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My most popular posts have been the ones on grammar. This is not surprising, as grammar remains one of the most maddeningly frustrating problems of the writing classroom. We know from over 60 years of research that teaching grammar out of the context of student writing (aka, in stand-alone worksheets, diagramming, term memorization) doesn’t work and can at times make students worse at grammar.

At the same time, teaching it in the context of student writing is tricky because students tend to have wildly different understanding of grammar. In any given class, I will inevitably have some students who will use a term like subordinate conjunction without hesitation sitting right next to others don’t use periods or capitalization regularly.

And, just to make it even trickier, the stakes concerning grammar also tend to be really high. While much of writing is so subjective that it is difficult to assess on standardized tests, basic grammar is quite concrete, meaning that it is often disproportionately represented on the exams that our students (and often us) are often disproportionately judged by.

I’ve written before about my approaches to teaching these basics of grammar–things like how to use commas or dashes correctly–in the context of student writing. But if we just stop our grammar instruction there, we are doing our students a great disservice because only discussing semicolons and apostrophe rules frames grammar as a branch of language that is focused on avoiding mistakes. And while we do want to avoid the misuse of Standard English conventions in professional writing, in my opinion, that is not the main reason of the study of grammar. Instead, I believe that the real reason we study grammar is to give us the tools to do new and interesting things with language.

This is why after we discuss what grammar is and get a foundation of the basics, the vast majority of my year’s grammar instruction is the study of all the cool things those basics let you do. I love doing this because the discussion of the possibilities reframes grammar as something interesting and even, dare I say, fun, while quietly reinforcing (in a non-worksheet way) the basic lessons that those tests cover.

In preparation for the upcoming year, which feels like it is coming even faster this summer, I wanted to share a few of the most important grammar opportunity lessons this week and next. Today I begin with two of my absolute favorites: parallel structure and appositives.

Parallel Structure

The first lesson I teach concerning how understanding grammar can give us new opportunities when using language is parallel structure. I actually had never heard of parallel structure until my first year as a teacher, and when I found it I was both amazed and deeply frustrated. I was thrilled to have a powerful tool for enhancing writing, and yet I was also furious that no one had ever taught it to me before.

What I loved about it (and still do) is that parallel structure is an incredibly concrete and highly effective tool. Students can learn it well enough to wield it with success the first day, and for many it makes a noticeable overnight impact on their writing. Further, it can be used to reinforce other grammar lessons ranging from subject/verb agreement to punctuation.

My introduction of it is pretty simple:

  1. I explain what it is: Any purposeful repetition of words, phrases, structures, etc.
  2. We look at mentor texts of pros using it. For example, this excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A Letter From Birmingham Jail” or this excerpt from the movie Miracle (see below).
  3. I have the students play with using it in their own writing.
  4. We repeat this until they’ve got it down.
-Martin Luther King Jr. in “A Letter from Birmingham Jail”
From the movie Miracle

Appositives

The Writing Revolution by Judith Hockman is where I got the idea to directly teach appositives. Hockman puts great emphasis on teaching of appositives, and after doing it myself, I now understand why.

Like parallel structure, appositives, or a noun or phrase that renames or further defines the noun right next to it (like I just did there), are both highly concrete and reinforce grammatical concepts like commas and what makes a complete sentence. They also are really easy once you get into them, and yet they sound and look sophisticated, which can make those students who hate grammar rethink their aversions.

The way I teach appositives is, like Hockman, to start with sentence stems. To make these stems more in-context, I will often link them to a book we are reading. For example, if we are reading Romeo and Juliet, I might give them something like this:

Please fill in the appositive describing each character in the way that the example does.

Example: Friar Lawrence, the often over or under-thinking priest in Romeo and Juliet, marries the two in secret.

  • Romeo, _____________________________, is frustrated with the families’ feud.
  • Tybalt, ______________________________, is unwilling to let Romeo’s perceived slight go unanswered.

These stems allow students to grow comfortable with appositives without having to worry about terms like appositive or dependent clause. Once they’ve grown comfortable with these, the next step is to jump to the students’ own writing and play with inserting them in moments where the rhythm feels like it needs a boost.


I used to teach advanced grammatical concepts like these late in the year, but now I actually teach both of these in the first month because they make a strong case to students for why the study of grammar is worth investing in. They show them that grammar does have rules, but more than that it is about getting to know the language so that you have the tools you need to take your writing to the next level!

Look for more grammar opportunities next week, and until then, thanks for reading!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.

3 thoughts on “The Key to Teaching Grammar? Make It About Opportunities, Not Errors

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