You know that you need to teach grammar. But when you look at your students’ writing, you’re overwhelmed. How can you possibly explain a semicolon or all of the comma rules when your students can’t even write a complete sentence? I’ve gone through the same struggle, my friend. While you probably can’t turn all of your students into Shakespeares in a semester, you can help them improve greatly. In this post, I hope to help show you how to teach grammar (especially to struggling students).
Why You Should Teach Grammar
A lot of English teachers just don’t teach grammar. Or maybe they toss out a lesson about apostrophes here or an apostrophe activity here. Grammar and punctuation are viewed as filler lessons, not the main event.
This is also why a lot of English teachers don’t see their students’ grammar abilities improve.
Teaching grammar is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard, and students are bored by it. It’s much harder to get kids excited about infinitives than it is to get them excited about a good book.
However, if you want to see your students’ standardized test scores improve, give them real-life skills for any job beyond high school, and help them turn in work that doesn’t make you ill, then teaching grammar is a must.
Even students who don’t use periods can become better at writing. You have to be persistent, patient, and consistent in your instruction to make it happen.
Grammar in your Curriculum
If you are serious about helping students become better writers at a technical level, then you are going to have to commit to teaching grammar. Grammar needs to be woven into the curriculum on a regular basis. You can’t just teach a one-off lesson here and there and expect students to improve–especially if you’re working with students who struggle.
Grammar needs to be taught, practiced, reviewed, and assessed consistently. Teach or review grammar in some way every. Single. Day.
You will need to teach lessons directly. You’ll need to model how you make grammatical choices. Students will need to practice grammar independently, but they’ll also need to apply it to their writing regularly for their new skills to stick.
Committing yourself to improving your students’ grammar skills isn’t an easy task. You will need to dedicate a lot of time on your lesson planning calendar to grammar skills.
Not only will you need to give grammar the time it deserves, but you’ll have to mix up how you present it and how students practice and apply their knowledge.
Before You Begin
Before you begin even attempting teaching grammar, you need to take stock of where your students are right now.
Most of my students didn’t write in complete sentences. Many made common errors like not punctuating proper nouns or forgetting end punctuation. A few didn’t even capitalize the word “I.”
Look over your students’ writing skills. You need to decide where to begin and what, realistically, you can accomplish in your time with students.
I worked exclusively with remedial students. The vast majority move on to a technical college. Very few go to a four-year college, and still many go straight into the workforce.
To serve my students best, I didn’t necessarily need to turn them into professional linguists, but I did have to teach them enough grammar that they could function in the workplace. Yet, most of my students couldn’t tell me what a complete sentence needed or how to find a verb.
If you’re teaching a similar population, cut everything that students won’t need on a daily basis after high school. Prepositional phrases are nice to cover, but most people don’t need to identify them for their job.
Decide what your students absolutely need to know. I wanted my students to just be able to use punctuation correctly most of the time. To me, that means making sure they understand clauses and punctuation rules. So that’s what I focused on.
Don’t be afraid to go back as far as you need to. I always started by reviewing verbs and clauses. (I don’t really think most people need to understand all of the parts of speech in great depth to function in society.)
If I covered a hard topic–like verbals–it was only so students better understood verbs and clauses better. Sometimes I touched on the difference between active and passive voice if we had extra time. I highly recommend mapping out your “must teach” grammar topics before beginning.
How to Teach Grammar Step 1: Direct Instruction
Teaching grammar is difficult. I mean, who really remembers the different verbals anyway? But remember, the best way to master a topic is to teach it.
So even if you’re uncomfortable with covering grammar, just get started teaching. The more you teach it, the more confident you will become. (And the more you’ll learn yourself!)
We assume that our students know what a verb is. Or that they should punctuate the beginning of sentences. Or what a sentence sounds like. But we can’t assume anything.
If you want your students to know something, you’ve got to teach it to them first.
And nothing is wrong with a lecture and slides. (Just keep it short!) I know we want every lesson to be fun, but this stuff is hard. Burying it a Webquest or station activity isn’t going to cut it. Save the fun stuff for review.
So direct instruction is going to be the first step in teaching grammar. If you’re not sure where to begin, I recommend at the beginning: sentences and basic sentence structure.
I mostly taught remedial students, so even this was a challenge for them. If you’re teaching AP kids, you might be able to start elsewhere. But starting at the beginning certainly doesn’t hurt.
And if trying to create lessons on grammar makes you groan, I have some done-for-you ones right here.
How to Teach Grammar Step 2: Provide Plenty of Examples
Ok. You’ve introduced and covered the topic. You’ve defined the terms. Now, give students examples.
You cannot give students too many examples. In my grammar lessons, I include examples. But you may want to cover even more.
Pick up a novel and go through sentence by sentence. Tear them apart. Discuss why authors may have left fragments in the book.
Keep student writing to use as samples and examples.
Build in time on a regular basis to look at examples and mentor sentences with students. A regular D.O.L. practice or daily grammar warm-up could help you provide students with ample examples every day.
How to Teach Grammar Step 3: Model
It is not enough to teach a concept and then hand students a worksheet. You need to model how to think about grammar for them. (This will mean, by the way, that you yourself understand how you make your own grammar and mechanical choices.)
I love having a document projector for this. I would project our work, and show students thought by thought how I mapped out a sentence:
Where’s the verb? Oh, now I can find the rest of the predicate. That must make this the subject, right? These go together, so there’s one clause.
Annotate sentences for students to see. Think out loud. You cannot overdo this when it comes to teaching grammar. Even if you’re trying to answer a “quick question,” take the time to break apart the whole sentence first before answering.
How to Teach Grammar Step 4: Have Students Practice
I know a lot of people say there’s no point in teaching grammar outside of real-life writing. I just disagree.
Yes, if you only do drills and worksheets, your students will never actually learn to apply their grammar knowledge.
But if your students are still building their foundational grammar knowledge, it is much easier to annotate a single sentence than it is to write one in flawless conventional English.
If a student has never tried to locate a verb or identify whether the voice is active or passive, then they will never be able to write using exclusively active voice.
Practice–whether it’s warm-ups, worksheets, exit cards, whatever–is a crucial step for students. It’s a safe learning space. If they mess up on a worksheet, it’s not a big deal. Hey, maybe you allow for corrections even.
But if they mess up on an essay, that’s huge. Giving students low-stakes practice will help them approach high-stakes assessments with confidence.
How to Teach Grammar Step 5: Review, Review, Review
Just because you covered clauses last semester doesn’t mean that your students will remember what they are next semester.
As you move through your grammar units, keep referring back to old ones. Incorporate old skills into new assignments. Once you’ve taught a new term (like “independent clause”), use it (don’t say “complete idea” ever again).
Ask students what they remember of previous topics. Before covering new ones, make them grapple with the concept to activate their prior knowledge. (I build in a lot of “pre-thinking” activities into my own grammar lessons.)
If students make an error, point out where the error is, but don’t tell them what is exactly wrong. (At least, not at first.)
When you’ve covered a concept, make sure it becomes part of your regular expectations. Keep expectations high! (For example, if you’ve covered clauses and sentence types, then students cannot turn in a single incomplete sentence. They know better know.)
No matter how “low” your students are at the beginning of the school year, keep raising the bar. And nothing is too “basic” to review. If your seniors don’t understand parts of speech, don’t refuse to review it just because they “should have learned it already.”
Great grammar instruction is recursive. Constant review is crucial.
How to Teach Grammar Step 6: Apply Grammar to Real-life Writing Tasks
Once you have thoroughly covered a topic–you have taught it directly, students have practiced the concept again and again–then you should ask students to apply it to real-life writing.
An obvious example of this is the essay. Make sure that grammar or conventions are a large part of the final rubric.
You could also give students writing challenges. (Having students journal daily would be a great way to do this on a regular basis.)
Write a paragraph about your break, but be sure to use and underline three compound sentences.
Write a thank you letter to a staff member that includes at least one colon and one semicolon.
Create a book review about the class novel that includes at least five apostrophes. Trade yours with a peer and double-check each other’s work.
Whatever the writing assignment is, make sure that you emphasize how important the student’s grammar will be in the final score. Give students time to edit and peer-edit purely for grammar. Create space for them to think about the mechanics of their sentences.
A Final Word on Teaching Grammar
Grammar isn’t easy–not for the teacher, nor for the students.
You’ll have to make a commitment to yourself and your students to cover hard topics and give it the space that it needs. Like all new things in education, however, start small. Begin with one unit. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t.
If you’d like some help planning your grammar instruction, I have plenty of done-for-you resources right here.