In 1963, Richard Braddock, Richard Lowell-Jones, and Lowell Schoer set out to answer the big questions concerning how to best teach writing. They collaborated with NCTE and poured over every study and paper possible concerning the subject, and the result was Research in Written Composition, which among other breakthroughs made a startling claim: direct teaching of grammar to students generally does not improve writing and in many cases it may actually do active harm.
This result shocked the writing teaching world. It frankly seems nonsensical, and yet it has been confirmed time and again since then–in well over 250 studies–leading to one of the strangest questions in all of teaching: How is it that directly teaching grammar via worksheets, diagraming, and learning of grammatical terms often has a negligible or even negative impact on writing?
Last spring, I wrote a post for Edutopia where I examined this riddle, but the word count was small, so it mainly discussed the broad take-aways. In the last week, after a mention of it in a recent post, I have gotten a flurry of questions from subscribers and readers asking for more specifics, so I thought I would take the post today to welcome you into my classroom by walking you through my thinking and giving you the exact lessons that I used this week to teach those little core pieces of grammar: punctuation. I hope you enjoy, and if you want any more details, let me know! As I often say, we are all in this together!
Part I: The Theoretical Underpinnings
My instruction grammar instruction starts with thinking about why traditional grammar slips through many students’ brains like it was doused with WD-40. There are many theories for this, but the ones that seem the most plausible to me are…
- Grammar worksheets and lessons displace other more effective forms of writing instruction and writing practice.
- The worksheet/lecture approach builds student antipathy towards both grammar and writing.
- Grammar taught in lectures and random sentences is largely theory, while grammar is in actuality is a highly practical applied skill. Teaching it outside of a student’s writing is like teaching basketball or piano just out of books without ever lacing up one’s sneakers or touching one’s hands to the keys.
These potential problems are always on my mind when I teach grammar, and they have given rise to a core set of goals that I have when I’m teaching about any mechanic aspects of writing:
- I want to make sure that students understand the purpose of each grammatical concept and how it will help their lives.
- I want to use lots of real examples of real authors using each grammatical concept, so students can see how it is used and why it matters.
- I want to get the students examining the grammatical concept in the context of their own writing as soon as possible.
While my overall approach to grammar shifts each year according to the students in my class, these core goals never do, and they form the guidelines that I use to draw up every grammar lesson.
Part II: The Lessons
Colons and Dashes
(If you are a subscriber and read the Tuesday Check-In, this is largely the same information, though there are more specifics; if you want, you can jump down to semicolons.)
This year, I started my discussion of punctuation with colons and dashes because while they seem exotic, they are the most concrete. Here is what I did:
- My teaching of anything grammatical starts with figuring out the purpose of the grammar we are discussing. For me, the colon and dash both boil down to the same basic role: they add emphasis!
- I began our study of these “Emphasizers” by asking my students to take out their phones and to examine their text messages to find how they add extra emphasis in key moments of excitement when texting with their friends. Some used multiple exclamation points, others used ALL CAPS, while others still used emojis or gifs, but every student used something. This was meant to establish the purpose of learning a colon and dash–these tools act like ALL CAPs for academic writing!
- Next, students got exemplar sentences that used dashes and colons, and I had them investigate how they are used in the sentences. This year I used Edgar Allan Poe, whom the class has a particular love of, for sentences that use dashes:And these from Martin Luther King Jr. that use colons:
- After looking at these, we discussed the rules and usage in an organic way, hitting not just the rules but also the possibilities of each punctuation mark. I put these notes on the board and asked them to record them in their writing notebooks.
- The students then wrote short quick-writes where I asked them to play with colon and dash usage. The prompt was simply to rant about something they love to rant about, as rants generally have more than a few moments in need of emphasis.
- Lastly, I ended by having them take out the paper we were working on–a personal essay–and insert at least one dash and colon to add emphasis in the key moments. This was meant to help the students further clarity their understanding of these tools while using them in a “real” application.
Semicolons were next because they are still not quite as tough as the comma, which I like to build up to. Here is what I did.
- I began by quoting a teacher down the hall–who is in her seventies and is known not just by every student in the school but likely every one in the district–who says that semicolons are the “spiciest” of all punctuation because they are all about getting parts of a sentence “close together.” This always elicits a giggle, as the students think of this iconic older teacher making innuendo about punctuation, but it also sets up perfectly what semicolons do: they bring things together.
- Next I gave them a couple sentences, one from a David Sedaris story they liked and a handful from an article about Tiger’s pitcher Daniel Norris, who is a favorite of several of the students. Here it is:
- From this we once again discussed the semicolon in an organic way, hitting the rules and possibilities.
- We then looked at the same sentences from the exemplar texts with periods or commas instead of semicolons and talked about how the sentences are different with each form of punctuation and what that means about when we should and shouldn’t use semicolons.
- Lastly, we ended with another free write where they took sentences from these mentor texts and wrote their own versions. David Sedaris’s “Back in New York State, we had lived in the country, with no sidewalks or streetlights; you could leave the house and still be alone,” became “Back in kindergarten, my family lived in a condo, with seven hundred square feet to hold all of us; even at the farthest reaches, we were still so close we could hear each other breath.”
Our weeklong conversation of punctuation ended with commas. Here is what we did:
- I began by explaining to my students that any given sentence can often be said in a number of different ways, and that one of the key things great writers do is to search for which of all possible sentences sounds the best.
- I then mentioned that the main tool they have to create all of these potential sentences is the comma, as it allows us to move nearly anything to any part of the sentence.
- To make this more concrete I had them come up with a sentence with me. To do that I asked them…
- Where did we go? (A haunted house)
- Which one? (at a local farm called Wiards)
- When? (Yesterday)
- What did you think? (It was small but fun)
- I then turned it into two non-comma sentences for them:
- I went to the small but fun haunted house at Wiards yesterday.
- The haunted house I went to at Wiards yesterday was small but fun.
- I then challenged them to write as many version of that sentence as possible using only commas (no colons, semicolons, or dashes) to move the information around. This was a way of me seeing their prior knowledge and also getting them to think closely about the commas that many just naturally use.
- After they ran out of options (or time ran out), the class examined the sentences and I used them to point out the four key comma rules that one needs to know: lists, introductory clauses, connecting two independent clauses, and extra information. While I recognize there are other comma rules, these comprise 98% of all comma usage and focusing on just those four early on keeps it clean. As we found the rules, I wrote each on the board, gave it a number, and asked students to record each in their notebooks.
- The students then went to their current papers and made sure that every comma used was used correctly. To do this, they had to find each comma (a quick way to do this is to use the “Find” feature) and label the rule it was connected to with a 1, 2, 3, or 4, which was then shared with me as an exit ticket on the way out.
I’ve been doing grammar in lessons like these for three years and the impact it has had on my class has been nothing short of remarkable. It has not only increased my students’ love of grammar; it has also significantly increased their love of writing in general. A great example of this actually came today when a girl who previously has resisted doing serious revision waived me over and said with no prompting: “This is sort of a weird thing to say. But I think I kind of like grammar now.” She then smiled and went back to her work, and when I went back to my desk I looked at her revision history for the paper she was working on and this is what I saw:
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her hit the backspace key before, and yet here she was in a sea of green revisions, wading deeper and deeper into those waters with each keystroke!
Yours in Teaching,
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