A Call for a Transformational Approach to Grammar Instruction

This week, in case you missed it, some of us celebrated National Grammar Day. Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t notice. Following the crowd favorite, Read Across America Day, and the commercial favorite, National Pancake Day (I’m 85 percent sure the International House of Pancakes made that one up), it is easy to understand how you may have missed it. Hopefully, we can make up for that now.

Here’s the premise I would like you to consider for the next few minutes: We need a transformational approach to teaching grammar that will make it an essential part of literacy instruction once again.

Now, I’m not suggesting our schools bring back Warner’s English Grammar and Composition, that dense little book of rules and drills that followed me through my schooling. I don’t want to go back to the HBJ Language textbooks and workbooks I used when I started teaching either.

Drill and kill grammar taught in isolation doesn’t work. Every study on the subject conducted over 30 or 40 years came to that conclusion. For years, I tried grammar mini-lessons incorporated into my writing workshop, but those lessons always seemed forced and were always too hit or miss. I never saw the returns in better edited final pieces.

I abhor Daily Oral Language just as much as grammar books. Jeff Anderson, the author of several books on effective grammar and mechanics instruction, including Mechanically Inclined and Revision Decisions, points out the flaws in DOL. This routine typically involves displaying for students an error-laden sentence and asking them to suggest the corrections. The problem with this, Anderson states, is that by showing students flawed sentences we reinforce the mistakes, not the corrections.

Anderson recommends a model I have found particularly effective. He shows students mentor sentences and invites them to notice the craft, structure and stylistic elements in the sentence. Then, he asks students draft their imitations of the mentor. Finally, he has them attempt various revisions to see how alterations change of the effectiveness of the sentence.

When you follow Anderson’s instructional model — or that of Carol Weaver who pioneered this path — you begin to see grammar not as a set of rules and restrictions, but rather as a tool for crafting pieces with a sophisticated writing voice behind them.

This is the only method I have ever employed that produced noticeable changes in the way students write. For several years, my teaching partner Lisa Sassano and I used the mentor and imitation method as the foundation of our writing instruction, and it produced remarkable improvements in the way our students wrote. I was able to convince a few other teachers to adopt out version of the Anderson method, and they produced the same result.

My only regret is that more teachers don’t teach grammar this way. These lessons only take about 10 minutes a day if they become a regular part of your instructional routine. If you are like most ELA teachers, grading essays isn’t your favorite pastime. Teachers, I often say, are the only people who get paid to read bad writing. Editors at least have the option of rejecting a piece for quality, and they can do that quickly. Sadly, teachers have to read until the very end.

When students begin to master craft, voice and style, when their stories and essays take on some authentic rhetorical sophistication, their writing pieces are no longer a chore to grade. You look forward to the work and walk away with a sense of pride in your instruction.

All this is good stuff, I hope you will see, but it isn’t the best reason for pushing a transformational approach to teaching grammar, mechanics, and craft.

Grammar is the mechanism — the metaphorically mechanical nuts and bolts — that give a piece of writing its voice. You may have come across this line from Stephen King’s On Writing: “What is writing? Telepathy, of course.” As teachers, we shouldn’t ignore the importance of that line. Writing is a means for putting thoughts onto paper, and the paper is simply a medium for conducting thoughts from the mind of the writer to the mind the reader.

Grammar plays a vital role in this process. Grammar brings clarity and coherence to writer’s thoughts and the writer’s voice. Clarity and coherence are essential for both interpersonal communication and interpersonal communication. Without grammar, we can not clearly share our thoughts, and often we can not understand the thoughts ourselves. We have a mind full of fragmented ideas, instead of a fluent inner monolog.

We need to teach grammar so our students can write and speak with abundant clarity. But we also need it so our students can think in cogent language. A sentence, a paragraph, a story, or essay must have its own internal logic as clear and functional as lines of code in a computer program. That’s what effective grammar instruction provides: logical lines of code on paper and in our minds.

Therefore, I call for a transformation in grammar instruction. We must abandon the thought that grammar is strictly rules to drill into the heads of our students. We also need to stretch beyond grammar as a writer’s toolbox for crafting clever sentence.

We need to see grammar as the vehicle for creating clear and coherent thinking for all aspects of communication, including a rational, coherent inner monolog. Our instruction needs to follow this model so we can lead our students to the highest level of reading, writing, and thinking.

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7 Comments

  1. LOVE your post! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I agree, Mechanically Inclined is a good starting point, but a teacher has to keep up with the instruction for it to work well. I love “sentence stalking,” — looking for amazing sentences that students want to imitate. Here’s my problem: students are still failing to produce their best works. They don’t spend a great deal of time editing and revising, because they are not PUBLISHING much inside classrooms. I have been looking for ways writing can be published more often in a school year. Our district isn’t technologically advanced in the lower grades, and even blogs are blocked, so we cannot use them for authentic writing purposes. I’m working on changing that. Keep in touch!

    • Ah, Jennifer, you have hit on a good point. My partner Lisa Sassano had students write twice a week from a list of 1,000 writing ideas. That was a key to transfer from the imitation lesson to real world writing. Students started to use the imitations in the writing ideas. She would pick different students each week and have them publish a writing idea. Sometimes the publishing was as simple as recopying their writing idea onto a piece of colored composition paper. Students loved that.
      You have to share lots of student work in any way you can. Students get their best inspiration from seeing other students succeed.
      Students won’t naturally revise and edit their own work. They resist change once they get words on paper. You have to model editing and revision from your own writing, thinking aloud as you do it. That’s how they will learn that kind of thinking.

  2. I love Giggly Guide to Grammar- fun and to the point. It seamlessly incorporates writing into each concept so kids apply what they’ve learned and see the improvement in their writing. I also like Story Grammar by Don Kilgallon. It’s very similar to the mentor text approach you described. But he doesn’t emphasize terminology, which makes it hard on us middle school teachers who’d like our kids to know what “adjective” means!

  3. I ordered the books! I’m excited to infuse a new way to teach grammar.

    In my class, students are not finished writing a piece until they have revised after I provide feedback. While it’s typically more work for me, it has shown students why this is an essential step in the writing process. We publish in the classroom and share on Google docs. I want to start adding a new piece of writing a day (?) or maybe a week (?) onto the class blog as well.

    Thank you!

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