The era of the Common Core has re-ushered in the study of grammar in all grades. This is both good and bad. Good because the study of grammar to provide students with tools to improve writing is positive and can lead students to independence with editing and revising. The bad news is that students are memorizing the parts of speech and completing worksheets that ask them to underline subjects and predicates, prepositional phrases, etc.
Research and common sense both point to the fact that knowing the definitions of the eight parts of speech does not lead to students using the parts of speech correctly in their writing. Workbook exercises that invite students to underline specific parts of speech or fill in blanks with a noun or a verb also do not improve students’ writing. Sentences in workbooks are controlled and do not reflect the type of writing that students do. Moreover, for a knowledge of grammar to impact students’ writing, students must edit and revise their own work applying principles they’ve learned and practiced. Here’s a framework for teaching students how to use grammar to improve their writing in all subjects.
- The teacher presents a model lesson and students discuss what they notice and ask questions.
- Students practice the lesson by writing to demonstrate understanding.
- Students edit and/or revise a piece of writing to reflect what they’ve observed and practice.
Sample Lesson for Strong Verbs
Materials: Two to Three typical student sentences with weak verbs.
Teacher’s Think Aloud: Today we’re going to look at action verbs and make sure that the verbs in a piece of writing paint visual images for readers. Let’s read and study sentences that are similar to what I’m seeing in your writing:
- My mom made a birthday cake.
Rewrite: My mom decorated a sheet cake with yellow roses and then squeezed icing from a tube and wrote: “Happy Birthday, Jenn.”
- Jake and I went to the park.
Rewrite: Jake and I biked on the winding path that led to the park.
Have students Turn and Talk: Students should point out how the change in verbs affects their ability to visualize as well as the benefit of added details.
Students Practice: Provide students with sentences that have weak verbs and
have them to rewrite and share. You can organize partners and make the learning interactive as they rewrite together.
Students Use Their Writing: Underline two sentences in students’ writing that would benefit from stronger verbs. Proficient writers can do this independently. Have students circle the verb and brainstorm a mini-list in the margin of alternate, strong verbs. Some students won’t be able to identify verbs; circle them for those students. Then ask students to choose a better verb and print it above the one in their text. I ask students not to erase what they originally had so they can discuss the benefit of the revision.
Extending the Lesson: Build mini-verb word-walls on 12 x 18 sheets of paper. Here are some ideas that students can work on during the year.
- Write other ways to say went.
- Write other ways to say make.
- Write verbs you can use for Thanksgiving or Holiday stories.
- Write verbs that help you write about autumn, winter, spring, or summer.
- Write verbs that help you visualize a specific sport.
Discuss extension ideas with colleagues and you will find many other situations for students to think about. The more they play with and use verbs, the better they will understand this part of speech.
Specific Nouns: In their writing, students often use general nouns such as stuff, things, junk, toys, food, snacks, games, etc. You can follow the framework of the lesson on verbs to develop your own lessons with specific nouns.
Help students understand that the more specific their nouns are, the clearer will be the images they paint for readers. For example, snacks could be pretzels, cashew nuts, apples, string cheese, etc. Specific nouns permit others to envision what the student sees and experiences.
Tips For Productive Peer Editing
If this is your students’ first foray into peer editing, you might find that students tend rate every section on a peer-editing form as “excellent” or “Terrific.” This kind of feedback does not help a classmate improve her writing. Even though you implement the suggestions that follow, it can take a few peer editing experiences for students to understand the value of this writing stage.
- The areas that students peer edit always match the criteria for the writing. If you change the writing criteria in this curriculum, then adjust the peer-editing form.
- Show students how you respond to two to three sections. Start with a positive comment and point out a need with a question.
Examples: Your Lead is short and announces the topic. Can you test it for raising questions and then revise it?
You build suspense and use descriptive details so well. Can you find two places to add dialogue?
- By offering students examples, you build their mental model of what helpful peer editing looks like.
Questions that Help Students Peer or Self Edit for Writing Conventions
When reading a student’s piece for use of writing conventions, place a light check in the margin of a line that requires punctuation; two checks for two punctuation needs, etc. This points the writer in the correct direction, and asks the writer to do the correcting. Instead of a check, you can write the editing symbol in the margin on the line. You can find a list of symbols by going to:
How do I Know What Grammar and Punctuation to Present?
The best way to figure out the lessons your students need is to make notes as you read their writing. You’ll find that all students might benefit from a lesson on using the colon and semi-colon, while a small group needs your support with paragraphing. In addition, you can ask students to write three things they need help with in their writing. I find that students are honest and want to make their writing clear and interesting. The issue is that they often don’t know what to do!
Mini-lessons to Present for Revision and Editing
What follows is a list of possible mini-lessons that you can consider. Mini-lessons will have to be repeated as students benefit from practice and repetition. Avoid marking up papers for students. The need to do the work to become independent and improve their writing.
Reading your writing out loud
Posing questions to revise
Vary sentence openings
The art of peer editing
Transition sentences between paragraphs
Leads and endings
Add details with prepositional phrases
Adding showing details
LESSONS AND EDITING STRATEGIES
Combining short, repetitive sentences
Agreement of subject and verb
Commas: in a series, direct address, opening expressions, parenthetical phrases, dependent clauses, –several lessons
Active or passive Voice
The Principal’s Corner
Teaching grammar and punctuation is a challenge for teachers because most of them have completed worksheets while in school and their teachers corrected errors in their writing. I find the best way for teachers to feel comfortable showing students how to use grammar to improve writing is to have them work with a colleague to develop lessons based on their students’ needs. Teaching partners develop and try lessons, make adjustments, present lessons to students, then share and discuss outcomes.
You can support this kind of learning and teaching by providing time for teachers to meet and confer, by purchasing professional books and materials for teachers, and by sending journal articles to them so they build a knowledge base they can call upon as they develop and present lessons. Try to find time for them to meet during the school day. They can use a common planning period, and you can reserve time for them to learn during scheduled faculty meetings.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.
For more Information on teaching grammar to improve writing, investigate:
- Teaching Middle School Writers: What Every English Teacher Needs to Know by Laura Robb, Heinemann, 2010.
- SMART WRITING: Practical Lessons for Middle School Writers, Heinemann First Hand, 2012.
- Grammar Lessons & Strategies That Strengthen Students’ Writing by Laura Robb, Scholastic, 2001.
- Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson, Stenhouse, 2005.
- Funner Grammar by Sandra Wilde, Heinemann, 2012.