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Effectively Teaching Grammar: What Works (and What Doesn't Work)

By The Room 241 Team November 9, 2012

All educators agree that students are better writers when they have an understanding of grammar. To be effective writers in school and to effectively communicate later in life when in the workplace, students need to use proper grammar.  But, what are the best methods for teaching grammar, normally thought of as a very boring topic?

Educators do disagree on what types of grammar teaching methods are effective. Some teachers begin their English or language arts classes with standard grammar exercises. Others pass out worksheets that require circling and underlining parts of speech. Some spend class sessions dedicated to proper punctuation and diagramming sentences.

What does the research show?

Research shows that learning grammar like this, in isolation from reading and writing, does not work well. A 1991 statement by educators, researchers and authors, George Hillocks and Michael Smith, is used frequently to support the view that teaching grammar in a class session dedicated to grammar alone is a waste of time. In their book, “Grammar and Usage,” they say, “Research over a period of nearly 90 years has consistently shown that the teaching of school grammar has little or no effect on students.”

Some grammar teaching methods work better than others. Educators have specifically identified some teaching concepts and methods that do and do not work.

What does not work when teaching grammar?

  • Teaching grammar as a subject in isolation from writing is not effective.
  • Students learn nothing about the use of grammar by diagramming sentences.
  • Learning to identify parts of speech does not improve the quality of a student’s writing.
  • Studying grammar in isolation does not help students avoid grammatical errors in their writing.
  • Teaching grammar as grammar is not helpful and takes up classroom time that could be better spent reading and writing.

What does work when teaching grammar?

Educator and author on teaching English, Rei R. Noguchi, says, “We need to teach not so much ‘rules of grammar’ but ‘principles of writing.'” Research validates his theory and the following principles have been proven to be more effective than teaching grammar as a separate subject.

Include reading and writing

The best grammar instruction includes extensive reading and writing. This includes the teacher reading aloud to students of all ages. When students hear and see what is proper, they incorporate it into their own writing. This means that teachers need to provide extensive opportunities for students to read and write in the classroom.

The writing process itself teaches grammar. As students proofread, edit and revise their own work, they learn about the proper use of grammar.

Students should self-assess their own work

Students learn grammar by carefully examining their own writing and identifying errors. They need opportunities to read their own work out loud. Students can read to each other. Students can also read their own work quietly but out loud so they can hear it and identify their own mistakes.

Combine sentences meaningfully

Sentence combining exercises are effective in teaching sentence structure. It teaches students grammar principles like parallelism and variety. Students learn how the meaning of a sentence can change simply by the way clauses are put together.

Use “mini-lessons”

Mini-lessons are effective. A mini-lesson on how comma placement can change the meaning of a document impresses students far more than memorizing comma rules. For example, a well-known “Dear John” letter is helpful and fun. Depending on where the commas are placed, the writer of the letter is either professing her undying love for John or telling him how much she loathes him.

Another effective mini-lesson is on dangling modifiers. A common one used for teaching is, “I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” Ask students why the elephant is wearing pajamas. Making it fun helps students remember the principle and recognize the errors when they see them in their own writing and the writing of others.

Literature for grammar

Use literature to teach grammar within the context of writing. Students can analyze the sentence structure of authors and learn how the use of words, punctuation and sentence structure contribute to their opinion of the author’s work. Students can then copy the style of an author they admire and improve their own writing.

Conclusion

Research supports teaching grammar by integrating it into the actual writing process. Grammar drills and worksheets are ineffective in improving the understanding and use of grammar. The most effective ways to teach grammar is to encourage and promote reading and writing.

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