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Three Tips for Teaching Grammar in Middle and High School

What the Research Tells Us About Effective, Engaging Grammar Instruction

Grammar can be a challenging subject for educators to teach and students to learn. Despite its reputation as being difficult and even boring, learning grammar can be as natural and intuitive to the brain as learning to walk. From the moment we begin to understand language, how to form words and communicate verbally, our brains begin to perceive the nuances of syntax, punctuation, and irregular and regular verbs (Pinker, 86). We notice how the order of words can change a sentence’s meaning and how a missing comma can mean the difference between “Let’s eat Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

Grammar is innate and hardwired into our brains. The key to teaching it means tapping into the mind’s natural curiosity and inclination to learn.

1) Make it Interesting

Grammar is not outdated, nor should grammar lessons be. Studies have confirmed that traditional grammar instruction — like diagramming sentence structure, memorizing verb conjugation, and patrolling paragraphs for incorrect punctuation — generally does not improve student writing, but may, in fact, deter students from writing at all.

But making grammar lessons new, interesting, engaging, and overall, the fun can help to motivate students, and bolster their relationships with English.

Learning science research has illustrated how to make a stylistic grammar lesson compelling and easier to recall. Susan Losee Nunan writes,

“First the introduction must be novel, something that will impress itself on malleable brains. Change location. Use different materials. In addition, it should be fun because when a lesson involves the emotions, it engages the mind” (Nunan, 72).

Pique your students’ interest at the beginning of the lesson by providing a real-world example of incorrect grammar usage. Popular song lyrics are an engaging go-to — think “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, as “You and me could write a bad romance” should really be, “You and I could write a bad romance.”

Another idea is to have students practice their writing, punctuation, and syntax through creative writing prompts. The more unique, the better! Students can write letters to an alien penpal, a journal entry from two hundred years ago, a three-stanza poem, or even a recipe. Instruct students to consider one grammar concept as they work and review their writing for accuracy.

For more on making your grammar lessons fun, check out this blog.

2) Make It Real

Grammar isn’t just syntax and parts of speech. It isn’t just replacing a missing comma, removing a dangling modifier, or correcting a verb tense. Grammar is the whole system of language. It is the rules that govern how the meaning and function of words change as they interact with one another.

For students to both understand and appreciate the broad concept of grammar — rather than just memorizing its components — it is important to make it tangible.

Show students what grammar actually looks like in action. One way to do this is to connect grammar lessons to“authentic, grade-appropriate texts to show how grammar and language rules function to improve writing. In this way, students learn about a particular grammar skill or concept, while also see how great writers use those concepts to communicate effectively to their audiences” (Nathan, 6).

Context is key. Students will be most perceptive of grammar instruction if they see how it works in their own writing. This is one reason why teaching grammar in insolation — or in standalone lessons, drills, quizzes, or worksheets — is rarely effective, as correct grammar is not learned by sitting down and memorizing rules of usage. Correct grammar is learned by writing” (Soiferman, 3).

Review your students’ work, identify where they are struggling, and highlight those areas in your instruction. In addition, have students read through their writing and note the mistakes they have made. This is particularly effective, because “when students are allowed to correct their own errors they learn more than they would from completing worksheets” (Soiferman, 5).

Finally, show that grammar is needed. Having a strong command of grammar is imperative for success in college and careers. Students will need grammar proficiency to write college essays, complete their SATS, apply for jobs, and write professional emails. Using these as assignments will help students practice their grammar in a familiar, applicable setting while also honing their social and emotional skills.

3) Make it Memorable

Weaving grammar practice into daily instruction can allow it to become second nature for students. Using a variety of grade-appropriate texts to illustrate grammatical techniques can help fuel this learning process.

The more students are exposed to diverse sets of engaging texts, the more they are exposed to how grammar works. This not only boosts engagement, curiosity, and confidence, but it also helps students more easily remember grammar concepts by “wearing that particular brain pathway a little more deeply, making the writing tool easier to retrieve the next time the writer wishes to accomplish that specific stylistic purpose” (Nunan, 72).

And finally, encourage your students to write. Write often, write daily. Just like riding a bike, the more students practice using grammar and applying it in context, the more ingrained those techniques will become. As a result, they will become better, more confident writers.

These research-based strategies lay the foundation of our 6–12 ELA curriculum, StudySync.™

For more on how StudySync can support your grammar instruction, visit the links below.

References

Nathan, Ruth. “A Theoretical and Empirical Basis for StudySync.™” (n.d.). http://content-cdn.studysync.com/support/StudySync_WhitePaper.pdf. Accessed 12 February, 2020.

Nunan, Susan Losee. “Forgiving Ourselves and Forging Ahead: Teaching Grammar in a New Millennium.” The English Journal, vol. 94, no. 4, 2005, pp. 70–75. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30046463. Accessed 12 Feb. 2020.

Pinker, Steven. “Horton Heared a Who! What the Slips of Children Tell Us about Language, History and the Human Mind.” Time 154.18 (1 Nov. 1999): 86.

Soiferman, Karen L. “Teaching Grammar Judiciously In Secondary Schools and First-Year University: Lessons from the Field.” (2019). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED591146.pdf. Accessed 12 February, 2020.

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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