Sunday, June 12, 2011

Adding Richness to Grammar Instruction

I've always had a love/hate relationship with grammar lessons. In my own life, I really love grammar. I love the way that one word can change an entire sentence, the way that punctuation has evolved over time (and is still evolving!) and the way that words have entered our language.

But it's never been easy to communicate this love of grammar in the classroom. Few fourth graders really want to hear about how the word sports really is related to import. And not many are up for a discussion about how the rules for commas in a series differ across countries. There are also the practical issues of where to fit in grammar and how to connect it to everything else.

Of course, it's easy for people who are outside of the classroom to say that grammar fits in everywhere. And it does--in a way. It's easy for me to talk about grammar all the time. But for my talking to translate into actual learning, I need to take the time for more formal planning. Just try to get fourth graders to write sentences with adverbial phrases! 

While I haven't completely solved the grammar problem, I have developed a general formula that gets me through.

Link to academic vocabulary: This satisfies my desire to talk about new and interesting words. Instead of teaching students with how the word comma entered the language, however, I try to pull out an academic word that links to the grammar content. When I taught about commas in a series, however, it worked perfectly to teach the word series. We looked at how they already know this word (World Series, television series) and connected it to new meanings.

Silly writing: With fourth graders, I have to keep things light and playful. For teaching about commas in a series, I drew some silly pictures and asked kids to write sentences about them. For example, next to a picture of a monster, the question was, "What are this monster's favorite foods?" These kinds of questions provide lots of practice, but are still interesting and engaging. (And kids love teacher-illustrated pages, even when the illustrations are not the best.)

Fun interactives: Grammar is something that lends itself well to computer games. For commas, I found this great interactive site.  These sites are a big improvement on the dreadful workbook pages I did as a child! I do make sure that I go through every site, of course, to make sure that the rules in the site are the same as what I am teaching.

Flexibility in rules: I've decided that it's not confusing to students if I show them examples of how usage might be different in different situations. Kids need to see this--in fact, it's more confusing to not address this issue. When we were looking at commas, I found examples of how some writers do not use the comma before the and. When I teach capitalization next year, I'm going to actively seek examples of the changing usage of capitalization.

Real writing application: This is the hardest part, but also the most important. When we were working on commas, students wrote pages for a book about our field trip. Each page included a series of items that we saw or did on the trip. When the book was put together, we had the story of our field trip.

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