Even my senior high school students struggled with basic grammar. They didn’t capitalize “I.” Their punctuation was wrong or flat-out missing. When our students are lacking so many grammar foundations, where do you even begin? In this post, I want to share how to sequence grammar in your high school English classroom.
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Sequence Grammar Step #1: Determine How In-Depth You Need to Go
Before you even start mapping out your grammar curriculum, you need to take a look at your student population.
Where are these kids right now? Honors and AP students will probably start with different skills than your ELLs or regular students.
Where do these students want to go? With those AP and Honors students, you will need to prepare them for college-level work and beyond. Based on their course selection, a college degree is probably their goal.
But if you know your students are not pursuing higher education, you won’t need to teach grammar as in-depth. These students need to be able to write effectively, but they probably don’t need to be able to define an “appositive” or identify every prepositional phrase.
That doesn’t mean that you won’t teach those students grammar well. It just means that you may be able to skip some obscure grammar rules to better focus on the ones students will need daily.
If you have no idea where your students are starting from and where they’d like to go, find out!
A great idea is to give students some kind of pre-assessment during the first week of class (like the pre-assessment included here!). You can give a formative assessment to find out their current skill level or hand out a survey about their goals post-high school. You can even assign a quick writing task (like this email assignment) to take student writing samples.
I also recommend talking to your school counselors. Where, statistically, do your students go after they graduate?
My Students’ Needs
I worked at a Title 1 alternative school. Most of my students did not pursue higher education after they graduated. (In fact, many were the first in their families to graduate high school). The ones that did go to college usually went to a technical college.
These same students often came into their senior year with a third-grade reading level. They did not know how to capitalize or use periods. Realistically, I wasn’t going to take them from where they were starting to collegiate level grammar in the single semester I had them.
I could, however, build up their foundations, teach them about sentence structure, and give them the tools they needed to make sure that their writing was acceptable for a career.
Like everything else, make sure you’re planning for your students and meet them where they are.
Sequence Grammar Step #2: Determine How Far Back You Need to Go
Ok, so you know where your students are going. You know where they are now.
The next question to answer is this: how far back do you need to go to build upon their existing knowledge and skill level?
Unfortunately, for many even high school students, that means the parts of speech. My senior students remembered mostly what a noun was, verbs and adjectives sounded familiar, and everything else was lost.
You might have students that can write complete sentences naturally, but fumble when it comes to more sophisticated punctuation like the semicolon.
Obviously, the further back you have to go, the less you’ll probably be able to cover. Remember, however, that sometimes you do have to go slow to go fast later.
The rest of this post is my suggested sequence of grammar topics. If your students need to start at the beginning, start at the beginning! If they can start with punctuation, do that.
But I don’t recommend jumping around.
Before you even begin teaching grammar, it might be helpful to show students why they need to learn it. Explaining the importance of grammar and proper punctuation to my students always provided a little bit more buy-in and fewer groans when I began my lessons. This lesson and activity is quick, fun, and does the job.
Sequence Grammar Step #3: Start With the Basics
Assuming your students are like mine and struggle with putting sentences together, you need to start here.
Even if your students generally write well and just need to learn some advanced punctuation, I think it’s worth reviewing sentence structure. Making sure everyone is using the same terms to describe the parts of a sentence will be helpful later. Plus, it’s kind of hard to explain semicolons and other punctuation if students don’t understand clauses.
Parts of Speech
My students were completely lost on parts of speech. This made even talking about sentence structure difficult. (To place semicolons, you need to understand clauses. To understand clauses, you need to know the parts of speech.)
So this is where I started with, yes, my seniors in my high school. I didn’t want to waste a whole quarter getting them to identify every part of speech in a sentence. That seemed like a waste when most students were never going to be asked to identify an adverb after they left my class.
In my opinion, students absolutely need to understand nouns and verbs. Everything else can be fudged or explained along the way, but you can’t dive deeper into sentence structure without these.
If you have the time, or your students remember nouns and verbs but are fuzzy on others, you can totally take the time to review all of the parts of speech.
Don’t move on, however, until students understand nouns and verbs.
This lesson on sentences covers nouns, verbs, subjects, and predicates. It can be used to teach or review these essential parts of a sentence.
Once students have a grasp on the parts of speech, you can begin to teach phrases–maybe.
Understanding phrases would be helpful for students about to take an AP exam or who will write long essays for college one day. It gives them a broader view of sentence structure and will later help them break down complex sentences.
If, however, your students are starting way behind or don’t need advanced grammar skills, I, personally, think you can skip phrases.
I touch on phrases a bit when I talk about verbals, but just in passing. Having my students identify noun phrases or participle phrases never came up much and never prevented my students from writing a solid essay.
If you have the time or have advanced students who can handle the complexity of phrases, go for it! You’ll definitely be giving them an edge.
But if you’re short on time or trying to bridge a huge knowledge gap, I believe you can skip phrases or touch on them in the moment later.
Ah, clauses. To me, grammar gets real when you get to clauses.
I believe that all students need to understand independent and dependent clauses. These are the foundations of every sentence.
Personally, I think you can skip noun and adjective clauses without creating a huge deficit for your students. I’m an English teacher, and no one has ever asked me to find a noun clause.
But if students can identify independent and dependent clauses, they can place colons and semicolons. They can vary their sentence structure. They can not only create correct sentences, but they can start to get creative with their writing.
I also like teaching clauses because it reinforces those parts of speech you just taught. In order to find those clauses, students will need to identify nouns and adjectives. (One thing I love about grammar is how linear it is–where else do we get that in ELA?!) Review naturally builds itself into lessons!
Tips for Teaching Clauses
I highly recommend sticking with “independent” and “dependent” clauses for your verbiage! I think these terms are easier for students to remember and they’re intuitive–the independent clause “don’t need no one,” and the dependent clauses are… well… dependent on another.
“Subordinate clause” makes sense if you have a great understanding of subordinating conjunctions, but in my experience, many students do not. “Main clause” makes sense, but it doesn’t go with “dependent” quite like “independent.” Whatever terminology you use, stick to it throughout the entire course to prevent unnecessary confusion for your students.
When it comes to clauses, I like to teach students about sentence types. Now, do I care if my students can label complex sentences vs. compound sentences? Not at all. But examining the four types of sentence structures does, in my opinion, make the topic of clauses easier. Grab my lesson here.
Oh, boy. Verbals. I won’t lie to you–verbals are a pain to teach. I preface every verbals lesson with “This will be hard. It’s ok that it’s hard. I will never ask you on a high-stakes test to find and identify verbals. But, understanding that they exist will help you correctly find the verb more often.”
If your students can handle a grammar challenge, go crazy with verbals! They are challenging and require students to really understand the structure of a sentence. Plus, if you taught students about phrases, you can use verbal phrases to build on those existing skills.
For students that struggle or have a huge deficit, however, I think it’s ok to talk about verbals without requiring students to master them.
My goal when teaching verbals isn’t that students could find and identify them 100% of the time. (When would they need that in life?) But, I wanted to make sure that they didn’t mistake a verbal for the “real verb” in a sentence. That could lead to misidentifying a clause, which could in turn lead to misusing punctuation.
I recommend going over verbals with all students. For advanced students, feel free to go in-depth and have students identify verbal phrases, too. With other students, however, they just need to understand the difference between a verbal and a verb before moving on.
This lesson covers the verbals but doesn’t dive deeply into verbal phrases.
Sequence Grammar Step #4: Move on To Punctuation
At this point, students should understand the basics of sentence structure and have a solid foundation for putting sentences together. Before moving on to punctuation, students should be able to identify complete and incomplete sentences. They should also be able to write complete sentences themselves.
As you sequence grammar, punctation doesn’t necessarily need to go in the order I’m about to suggest. I like to start with the easiest first. If I launch into a comma talk when my students are still barely writing complete sentences, they might be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of rules.
However, if I teach other pieces of punctuation first, by the time we get to commas students will have already learned several comma rules. (They should, for example, already know to use commas with coordinating conjunctions from learning about clauses in a sentence.)
At the beginning of every punctuation lesson, make sure students know what that piece of punctuation looks like. You’d be amazed by the number of students who mix up apostrophes and commas or colons and semicolons.
You could probably easily swap apostrophes with colons and semicolons in your sequencing, but personally, I find an apostrophe error more embarrassing than a semicolon one, so I like to cover these first.
While teaching apostrophes, make sure you use the opportunity to review nouns, since these will be the words that take possession of other words.
Also, you cannot review the difference between “its” and “it’s” too many times.
Before students move on, they should understand the rules of apostrophes and understand the “it’s” exception.
Aim for proficiency, however, not perfection before moving on. If students are using apostrophes correctly most of the time, but are still tripping up on difficult examples, I think that’s ok. As you move forward in your punctuation lessons, there will be more opportunities to keep reviewing and practicing.
This lesson covers apostrophes and provides examples and worksheets to help students reach that “proficiency” you’re aiming for.
Colons and Semicolons
When you sequence grammar instruction, teach colons and semicolons one after another. They sound so similar that students really struggle with differentiating the rules and what they look like. It’s important to keep pointing out how they are different and how they are the same. (It doesn’t, in my opinion, matter which comes first.)
Teaching colons and semicolons is a great time to review those clause skills from earlier (which in turn reviews those parts of speech skills). If you weren’t sure which students really knew their clauses before and which students were just skating by, colons and semicolons will make it obvious.
Do not be afraid to stop and review clauses again before or during your colon and semicolon lessons! Most students don’t retain their grammar knowledge because their other teachers didn’t constantly review the lessons. But you’re not like those other teachers–you are committed to your students’ grammar skills! So, if need be, go back and review before moving on.
Again, I don’t think students need to necessarily master these pieces of punctuation before moving on, but they should be proficient. (When the opportunity arises while looking at example sentences, take some time to point out apostrophes and keep reviewing those, too!)
Hyphens and Dashes
If you had to skip some punctuation lessons when you sequence grammar instruction, I guess you could skip hyphens and dashes. I like to cover them, however, because if students can use them correctly it can be impressive and gives them some more tools for making their sentences more varied and interesting.
Like the colons and semicolons, hyphens and dashes are easy to mix up, so I recommend teaching them together or back-to-back.
For more advanced students (and assuming you have the time), aim for proficiency here. A properly placed dash in a sentence is *chef’s kiss* and can really add dimension to academic writing.
For struggling students, however, it might be enough for them to just know that these pieces of punctuation exist and what they’re doing in a sentence.
This lesson covers both hyphens and dashes. It’s important to begin talking about how punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence if you haven’t had these conversations with students before.
Commas, to me, are the crowning achievement of grammar sequencing. Once I cover commas, I feel like we can just sit back and review, review, review, until all of our grammar skills are honed and sharp. But commas are not easy–there are just so many freakin’ rules.
Like with verbals, I always start my comma lessons by encouraging students to not get overwhelmed. There is a lot to keep track of!
I also like to remind them of how much they already know about commas. If you taught them about clauses, they should be able to use commas with coordinating conjunctions or after introductory dependent clauses.
Your students probably already know that commas go between items in a list or after greetings in a letter.
So don’t let them despair before they even get started.
Teach comma rules one by one, giving students time to practice each rule after. Provide lots of examples. As you go, you should find ways to review clauses and other pieces of punctuation easily.
Commas are complex. Students will pick up on some rules very quickly while others will take longer. There is literally no such thing as “too much practice” here.
In this lesson, students are taught eight essential comma rules. I think if students can master these, they’re set up pretty well for comma use in the real world!
Sequence Grammar Step #5: Add Advanced Lessons Or Review Like Crazy
If, by some miracle, your students have mastered all of the above and you still have time left in your course, congratulations! You can now either continue adding to your students’ grammar toolbox or go heavy on practice and review to solidify all of their new knowledge before they move on.
If you’d like to add some lessons, consider diving deep into concepts like “appositives” or correcting common mistakes like dangling participles next time you sequence grammar lessons. You can add simple lessons to the mix like discussing end punctuation or teach students about (my favorite piece of punctuation!) the ellipsis.
Depending on your students, you might also choose to cover subject-verb agreement before punctuation. I found that my students naturally improved these skills as we worked on other concepts, but direct instruction here could be helpful.
After you get through an entire semester of teaching grammar, don’t forget to reflect. If you have lots of time at the end, may you can dive deeply into phrases with your students next time. However, if you feel like you rushed and students are still stuck on clauses when they should be practicing commas, go slower next time and add more practice and review.
Tips to Sequence Grammar
How you sequence grammar will constantly need to be tweaked from year to year and class to class. You should constantly be adding more opportunities for review and practice.
If your students are very behind in their skills, I have some additional tips right here. It’s ok if you sequence grammar lessons but don’t get to cover everything. The goal is just to move your students forward.
I recommend making grammar part of your daily instruction. You don’t have to spend a lot of time, but you should touch on grammar every. Single. Day. Some days might involve long, in-depth lessons, but maybe others are a short warm-up or quick quiz to keep students on their toes.
Build high grammar expectations into everything else in your classroom, too. Give mechanics and conventions high marks on writing rubrics. Have students peer-edit each other’s work. Add some grammar games if you can. Utilize websites like Quill.org and NoRedInk.
Don’t forget to check student learning! As we all know, teaching a topic isn’t enough. With regular low-stakes quizzes and a few major assessments, you should be able to keep tabs on students’ grammar growth easily.
The reason students fail to retain grammar skills is that they are not pushed to use them.
If your students have arrived in your classroom utterly unprepared to write a grammatically correct sentence, taking the time to fix this misstep in their education can have a huge impact on their future academic and career success.
These lessons follow the sequence listed above (they are targeted toward struggling students, not AP kids.) Each lesson includes a lesson plan, a slideshow, reference handouts students can use again and again, printable and digital worksheets, and an answer key.
Need more? You can get my entire High School Grammar Unit Bundle here with all the lessons, assessments, quizzes, review worksheets, and warm-ups you’ll need!