Grammar Matters + a Book Giveaway

Please read the (new) giveaway information prior to leaving a comment on this post.  Thanks!

Please read the (new) giveaway information prior to leaving a comment on this post. Thanks!

A handful of professional books come to mind when I think of quality grammar instruction: Getting Grammar by Donna Topping and Sandra Hoffman, Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson, Practical Punctuation by Dan Feigelson, and The Power of Grammar by Mary Ehrenworth and Vicki Vinton. This fall a new book, Grammar Matters, was published.  As soon as I read it I knew it would round out my list of top grammar books list.

Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6 by Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty is where children’s literature and grammar instruction meet.  Any teacher who has ever used a published text to teach students how to craft a better lead, write stronger dialogue, or organize a piece of writing knows the power of mentor texts.  Mentor texts can and should be used to teach as a way to engage students in learning grammar.

Lynne and Diane’s book has four parts: informational units of study, narrative units of study, opinion units of study, and conversations about grammar and conventions. Because of the terrain it covers, Grammar Matters can become your companion for teaching grammar nearly all year-long!

Lynne and Diane, who are as lovely as they are smart, answered some questions I had about best practices for the teaching of grammar and about their book.  While you can go preview Grammar Matters on the Stenhouse website, their responses will provide you with more insight about high-quality grammar instruction, as well as more insight into the architecture of their book.

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Stacey:  In a perfect world, how do you think grammar should be taught to children?

Lynne & Diane:  We believe that the best way to teach grammar to anyone is to provide context for grammar lessons.  Every learner needs a “hook” to attach new knowledge to prior knowledge.  There is no point in teaching a lesson on gerunds and participles, for example, unless learners can recognize how useful these tools can be in giving a piece of writing “oomph” or in giving sentences variety and fluency.  Similarly, parts of speech taught in the context of writing are addressed with a purpose.  When we talk about word choice, this is the perfect opportunity to teach “verbs” and their modifiers; nouns and adjectives; prepositions and prepositional phrases, and so on.  While we wouldn’t teach all the parts of speech at the same time, we would point out how a piece of writing becomes more powerful when we choose “just the right word” to show just what we want to show.  There isn’t one thing about teaching grammar that does not apply to the teaching of writing!

Stacey:  Why do you think many people are teaching grammar in isolation despite years of noncontradictory research?

Lynne & Diane:  We think that many teachers rely on teaching grammar in isolation because they fear a backlash from the next year’s teacher.  “Why don’t your students know the parts of speech?  Why can’t your students tell the difference between a compound and complex sentence?”  Some teachers may also lack confidence in their own grammar knowledge.  Having worksheets available and providing these worksheets to their students, may feel like teaching grammar.  Many of us may have been taught grammar with worksheets as well, so it feels comfortable to us.

Teachers who believe in embedding grammar instruction can help other teachers by sharing their lessons and by sharing their students’ progress.  Having conversations about grammar with their teacher colleagues may open a dialogue on such things as appropriate assessment (formative and summative) as well as which grammar lessons fit most logically with which form of writing.  For example, if we are teaching a narrative unit of study in writing, we know that we’ll likely be teaching such things as how to punctuation quotations (dialogue), when to start a new paragraph in a narrative, or the use of apostrophes in contractions.  Even though teaching planning time is often usurped by data analysis, conversations about grammar and the teaching of grammar can be valuable for everyone.

Stacey:  Why do you think using mentor texts to teach grammar is a better route?

Lynne & Diane:  Student writers need mentors.  Sometimes those mentors are us—our own pieces of writing and our discussion of our own struggles with writing.  Sometimes those mentors are professional authors whose work we admire and want to share with our students.  Always we read books aloud to our students for the enjoyment of the story or for the value of the information first.  Foremost, we want our students to appreciate the text in itself.  We would never use a mentor text solely for the purpose of teaching a grammar lesson.  However, once we begin to “read like writers” we notice passages that may be useful to demonstrate a particular grammatical concept.  Since student writers frequently cause confusion in their writing because they fail to recognize the sentence unit, using mentor text to show simple, compound, and complex sentences and how these sentences are punctuated, is ideal.  Appendices A and B in Grammar Matters provide examples of mentor text to teach the sentence unit as well as mentor text use for multiple grammar lessons.

Stacey:  Why do you think it’s important for children to know the names of parts of speech?

Lynne & Diane:  It is important for children to know the names of parts of speech and parts of the sentence.  We want them to use the appropriate terms.  Why make up names for things when the names already exist?  It is true that the most important thing for a student writer is that s/he writes with clarity, purpose, and interest.  During revision when students are moving, removing, adding and substituting; a grasp of grammatical terms and their definitions can be helpful in the process of revision and in conferring.  For example, knowing that adverbs and adverbial phrases are moveable, and that pronouns should not be mentioned before the noun to which the pronoun refers, requires that student writers know the terms:  adverb, adverbial phrase, pronouns, and nouns!

Stacey:  How do you think teachers who love words can help ignite a passion for language in children who’ve been turned off by it with previous teachers?

Lynne & Diane:  This question makes us sad.  We want students to rejoice in the use of language.  Why would any teacher stifle that?

We like to start each unit of study with some shared writing.  When students are contributing their ideas and sentences, we ask the class to come up with specific nouns and strong verbs, as well as exact adjectives.  We brainstorm words; we use word walls; we have anchor charts of “dead” words and replace them with synonyms that are more precise.  These lists are available for students to use in their writing and to add to in the classroom.  We celebrate effective word choice in mentor text.  “Listen to this…”  “Isn’t that a great adjective?”  “Isn’t that a terrific simile?”

Celebrate words throughout the day, not just in ELA.  Point out heteronyms such as minute:  A cell is a minute organism.  We read about it a minute ago.  Point out homophones, especially those that drive you crazy when they are misused:  principle/principal; capitol/capital; its/it’s; there/they’re/their; to/too/two.  Encourage students to find their own examples and to share them with the class.  Make anchor charts of “no excuse” words.

Children love to stump the teacher!  You may find your students looking for ways to surprise you with words.  At least we hope you do.

Stacey:  Sorry that my last question was a downer!  Moving on, I was delighted Rose Cappelli gave you her blessing to use the Your Turn Lesson format in Grammar Matters.  If someone is unfamiliar with Your Turn Lessons, can you explain a bit about how they can be implemented?

Lynne & Diane:  Your Turn lessons use the gradual release of responsibility model.  Most of these lessons are designed as direct instruction and may require more than one day to implement.  The lessons begin with a “Hook” usually a mentor text that demonstrates the grammatical concept.  We read the text (and it should be a text with which they are already familiar), and use the text as a stepping stone into the lesson.  The “Hook” is followed by the “Purpose.”  We believe it is important to tell students up front what we will be demonstrating in the lesson.  Students shouldn’t have to guess what they’re supposed to learn!  “Purpose” is followed by “Brainstorming” in which students work as a group to fulfill the purpose of the lesson.  For example, on the lesson on Verb Tense Consistency, at the end of Part 3 in Grammar Matters, student writers are asked to brainstorm the verbs/action words, the author used in the mentor text read during the “Hook” part of the lesson.  “Brainstorming” is followed by “Modeling” in which the teacher uses the brainstormed items to continue to demonstrate the purpose of the lesson.  For example, in the lesson mentioned above, the teacher would use the verbs in the brainstorming part of the lesson and show present and past tenses of each verb on an anchor chart.  After “Modeling” comes “Guided Practice.”  This is the “we do” part of the lesson, and in our opinion, it is the most important part of the lesson and the part that is sometimes overlooked because of a perceived lack of time.  During “Guided Practice” the teacher works with the students to implement the purpose of the lesson.  Guided Practice may be a shared writing which can then be used by the teacher and the students to experiment with the purpose of the lesson.  After the guided practice, comes “Independent Practice” the “you do” part of the lesson in which students go back to their writer’s notebooks or to their current draft to make necessary changes.  We always ask students to “try it out” in a writer’s notebook entry if the lesson doesn’t quite fit their current draft.  We think it is important that student writers implement the lesson in their own writing individually.  If they don’t try it, it won’t stick.  The final part of the lesson is “Reflection.”  We tell the students beforehand what we will be asking them to reflect on during share time.  Give the class one or two statements to consider for reflection.  Again, this part of the lesson may seem to be something you can skip, but we think it’s important for students to think about what they now know and how that knowledge can help them as they continue to grow as writers.

Stacey:  What kinds of grammar-related charts do you suggest teachers use in the classroom?

Lynne & Diane:  We mentioned anchor charts in answering several of the questions above.  Anchor charts created with the students serve many purposes.  They are foremost an opportunity for building a writing community.  As students work together to solve their writing problems and to provide help for other writers, they learn to trust each other and to recognize that their classmates can be resources for their own written pieces.  Additionally, anchor charts also serve as a reminder to writers.  As they look at the “dead word” anchor chart, for instance, they are reminded to make sure that their writing says precisely what they want it say.

Stacey:  Many of TWT readers use the Units of Study in Writing from Lucy Calkins and colleagues.  How do you think your book can be used in conjunction with the Units of Study?

Lynne & Diane:  Though our book may seem to be one that teachers would rely on in the editing stages of a written piece, we believe it has broader use than that.  Content in any form of writing doesn’t exist without form.  During conferences as teachers make notes of what their writers are doing and not doing, teachers can begin to plan the grammar instruction their students need whole group, small group, and individually.  We think that our book complements Units of Study in Writing since we also concentrate on classroom snapshots while working with students on all kinds of writing.

Stacey:  What are you working on next?

Lynne & Diane:  We are working on a book on formative assessment in the writing classroom.  We will be visiting classrooms and working with students and their teachers, conferring, keeping records, and teaching what we love!

Stacey:  Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to share with TWT readers?

Lynne & Diane:  We want teachers to know that they don’t have to fear teaching grammar.  It’s not deadly dull.  It’s not rote memorization.  Our book has a comprehensive glossary of terms as well as grammar references throughout; when we mention a term, we define it right then and there.  Sometimes, as readers of our students’ writings, we think, “Well, that just doesn’t sound right.”  Maybe we don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it.  It’s okay to say, “You know, I get confused in this part.  It just doesn’t sound right.  Tell me what you wanted to say.”

So don’t obsess about knowing everything.  Be confident that if you are a writer yourself, you will work out your own problems, and you will be able to share your discoveries with your student writers.  Correctness matters because we want the reader to understand our message.  All editing is for the reader.  The more you write with your students and the more you share your struggles, the better writing workshop will be.

Happy Writing!


  • This giveaway is for a copy of Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6.  Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Grammar Matters, please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, 12/24/14 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by 12/25/14.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – GRAMMAR MATTERS. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Comments are now closed.  Thank you to everyone who left a comment.  It was nice to see so much enthusiasm around grammar!

Monica’s name was drawn using a random number generator so she’ll receive the copy of Grammar Matters.  Here’s what she wrote:

As a new teacher-turned-academic administrator, teaching grammar is one of the (many) things I miss about being in the classroom…it can be so fun! I’m eager to read this and share with my teachers; especially curious to check out the younger grade work.