Growing up, grammar was something that was explicitly taught. I specifically recall my ninth grade English class when it comes to grammar instruction. While we read literature (Great Expectations comes to mind), the teacher devoted a good portion of class time to grammar instruction. After ninth grade, we were apparently supposed to know everything we needed to know about grammar because it disappeared from my English courses.
I thought I had a pretty good understanding of grammar – until college where I was forced to take a class called “Grammar and Usage.” It was the only “C” I ever earned in college. But now I am able to diagram sentences! Wait – when do I ever do that?!
Never. I never diagram sentences. Nor am I ever asked to point out the gerund, preposition, or infinitive.
Grammar is something I’m passionate about, but just how much of it do today’s students need to know in order to be avid readers and writers?
I’ve worked at four schools over the course of 12 years and none of them incorporated grammar into the curriculum. When I tried to teach the basic parts of speech, I found that student knowledge was all over the place. Some of my students’ previous teachers clearly thought grammar was important, but others did not. So half of my class knew what I meant when I said, “Add adjectives to your writing,” while others stared at me blankly.
I have always struggled with teaching grammar – what do I teach? How do I differentiate instruction when student knowledge is so varied?
I have tried mini-lessons, but sometimes those are more than mini in that they often take longer than 10 minutes due to students having questions. For some, if it’s the first time being exposed to the material, I have to back-up and teach the basics. Before I know it, class is over and all we did was silent read and practice how to find verbs in sentences.
I’ve also assigned grammar as homework. However, the students who already know the skills end up completing it in record time while the students who are confused copy the work on the bus to school.
Is grammar important? Yes and no. I believe that students can organically learn much of what they need to know about sentence structure, parts of speech, comma placement, etc. by reading. But of course, not all students are wild about reading. (Those who are, I find, are typically the best writers in the class. But that’s another post!)
So this year, I’m trashing my mini-lessons. I’m revamping my curriculum and teaching grammar that matters. I’m asking myself questions, such as, What grammar skills will help my students become better writers? How can I infuse grammar instruction with the teaching of literature?
So while learning the parts of speech is something I likely won’t be spending time on this coming school year, you can bet my students will learn how to liven up their writing by using adjectives. You can also bet your bottom dollar that they will not be reading sentences and underlining adjectives; instead, they will create the sentences themselves. Grammar instruction should be meaningful and useful.
No one diagrams sentences these days. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson I learned from my college grammar class.
Throughout the year I’ll post “The Grammar Files,” which will discuss my triumphs (hopefully) and tribulations with grammar instruction. I welcome your feedback!
Do you teach grammar? I’d love to hear your ideas!