Posts Tagged ‘ESL grammar’

How to Teach Grammar

Why Don't We Teach Grammar?

Why We Don’t 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.


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.”

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, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary 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, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  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.


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.

Syntax in Reading and Writing is a function-based, sentence-level syntax program, designed to build reading comprehension and increase writing sophistication. The 18 parts of speech, phrases, and clauses lessons are each leveled from basic (elementary) to advanced (middle and high school) and feature 5 lesson components (10–15 minutes each): 1. Learn It!  2. Identify It!  3. Explain It! (analysis of challenging sentences) 4. Revise It! (kernel sentences, sentence expansion, syntactic manipulation) 5. Create It! (Short writing application with the syntactic focus in different genre).

Get the Diagnostic Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Assessments, Matrix, and Final Exam FREE Resource:

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

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How to Teach ESL Writing

I teach seventh grade English-language arts in a multi-language school in Sacramento. Filipino, Mexican, Hmong, Mien, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Ukrainian, and Korean students, each with their primary languages in tow, keep this veteran teacher learning and experimenting with writing instruction. Additionally, the student population at our school is highly transitory. Kids come and go. At times I feel like an ER doc.

In fact, the analogy is quite appropriate for an ELA teacher who treats the writing challenges of English Learners (EL). For those of you who don’t watch the plethora of medical dramas on television, the ER doc is responsible for triage.

Triage (pronounced /ˈtriɑʒ/) is a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition. This rations patient treatment efficiently when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately. The term comes from the French verb trier, meaning to separate, sort, sift or select.[1] There are two types of triage: simple and advanced.[2] The outcome may result in determining the order and priority of emergency treatment, the order and priority of emergency transport, or the transport destination for the patient, based upon the special needs of the patient or the balancing of patient distribution in a mass-casualty setting (Wikipedia).

Now this is not to say that EL students are all incurably sick; many are gifted thinkers who already are successful students. However, glossing over the specific needs of developing EL writers and hoping that they will “catch up” in their writing when their oral language and reading abilities in English “catch up” is simply akin to medical malpractice.

Having diagnosed and treated a wide spectrum of EL writing over the years, my most useful two triage tips are 1) effective diagnosis and 2) prioritization of patient needs into two types of treatments: emergency and long-term care.

1) Diagnosis—In spite of my twenty-nine years in the classroom, I am a surprisingly inaccurate “gut-level” diagnostician. I make assumptions based upon prior experience and stereotypes, despite the fact that I know better. I’m human. However, I’ve learned to rely more and more on effective diagnostic assessments to take the “me” out of my diagnoses. A few, easy-to-use whole-class reading, spelling, and grammar diagnostic assessments inform me how to differentiate instruction for my EL students.

2) Treatment—In writing instruction, teachers of EL students face two key decisions:

  • What must be treated now and what can wait.
  • What is immediately and easily treatable and what will take time to treat.

In grading written work, in sharing during student-teacher writing conferences, and in planning differentiated direct instruction, an effective teacher has to have a workable “treatment plan” for teaching EL students to improve their writing. Following is my plan based upon the key two decisions shared above. To stay consistent with our analogy, I will classify the two treatment options as emergency treatment and long-term care. I list specific symptoms, i.e. examples of student writing problems, but in no particular order.

Emergency TreatmentSymptoms

Pronoun CaseHim gave she her sandwich.

Relative ClausesThe girl which I know is pretty.

Demonstrative PronounsThis desk over there is my favorite.

Pronoun ReferencesThey keep them pencil for himself.

Verb Tense ConsistencyI go to school and will study very hard.

Simple Verb FormsI done know that already.

Subject-Verb AgreementThe students speaks English.

Common Irregular Verb FormsI buyed him a candy bar.

ArticlesHe has basketball to shoot to practice for a games.

Adjective PlacementShe is a teacher very smart.

NegationI don’t need no help.

Simple coordinating conjunctions (BOAS) but, or, and, soIf she won’t, but I’ll quit.

Common subordinating conjunctionsBecause I don’t know English, I don’t write.

Plural and Singular NounsI did my writings in pens.

Predictable Sound-SpellingsWen he understands me I kin hep him wit his hoamwurk.

FragmentsAfter I go to the movies.

Long Term CareSymptoms

Idioms (especially in prepositions)I look in the table for the book.

Figures of SpeechShe gave her effort her best.

Word OrderI can hear what is the girl singing.

Denotative VocabularyI took the metro from here to my aunt’s house in Canada.

Connotative VocabularyShe runs very slowly.

InflectionsTo gain the confident, I try to speak loft of English.

Verb PhrasesI miss to study for my test.

Sophisticated Verb Forms(Progressive) She will be presented her project tomorrow. (Perfect) I will have gave him two dollars at lunch.

Uncommon Irregular Verb FormsI lended her my notebook.

Correlative ConjunctionsEither you study, so you don’t; both I don’t care.

Sentence VarietySubject-Verb-Complement in every sentence.

Run-onsShe opened the door she helped him sit down after lunch.

SubjunctiveIf I was richer, I would give you presents.

Irregular SpellingsThat was wierd.

Why not make sense of EL writing instruction with a curriculum that will help you efficiently integrate grammar, usage, diction, and syntax into writing instruction?

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  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, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  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, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  program.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary “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, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary
Grades 4-8 Programs

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