The notion of teaching grammar is one that is controversial among educators, and it tends to bring about polarized viewpoints. The word grammar itself is enough to invoke an anxious reaction of shaking and heavy breathing among most people, some teachers included. For others, it brings about a sense of excitement and satisfaction at the sight of a perfectly diagrammed sentence. Whatever your opinion is on the topic, I’ve found that grammar education is something that is severely needed in our society.
With the rise of “text language” and informal writing being at an all-time high, the use of grammar is something that has fallen by the wayside. Our students have little to no idea what many of the parts of speech even are, let alone how to incorporate them into their writing. As I’ve gone through this school year, it being my first in the wonderful world of language arts, this fact knocked me in the face. How are my sixth graders unsure of how to write in complete sentences? How are they still not capitalizing proper nouns? And above all how do I best support them and instruct them so they really learn this?
As I did some research into the background, I’ve found that many writing curriculums suggest teaching grammar within the writing instruction. Fantastic idea, right? Totally doable, right? It actually is! In fact, almost all research suggests that the most effective way to teach grammar is by thoughtfully fusing it with the language arts curriculum already being taught (Gartland & Smolkin, 2016). The days of teaching a rule and passing out worksheets with 20-25 problems of practice are behind us, and we have arrived in the days of relevant instruction of grammar that is meaningful to students because it applies to their own pieces of writing.
As I reflected on my own education and my instruction this year, I considered how this method of teaching grammar could influence my students and how it could have influenced me. Most of my hesitation to teach grammar comes from anxiety about whether or not I’m teaching it ‘correctly’. In thinking on this for awhile, I realized that the very idea of doing something wrong is what has deterred me from writing more in the past, and it was still affecting me in my instructional choices now. I was so afraid to pick up a pencil and write as a student, and still am now as a teacher, because I’m plagued with the thought, What if I’m doing it wrong? The more I considered this, the more it became clear to me that my educational background is why I believe writing with error is an awful, horrible, terrible thing to do. My focus on being sure to have the correct sentence structure, commas in the right places, no sentences starting with a preposition, etc. etc. etc. has detracted from so many of my ideas getting out on the page. It took away all passion I may have ever developed for writing. I’ve begun to realize that revising, while it may not be the most enjoyable thing, is so incredibly important to the writing process because it allows us to get our ideas down on the first draft and then go back and clean it up the next time around.
I think back to even my journals I kept as a kid. I’d vow to myself that I would write in them each and every night, I’d recount my day and my experiences, and it would be fun. I could look back at them years later and travel back in time. Each time I’d take on this journey that was supposed to be exciting, my page would quickly fill with eraser marks because it needed to be perfect. I’d judge my own abilities later on, so I had to get it RIGHT.
These realizations have challenged me to change my method of grammar instruction, and have ignited a passion in me that I never imagined. I want my students to view writing as something that can be enjoyable, rather than something that causes them anxiety at doing it wrong. I want them to have the room to make mistakes and to learn how different styles of grammar can impact their overall message in a piece, rather than having so much focus on the rule that the message becomes an afterthought. In most of what I have read up on this idea, there are several ideas for how to effectively incorporate grammar into a language arts curriculum in an authentic way, that builds a lasting understanding and appreciation for its use.
“Students will care infinitely more about whether they are using the correct verb tense if it directly impacts their voices being heard.”
The first idea is that for students to learn to write grammatically, they need to write (Cleary, 2014). If we don’t encourage our students to get their ideas down on the page, as my favorite musical puts it, “take a pencil and connect it to their brain”, we are doing them a disservice. They need to get their message out, first and foremost, the grammatical piece should always come second. Once they’ve done this, we are able to see where their message is not coming across clearly–and to be truthful, they probably will see it, too! We need to give our kids credit. They know when something sounds weird or off, and they will recognize it in their own piece. When it becomes clear that the sentence structure is strange or we’ve had a chance to evaluate a draft, we can then target our grammar instruction to meet the individual needs of our students. This is where our differentiation comes in, and where we start to create more meaningful instruction. Students will care infinitely more about whether they are using the correct verb tense if it directly impacts their voices being heard. If students are able to learn how to more effectively state their own ideas and immediately apply it to their writing, it will be relevant, lasting, and meaningful.
The next, and in my opinion most influential, methodology to teaching grammar is to move away from the notion that there is only one correct way to write (Gartland & Smolkin, 2016). When we consistently classify one way of writing or speaking as “right”, we begin to isolate groups of our students who do not conform to that idea. We must encourage our students to view their conversational language as different type and continue to foster growth in the ideals of Standard English (SE), and where to appropriately use both types. Just recently I was teaching a unit on poetry, and it happened to follow my obsessive reading on different forms of grammar instruction. I made a point to tell my students that there were no implications for grammar in their first drafts of their poems–I was only going to be looking at the emotion and message they were trying to convey. In that moment, I saw more excitement and engagement for writing than I had seen all year. I was thrilled, and so were they. We eventually went back and revised different pieces of their poems to ensure that when grammar changes were made, it was a conscious choice of theirs to improve their piece. We discussed how in certain poems we had studied, the poet chose to incorporate a misspelled word, or a comma where it was necessarily “needed”, or even a verb tense that seemed unusual. We analyzed how this may have reflected the voice or vernacular of that particular poet, and how it helped readers get a feel for their culture. This important lesson that came way too late in the school year showed my students that no language or vernacular was wrong. There were just different uses of it, and that was okay. That our focus is to get our message across, and the use of grammatical rules in SE may be needed to do that.
Finally, we need to ensure that we have set clear objectives for our own grammar instruction. Without these, our lessons and activities have no focus and we cannot lay out how they fit within our language arts curriculum. When we begin to make our goals clear, we can begin to see how they are meaningful and how they can be fused with our already fantastic instruction. We can make the most of the teachable moments that occur in our writing classrooms because we are aware of what we want our students to know. In my research, I found a fabulous set of objectives that can be adapted to the needs of all of our students. They provide a foundation for building grammar instruction into our curriculum in a way that will foster a deep understanding and appreciation for language. Among these are reflection the how English works, using language effectively and appropriately, and understanding how different meaning is created through different grammatical forms (Gartland & Smolkin, 2016).
So, as you’ve all probably figured out by now, I totally geeked out on grammar. I furiously sought out as many resources and studies as I possibly could to help me improve my own. I could not understand why I found it so difficult and tedious for my students until I realized that I myself had trouble with these concepts. In order for us to help our students overcome their fear and anxiety toward writing, we need to put the red pen down. We need to make some serious changes to the way we teach our students about writing. Our focus needs to be on helping our students become writers, and not just people who write.