This post by NCTE member Eileen Shanahan is an exerpt from the article “From Finding Error to Finding Wonder: A Shift in Grammar Instruction” in Voices from the Middle (March 2021).
Every year, without fail, when I ask my middle grades teacher candidates at the start of the semester about the area of language arts teaching in which they feel least comfortable, most respond: grammar. In many ways the issue is a cyclical one: They had little grammar instruction when they were K–12 students, so they feel less confident teaching it, so they ultimately spend little time in their own classrooms providing grammar instruction. Some students painfully recall a “red-pen approach” to grammar instruction, in which their words were “corrected,” thus instilling grammar insecurity, thus inhibiting future teaching of grammar. There is also an endless set of rules to memorize, which are often broken in real-world writing, so grammar can seem impractical to students.
But the truth is, as an eighth grade English language arts teacher and now teacher educator, I was part of the problem too. With my eighth-grade students, I mostly avoided teaching grammar because of the demands for increasing reading scores on our state standardized tests. Yet, frustrated by students’ mechanics in writing, I also spent entire weekends scribbling all over students’ papers.
I wanted students to marvel at the use of words in speech and writing. Rob Sanders (2018) wrote a whole book in imperative sentences with beautiful action verbs to lead all of them off—a whole book! To create this excitement for grammar, I had to make a change.
A lack of foundational understanding of how grammar and language work in texts impedes reading comprehension (Mesmer & Rose-McCully, 2018) and writing skills (Anderson, 2005). If the goal of grammar instruction is to help students grow and improve as readers and writers, then teaching grammar in isolation or with the sole intent of correcting errors does not work (Dunn & Lindblom, 2011; Gartland & Smolkin, 2016).
To reach success in reading and writing in educational contexts, we must teach students that language provides access to (or a barrier from) the “culture of power” by which our society operates (Delpit, 1988). Students need opportunities to consider how language works in texts to create tone, rhythm, and meaning and how it should be used with intention by writers for these same purposes.
Students need opportunities to read with these frames of mind and to write using language geared for specific audiences and purposes. Students need opportunities to reflect on the dialects that they bring to the classroom, the value of linguistic diversity, and how language is used for expression and communication.
This article advocates for replacing worksheets, daily oral language practices, and the like with approaches to grammar instruction that are integrated into authentic reading and writing contexts (Zuidema, 2012). I address four approaches that I used with regard to grammar instruction and offer ideas of how I have replaced these with new perspectives and activities. With a shifted mindset about the purposes of grammar instruction, we—my students and I—now embrace it.
Grammar instruction has historically been rooted in finding error and ascribing cultural or intellectual deficiencies based on its use. Because of this, teachers often avoid grammar or perpetuate this trend. This article advocates for replacing isolated, drill-based exercises with approaches to grammar instruction that are integrated into authentic reading and writing contexts. The author addresses four approaches that she used with regard to grammar instruction and offers practical ideas in support of them. With a shifted mindset about the purposes of grammar instruction, she and her students now embrace it.
Read the full article, “From Finding Error to Finding Wonder: A Shift in Grammar Instruction” in Voices from the Middle (March 2021).
Eileen Shanahan is an associate professor at Northern Kentucky University. She began her career as an eighth-grade language arts teacher in North Carolina and then served as a middle school curriculum and literacy coordinator. Her interests include writing and grammar instruction, discourse and teacher learning, and teaching English from a social justice perspective.
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