The Grammar Ambush
It happens to my husband all the time. He is a police officer, and it is rare that he can make it through a party without someone asking him how to get out of a recent ticket. It almost always starts the same way.
“Oh, you’re a police officer? Well, let me ask you this . . .”
I’ve seen it happen so many times that I should have realized when it was happening to me at the neighborhood Halloween party.
“Oh, you’re an English teacher? Well, let me ask you this. When is my son going to start learning grammar? This is ridiculous. The garbage they’re sending home from his school is unbelievable! He doesn’t even know parts of speech!”
I quickly scanned the room for exits. It was a Friday night. I was exhausted. I really didn’t want to try to defend the English curriculum of a school where I don’t teach, in a class taught by a teacher I don’t know. However, this was my well-meaning neighbor who is really just a concerned parent, and who wants to make sure her child is prepared to be a good writer. And besides—for all I knew, some poor teacher from another district was defending my curriculum at a Halloween party in Novi.
I did my best to explain the concept of teaching grammar in context. I talked about all the research that shows kids don’t retain much when we teach them abstract terms and expect them to memorize constructions outside of their own writing. Then I tried to push the conversation toward reading. I explained that her son should be reading, reading, and then reading some more so that he can see what good writing looks like.
I’m still thinking about the conversation. Many parents want to see the traditional type of grammar instruction that they grew up with. And who can blame them? They did it that way and they turned out just fine. They’re concerned that their kids aren’t going to know how to communicate professionally.
Teaching Grammar in Context
Unfortunately, the problem with isolated grammar instruction is that it doesn’t work. Research since 1960 has shown us that “relatively few students learn grammar well, fewer retain it, and still fewer transfer the grammar they have learned to improving or editing their writing.”
So what do we do instead? Thumb through some teaching books or do a quick Google search, and you’ll find “mini-lessons” hailed as answers. Start writing workshops with quick bursts of targeted instruction, the lessons say.
But that’s tough. If I want to teach my kids a quick lesson about correctly punctuating clauses, they first need to know what clauses are. They need to know what subjects and verbs are, and they need to know what conjunctions are—both coordinating and subordinating. Say any of those terms in a tenth-grade classroom only if you’re into watching eyes glaze over. I’m not into glazed-over eyes, so my grammar mini-lessons have always been haphazard at best.
After Thanksgiving, my AP Language students and my ELA 10 students are starting new writing assignments. Now is the time, I think, to deliberately use grammar mini-lessons.
I’ll use their independent novels for samples of grammar in context. I will also hold them accountable to show me they can write with these grammatical concepts in mind.
And, I can’t forget about the other part of this grammar issue: communication. The Halloween ambush reminded me that I am not doing a good job of communicating the message to my students or parents. I need to be explicit about the expectations I have for my students’ grammar, and I need to let their parents know that grammar instruction is a valued, consistent part of my curriculum.
My students’ next major writing assignments will be submitted and graded by the end of December. Look for part two of this experiment in explicit grammar instruction. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Hattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.