modify the same noun in a sentence, usually follow this order of adjectival functions: Which One-How Many-What Kind. Examples: these (Which one?) two How many? handsome (What kind?) men

Practice: Re-order the adjectives and place the commas where they belong.

  1. a geometric six-sided shape
  2. realistic only her hope
  3. mean that twelve-year-old kid
  4. those scary countless and sleepless nights

…for secondary students

According to Function: When using more than one adjective to modify the same noun or pronoun in a sentence, usually follow this order of adjectival functions:


Examples: a, an, the, this, that, these, those

Amount or Number

Examples: few, twenty-nine


Examples: beautiful, grumpy


Examples: huge, miniscule


Examples: young, senior


Examples: square, elongated


Examples: blue, dark

Proper Adjective

Examples: Burger King Whopper, Beyoncé records

Purpose, Qualifier, Limitation

Examples: recreational, middle, only

Noun or Pronoun

Examples: balloon, Mr. Patches, one

Practice: Re-order the adjectives and place the commas where they belong.

  1. the strange-looking Martian tiny green two invaders
  2. paint yellow old round an splotch
  3. 1000-page this Pennington Publishing comprehensive 1000-page grammar and mechanics full-year program
  4. those little two-year old three cute children


Answers for elementary practice…

  1. a six-sided geometric shape
  2. her only realistic hope
  3. that twelve-year-old mean kid
  4. those countless, scary, and sleepless nights

Answers for secondary practice…

  1. the two strange-looking, tiny green Martian invaders
  2. an old, round, yellow paint splotch
  3. this full-year, comprehensive, 1000-page Pennington Publishing grammar and mechanics program
  4. those three cute, little two-year old children


Want a full-year grammar and mechanics instructional scope and sequence for grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8?

Get the Grammar and Mechanics Grades 4-8 Instructional Scope and Sequence FREE Resource:


Teaching Grammar and Mechanics for Grades 4-High School

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and High School Programs

I’m Mark Pennington, author of the full-year interactive grammar notebooks,  grammar literacy centers, and the traditional grade-level 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics programs. Teaching Grammar and Mechanics includes 56 (64 for high school) interactive language conventions lessons,  designed for twice-per-week direct instruction in the grade-level grammar, usage, and mechanics standards. The scripted lessons (perfect for the grammatically-challenged teacher) are formatted for classroom display. Standards review, definitions and examples, practice and error analysis, simple sentence diagrams, mentor texts with writing applications, and formative assessments are woven into every 25-minute lesson. The program also includes the Diagnostic Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Assessments with corresponding worksheets to help students catch up, while they keep up with grade-level, standards-aligned instruction.

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Don’t Teach Grammar Mini-Lessons

Grammar Mini-Lessons

Don’t Teach Grammar Mini-Lessons

Don’t teach grammar mini-lessons for two reasons: this instructional methodology is implicit and ineffective.

Currently, the top Google search for “new research on teaching grammar” brings up this article from The Atlantic, written by Professor Michelle Navarre Cleary:

The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar

A century of research shows that traditional grammar lessons—those hours spent diagramming sentences and memorizing parts of speech—don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers. Yes, they need to learn grammar, but the old-fashioned way does not work.

Case settled? Not exactly. In educational research it is much easier to disprove than to prove. Educational researchers frequently employ the null hypothesis in their experimental design. In a nutshell, a grammar program research study might have the following hypothesis: “There is no statistical significance between the achievement of grade 8 students taught with such and such grammar program and those not taught with said grammar program as measured by such and such assessment over such and such a period of time.”

By design, any findings would have to be extremely limited and the control group, unless unexposed to any literacy activities in hermetically-sealed isolation chambers, would have so many variables that any findings would be questionable. Such has been the case with the century of research on grammar and usage acquisition and its transfer to writing. Two separate issues, by the way.

What the good professor is advocating is learning grammar implicitly from reading and writing, especially the latter. She suggests mini-lessons in the context of writing as a superior method of writing instruction (Notice: not grammar instruction).

We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones. Often, surprisingly little formal grammar instruction is needed. Researcher Marcia Hurlow has shown that many errors “disappear” from student writing when students focus on their ideas and stop “trying to ‘sound correct.’”

These grammar mini-lessons are part and parcel of the implicit instructional approach: “If you do something over and over again, you’ll eventually stop making mistakes and get gooder at the task.” It’s akin to playing Monopoly for the first time without reading the rules. No, you don’t eventually learn to play by playing and being interrupted by occasional mini-lessons on what to do when passing “Go.”

What’s Wrong with the Implicit Approach in Mini-Lessons?

  1. It is simply inefficient. Waiting to teach a mini-lesson as students need the grammatical tool always comes with this advice: “When you notice that some of your students are having capitalization issues regarding article titles, pull a group of students needing the instruction and teach the relevant rules.” Of course, other students may need that same instruction, but have not yet evidenced the problems in writer mini-conferences with the teacher. Furthermore, why not teach the capitalization rules for all proper nouns. You know you are going to have to teach another mini-lesson next week on the capitalization of song and poem titles. Lastly, the beauty of the Common Core State Standards is the grade-level expectations and the mastery approach to learning. The CCSS Language Strand has quite explicit grammar, usage, and mechanics grade-level Standards.
  2. It is haphazard and disjointed. A traditional grammar approach provides explicit, planned instruction. An isolated mini-lesson on combining sentences by starting with a prepositional phrase will not make sense unless students have a solid foundation of subjects, predicates (a prepositional phrase never includes the subject or predicate), the characteristics of a phrase and a complete sentence, the role of commas with introductory phrases, etc. All other academic disciplines build upon foundations: no math teacher would do a mini-lesson on long division before teaching the multiplication tables.
  3. It does not connect to other  language instruction. An isolated mini-lesson on semi-colons does not connect to related lessons on comma-conjunction rules, independent and dependent clauses, the use of phrases in lists, etc. The amount of scaffolding required to teach a mini-lesson on mis-use of the semi-colon is significant. Interestingly, the most popular approach to grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction, Daily Oral Language, is at the forefront of criticism by those favoring the mini-lesson approach for not connecting to other language instruction. See my article “Why Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) Doesn’t Work” for more.
  4. It falsely teaches students that grammar is an editing skill alone. Aside from the sentence combining practice, advocates of the mini-lesson approach teaches students that grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction is all about mistakes, rather than about tools to enrich speaking and writing.

Why Are Grammar Mini-Lessons So Ineffective?

  1. There is no corroborating research. Those advocating the relegation of grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction to mini-lessons have zero research studies to confirm a positive correlation with this approach on either grammar or writing assessments. It’s easy to throw stones at traditional grammar approaches, but it does not follow that mini-lessons are the best and only alternatives. The professor in The Atlantic article only cites anecdotal evidence that learning grammar from writing does, indeed, work.
  2. We’ve been there and done that. Decades of ignoring explicit grammar instruction have not seen increased reading or writing ability in our students. The Common Core authors in Appendix A crush the notion that implicit instructional approaches produce better results than explicit ones. Hence, the unpopular (among grammar mini-lesson fans) inclusion of a separate Language Strand. 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 (even including parts of speech and sentence diagramming) 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.
  3. There is less grammar teaching in mini-center classrooms. It’s just true. Those who use mini-lessons devalue the important contributions that grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction bring to developing readers and writers. Or, as is often the case, teachers did not learn grammar as students and did not learn how to teach grammar, usage, and mechanics in teacher preparation classes. Grammar can be scary and teachers seek their own instructional comfort levels.
  4. This instructional philosophy trickles into other language instruction. The implicit instruction of grammar mini-lessons bleeds into other areas of language instruction. Typically, those who teach grammar mini-lessons follow suit in vocabulary instruction. Again, the days of teaching only vocabulary in context and assorted mini-lessons on context clues has not done the job. The Common Core State Standards require a variety of direct vocabulary instruction at each grade level to improve the academic language of our students. See an example of the Vocabulary Acquisition and Use Standards, again found in the Language Strand to see if these Standards are conducive to a mini-lesson approach (They are not). In reading instruction we abandoned the “whole to part” strategy years ago following the 1985 National Reading Panel Report with its reading research consistently supporting the explicit, systematic approach to reading development. Interestingly, many teachers who now teach direct vocabulary and reading instruction have hung on to the implicit approach to grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction.

Of course, teachers want to know how best to teach grammar, if mini-lessons do not work. No, there are other alternatives beyond simply passing out drill and kill worksheets or DOL. Check out my article, “Grammar and the Common Core” and my grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics programs.

Get the Diagnostic Grammar and Usage Assessment with Recording Matrix FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic Mechanics Assessment with Recording Matrix FREE Resource:

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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.

“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.

“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.

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.

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.

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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Remedial Literacy Centers

Grade-level literacy centers, also known as stations, are wonderful additions to any elementary or secondary teacher’s classroom. Literacy centers, in particular, offer a means of teaching key grade-level standards other than the didactic lecture approach or the pass out the same worksheet to everyone approach. However, good teachers know that not all of their students are at grade level. Certainly all students need grade-level instruction, but some need to catch up and some need to move ahead.

Many teachers who have experienced success with grade-level literacy centers also want to differentiate instruction with literacy centers. A worthwhile goal! Often, teachers try to design individual centers which offer grade-level, accelerated, and remedial activities. Or teachers try to create open-ended literacy centers which have different activities. However, in creating these differentiated centers, the centers tend to devolve into either or both behavioral management issues and/or individual work stations in which students are only members of the group for the purposes of the literacy center rotation. In other words, the key social and instructional benefits of literacy centers (cooperative learning) are negated.

So, the problem to be solved is the following: How can teachers teach to the different needs of students within the literacy center instructional approach to both meet the needs of diverse learners and maintain the social and instructional benefits (cooperative learning) of literacy centers?

The answer for remedial intervention is flexible ability grouping. Students benefit by working together on common needs. Literacy centers provide ideal vehicles for cooperative remediation in which teachers can target instruction to the demonstrable needs of the group. Targeted instruction necessitates assessment-based curriculum. Diagnostic assessments can pinpoint precisely what students need to master. Teachers can group students according to their diagnostic needs and then design literacy center lessons to meet those needs.

The focus of these remedial literacy centers becomes the learning deficits to master, not the remedial students themselves. In other words, remedial literacy centers need not be permanent groups of below-basic “bluebirds.” When learning deficits are the focus of the remedial literacy group, the bluebirds fly away from that group to either a grade-level literacy center or to another assessment-based literacy center.

Good teachers can use this model to assure that all students have the benefits of heterogeneous group and homogeneous group experiences. Literacy center rotations can easily facilitate this flexibility.

If you are committed to helping your below-grade-level students catch up while they keep up with grade-level instructional standards and you want to incorporate remedial literacy centers (stations) into your instruction, this is the Remedial Literacy Centers BUNDLE for you!

Designed specifically for literacy centers, each of these four full-year programs will target assessment-based instruction to the needs of your individual students. Following are the four programs included in this special value BUNDLE:

1. Remedial Spelling Literacy Center 
2. Remedial Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Literacy Center 
3. Phonics Literacy Center 
4. Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books 

Each of these remedial intervention literacy centers is diagnostically-based. Students take the whole-class diagnostic screening assessments, and once graded, you will know which of your students needs remedial instruction and in which centers to place them.

Because all of these diagnostic assessments are comprehensive, the test data pinpoint precisely which content and skills require remediation and which do not for each of your students.

This means that you will be able to let the assessment data inform your placement of students within these remedial literacy groups. For example, if the assessments indicate that Johnny has both diphthong and r-controlled phonics deficits while Amanda has only the r-controlled phonics deficit, Johnny will be assigned to the Phonics Literacy Center for two workshop sessions, but Amanda will join Johnny for just one workshop session. Now that’s assessment-based instruction that is efficient and prescriptive! Both Johnny and Amanda get the instruction they deserve without wasted instructional time.

The management system makes these flexible groupings work together. Whether you are using literacy centers solely for remedial intervention or adding to grade-level literacy centers (check out the author’s grade-level centers HERE), either may be implemented with success with the resources provided in these programs. For example, the resources include 10 literacy center rotation options to teach from 4 to 10 literacy centers within 40 to 100 minutes per day, 4 days per week. Literacy centers need not be a management nightmare!

You, your students, parents, and administrators will see measurable progress on the program progress-monitoring matrices with the resources in he Remedial Literacy Centers BUNDLE. And what a VALUE as compared to the prices of each individual program… it’s like getting four programs for the price of three.

Check out these FREE SAMPLES:

Get the Remedial Literacy Centers BUNDLE FREE Resource:

Mark Pennington is the author of both Academic Literacy Centers and Remedial Literacy Centers. These grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 centers are offered individually or as value-priced BUNDLES. Click to check out these Pennington Publishing programs on the Teachers Pay Teachers.

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Keep the Serial (Oxford) Comma

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For the want of a horse the rider was lost,

For the want of a rider the battle was lost,

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

–Benjamin Franklin

Okay, let’s keep things in perspective, shall we? Comma rules are not the most important components of human communication, right? However, the simple comma does impact the specific meaning of a sentence, as well as how the sentence is interpreted.

For the want of a comma…

Comma Rules

22 Comma Rules

–A man’s civil rights were lost. The Louisiana Supreme ruled that accused and self-confessed rapist, Warren Demesme, was not asserting his right to counsel when he stated, “This is how I feel, if y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog ’cause this is not what’s up.”

The Orleans Parish district attorneys argued that the lack of the comma between “lawyer” and “dog” meant that the accused was asking for a “lawyer dog,” not a “lawyer, dawg.” Now, no one would defend the self-confessed actions of the accused, but Americans do uphold the Constitutional right of the accused to an attorney and the right “to remain silent.” The comma (or lack thereof) certainly has significance in this case.

For the want of a comma…

–Your grandfather was cannibalized. “Let’s eat Grandpa.” The comma (or lack thereof) would certainly matter to your grandfather.

Now to be clear, the above examples are issues of commas placed before nouns of direct address. No one argues that this comma rule is superfluous. However, Americans are divided in their views on the serial comma rule (also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma rule). For a refresher, the serial comma is a comma placed before the coordinating conjunctions and or or when listing three or more items. The use, misuse, or non-use of the serial comma has its own consequences:

For the want of a serial comma…

–$10,000,000 was lost in a Maine court judgment. In a class action lawsuit against a dairy company regarding overtime pay for its truck drivers, the workers prevailed because the state laws on overtime regulations did not include a serial comma. (See Daniel Victor’s March 16, 2017 article in the Washington Post for the details.)

In sum, punctuation, including the serial comma, does affect meaning. 

To include or not include the serial comma…

Now, I’m sure that most of you already have made up your minds regarding whether we should or should not use the serial comma. Those who don’t care have stopped reading by now or never looked at this article.

My take is that your views have been chiefly influenced by one or both of two factors: 1. What you read 2. Your most influential English teacher

  1. If you read online news, blogs, posts, texts, and emails as your primary daily reading, you are exposed to a high percentage of text without the serial comma. If you read novels or technical materials, manuals, and reports as your primary daily reading, you are exposed to a high percentage of text with the serial comma. English teachers used to characterize these distinctions as informal and formal reading, but these lines have become blurred in the digital age.
  2. We tend to dig in and defend what we have been taught. Our English teachers taught us one way and marked us wrong if we used the other way. As an English teacher at the middle school, high school, and college levels and author of numerous grammar books and a writing style manual, I’ll let you in on a little secret: We English teachers don’t know the comma rules better than the average educated American. We never had a graduate level class on writing mechanics. 

My take? I value the use of the serial comma for three reasons: clarity, consistency, and conformity. However, its usage should be dictated by the writing genre.

How to Use Serial Commas

Serial Commas


Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford, 2009) nicely clarifies the issue of clarity with or without the serial comma:

“Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities whereas including it never will” (Garner 676).

A few specific examples demonstrate why the serial comma provides clarity and avoids ambiguity.

The serial comma permits the use of compound subjects or objects in lists. (Remember, compound means two or more.)

Example without the Serial Comma: For lunch I enjoy hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly and fish. In this example, “peanut butter and jelly” is a compound object. A serial comma following would add clarity and prevent a truly gross sandwich.

Additionally, I’m not comma crazy, but I would also use a comma when listing only two items in a list if the and or or coordinating conjunction joins a compound subject or object. Example without the Serial Comma: On our summer trip to Britain, we want to visit the Fox and Hound and Stratford upon Avon. Most would agree that a comma following “Hound” would clear things up quite a bit for the reader.

Failing to use the serial comma can produce problems with appositives. Remember that an appositive identifies, describes, defines, or explains what comes before or after a part of speech (usually a noun or a pronoun). Most of the funny examples that you see posted to argue in favor of the serial comma involve confusing appositives.

Example without the Serial Comma: I just finished mailing letters to my children, Santa Claus and Jimmy Fallon; At the banquet we dined with good old friends, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; At the Halloween party I danced with Mrs. Peabody’s two ex-husbands, Wonder Woman and Cleopatra.

Notice that in the above examples, appositives become confusing when the first item listed in a series is a common noun (an uncapitalized idea, person, place, or thing), followed by two or more proper nouns (a capitalized person, place, or thing).

Now, articles which purport to be objective regarding the serial comma usually trot out confusing appositives to argue why serial commas can be just as ambiguous as the lack thereof.

Example with the Serial Comma: We ate dinner with Kim Kardashian, the reality television star, and the delightful Taylor Swift.

Those using this sentence example (serial killers? No, too harsh) suggest that three women may be inferred here. However, their argument sets up a straw dog to prove their point. The sentence is not an example of an ambiguous serial comma at all; it is a mistake in syntax (the order of words in a sentence). A good English teacher would suggest either of these two revisions: 1. We ate dinner with Kim Kardashian (the reality television star) and the delightful Taylor Swift. 2. We ate dinner with Kim Kardashian, who is a reality television star, and the delightful Taylor Swift. The first sentence uses a parenthetical insertion and the second uses a non-restrictive relative clause.


In addition to providing clarity, the serial comma rule is also consistent with other Standard American English punctuation. Specifically, the serial comma rule is consistent with other punctuation rules regarding the separation of items in a list.

For example, semicolons may be used to separate long phrases or clauses in a list. No anti-serial comma journalist would ever abandon the last semicolon in the following list:

Semicolon Example: The Martin landed on Earth; the Venetian attempted to communicate; and the Air Force Captain asserted her belief that extraterrestrials did, indeed, exist.

Moreover, the use of the serial comma appeals to our sense of parallelism. Parallel ideas, grammatical structures, and punctuation are characteristics of consistent, predictable, memorable, reader-friendly writing. As Mary Norris, writing in The New Yorker, states, “If a sentence were a picket fence, the serial commas would be posts at regular intervals.”

Example: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Lincoln’s example shows the impact of parallel ideas, grammatical structures, and punctuation. Without the serial comma in the sentence above, the cadence of the writing and speech would be altered and inconsistent with the other parallel forms in The Gettysburg Address.

Those proposing the elimination of the serial comma always seem to add the following caveat to their position: Drop the serial comma unless its elimination would be confusing to the reader. Inconsistency is built into their rule; such is not the case for the serial comma rule. Such is the stated position of the only major style guide which supports the elimination of the serial comma.


Only the Associated Press (AP) stylebook supports dropping the serial comma “unless deemed absolutely necessary.” Admittedly, the AP position has wielded tremendous influence. Following AP style, newspapers uniformly omit the serial comma. Both prestigious papers, such as The New York Times and tabloids, such as The National Enquirer, avoid the comma. Some magazines, such as People and Variety, do so as well. Furthermore, the lack of the serial comma is also firmly entrenched in digital media, largely due to the AP influence. Because of the pervasiveness of such digital news, the serial comma’s days may be numbered.

However, the use of the serial comma is supported in the overwhelming majority of academic style guides: Chicago, Turabian, Modern Language Association, American Psychological Association, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the U.S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual 8.27, 8.28. Also, contrary to much of what you may have heard, the serial comma has not been abandoned in all periodicals. For example,  The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Magazine adhere to its usage.

Additionally, the respected Online Writing Lab of Purdue University (a favorite go-to guide for teachers and students) supports the serial comma rule.

Clearly we have a divergence of authoritative opinion and common usage regarding the serial comma. Despite the clear advantages of the serial comma in terms of clarity and consistency, conformity to the dictates of the writing genre (and the editor or teacher’s demands) makes the most practical sense. I’ll close with a few pragmatic applications:

  1. When writing a newspaper article, omit the serial comma.
  2. When writing an article for a blog or magazine, ask the editor whether or not to use the serial comma. Conform to whomever is paying the bills.
  3. When writing informally on the web, in letters, cards, emails, texts, posts,flyers, bulletins, etc., pick your poison, but be consistent as possible. Try not to judge others’ usage too harshly in this transitional “no-man’s land.”
  4. When writing reports, essays, narratives, novels, and documents, use the serial comma.
  5. Teachers should teach the serial comma and expect its usage in formal academic writing. However, the discussion of its use in different writing genre and in the evolution of our language is also productive. Using the serial comma to explain the purpose of punctuation and how it affects meaning is valuable.

I’m Mark Pennington, English-language arts teacher and reading specialist. More to the point, I am the author of the comprehensive grades 4–high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics programs and the Pennington Manual of Style, a useful reference and teaching tool. Click HERE for a complete list of the 22 comma rules with clear examples.

The Pennington Manual of Style

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

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