Grammar Lessons: A Time and A Place

An example of trying the same sentence multiple ways, playing with grammar.

An example of trying the same sentence multiple ways, playing with grammar.

How do you incorporate grammar instruction into your writing workshop?

Working as I do, in many schools, I’ve had the opportunity to observe some incredibly smart ideas when it comes to teaching grammar. Here are just a few ideas I’ve gathered in my travels:

Teach Minilessons

Once or twice in every unit of study, many teachers teach an explicit lesson about language and grammar. Mary Ehrenworth and Vick Vinton write, in The Power of Grammar, “Achieving power over conventions is essential to writing meaningfully, and these lessons merit attention within the writing process. And so we teach within writing workshop, offering minilessons on how writers control conventions.” It might be a minilesson on transition words, for example, that supports kids in writing more complex sentences, and adds to the cohesion of the overall text. Or a simple minilesson on point of view (examples: switching from first person to third person in realistic fiction, or using direct address in informational writing). These are important lessons in syntax and grammar. IT helps kids understand how one grammarly decision (switching “I” to “you,” for example) has a domino effect on the structure of the sentences. This work helps kids understand how English works in a meaningful context, how word order and punctuation matter, and how to play around with options. Not only that, these lessons make their writing come alive with voice and power.

Differentiate for Individual Learners

Those minilessons I just mentioned will likely be geared toward the majority of your kids. Most people aim for at least 2/3 of their class when they plan any whole class instruction. In addition to this, you will want to target small groups and individuals. A useful way to manage this is to create an individualized editing checklist for each of your kids. The more specific the checklist is, the more helpful it will be for your students. For example, just adding “check grammar” to a list is too vague. Adding “check for the correct use of ‘they’ versus ‘he’ or ‘she'” is much more helpful. By the way, the latter is something that really is on my own personal editing checklist! I mix it up all the time.

Here’s an example of one of my own personal editing checklists from a project I was working on. Notice how the notes are incredibly personalized–they probably won’t make much sense to anybody but me–and that’s okay! That’s who the checklist is for!

Editing Checklist

In case you’d like to try this with your students, here are some blank mini-checklists. For kids, three or four grammar and spelling items to check for is more than enough!

Mini Personal Editing Checklists

Take a Problem-Solving Approach Rather than a Memorize-This-Rule Approach

In my own experience as a student, I was taught to diagram sentences. I say I was taught, and not that I learned, because I never fully understood it as a kid–I never learned it back then. But I was always told that I was a great writer by my teachers, and I was also afforded many opportunities to write in and out of school. I was fortunate that my teachers didn’t rely only on having me memorize rules–if they had, I never would have chosen the profession I’m in! When I teach grammar lessons, I find myself OFTEN saying, “Try it out more than one way. Try it this way…. now try it that way… now see if you can figure out another way…” I encourage kids to play with words and language to make their writing sound more academic, or more storyteller-ish, or more poetic, depending on the genre and the choices the student wants to make. When we study mentor authors for grammar, I ask kids to notice not only what they author has done in terms of grammar — but WHY. Why, for example does a songwriter decide not to have “complete” sentences? Why does a writer of an informational text use sentences that speak directly to the reader? Encouraging kids to make decisions about their writing, rather than blindly following grammar rules helps lifts the level of their thinking, and the level of their writing.