From One English Teacher to Another: My Response to the Grammar Conundrum

In a recent post, my colleague Paul Barnwell challenges English teachers to answer this question: how does one truly internalize and master grammar rules without reading a lot?

A fair question. Many of us who chose to become teachers–especially English teachers–were enthusiastic readers as far back as we can remember. We saturated ourselves with texts that modeled strong writing, strong grammar, and strong sentence structure. Through a process I can only liken to osmosis, many of us internalized strong grammar without needing a lot of explicit instruction on it. At least that’s how it happened for me.

But we are not facing students who will likely become future English teachers, full-time writers, or editors. The majority of our students will need a strong foundation of writing and communication skills for their future career, but they don’t all have a natural love for reading. They aren’t saturating themselves with texts that will internalize strong grammar, and when we teach them these skills, students struggle to transfer that knowledge into the difficult task of writing.

I always tell my students that writing, good writing, is one of the most difficult tasks they can ask of their brain. It’s a layered, complex process that requires some real dedication and work. With that before them, is it any wonder that the finer points of commas and capitalization are missed?

But we cannot give up. In answer to Paul’s question: Yes, it is possible to teach students grammar and have it stick. However, it’s only possible if the students themselves are invested in seeing their writing improve and if they feel successful in increments.

So what’s my answer to this complex issue? It’s multi-facited, ever evolving, and in keeping with my love of technology integration, it also relies heavily on tech tools to save time and improve my feedback loop to students.

Collin’s Approach to Writing

A few years ago, our district adopted the Collin’s approach to writing. Implementation hasn’t been overly focused on fidelity to all the program’s tenents, but there is one concept has become embedded in out English and Social Studies curriculums: Focus Correction Areas or FCAs. Collins asserts that to improve students writing, teachers need to limit the scope of their feedback and subsequent grades to three concepts or skills. And after a number of times providing feedback on a certain concept or skill, it should become an expectation.

This approach systemetizes writing into very discrete skills and chunks. Obviously, the system works best if those around you are also using it and holding students to the same list of expectations. Doing it alone would produce much less consistentcy of results. However, it’s still a strong approach to helping students feel successful in seeing their own improvement and subsequently being able to actually see their writing grow!

This intersects with grammar because I always make one of my FCAs (sometimes it’s the 4th! Don’t tell Collins…) a grammar concept that we’ve been working on in class. For my freshman right now, the concept is vague pronoun reference–using pronouns that are confusing to the reader. When I collect their next writing assignment, I will have an FCA that reads: “Student does not have any pronouns that do not have a clear, unambiguous antecedent provided explicitly in the text.” I will assign 5-10 points (based on the length of this assignment) to this FCA, and grade them accordingly.

Here’s the catch: I will NOT take points or even provide much feedback for any other grammar concepts in this piece of writing. The only way a student can earn or lose points for grammar in this assignment is for this particular skill.

Caveat: My freshman have a list of expectations that include capitalizing proper nouns and using end marks in their writing. These concepts were reviewed in marking period one, and I provided feedback on multiple assignments around these review concepts. Capitalization and some forms of punctuation are now expectations for the rest of the year. To see the cover sheet and rubric we use to convey this click here.

Why does this approach work? Because I am continually holding students accountable for the “mastered” grammar concepts while adding only one additional concept each writing assignment. Students have a manageable task when revising and proofreading rather than the overwhelming message: “Make this writing grammatically perfect or you will receive red marks or points deducted!”

Along with my colleagues, we’ve developed as scope and sequence for grammar concepts from freshman through seniors. In a perfect world, every teacher would have the same list of expectations for each grade of studnet and would hold them accountable for every writing assignment. I’m sure I do not live in a perfect world. Yet, I have found this system to help with two key factors in writing and grammar instruction: (1) It connects abstract grammar concepts to the students writing consistently. (2) It focuses both my grading and feedback and my students’ attention on a limited set of skills.

Google Docs

I could not imagine teaching writing and grammar without Google Docs. Using it, I have created my own coding system to quickly provide feedback to students about their writing and grammar. The great part is that I can hop onto the doc at any time, point out a problem I see repeated, and provide feedback to the student without fixing the problem for him/her.

Another way Google Docs helps with my grammar instruction is that I can personalize it to each student. If a student is struggling with run-on sentences (RO), I can quickly point this out by highlighting all the places this occurs. Then, I can link to a grammar tutorial that helps the student review the concept and fix the problem. When I return to the document, I can see my comments (if the student leaves them unresolved), but I can also check to see how the student fixed the issue. All of this in a few clicks.

Because Google Docs automatically saves and stores student work in their Google Drive, I can ask students to use older writing to apply new grammar skills. For example, as my freshman students are learning to identify and fix vague pronoun references, I can ask them to pull up an older draft of a writing assignment to look for pronoun errors. Not only are they applying their grammar skill to a piece of writing, but it is their OWN writing! Often times, the students will be shocked and appalled by the errors they didn’t realize they were making. The flip side is that they are so proud of themselves for finding them now.

Exercise Central

Teaching English can often feel like an impossible task because of the necessity of specific, targeted feedback, and the sheer volume of the student work received. It’s impossible to give an assessment on grammar or writing and turn around that work with individualized feedback within a short period of time. But the longer the time, the less of an impact our feedback will have on our students’ learning and growth.

So, we need to automate as much as possible. Here’s where gamification and technology can truly do the heavy lifting for an overworked and exhausted English teacher.

I’ve found three reliable sites that automate grammar practice: No Red Ink,  Grammar Bytes, and Exercise Central. No Red Ink allows for more personalized practice in that the sentences can be based on students’ interests. Grammar Bytes provides not only the practice quizzes, but also handouts (if you have a low-tech classroom) and presentations to help a teacher instruct on grammar. But my favorite and the one I use constantly in my classroom is Exercise Central.

Exercise Central has a few tutorials, but its power is in the diversity and amount of practice quizzes on any grammar concept you could imagine. It also has multiple quizzes for the same concept so if a student needs additional practice, the teacher does not have to find new exercises. Finally, if a student creates an account and includes the teacher’s email, his/her scores automatically populate into a gradebook. That gradebook shows the teacher how many times a student attempted a quiz, which quizzes the student attempted, and the scores for all quizzes submitted.

This tool allows for true differentiation for every student without the impossible work load of creating and grading hundreds of assessments to provide feedback on student growth. Life Saver!

Wrap-Up

Do I have students who are writing with perfect grammar by the end of their year in my classroom? No. Do I see improvement in most of my students? Yes! The degree of improvement usually depends on how relevant a student thinks writing is to their life and future. Students from stable environments who are contemplating their future college by sophomore year tend to understand that much of their assessments will be tied to writing. However, convincing students who are struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis in high school that grammar is important to their future is  a much harder sell. Yet, if I’m consistent with their feedback, and hold them accountable for meeting the expectations for every turned-in assignment, I see growth in them too.

I love collaborating around best practices teachers have developed in their classroom. If you have any other strategies, approaches, or tools that have worked for you, please share them in the comments! Also visit Paul Barnwell’s original post to read the lively discussion in his comments.