Teaching Grammar to Students, or What I’m learning in school right now

I am in an interesting class right now, Teaching English Grammar.  As an  English Teaching minor (in conjunction with my German Teaching major), this is one of the required classes.  Now this class may sound boring, but it is actually far from boring – but then, I’m a nerd!

The whole semester we are focusing on how to teach grammar to students.  What is interesting is that the focus is not on teaching grammar just because, but to teach grammar in context.  We have discussed the idea that there are two main reasons to teach grammar: 1. To create young little grammarians, who can spout out all the rules to all the grammar situations they encounter, and 2. To help students write better.   And in our discussion we have decided that the second reason is a better one.  Honestly, we don’t really care if our students can recite the Seven Rules of the Comma, but if they use commas correctly in their sentences, that is good.

For me, this goes back to KCS principles that I have talked about before, “Teach students concepts, rather than details.”  I don’t really care if students memorize all of the principles, but I do want them to be able to use them.  Grammar should be taught so that students use grammar well when they write so that they can communicate better.  This changes the way in which we teach grammar.  We shouldn’t be listing out all of the rules and making students memorizing them – that’s not going to help them write better.  So how do we help them write better?

We learned a very interesting model for teaching grammar principles to students:

1. Show examples (Usually this is from literature they are familiar with)

2. Model creation (The teacher models creation of a sentence with this grammar principle)

3. Have students create in small groups or pairs.

4. Have students create on their own.

We have had some sample lessons in class where we have used this model – the professor is actually teaching us grammar principles like appositives and absolutes using this model, not only teaching us what an appositive is, but how to teach appositives to students.  This works very well.

First you show examples of the grammar principle in use, it’s fun for students to see that their favorite authors use these principles, too.  This isn’t just something we’re forcing them to learn because we’re crazy.  It can also be fun to use students’ actual writing, previous papers they’ve written, to show that they, too, use these grammar principles even if they don’t realize they are.  A lot of grammar is known and understood innately as students read and speak and listen, even if they could not state the specific rules.   For example, Can you give me the rule for order of multiple adjectives in a sentence?   No? Neither can I.     Can you put the following words in the correct order?   French  – four – young – the – girls.

Did you say ‘the four young French girls’ ?  Why?  You don’t know, it just sounds right.  It is, and you knew that without explicitly knowing the rule.

Then, when students see how these grammar principles are used, and how they benefit a sentence, you model for them how to create a sentence.  One of the coolest things this professor has shown me is the use of pictures when creating sentences.  It is so hard sometimes to create sentences out of nothing, to creatively create sentences.  But displaying a picture and asking students to write a sentence about the picture, gives them something easier.  It is such a simple idea, but is so useful!  So, using a picture, the teacher would model creating a sentence incorporating a certain grammar principle.  Ideally, you would start with a simple sentence about the picture, and then show how adding the grammar principle enhances the sentence, makes it more interesting.

We talked about appositives, which are phrases which usually rename, re-identify a noun in the sentence.  For example, “My dad, an amazing man, did something amazing.”   that phrase “an amazing man” renames my dad, and could be used as a substitute for “my dad” in the sentence.  So using a picture of a tree by a fence, you could create a simple sentence “The tree stood by the fence”, and then add an appositive, “The tree, an old, twisting mass of branches, stood by the fence.”  And show students what that does for the sentence, how it improves the sentence.

Then you give students another picture, and have them, in small groups or pairs, write sentences.  Starting with a simple sentence about the picture, have them create appositives for certain nouns in the sentence and then insert them.  You can even have them try and move their clauses and phrases around in the sentence to see what effect that has on the meaning and the mood of the sentence.  Does it make a difference if I say, “The tree, an old, twisting mass of branches, stood by the fence”  or “By the fence stood the tree, an old, twisting mass of branches”, or “By the fence stood an old, twisting mass of branches- the tree” ?  Let students play with sentences and discover what it does for the meaning.

And then allow students to create sentences on their own.  But the final outcome should be some meaningful piece of writing.  Students shouldn’t just write sentences with appositives because you told them to, they should write sentences with appositives as part of whatever they are normally writing.  Help them incorporate the grammar principles they are learning into what they normally write, to help improve their writing.

That is the bottom line,  teaching grammar should help students become better writers, not better regurgitators of grammar rules.  Especially since a lot of our so-called grammar rules, aren’t really as hard and fast as you were always taught they were.  “You should never split an infinitive!” We’ve all heard that rule, and we’ve heard the nerds complaining about Star Trek’s “To boldly go”, but really that rule applies to Latin.  In Latin you cannot split your infinitive.  But English is not a Latin based language, not grammatically, it is Germanic, and in German you can split infinities all you want, sometimes you are forced to!  So, true nerds know that “To boldly go” is a perfectly fine example of English language.

I feel that the main purpose of teaching grammar in a high school setting is to help students learn to write better, to write more complex sentences with more variety and more complexity of meaning.  That is why we teach, not to have students repeat the rules back to us, but to see them using what they learn.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Grammar to Students, or What I’m learning in school right now

  1. Interestingly enough, my university did not offer any courses for teaching grammar to student. It was straight literature with a few creative writing courses. I’m glad to hear that some univeristies are a bit wiser. This is the reason that, 13 years out of college and not teaching, I’m looking for a good grammar book to brush up on my own skills that have gotten sloppy and lazy over the years.

  2. I am currently taking an anthropology course and a psychology course, and both have units on writing. So fascinating! I highly recommend, if you can squeeze it into your schedule, looking at the implications of language on culture and psychology.

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