Seeking Effective Grammar Instruction: An Impossible Quest?

Veteran English teacher Paul Barnwell continues his difficult quest to implement meaningful, lasting grammar instruction for his students.

Any English teacher who claims he or she knows the best way to teach grammar is fooling themselves.

Please prove me wrong!

Over the years as a middle and high school language arts teacher, I’ve tried using robust stacks of color-coded words, with students rearranging them in grammatical sound patterns to master parts of speech. My classes have looked at model sentences, imitated them, and sought out examples in our independent reading book, an approach Jeff Anderson outlines in Everyday Editing (one of my favorites).

We’ve studied ACT English passages and identified just what the question is asking (with regards to skill). We’ve code-switched between text messaging and more formal English to break down grammar rules. Regardless of the method, some learning has stuck…but not enough.

So I still find teaching grammar to be maddeningly tough, and I’ve even questioned whether or not it’s worth teaching. After all, how does one truly internalize and master grammar rules without reading a lot? I’m a reader, and so are most of my department colleagues, and collectively, we have a difficult time explaining how we learned grammar. If those of us who have a decent command of language struggle to describe our own learning process, imagine being a non-reading teenager trying to grasp independent and dependent clauses.

It’s certainly easy to assign grammar work, but to see the fruits of our efforts pay off in student application when they write–now that’s a different ball game, and it’s really the only one that matters.

Now I’m considering gamifying comma rules, colons, and clauses by testing out some apps and games to bolster student understanding of writing conventions. I received an e-mail–perhaps it was a sign?–from a member of the Grammar Crush team, and it’s time to experiment. Admittedly, I’m intrigued by the notion of gamifying aspects of instruction. And since many students seem addicted to their phones and the leisure and distraction they afford, I do feel responsible to offer more productive digital outlets than Fruit Ninja and Snapchat.

If I tap into the tools they are accustomed–perhaps obsessed–with using, then might it pay off?

I’ve resisted this approach for some time, as I’m always wary of replacing the precious time we have to converse in real-time, face-to-face in the classroom, with more screen time. Students are always glued to their screens outside of class; I believe instruction should be balanced between thoughtful technology integration and pedagogy that is screen-free.

I guess I’ll have to wait a see if a snazzy grammar app moves me any closer to the elusive goal of figuring out how to most effectively teach grammar that “sticks” with students.

So here goes, folks. This is specifically a call to English teachers out there: what type of grammar instruction has worked for you? Are you similarly frustrated as I am?  With regards to digital tools, have you tested any apps or games out and found them useful?