Using Grammar to Improve Writing
Using Grammar to Improve Writing
What should we STOP doing?
I f you ask most people to define "grammar," they will probably rattle off a list of items such as parts of speech, punctuation, capitalization, subject-verb agreement, syntax, sentence structure, and maybe "gerunds, but I can never remember what they are." The sad truth is that most people view grammar as disconnected from writing. One could even argue that the Common Core State Standards have reinforced this distinction by listing grammar standards separately from writing standards.
So it should be no surprise that for decades (or longer), teachers have tended to address grammar in isolation, as in, "Today is Tuesday, so we're doing prepositions. Turn to page 57 in your grammar book." 4 Which is not exactly a motivational approach.
Here's another non-surprise: When grammar is taught this way, students do not apply grammar rules in their own writing. In fact, considerable research has shown that teaching grammar in isolation does not improve student writing. 5
And yet, unsure how else to proceed, many teachers have continued to take this approach.
This book is about choosing a different approach-a different set of recipes.
It's a truism that when you want to make a change, you must first acknowledge there is a problem. We have now done that.
The next thing you must do is stop doing things that don't work. I've identified four key things to stop doing immediately. Note: You might think something on this list "worked" when you were a student. Keep in mind that some people can learn things no matter how they are taught. Considerable research shows that these four items do not help most students learn how to apply grammar rules in their writing.
Number one: Stop launching lessons where you make students copy down the rules or definitions for grammatical terms first. I've seen many teachers start grammar lessons this way; possibly they believe they are building students' background knowledge before discussing how to use whatever grammar concept they want to introduce. But this approach does not work-because telling is not teaching . Students are not empty vessels that we pour knowledge into. Taking notes without processing the information does not lead to learning. And if you explain a rule or definition first, you've killed any suspense or motivation to learn more. So even a few minutes later when you show some examples of the concept, students are like, "Meh." They are not invested because you have not inspired their curiosity. There is no mystery, nothing to figure out. They don't see what's in it for them. It's just another rule, which they might or might not want to follow. Just to be clear: I'm not saying we should never mention rules or definitions, only that we shouldn't lead with them. In the next chapter, we'll talk about how to flip the script in a way that's more effective.
Number two on the hit list is the "Daily Oral Language" (DOL) approach, in which teachers provide sentences riddled with random errors and students are supposed to correct them. Reading specialist Mark Pennington enumerates sixteen reasons why DOL doesn't work, and I agree with each one. He points out that DOL is proofreading, not sentence construction; that it tries to teach writing without actually having students write; that it uses bad writing models to teach good writing; and that it doesn't teach the whys and hows of grammar and mechanics. 6 Requiring students to fix grammatically incorrect sentences might be a form of assessment, but it is not