Teaching Grammar: A method that works

Teacher Helping Boy With SchoolworkGrammar and writing are virtually inseparable, reports Lynn Sams, a veteran English teacher. Attempting to design effective writing instruction for her students, Sams sought to align her instruction with the tasks students face when writing. As she explored the reasons behind students’ difficulties with organization, coherence, and revision, she developed strategies for improving students’ ability to write effectively. Sams realized that she was teaching grammar – the relationship between structure and meaning.

Educational research has been unable to demonstrate that direct instruction in grammar improves writing. Sams believes that both traditional and “in-context” approaches to grammar have failed for the same reason: they treat grammar as something that is separate from the writing process.

Embedding grammar in instruction

When teachers align their methods of teaching writing with the nature of the composing process, however, grammar is embedded in the instruction. For example, to determine whether the intended meaning is clearly expressed in a sentence, writers must analyze what they have written. The ability to analyze sentences, to understand how the parts work together to convey the desired meaning, is central to the writing process.

When she began teaching, Sams believed that the sixth-through-ninth-grade students in her writing workshop would learn to write simply by writing and revising. She believed in the process method of teaching writing, and thought that all students could produce a clear, coherent, effective written product if they were given enough practice revising. But she found that students’ writing often continued to be confused and unclear.

Common problems included generalizations, lack of supporting details, thoughts not arranged sequentially, relationships between ideas not clear, and thoughts connected by “ands” to the exclusion of all other conjunctions. Sentences were awkward and confusing, and punctuation marks were used randomly. Simply telling students to revise and noting errors in their writing was not enough.

Writers need to arrange their ideas in a logical order that readers can follow. To do this, they need to identify how their ideas relate to one another, to distinguish main ideas from supporting details, and to separate one idea from another, recognizing where one thought begins and ends. Sams found that recognizing the beginnings and endings of thoughts was difficult for her students, who believed that clauses and sentence fragments were complete thoughts.

Learning to recognize main ideas

Students were not able to use the structure of a sentence to recognize the main idea. Sams began to help students recognize main ideas through lessons in what she calls “concept attainment.” The goal was to help students sort through all the words in a sentence to pinpoint the ones conveying the main idea.

Because she wanted to take as little time as possible away from writing, revising and literature study, Sams presented concept attainment as a warm-up exercise completed in the first 5 or 10 minutes of the class about three times a week.

At the beginning of the school year, she started with two-word, subject-verb sentences, adding one part of speech or language structure at a time and building up sequentially to the compound-complex sentence. She found, to her surprise, that it took an entire year to do this.

Sams began by having students study all the possible permutations of subject-verb constructions until they could recognize all the forms they could take. (Babies cry. Babies are crying. Are babies crying? Do babies cry? Have babies been crying? Might all three babies have been crying? Who is crying? Cry!).

The recognition of subjects and verbs is not as simple as one might think. Students need to understand that components of verb phrases may not occur contiguously, that subjects can be formed of more than one word, that personal and interrogative pronouns can serve as subjects, and that in a command the subject is understood to be “you.”

A process of questioning

Sams approaches sentence analysis as a process of questioning that reveals the precise relationship of every part to the whole. And she uses sentence diagramming as a visual aid in this process. The first and most difficult task is identifying the main action and linking verbs.

That is why she begins with simple sentences so that students become familiar with the forms they are looking for. Once they can identify the main verb phrase in a sentence, everything else falls into place, Sams has found.

When given enough time with very simple subject-verb sentences, students quickly pick up the logic of the diagram and need little explanation of the process.

Sams states that a sentence diagram visually depicts how all parts of a simple or complex sentence relate to its core subject and verb; displays how each unit in the sentence is related to the others; shows where there are places to expand the sentence; and highlights the links that connect ideas within and between clauses.

When used strategically, diagramming helps students develop a way of seeing structure that is crucial for their comprehension of reading and their proficiency in writing.

After practicing with simple subject-verb sentences, students begin to work with sentences that include a variety of adjectives. They learn that adjectives can be related to the subject by answering which, what kind of, and how many/how much; that they are not related to the verb; that a word can function as a subject or an adjective depending upon its relationship to other words in the sentence; that an unlimited number of adjectives may relate to one word; and that they come in many forms, some of which look like verbs. (Three beefy disgruntled police sergeants appeared. Many barking dogs ran. These two are staying. Will my four new students be participating? Which ones are broken?)

After students recognize simple subject-verb constructions with adjectives, Sams adds adverbs. (Those two big babies cried loudly here yesterday. The red train stopped there unexpectedly yesterday. Some have come here. Others have not arrived yet. Who is there? Eventually she will follow.)

By analyzing many sentences like these, students become aware that adverbs answer how, when, where, in what manner, and to what extent; that they relate to verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs but not to subjects; that they can occur anywhere in the sentence; and that a word that looks like a noun (Sunday) might function as an adverb depending on its relationship to other words in the sentence.

Approach can be used with all levels of students

Adding one part of speech or language unit at a time, Sams builds up to compound-complex sentences by the end of the year. She limits her teaching of structure to what can realistically be accomplished over the course of one year. While her process is clumsy to explain, she says it is easy to use and appealing to students.

Sams has used it with students at basic, regular and gifted levels. Students enjoy it as a kind of language play but also come to realize how it improves their reading comprehension and writing.

Sams never tests students’ comprehension of sentence structure.

The purpose is to improve their writing, and she finds that this happens as long as students continue to work at analyzing sentences. Students do not find the process difficult as long as concepts are introduced slowly and sequentially and time is allowed for full understanding at each step. Their increased ability to see links between ideas improves their ability to express their thoughts coherently. As students are taught to recognize the relationships between words, phrases and sentences, their ability to recognize weak links in their own writing increases.

Sams believes that the approach to writing instruction commonly used today is haphazard. Many students arrive in her classes with experience in journal style writing only, and they have received credit for completing assignments rather than for crafting coherent sentences and paragraphs.

Many teachers continue to teach grammar only in response to errors that occur in students’ writing. This context approach is flawed, in Sams’ opinion, because it treats grammar as an isolated set of rules, ignoring the context from which the rules derive – the language system itself. Students, therefore, have no background knowledge about grammar, no vocabulary, no concepts, no means for understanding teachers’ explanations of rules or their application.

Teaching grammar “in context” is really teaching grammar in a vacuum, says Sams. Direct instruction, such as Sams uses to analyze parts of speech and sentence structure, gives students the insights and tools to control their writing. This instruction is more closely linked to the tasks students face when they are composing a written product or trying to understand what they read.

Although Sams teaches children the basics during the single year she has them in her class, she recognizes that writing proficiency takes many years to develop. She believes it would be better to implement a sequenced approach to grammar instruction designed to build students’ competence gradually.

Sams recommends beginning with learning the parts of speech in the sixth grade in a number of playful ways such as concept attainment and poems that consist entirely of one part of speech. This would be followed in the seventh grade by the analysis of sentences described in this report. Introductory exploration of grammar for a few minutes, several times a week, can, in Sams’ opinion, improve students’ reading comprehension and the clarity of their writing.

“How to Teach Grammar, Analytical Thinking, and Writing: A Method That Works”, English Journal, Volume 96, Number 3, February 2003, pp. 57-65.

Published in ERN April/May 2003 Volume 16 Number 4

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