Living Language: A New Vision for Teaching Grammar
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, November/December 2021 Issue
By Adam Stone
In the K-12 setting, grammar instruction can be tedious and demoralizing. Rather than elevating students and celebrating their successes, it too often becomes an exercise in red-lining their mistakes.
“When people think about grammar, they’re usually thinking about really technical things, with a major emphasis on correction,” says Sean Ruday, co-president of the Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English.
Experts say it is time to shift that model. As editor of the Journal of Literacy Innovation, Ruday is among those advocating for a change. Kids still need to learn grammar, they need to understand the mechanics of how language works. But teachers can find better and more effective ways to communicate this vital information.
Before we look at how best to teach grammar, it’s important to make the case for why it is even necessary to parse out the correct use of punctuation and prepositions.
“Study after study shows the importance of syntactic awareness—understanding the way in which words are combined into these larger phrasal units,” says Amanda Goodwin, co-editor of Reading Research Quarterly and an associate professor at Vanderbilt University. “It is incredibly important for kids’ reading comprehension, as well as for their writing.”
It’s important, the experts say, because grammar describes the rules of the road. It offers a map for good communications.
“Grammar is what helps us construct meaning in our reading, writing, and in speaking,” says Melissa Mayville, a reading specialist and senior policy/program analyst for the National Education Association. Simply put: “It is critical that [students] have an understanding of how language works so they can comprehend what they’re [reading and] so that they can be understood.”
A solid grounding in grammar empowers students, giving them tools they need to utilize language effectively.
“Using a strong verb to clearly convey an action, or a prepositional phrase to add some detail, or a subordinate clause to provide some context—it’s important that they can do that in their writing, so they can create nuanced and descriptive communications,” Ruday explains.
Too often, though, the standard approach to sharing this critical information doesn’t reach students where they live.
What Isn’t Working
Teachers typically will leverage worksheets in a drill-and-skill approach to grammar for students. Goodwin likens it to basketball practice: have them fire at the hoop over and over until the ball goes in. But this approach doesn’t work in language the way it works in sport.
“We can teach these rules, we can say: ‘This is a verb, this is a compound sentence.’ But [students] don’t shoot it exactly accurately. They learn it on the worksheet or in the intervention, but they don’t then transfer it to their own writing and reading,” Goodwin says. “We’re good at teaching rules. The challenge is in having that transfer to real outcomes.”
Research bears this out. Studies show that practice on worksheets “makes students really good at doing worksheets, but the material really doesn’t get conveyed to them,” notes Ruday. Worse still, the basis of the worksheet—constant correction—can be profoundly demoralizing. “Those worksheet-based approaches will typically lead to student disengagement.”
Clearly, a better strategy is needed.
An Alternative Approach
As students mature in their use of language, they’re going to make mistakes. They’ll construct more complex sentences and, in doing so, they’ll misplace the occasional comma. Rather than penalize such efforts, teachers who shift away from the corrective mode can find new ways to support their students’ evolving skills.
By combining grammar instruction with practical usage, educators can help students to craft communications that are more complex and ultimately more effective. One way to get there is through “mentor texts,” reading examples that help bring the grammatical concepts to life.
“Mentor texts are examples of good writing. They’re frequently pulled from published works, and they demonstrate how these authors are using these concepts,” Ruday explains.
“Maybe we’re talking about prepositional phrases and how they add detail,” he says. “First you talk with students in a general sense about what a prepositional phrase is, you orient them to that concept. Then you show them how that looks in its natural habitat, with authentic examples of how it’s used in literature.”
Mentor texts help to demonstrate the relevance of a grammatical skill, taking it from abstract concept to practical application.
“When kids see it in authentic texts, then you can have a conversation,” says Goodwin. “Why do authors actually use this? Why do we have compound sentences? Mentor texts show the power of the skill that you’re teaching.”
The next step is to then apply that concept to the students’ own writing. Grammar comes alive when students have the opportunity to connect the dots directly between what they’ve learned and how it can support their own communications.
“It gets students excited when we take these concepts that we’re focused on and apply them,” Ruday says. “I will say to them: ‘We’ve talked about propositional phrases and how they add detail. Now let’s think about how you might add some detail to this writing, and whether a propositional phrase would be a good tool for that.’”
Students can do that either while they’re composing or while they’re revising. “They can look back at what they’ve written and say: ‘Hey, maybe this part needs a little more detail,’” he adds. “Then there’s that authentic connection, that authentic application to their own work—which is exactly what is missing in a worksheet-based approach.”
This strategy helps to address what Mayville refers to as the Matthew Effect, a social phenomenon based on the Biblical maxim that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
“When kids fail early at reading and writing, they begin to dislike reading, and then they read less than their classmates who are stronger readers,” she says. “It’s the same way with grammar. When students have the opportunity to practice their skills, they’re going to get better at them.”
Beyond the basics of reading and writing, Mayville points to other classroom strategies that teachers can use to build up students’ grammar skills.
Forms of Feedback
Rather than learn grammar solely from classroom instruction (and correction), students can sharpen their linguistic chops by collaborating with their peers. The point of language, after all, is to communicate. In that case, the litmus test of success is the effectiveness of that communication.
“As a student, my assignment might be to write a piece [that] explains something to my classmates,” says Mayville. “My teacher can work with me and say: ‘Well, I didn’t understand what you’ve meant here, how can you rewrite?’ But more importantly, the children in the classroom can give feedback. They can ask questions, and that helps the child to construct their own knowledge about grammar. It helps them to better construct meaning, using those grammatical principles.”
Basic instruction still plays a key role: students should be taught the grammatical terms. Once they’ve got the fundamentals, though, real-time reaction is key to bringing those lessons to life.
“As we’re doing these productive learning tasks, students are taking in that information and exploring how it works—not just how sentence structure is organized, but how it helps them to communicate,” Mayville explains. To close the loop and drive the lesson home, “they need timely and explicit feedback. The explicit instruction and the feedback need to go hand in hand.”
This in turn helps to support another pedagogic tool that Mayville refers to as “engaged learning,” the idea that kids learn by doing. “When they are engaged—when they are writing and speaking and getting feedback on that, they are using different parts of their brain,” she adds.
And it’s worth noting that “feedback,” while it may carry the suggestion of critique, does not have to be grounded in criticism. Feedback can be a positive, energetic, and even fun experience.
“If I’m working with small children on reading, we would do something called reader’s theater,” Mayville says. “Kids read the same thing over and over, like they’re practicing a play. When they make a mistake, their peers can correct them. ‘No, no, there’s a comma there, you’re supposed to pause.’ The child integrates that, and now they’re engaged in the learning, they’re giggling.”
In considering K-12 grammar, there’s a current strain of thought that says teachers need to take into account the multicultural nature of their classrooms. By acknowledging the diversity of language as it’s used in real life, they honor the children’s lived experiences.
“We need to think about the child who was raised in a different linguistic structure, as we try to translate that to learning grammar in English,” Mayville explains.
We’re not just talking about those learning English as a second language. Mayville herself is Southern and prone to the occasional “y’all”—grammatically incorrect, but effective in her social milieu. She says there’s room for that in the classroom, just as there ought to be room for the grammatical variations among kids who come from other strong linguistic traditions.
Goodwin acknowledges this point can be controversial. Some might see it as giving kids free rein to use whatever “alternate grammar” strikes their fancy, when the point of school is to teach them the “right” way to do it. But in fact, she says, acknowledging the variations simply recognizes the reality on the ground, and it helps to forge the kind of mutually respectful relationship that empowers kids to acquire a range of skills.
“In this time of racial-injustice reckoning, we need to ask: ‘Whose grammar are we holding up, and whose grammar are we teaching in schools?’” Goodwin says. “We don’t want to say: ‘This is the only grammar that works.’ We want to say that for this particular purpose, we’re going to be using this grammar. But we can talk about it along with all the various linguistic resources that kids bring to school.”
What does this look like in practice? Much of it has to do with conversations about context.
“For example, we can say: ‘This is the grammar that we use in this particular writing activity.’ But we can also point to authors like Zora Neale Hurston who bring in dialects as part of their really beautiful storytelling,” Goodwin suggests.
Rather than insist on schoolbook grammar as the only way forward, it can be valid and even helpful to acknowledge that there isn’t just one type of grammar in our society. Rather, there is grammar for a purpose.
“If you listen to music, even if you read books, you’ll see various grammars really elevated and celebrated,” says Goodwin. “We can also elevate and celebrate those multiple grammars, those multiple linguistic resources, within our schools. One way of opening kids up to learning grammar is by first honoring what they bring.”
Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.