I avoided teaching grammar during the first few years of my career. My students were so behind that the thought of teaching them grammar was overwhelming. It had also been a long time since I had studied grammar myself, and I wasn’t confident in my own skills.
But then our district rolled out district-wide assessments for every student (I know). I spent hours pouring through the test that my seniors were going to have to take and became dismayed.
If my students were going to have a fighting chance on this assessment, we would need to cover a lot of grammar during the year.
So that summer I put together a curriculum and smashed all of my worries about teaching grammar, even to students who struggle to put together a sentence. (If you, too, are worried about teaching grammar to students who can’t write, check out this blog post.)
In this post, I hope to dispel some common misconceptions about teaching grammar.
Teaching Grammar Myth #1: You Have to be a “Grammar Nazi”
Most of my ELA colleagues hesitated to engage in direct instruction of grammar. But their students’ inability to adhere to grammar rules drove them nuts.
(First rule–you can’t complain about students not knowing something you are unwilling to teach.)
But you don’t have to be a grammar nazi to teach grammar. In fact, your students will probably appreciate you more if you aren’t.
When introducing grammar to your students, explain that there is a difference between formal and informal writing. More than ever before in history, I think we need to emphasize this point to our students. Flawless grammar is essential for college essays, cover letters, and publications.
But we don’t care what they do when they text their friends.
Let students know that as their English teacher, you want them to know how grammar works when it’s important. But that you also sometimes mess up your “theirs,” choose emojis over real words, and forget comma rules. It will take the pressure off of all of you.
This will take some pressure off of your students and you.
As you progress through class, be sure to let students know when grammar does and does not count. Final essay? Grammar absolutely counts. Two-second exit ticket? Maybe not so much.
Also, if you are a grammar nazi, try cutting back your criticisms outside of an actual lesson. Calling out a student’s improper subject-verb agreement while they’re casually chatting to a friend in the hall just isn’t cool, man.
Teaching Grammar Myth #2: You Have to Know Everything about Grammar
A lot of teachers avoid incorporating grammar into their curriculum because they’re worried about getting it wrong.
Don’t let perfectionism stop you from helping your students!
You don’t have to be an expert in everything you teach. Teachers just need to be a few steps ahead of their students to be helpful. And when it comes to grammar, I have no doubt that you’re much more knowledgeable than most of your students.
Instead of waiting until you know everything there is to know about grammar, find a curriculum that works for you and your students and stick to it.
As you teach those lessons, your own competence will improve. After all, the best way to really cement a topic in your brain is to teach it.
And if your students ask questions that you can’t answer, turn it into a teachable moment! Look up the answer together. Admit that you’re not sure and that maybe, most of the time, it doesn’t even matter.
For some reason when it comes to grammar, we forget to have fun with it and to just be people.
You don’t have to be perfect to teach, and your grammar doesn’t have to be either.
Teaching Grammar Myth #3: Students Hate Grammar
Now, look. A lot of kids are not going to love grammar (and maybe you won’t either). But I was absolutely shocked when I began teaching grammar and found that some students loved it!
For students who struggle in their English class, the lack of a “right” answer is often infuriating. But with grammar, there is finally a “right” and a “wrong.”
This is unbelievably freeing for students who struggle with open format questions and never feel confident in English class. Finally, there is something they can just learn and do.
I had a student once who absolutely hated English class. She struggled with reading, interpreting, and writing about a text. But when it came to going over the grammar warm-ups, she volunteered to lead the whole class in going over answers.
Why? Because she finally felt confident in having a right answer.
You probably won’t end up with a whole class of grammar lovers, but it just might reach the kids who struggle with the rest of your content area.
Teaching Grammar Myth #4: You Only Need to Teach the Grade Level Standards
During my first year of teaching, I read through the Common Core State Standards to prepare for my lessons just like college told me.
According to the standards, my students needed to learn about semicolons, and they were ready for the new material.
As any veteran teacher can tell you, however, just because it’s in the standards for a certain grade level doesn’t mean that grade level is actually ready for it.
You can guess that my semicolon lesson flopped. Students didn’t have enough prior knowledge of grammar to receive a random semicolon lesson.
If your grade-level standards say it’s time to teach something, consider giving a preassessment to find out where your students really are. Often, you’ll need to back way, way up in order for the new lesson to make any sense.
Teaching Grammar Myth #5: You Don’t Have Time for Grammar
Between mandatory testing, the list of books you’re supposed to get through, and the essays your students need to write, you’re probably feeling too strapped for time to get through a whole grammar curriculum.
And I can’t blame you. The truth is that there is never enough time in the classroom to do it all.
But I believe that grammar is worth prioritizing. Instilling basic grammar skills in your students will serve them for the rest of their lives regardless of their post-school paths.
Instead of focusing on big, massive lessons that take up an entire hour, break down lessons into bite-size chunks. Don’t talk about clauses for an hour; talk about them for ten minutes and then move on.
But do that frequently. Every day, if you can.
Breaking up grammar instruction and practice into smaller, more frequent chunks will be beneficial for you and your students. Neither of you will burn out on grammar concepts, and students will more easily be able to build upon the knowledge they do have.
Daily grammar warm-ups or bell ringers are a great way to do this. In just five minutes every day, students can have a grammar review that forces them to practice their skills just a bit.
The only thing stopping you from kicking butt at teaching grammar is you.
Sure, the first time you give a lesson it might not go smoothly. You might give students an incorrect answer. They might yawn or whip out their phones.
But it’s only through trying to implement grammar instruction that you’ll find what works for you and your students.
And when you do, you’ll be giving your students a real gift. Basic knowledge of grammar today will help students stand out in school, their career fields, and serve them their whole lives. Isn’t that worth trying for?