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Don’t Use Mad Libs to Teach Grammar

Mad Libs: Not for Grammar Instrction

Don’t Use Mad Libs to Teach Grammar

This morning I woke up to the usual pinging of Pinterest pins. As a teacher-publisher, I use Pinterest to market my ELA and reading intervention programs. I normally create a few pins per day in those subject areas. As a result, my daily allotment of “Fresh Pins” are, of course, targeted to those areas.

One of those pins this morning was titled “12 Fun Ways to Teach Grammar in Your Classroom.” I’m familiar with the author and her products (quite good, by the way) and so I read her article. After all, who doesn’t want to add a bit more fun to one’s teaching? Her 12 ideas were contributed by other teachers, posting on her Education to the Core Facebook Group.

One of the 12 suggestions is MAD LiBS™. For the few who are not familiar with this game and published materials, now the property of Penguin Random House, the procedures and name were created and coined in the 1950s. According to Wikipedia, more than 110 million copies of Mad Libs books have been sold since the series was first published in 1958.

The Mad Libs format consists of a short story in which a number of key words are replaced with blanks. Under each word is some categorical term, such as a part of speech. The person who is it (the assigned reader) asks the others playing the game for an example of the categorical term, such as a noun.  The reader does not read the story, and so the other players must provide an example of the noun without any story context. The reader elicits word or phrase examples for the rest of the blanks until the story has been completed. Then the reader reads the story out loud, including the randomly chosen words. The results can be funny or not; the sentences and story may make sense or not. Usually, the results are a mixed bag.

In my own family, Mad Libs were standard road trip entertainment, along with the license plate game (looking for plates from different states), for our yearly car vacations. As a teacher, I naturally (and irritatingly) took advantage of each game to remind my three boys about the parts of speech and U.S. geography respectively. Notice that I, as the dad and teacher, had no control over introducing the content, but was restricted to reviewing or reinforcing previous learning regarding out-of-context Mad Lib categorical terms and whichever car or truck we passed or passed us on the highway. The reviewing and reinforcing were incidental. According to Merriam-Webster, incidental in this context means “occurring merely by chance or without intention or calculation.” Incidentally (the other definition of the word, meaning “being likely to ensue as a chance or minor consequence”), Hawaii is the hardest to find!

Certainly, both of these games exposed gaps in my sons’ learning (or their teachers’ instruction). However, because of the adhoc nature of the games, I certainly could not infer all of my sons’ grammatical or geographical gaps or determine how one gap related to other gaps. For example, if one of my sons came up with caves for the Mad Lib noun, did this mean that he understood the difference between proper and common nouns or the complete definition of common nouns as ideas, persons, places or things? I couldn’t tell you. The game provided no means of meaningful formative assessment.

Now, before you throw your vast collection of Mad Libs books into the school dumpster, I would continue reading just a bit more.

As a rainy day activity or carefully contrived review activity, teachers may find some merit in playing once in a while. The Mad Libs publisher even has a teaching resource page with a few fun games.

However, with respect to being one of “12 Fun Ways to Teach Grammar in Your Classroom,” (my emphasis) I would beg to differ. Mad Libs should not be used to teach grammar. Now some would argue that providing a context for incidental learning is, indeed, teaching. Some may suggest that many forms of incidental learning, such as vocabulary acquisition through independent reading are essential. Fair points, but incidental learning is effective and necessary in some academic areas, but not in others. Grammar, or the structure of our language, is not conducive to incidental learning. To argue that we should teach the structure of our language in an unstructured way is downright silly. You wouldn’t hire an architect to design a home who would forego blueprints and direct the contractor to “just start building from the front door and see what happens next.” Neither would you teach someone to play Monopoly by adding relevant rules only upon each role of the di. True teaching in some academic areas, such as grammar, needs a plan.

As an ELA teacher since the 1980s, grammar has always been an important component of instruction in my classroom. Not the most important component, but important.  As a teacher-publisher, I have created numerous products for teaching grammar, usage, and mechanics over the years with evolving instructional formats. On my Pennington Publishing store, I provide traditional programs, interactive notebooks, and literacy centers for both grade-level instruction (aligned to the Common Core Standards) and remedial instruction (focusing on the Common Core Progressive Skills Review Standards). All three instructional approaches make sense to me because they follow a coherent instructional scope and sequence. Each program begins with a plan and follows with lessons and activities designed to fulfill that plan. With respect to grammar, that plan is linear (it moves from A to Z), but it is also recursive. Instruction cycles back within each year and year to year to remind and reinforce and then to build upon past learning. The Common Core State Standards follow this approach with both grade-level and progressive skills review Standards.

What does not make sense to me is incidental methodology for teaching grammar. It’s teaching without a plan. It’s a road trip without a clear destination or without using a nav system. Incidental learning is the very nature of the Mad Libs game and is why Mad Libs should not be used to teach grammar. The game may provide some benefit and fun for learning reinforcement and review, but it certainly should not be a chief focus of the teacher’s instruction. By the way, Mad Libs is not the only incidental approach to grammar instruction. I would also classify Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) as a random sample instructional approach. I would also say that the grammar mini-lessons approach, built around issues some students are facing in the context of their own writing would certainly falls into this category.

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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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