Grammar is a broad concept, which can include syntax, usage of punctuation and spacing, vocabulary, inflections, spellings and generally accepted ways of speaking, writing, and communicating. The rules or expectations for “grammar” may change with region, context, purpose, and many other factors.
When I teach summer writing courses, I often include time for everyone to reflect on their own experiences as writers. Invariably, many adult writers remember something about how they were taught grammar – whether it was the dreaded red pen, or diagramming sentences. When it comes to teaching grammar and mechanics, it seems that many people have a lot of memories and experiences related to what not to do:
- We know not to mark up a child’s paper with lots of red ink.
- We know not to correct children’s grammar in mid-sentence while they are speaking.
- We know not to drill children with worksheets and drudgery.
- We know not to model confusing grammar and mechanics in our own speaking or writing.
But what to do?
It might be helpful to clarify your purpose in teaching grammar. I usually talk about grammar with students in terms of making decisions about our writing, rather than following a set of rules about writing.
Truthfully, there are no “rules” for grammar. There are always many options for how to say something, what type of punctuation to use, the construction of a sentence and so forth. To suggest that there is a correct way , or “standard” English way, or an incorrect way just isn’t really true (See Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss for a lovely explanation of this). Instead of teaching grammar so as to follow “rules,” I teach grammar so that students can communicate with an audience effectively.
In most cases, readers will be distracted if a piece of writing is littered with spelling errors and a mix of capital and lower case letters. Most readers have come to expect quotation marks, commas, paragraph indents, and other conventions to help them read text more easily. In some cases, a writer is better off using a very academic tone and sophisticated vocabulary, but in other cases they might need to use a more casual tone and some slang to get the point across.
I want students to be able to anticipate what their targeted audience might be expecting. What will surprise the audience? What will go unnoticed? What might distract them from the writing?
We study grammar so that we can communicate effectively. We want our writing to be easy for our readers to read and understand, and we want them to get the message we intended for them.
Syntax refers to word order. Specifically, the order in which words are arranged to form a sentence.
Syntax is just one of many aspects of grammar that teachers often find challenging for students to grasp. Sometimes, well-intentioned educators resort to teaching students “formulas” or rules for sentences, sentence worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks and other measures in an attempt at teaching students to speak and write in complete sentences.
These practices look a lot like the practices that adult writers tell me were their least successful experiences in school. Fortunately, there are other ways to go about it.
A starting point is to give students lots of built-in time for oral language. This might look like lots of turning-and-talking during read-aloud conversations, with prompts to get kids started in the direction of a complete thought, or it might look like partner work during writing workshop where students say aloud what they plan to write that day.
In either case, gently coaching students to use complete sentences when they are engaged in oral language is more effective than you may realize. Just sitting nearby and whispering to a student to finish their thought… and then giving a full five seconds of wait time before you do anything else … is incredibly powerful. (And if the student is still stumped, that might be when you model for them what the full sentence might sound like.)
However, it is the more complex sentences that tend to give students more trouble. And it tends to be more challenging in writing than it is in speaking (though not always).
Try reading one of these texts from National Geographic’s website with the lens of syntax. (Keep in mind we could read many times with many different lenses – punctuation, capitalization, verbs, you name it).
If you’re not sure what to look for, you might refer to this handy chart.
When I look at these texts, what stands out to me is that most of the sentences are compound or complex sentences. There are very few simple statements. If I think about this as a craft move–a decision that the author made–I might imagine what the writing would sound like if it contained lots of simple statements instead of the more complex sentences. I might imagine how the writing would sound if the author had used more exclamations and questions. Either of those decisions would have changed the text significantly.
In a shared reading lesson, I might display this text and read it to my students, and then ask them to try rewriting portions of it using only simple statements. Then, have them open up their own writing notebooks and choose an excerpt of their own writing to do the same. Just a brief bit of practice will quickly create a memorable experience with writing that helps students understand why authors might choose more complex sentences instead.
When I look back on my own life as a student, I remember many of the same dreaded practices that adult writers often share with me -the red pens, the worksheets, and being cut off mid-sentence to have my speech corrected. But, as an educator, there are many practices I can say yes to that I hope kids will grow up to remember positively:
- We know that grammar is a set of craft moves, not a set of rules.
- We know that writers make decisions about how to use conventions.
- We know that writers consider their purpose and audience when they make a decision.
- We know that studying what great writers do can help us learn to be great writers too.
For a very practical description of effective grammar instruction, I recommend this post by Sarah Dean: Teaching Grammar Effectively, as well as The Power of Grammar by Mary Ehrenworth and Vicki Vinton as an excellent resource for planning grammar instruction.