Grammar Wednesday

I’m departing a bit from our usual format today; I’ve been doing some ruminating that I’d like to get out here.  Our regularly scheduled grammar-gripe will resume next week with a couple of suggestions from MagicalMysticalTeacher.

I attended the every-other-Tuesday faculty meeting at Local U. yesterday, and the topic of discussion was the role that grammar and structure instruction should play in college writing courses – more specifically, in OUR college writing courses.

It seems a pretty simple question, doesn’t it?  I mean, there should be this kind of instruction in a writing class – one needs to have a command of the basic tools of a craft before one can be expected to use those tools to build something, right?  Grammar and structure are the proverbial building blocks of a writing practice; without a command of these, one has no starting point from which  to expand into expression.  Form and function, and all that.

At the college level, however (at least, at THIS college), nuts-and-bolts, sentence-level instruction is eschewed in favor of the broader, content-driven instruction.  The argument is that students will learn the sentence-level skills by being exposed to numerous and varied examples of excellent writing (and the analysis of such writing).  Formal grammar instruction is reserved for specific courses within the department; the freshman level writing courses are intended to be places where the students read, think, and talk about examples of good writing, then go on to emulate those examples in their own writing.

That’s all well and good, except that I’m standing on both sides of the college lawn at the moment.  I teach freshman writing – and I do it in the ways that the department deems appropriate – but I also teach writing at the high school level, and here’s where I’m finding myself in a bit of a stew.

My problem is that I don’t feel that I’m giving my high school students much instruction at all at the sentence level.  While my freshmen and sophomores desperately need this kind of instruction, I have JUST gotten them to the point (well, most of them, anyway) where they’re willing to write for me in the first place.  I don’t want to go killing what little momentum I have with these kids by going over dreaded “GRAMMAR RULES” with them, even though I know they need it.


I’m trying to be sneaky about it.  I’ll point out a place in The Book Thief (the novel we’re reading as a class) where Zusak uses sentence fragments for effect.  I point out to them that this structure:

Sister Maria.

Was not impressed.

isn’t proper sentence construction, but Zusak puts those words together in that way so that we read the ire in Sister Marie and the nervousness about that ire in the children in the classroom.  “Uh-oh,” we’re meant to think, “here it comes.”  It’s effective, it works, but these two “sentences” are not technically sentences at all.  I’m trying to get my kids to understand that you need to KNOW the rules before you go BREAKING them.

I wonder, though, if I’m doing enough to teach them the rules.  What I need to do is to figure out a way to get these lessons in there without their being heavy-handed, irrelevant, and boring.  I’m not sure I’ve got my way around that yet, but I’m thinking about it.  Any suggestions?



Filed under about writing, bad grammar, composition, concerns, critical thinking, Grammar, I love my job, lesson planning, Local U., Questions, self-analysis, Teaching

14 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Darci

    I like what you are doing with the pointing out sentence structure in the reading. Perhaps a simple posting around the room of the grammar rules and such. When they are taking a break from the reading their eyes will fall on these nuggets. You can also include the concepts in the warm up: A free write composed of only fragments.

  2. Hmm, I definitely feel for your dilemma (and I agree that it is important to teach this stuff.) Maybe you could do a “Grammar Wednesday” with your class– keep it short, fun, and focused on one thing each time, so they don’t get overwhelmed but are still getting some instruction, without it overpowering the rest of the writing process. Then you can refer back to past lessons (only try to make it not feel like a “lesson”) when these mistakes come up in class again.

    Maybe use the real-life examples you post here on the blog and make it a contest to find the mistake? Make up an actual game by printing out the photos on cards? I don’t know, but you are so creative and dedicated that I know you will find a way to get the information out there.

  3. I think you’ve just unearthed the reason that I never learned actual grammar rules. I can’t tell you why it’s wrong I can just tell you it’s wrong.

  4. I remember diagramming sentences in the 10th grade. I *hated* diagramming sentences. I’ve forgotten all of that stuff but I think most of it stuck because I currently get high marks from instructors on what I write.

  5. Just wanted to let you know that I do read your blog, and just don’t get to commenting between lesson preps, diaper changes, feedings and more… 🙂

  6. Melissa

    My school has implemented a program called Daily Grammar Practice as our bellwork. I was initially very skeptical (and scared of teaching grammar at all) but I have been won over. This will be my first time doing DGP all year long with students, and I am eager to see the results. I think the payoff will be seen when we get into some serious writing projects and we can use the language of grammar from DGP to talk about their writing.

    We spend 10-15 minutes on DGP at the start of each period and then move on; the bellwork becomes routine after ~6-8 weeks. DGP works like this: you get one sentence to work with every 5-day week. Day 1 is correcting punctuation and capitalization (they are usually pretty decent at this, and it doesn’t take long), Day 2 is identifying parts of speech for each word (much harder), Day 3 is finding subject parts (subject, verb, direct object, prepositional phrases, etc.), Day 4 is clauses and sentence types, and Day 5 is sentence diagramming, which I explain as a graphic organizer for a sentence. I typically draw the diagram for them and then we fill it in together using the info from Day 3.

    My students who did this with me last year remember a lot of it, which I was pleased to see. It gets them more familiar with the terminology I’ll be wanting to use when we start tackling essays and other major writing projects. I would really like to do more of what you do — pointing out sentence structure and integrating that into other content lessons — but it’s not a habit and I usually forget all about it.

  7. twoblueday

    Hmmm, I recall diagramming sentences and hating every minute of it. My high school English teachers didn’t so much teach grammar directly as just give you bad grades if you turned in work with “bad” grammar. They were always willing to tell you the error of your ways.

    Now, in the best of all worlds (and budgets), I’d issue each student a small library of books on the subject (let’s say, for example: The Elements of Style; The Transitive Vampire; The New Well-Tempered Sentence; and On Writing Well). These four little books reside on my shelf, and I refer to them more than you’d think–considering my obvious prowess with grammar!

    Hey, maybe in this electronic age they could all just load them onto their laptop, iPod Touch, or iPhone or something!

  8. twoblueday

    P.S. Is this grammar maven, mrschili that is, the same person who said “blah” when I was trying to discuss the difference between “apropos” and “appropriate!”

  9. I still think that Schoolhouse rock helped me through will all the basics of grammar. Maybe you can do something similar, or just play the vids and expand on them.

    *singing* Interjections show excitement, or emotion, and are generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point, or by a comma when the feelings not as strong!

  10. It seems to me that the key lines of division within grammar instruction (meaning syntax, word choice, usage, punctuation, and even spelling—a catch-all term that most English language-arts teachers use to describe the “stuff” that we “have to , but don’t want to” teach) have been drawn between those who favor part to whole and whole to part instruction. As a brief aside… isn’t this much akin to the graphophonic (phonics-based) and whole language reading debate? Anyway, here is my take on the assumptions of both positions:

    Advocates of part to whole instruction believe that front-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language will best enable students to apply these parts to the whole process of writing. Following are the key components of this inductive approach.

    1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar to provide a common language of instruction.
    2. Identification of grammatical constructions leads to application.
    3. Familiarity with the rules of grammar leads to correct application.
    4. Teaching the components of sentence construction leads to application.
    5. Distrust of one’s own oral language as a grammatical filter .

    Advocates of whole to part instruction believe that back-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language, as is determined by needs of the writing task, will best enable students to write fluently and meaningfully. Following are the key components of this deductive approach.

    1. Minimal memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar and minimal practice in identification of grammatical constructions.
    2. Connection to one’s oral language is essential to inform fluent and effective writing.
    3. Reading and listening to exemplary literature and poetry provides the models that students need to mimic and revise as they develop their own writing style.
    4. Minimal error analysis.
    5. Teaching writing as a process with a focus on coherence will best enable students to apply the discreet parts such as subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, and transitions to say something meaningful.

    Of course, how teachers align themselves within the Great Grammar Debate (See is not necessarily an “either-or” decision. Most teachers apply bits and pieces of each approach to teaching grammar. I take a stab on how to integrate the inductive and deductive approaches in How to Integrate Grammar and Writing Instruction (See

  11. JoAnne

    Have you heard of Winston Grammar? The program works wonders with my students.
    They love the cards and the competition I create as this is a great motivator for my age group!

    • I love the interactive component of Winston and believe that it could be used for many students in differentiated instruction. However, it is not a program that teaches from diagnostic assessment and it does not integrate writing instruction.

      After all, the purposes of grammar instruction should be to “teach what they don’t yet know” and “apply what they have learned in the context of writing.” We don’t teach grammar so that students can master the Jeopardy® category, “English Grammar”; we teach grammar, usage, word choice, mechanics, and spelling so that students can apply these skills in the context of authentic writing and speaking.

      I’ve been quiet in the blogosphere for the last few months as I’ve been polishing off my revised version of Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, after comprehensive field testing with students and teachers. I’m excited about teaching a program that truly integrates basic to advanced grammar and mechanics standards with sentence modeling and targeted writing practice. At last, teachers can differentiate grammar and mechanics instruction in 60 minutes a week with no prep and little grammatical expertise.

  12. Mark, YES! Relevance; that’s what I’m talking about!

    I remember grammar instruction when I was in primary and secondary school and honestly? The only thing that stuck with me were the Saturday morning “Grammar Rock” skits from Schoolhouse Rock (I can still sing damned near all of them, in fact, lo these 35-some-odd years later). I try to pull grammar (and vocabulary) lessons right from the work we’re doing, because to learn it in a vacuum doesn’t really cut it, does it? It’s MUCH more effective, I think, to learn a concept and then SEE it in action than it is to do disconnected worksheets.

    I’m curious about your program. Care to share?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s