It’s Testing Season: Here are Some Best Practices for Providing Better Language Instruction

Photo by Andy Barbour on

In two weeks my Michigan students will be taking the SAT or PSAT as a part of their state testing. Wherever your school is, I would wager that, if it is a k-12 school, you likely have a test on the horizon as well. Further, I would wager again that whatever your test is, a meaningful chunk on the ELA side will involve grammar and language usage.

The prevalence of such tests in the spring and the prevalence of grammar and language on such tests generally means that in schools across the country, late March and early April tend to be some of the most grammar/rhetoric/language-heavy weeks of the school calendar.

With this in mind, I figure right now is probably as good a time as any to announce that for the past year and a half I have been researching and writing a book on grammar and language instruction. My goal with this book is similar to my goal with Flash Feedback: I want to take a topic that is a perennial thorn in the side of many on-the-ground writing teachers and seek practical solutions for how to do it better, faster, and more equitably.

There will be plenty more on this project soon, but seeing as we are in the midst of the oh-my-gosh-the-test-is-in-two-weeks crunch right now, I want to share a few thoughts that might help us (and our students) through the April showers of grammar to come. Specifically, I wanted to leave you today with three general keys for making any grammar/language lessons you do as effective as possible:

Key #1: Don’t Forget the Forgetting Curve

One of the most important moments in my teaching career was the discovery of the Forgetting Curve. For a very quick primer, in 1885 psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus tracked when, how, and why we forget and made a few key observations:

  • We start forgetting most things within mere minutes of learning them.
  • We forget the vast majority of things we only encounter once, with most forgetting happening within the first few days.
  • The key to remembering something in a more long-term way is to revisit and relearn it on multiple occasions that are spaced out from each other.

My rough model from Flash Feedback

The Forgetting Curve may seem like common sense. It isn’t particularly surprising that we remember things better when we revisit them, and yet, it is worth noting that a huge number of topics in school are still covered only once as we strive to fit it all in. And nowhere is this more true than in those pre-testing April lessons on language and grammar.

For reasons too long to get into here, ELA teachers already have a tendency to do craft, grammar, or usage lessons once and then never talk about them again. And when the pressure of preparing for the big tests begins to build, I have found that tendency becomes a nearly universal practice. 

The result of this is often what Ebbinghaus predicts: Within days of that last-minute apostrophe or colon lesson, it is largely forgotten by most students until it pops up the next spring—too far away for the original memory to do much good in terms of building long-term understanding. Then the cycle repeats and we end up with a room full of seniors who still don’t use apostrophes or colons reliably.

What this means is that when it comes to grammar instruction, maybe the most important thing we can do is also the most straight-forward. We need to be sure that when we cover a concept, we double and triple and quadruple back to it in thoughtful ways to ensure that it sticks.

Key #2: Teach (and Group) for Transfer

We tend to group language and grammar lessons according to the categories laid out by grammarians of the distant past: parts of speech, punctuation, rhetoric, etc. These categories go back hundreds or thousands of years, and most (as is also true of most things involving grammar/rhetoric) have their roots in Latin.

I mean no offense to Cicero or classical studies majors with what I’m going to say next, but in regards to grammar and language instruction in the 21st century, it might be best to find a slightly more modern and useful way to organize our grammar and language lessons.

Specifically, I suggest grouping language and grammar lessons by what the tools allow you to do. Or, put in other words, group them so that students can easily transfer the lessons to their own writing. This means, for example, potentially clustering colons and parallel structure and purposeful fragments together as tools for adding emphasis. Or teaching about semicolons and sentence combining and excessively long lists as tools for impacting the rhythm of a piece.

So often students have no idea why they are learning about something like an appositive beyond the fact that it will be on some test—and that is hardly enough information for those students to really understand what it is or to inspire them to care enough to learn it well.

Key #3: Make it Joyful and Curious

Regular readers will likely know that I’ve been talking a lot about joy in the last year. The reason is that with every teacher I talk to and classroom I visit,* I realize with greater clarity how much joy that was in our classrooms pre-2020 slipped away during the pandemic years. And, as I’ve written about before, joy is not a peripheral concern.

When it comes to joy, I often find the biggest positive impact comes in the areas where it has previously been the most absent, and nowhere is that more true than in grammar/language study. Grammar and language study in English have been largely approached as joyless quests to root out errors from the near-beginning. In fact, two 18th century documents that are often viewed as the foundation for English grammar textbooks—Jonathan Swift’s A Proposal for the English Tongue from 1712 and Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar from 1762—focus entirely on finding fixing errors in an effort to elevate English’s status to the level of more established languages like French or Latin. (Swift even goes so far as to lay blame for Englishes lax grammar on its poets and their “barbarous” custom of doing things like using abbreviations so that words fit their meter.)

These joyless seeds have largely yielded joyless fruits when it comes to grammar and language study, which is sad because language and grammar study can be really joyful. And I have found that when I approach grammar and language with joy and curiosity and maybe a dash of drama—like I am doing with my ChatGPT battles—the result is both way more fun and better at helping students to engage with and truly learn key grammar and language lessons.

This next month I am finishing up my manuscript, so my plan is to keep the April posts short, practical, and (hopefully) sweet by sharing a few of my favorite grammar/language lessons. Look for longer posts to come back with the leaves on the trees in early May with, among other things, reviews of the new books by Penny Kittle and Daniel Willingham, some new thoughts on ChatGPT for next year, and news of a surprise summer professional development collaboration that I am over the moon about. 

Until then, thanks for reading and yours in teaching,


*If you are looking for professional development offerings on grammar and language instruction next year, I will be adding that to my offerings. Please contact me here to get more information about it.

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2 responses to “It’s Testing Season: Here are Some Best Practices for Providing Better Language Instruction”

  1. […] I mentioned last week, I am in the midst of finishing a manuscript about ways to make grammar and language instruction […]


  2. […] is the second entry in a series I’m doing on some favorite spring grammar/language lessons. Here is a link to the first […]


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