The best way to teach writing and grammar
I guarantee that almost all of us have experienced the pain of learning grammar in high school. The drilling, the rule mastery, and the technical jargon have probably all featured in our learning of grammar, making the process miserable and daunting. But what if there’s another way? A way that is more enjoyable, easier to understand and elicits retention?
Seeing the gap in language skills, our department implemented a new unit on language and grammar for our Year 9 and 10 students. We addressed parts of speech, sentence types, punctuation and grammar.
What I found over time was that it was hard to teach well. Language is so complex: if you want to teach one thing, you need to teach another thing first. Students can’t use semicolons without first understanding what makes up a sentence, for instance. In other words, grammar is dense, making it so easy for students to drown in.
I found myself, due to time constraints and other factors, teaching in a more passive style than I aspire to. Note-taking and drilling were the strategies I reluctantly admit I was using, so I challenged myself to do some research.
I had already been to a writing workshop by Gail Loane at the Kohia Center in Auckland, so I started by skimming through her book I’ve got something to say: leading young writers to authorship.
I was reassured by the advocacy she had for a more authentic approach to the teaching of writing. She endorses real-life contexts, where the child’s experiences, observations and surroundings become the inspiration for their writing. She doesn’t discredit the importance of terminology, but emphasises that it should come after genuine learning has occurred.
For instance, say you want to teach figurative language. Instead of starting with the terminology, you give them something in nature, like an autumn leaf, and get them to examine it, draw it and describe it using adjectives. You then ask them the magic question “What is it like?” and wait for their similes to come. At this point, you can then safely introduce the terminology, because it’s couched in familiarity and understanding.
Feeling inspired by Gail Loane’s approach to writing, but wanting a more grammatically focused source, I continued my research, until I discovered Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined: building grammar, usage and style into the writer’s workshop.
This was invaluable: not only did he argue the case for more active learning opportunities, but he backed it up with compelling reasons and gave superb examples of how it can work in practice.
He explained how students need to know more than just the rules of grammar; importantly, they need to know the reasons for the rules, so that students can understand them. Many of us know that knowledge is fleeting; we forget it when we aren’t drilling ourselves on it. Understanding, however, is more permanent and fosters even more learning.
Anderson encourages guided questioning to draw the reasons for grammatical rules out of the students. This engages the students in the learning process, because they are required to think for themselves.
Teacher: “Write a sentence in your book. It can be any sentence on any topic.” After the students have had time to write and share their sentences, then, “How did you know that was a sentence?”
Student: “Maybe because it has a full stop and a capital letter?”
Teacher: “Yes, good. We know that sentences must have a full stop and a capital letter, but now that we are getting older, we need to learn what else makes up a sentence… Any ideas?”
This learning exchange above showcases the power that a teacher’s questions have in eliciting more engagement. Rather than starting the lesson with explicit teaching on what makes up a simple sentence, the students are invited to think and apply what they already know. Their curiosity is sparked.
Anderson also discussed how students have “pseudo-concepts” – incorrect reasons for misapplication of language, but that nonetheless present some logic. For instance, putting a comma where there should be a full stop. This suggests that the student understands that there needs to be a break between ideas; it’s just that they haven’t quite learned the difference between a comma and a full stop.
We need to leverage these pseudo-concepts in our teaching, so that we can be responsive. When we know what their pseudo-concepts are, we have a good grasp on what we need to teach (or reteach), in order for them to accurately understand and apply conventions.
However, when we are teaching them, we need to make sure we are couching it in practical examples and doing it alongside them. When we talk ‘at’ them, using a plethora of technical terms, we lose them, they don’t remember it and they see language as impossible and boring.
That’s why mentor texts are another superb strategy. Rather than seeing ‘bad’ and problematic sentences needing to be fixed, students get to see examples of effective craft, and how language can be used thoughtfully for impact.
It’s more of a modern notion, but grammar is actually not black and white. Anderson likens it to an author’s palette, where language conventions can be used creatively to convey the meaning that we want.
This is why Anderson asks students to keep a record of all the impactful sentences and words that authors use in their writing. It grows students’ appreciation for effective language and when you invite them to imitate the convention (not the content), you can also grow their ability to write more effectively.
Growing students’ skill in writing requires them to write regularly. Not notes, but creative and personal pieces of writing. Anderson encourages freewriting, a process where students are asked to write freely and without censorship. He considers it best used after a stimulus text – a text with a clear idea and language style – is provided to inspire and model to students what they should aim for.
Express lane edits
If authentic and regular writing opportunities are necessary to improve writing skills, then it must mean that editing needs the same level of attention. Editing is an essential skill for a good writer, but unfortunately not many of our students participate in this skill. I’ve already mentioned the reasons: too many rules, too much overwhelm, and too hard to understand.
Anderson suggests a scaffolded and appealing approach to editing that will make it seem achievable to the students: express lane edits. He likens it to an express lane at a supermarket – the ones that you can only go to when you’ve got a few items, and just want to be in and out of the store.
Students are encouraged to see editing in the same way: fast and only focused on a few items. He gets students to write a shopping list (a short list of the things they are checking are correct) before starting, and a receipt (a record of their changes, if any) upon completion. He provides music or sound effects during the process, like the sound of a typewriter, to create a fun atmosphere for editing.
It doesn’t always result in students making changes, especially at the start of using this strategy, but it does get students to start reading over their work, which as we know, is the main idea behind editing.
With all this regular writing and editing the students are doing, there are going to be plenty of examples of student work. This needs to be leveraged; what a waste to just leave it in a book where it can’t be used for further learning.
Anderson encourages teachers to regularly celebrate student writing, by implementing a ‘Sentence of the week’ award. At the end of the week, the teacher decides on a student whose sentence was written well, so it can be put on display and discussed why it’s effective.
This encourages literary criticism, a hallmark of further English education. It also gets them to understand what makes effective language, because they are zoning in on only one sentence and a group of words at a time. Instead of quantity, you are emphasising quality, and getting them to be more thoughtful in their writing.
It also makes the students feel empowered: writing well, even in their youth, is possible. Like Gail Loane suggested in her title I’ve got something to say: leading young writers to authorship, we need to value what our students have to bring and convince them that what they bring has value.
Like I mentioned before, there are a lot of rules in the English language. Fortunately, these rules have patterns and meanings, so we need to get students to see these before they deem English arbitrary and give up.
One way to do this is anchor charts – co-constructed records of learning that categorise information, and are on display for students to regularly refer to.
These are useful because as I mentioned before, language is dense and there are a lot of rules and terms to remember. While I don’t advocate for leading the teaching with rules, I also don’t discredit their place. They are important for writing well.
It’s important when using them to follow these principles:
- Write big so it’s readable
- Provide examples (preferably from student writing) with the theory
- Use colour to highlight information
- Complete them with the students, so that it makes sense to them
- Avoid writing too much on them, as then they won’t be helpful. If you need to, start another anchor chart, making sure it’s clearly labelled.
- Categorise carefully. For instance, you may want one with all the main items to check when editing and then another for going over one of these items in detail.
Using these will help not only students, but teachers as well, as they function as a teacher of sorts, reminding students of the things previously taught. Teachers will find that roaming the class and differentiating will be easier too, as they aren’t the only source of information present.
Grammar is a behemoth to some: difficult, complex and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. There is another approach, which is one of active learning, and embarking on a journey that will engender more enjoyment, more understanding and more engagement in learning how to write.