Grammar instruction need not be boring or meaningless if you understand the big picture behind teaching it to your students…If…. Without this understanding, you run the risk of having low student engagement where grammar just becomes one more subject for students to “get through.” However, if you approach grammar instruction as a tool that can strengthen students’ writing, then it can become a purposeful and even fun part of your school day.
Grammar for All Learners
One way I’ve started helping my students acquire fundamental grammar skills is through Whole Brain Teaching (WBT) strategies. I’ve discussed this philosophy before on The Reflective Educator and am having a blast learning to use the management and instructional strategies to my students’ advantage. One approach I learned back in February was the use of small posters with definitions and hand gestures to help students learn content. Accessing multiple learning modalities is important when teaching any content, but especially so with grammar which can seem very abstract. Students with language impairments have an especially challenging time grasping grammar concepts. These “whole brain” posters help to bypass their disability.
When introducing “article,” for instance, I designed a small poster in Microsoft Publisher with three components. The poster has a graphic image that visual learners can refer to as a reminder. With each poster, I include a question and corresponding answer for auditory learners. To continue with this example, “What is an article? An article is a special adjective such as a, an and the.” Finally, for my kinesthetic learners, I include a gesture that we use as we say the question and answer. I modeled these posters from an idea available at the Whole Brain Teaching website. They call them Power Pix, but in my classroom we just call them our grammar posters. Click on the image to download a full-size copy of the poster.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Each day I review the grammar concepts for that week’s learning target so students can practice it multiple times. Once we have finished a lesson, I display the poster in my classroom with the rest of the grammar posters. These posters are now “fair game” for us to practice at any time. Such practice is an excellent use of time during transitions, lining up for lunch, coming back from recess, as well as starting and/or ending a lesson. Basically any time you have a few extra minutes in your day.
Songs, raps and chants are also a fun and effective way to help students learn grammar concepts. You can buy commercially made songs, but why bother when YouTube has so many for free? Here’s one I love to play when it’s time for my students to learn about helping verbs.
Another technique I use to reinforce previously taught grammar concepts is to use a coding system for parts of speech. I got this idea from The Mailbox magazine. In my classroom, we use it to code parts of speech after we’ve finished editing our Daily Fix-It Sentences. We make our corrections, but then we also code the sentence with the parts of speech we’ve learned so far in the school year. So, for example, after I’ve taught my unit on nouns then we mark the sentences for nouns. It only takes a few minutes to do, but makes a difference with our writing. When I ask students to replace a vague noun or a dull verb, they know which words to revise in their writing.
Grammar in Context
Once I’ve taught a particular grammar concept to my students, I then like to have them identify and use it in context. Have your students look at a recent piece of their published writing and search for an example of how they used the skill in their own writing. For example, when I teach my students about prepositions, I then have them find prepositions in their writing. We take time to not only find the preposition, but also to identify the prepositional phrase and the object of the preposition. Following that, we practice combining sentences together using prepositional phrases. Remember, the big picture of why you’re teaching this concept in the first place – to help students become better writers. Therefore, be specific about how a concept enables them to be better writers by having them find and practice their grammar skills in the context of their own writing.
Grammar is not everyone’s cup of tea. I get that. As the daughter of a former English teacher, I guess I’m a bit strange in that I actually enjoy this stuff. However, as teachers, it’s our job to inspire our students with enthusiasm for a subject while also revealing to them its long-term significance. I hope these ideas about grammar will help you develop in your students an appreciation for our language. For more ideas about grammar, I’m currently reading a great book by Jeff Anderson called Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop. If you’re like me and tired of seeing blank looks on your students’ faces each year when you mention a noun and you just know they were taught this in previous years, you might want to add this book to your summer reading list.