Rethinking Grammar Instruction to Keep Students Interested

As an elementary school student of the early 1990s, I grew up accustomed to worksheets as a form of instruction and assessment. Years ago, when I began my first year of teaching, I fell into this trend, too. For grammar and mechanics skills in particular, I relied on a worksheet like a coffee addict craves an espresso shot. I’d ask myself: “What’s the objective I want to students to achieve? Identify proper nouns? I’ll dig up a worksheet on that!” However, an eye-opening experience changed my ritual and thinking on grammar instruction. Although state standards were used for alignment at the time, keep these in mind as I share my experience.

CCSS.LA.3.1—demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking; and—

CCSS.LA.L.3.2, demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.

Ten years ago

Confident my students understood the grammar and mechanics needed to produce quality writing, I saw my implementation of daily worksheets as a success. At least that’s how I felt until one day when I glanced at a student’s paper during independent writing time. An apostrophe-s was on every word that had an s, regardless if it was meant to show possessiveness or plural.

I whispered to the student: “I noticed that you have an apostrophe-s on all of these words.”

“It’s supposed to be this way,” the student responded matter-of-factly.

Taking closer observation, I looked around the room and realized this was not an isolated error, but instead an apostrophe-s theme was present throughout the classroom. A few weeks prior, I had taught this concept and used worksheets to introduce, provide guided practice, and assess the skill. Leaping into compulsive mode, I thought to myself, “I better dig out some more of those possessive vs. plural worksheets!”

The next day, I distributed the freshly made copies and we began our journey of possessive vs. plural by way of multiple-choice cookie-cutter sentences. I tried everything to make it interesting. For instance, when I read the multiple-choice questions, I told my students to shout “ding, ding, ding” when I thought the answer was correct. “Isn’t this fun?” I’d ask with a convincing grin of my face.

“No, Mrs. Sumner,” a handful of students responded.

I had to stop, reflect, and remember my teacher training experience. As a graduate student, I was taught to teach authentically, to sway from instruction by way of worksheet. This outlook completely changed for me when I entered into the world of teaching in my own classroom. It’s not my desire to be a worksheet teacher. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I find comfort in the worksheets the way one would enjoy a hot cocoa on a bitter cold day. This is partly because the grammar and mechanics that students are required to know weren’t always presented in their writing naturally; they needed to be explicitly taught, and using a worksheet made me feel like I dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s.

Self-reflecting, I decided I never wanted my students to stare at me glassy-eyed and bored because of my choice of writing convention worksheets. In general, students must have opportunities to apply learning in context in order for concepts to stick. I found that when I tossed out the packets of worksheets and, in contrast, provided authentic learning opportunities, students were engaged and retained what they learned. Disclaimer: In my opinion, worksheets are suitable, helpful sources for introducing skills and supplementing additional practice. However, I don’t believe they should be used in isolation. Using only this format could leave students, who might otherwise understand the concept if it were addressed in multiple formats, in the dust. Also, worksheets can be monotonous.

Here are some ways I’ve approached grammar instruction in the classroom since that first year of teaching:

  • In context. After teaching a mini lesson on the skill, students identify ways to incorporate the skills in their own writing (a writer’s notebook) and edit their work if needed.
  • Grammar/mechanics hunt. Students search for examples of the grammar skill in the novels they’re reading. Students can work collaboratively or have a friendly competition.
  • Student choice. After a mini lesson, students can choose how they’d like to showcase their understanding of the skill. For instance, a student may create a song, poem, illustration, or written example. Several wonderful storytelling apps currently on the market allow students to explain using a technological format.
  • Picture books. There’s a fabulous book I used to teach possessive vs. plural titled, The Girl’s Like Spaghetti: Why You Can’t Manage Without Apostrophes, written by Lynne Truss and illustrated by Bonnie Timmons. This book demonstrates the different ways a statement can be interpreted depending on apostrophe usage. After reading and analyzing the book as a class, students can work cooperatively or on their own to create examples.

How do you spice up your grammar and mechanics instruction?

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