Friday, February 21, 2020

How to Teach Grammar in Schools

This week’s article summary is How to Deal with Student Grammar Errors and it’s a follow-up to last week’s summary on making writing more fun and interesting for students.

If you had a similar education to me,  you used  a grammar book  in 7th, 8th, and/or 9th grade English class. For me it was Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, which comprehensively laid out all the rules of grammar and provided ample practice exercises. The prevailing belief was students, after learning the rules of mechanics, grammar, and usage, would then apply these techniques to their writing.

I was a pretty good grammar student. I completed all my homework worksheets and scored well on grammar tests.

But for me there was zero transfer of my grammar test results to my writing. I could diagram a compound-complex sentence but I couldn’t write one.

The article below explains that even though research (which goes back to the late 1800s) has definitively confirmed the ineffectiveness of teaching grammar in isolation to writing improvement, schools continue to teach grammar this way.

I think the reason is because it’s an easy way to teach and from a logical perspective it would seem to work: writing include grammar, mechanics, and usage, so teach it to the kids so they can apply it to their writing.

As I wrote last week, writing is both easy and complex. Much thought and reflection go into a truly refined, fit-for-publication piece of writing. Yet the fine-tuning comes after the fun stuff. Writing first needs to about what you find interesting: content precedes craft.

Th article provides research-tested strategies to strengthen student writing, including its craft—many of which we have implemented at Trinity like mentor sentences and mini-lessons based on common issues students are experiencing.

It’s always interesting to me seeing how often education falls back into what its research has disproven. Elementary schools are usually more open to new ideas and innovation yet education overall is slow to change.



Every year it seems teachers decide that once and for all they are going to fix the problem of student grammar errors. These kids can’t write, they say. They don’t know their parts of speech. They can’t spell. They write in “text language.” Their writing is full of run-on sentences. They don’t even put capital letters at the beginning of sentences anymore!

These teachers usually commit to going back to the basics: One, two, three full weeks of nothing but parts of speech lessons, grammar drills, punctuation exercises. Surely if they teach it hard enough, that ought to take care of it.
Except it doesn’t.

As the school year wears on, despite all those drills, students continue to make the same mistakes. And all across the land, their teachers’ voices rise in chorus: “I taught you this! We went over this! Don’t you remember?”

First of all, let me quickly mention that when I say “grammar,” I am broadly referring to all the conventions that make writing correct: spelling, punctuation, usage, capitalization.

The most important thing any teacher of English language arts should know is grammar taught in isolation, outside the context of meaningful writing, has no significant impact on the quality of student writing; in fact, excessive drills can have a detrimental impact on it.

These findings are supported by decades of research.

A 1984 study concluded with the following: “School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems.”

In fact, the evidence is so strong against this kind of teaching that the National Council of Teachers out forth a resolution affirming that “the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises is a deterrent to the improvements of students’ speaking and writing.”

Even without academic research to back it up, the ineffectiveness of piling on grammar drills is evident every time a teacher implements the practice, only to discover that it hasn’t had any significant impact on the quality of student writing.

In her 2014 piece for The Atlantic, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” Michelle Navarre Cleary describes her own experiences teaching in an urban community college, where most students failed to complete a two-year degree in three years. “These students are victims of the mistaken belief that grammar lessons must come before writing, rather than grammar being something that is best learned through writing. A primary culprit: the required developmental writing classes that focused on traditional grammar instruction. I witnessed aspiration give way to discouragement.”

So what should teachers do instead?

Give Students LOTS of time to read and write: There is no better way to improve students’ writing than to have them read and write as much as possible. Building your daily classes around some form of Reading and Writing Workshops is a good place to start. And “reading” means real books, articles, and other texts that will turn students into people who love to read and read frequently. Regular exposure to lots and lots of good writing will naturally improve the correctness of students’ writing. This is much less likely to happen with scripted reading programs or day after day of reading passages that have no meaningful context. Read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer for inspiration on how to make this happen. “Writing” means both formal pieces that are taken all the way through the writing process and informal writing, like journal entries and free-writes. If you choose to abandon most or all of your formal grammar instruction, you’ll free up lots of class time for students to do this.

Curate a database of quick grammar lessons: All the reading and writing in the world won’t magically turn students into perfect writers. Because they will continue to make mechanical errors, and because these conventions are best taught within the context of the writing they’ll be doing in your class, set up a system that allows individual students to quickly learn the conventions they need: This could take the form of a file cabinet or even a shared drive with folders that contain one high-quality lesson for each error: a folder for your-you’re errors, a file for then-than errors, and so on. These lessons can come from almost anywhere—an old textbook, YouTube videos, worksheets you’ve collected over time, or a combination of these. What’s important is that they are (a) effective: Rather than dumping everything you can find into this folder—which will only frustrate and confuse students—curate only the most effective materials, and (b) self-running: Set these up so that students can access and learn from them independently, without requiring your help.

Have individual students do individual lessons as needed: As students do the daily work of writing in a range of genres, for a variety of purposes, send individual students to these lessons as needed. Students can go to the lesson they need, refresh themselves on the rule, and then get back to their writing, where they can correct the error and keep an eye out for future uses of that same convention. Occasionally, you might find that many students are making the same error, in which case it may be appropriate to spend five minutes reviewing a concept as a whole class. At other times, you might want to push students to try more advanced types of sentence structures; so doing craft lessons like a study of mentor sentences could be an effective way to accomplish that. Eventually, once students become familiar with your database of lessons, they should start to seek them out on their own as they write. This is the ideal: Students who are aware of when they need help, and who can find the resources they need to help themselves.

Understand that this is a process: You will never, ever be able to teach in such a way that all students are error-free, and even students who understand the rules will occasionally mess up. Spend 10 minutes on social media and you’ll see that most adults are still constantly making grammar errors. So rather than try to fix it once and for all, get your students reading and writing as much as possible and help them develop a personalized, proactive approach to producing correct writing.

Friday, February 14, 2020

How to Best Teach Writing

This week’s article summary is Scientific Evidence on How to Teach Writing is Slim.

About 30 years ago, my wife and I tutored the same student. We’d go to his house every Saturday, my wife working with him for an hour on math followed by me spending time with him on writing. At the end of the two hours, we’d meet with the boy’s mom on progress we were making with the child. My wife always had very detailed corrections, clarifications, and adjustments she had made with him in math, while I was pretty vague about his progress in writing, because, after all, working a hour a week with a reluctant writer is not a recipe for rapid writing improvement.

I didn’t know it then, but there are two simple rules for becoming a better writer: read a lot and write a lot.

We typically get better at something we like to practice and care about. If you don’t like to read, you probably don’t reach for a book in your idle time. And often, if you don’t read, you probably don’t do much writing either.

We are halfway done with our Embolden Your Inner Writer course for faculty and staff. Jill, Marsha, and I designed the class with the principal goal of making reading and writing enjoyable, meaningful, and habitual.

When I was a student, writing was a puzzle that I couldn’t decipher. And when I got my compositions back from teachers, all the their markings (in blood red, of course) made the puzzle even more confusing. (I’m hoping my English teachers weren’t so na├»ve as to think I actually read and reflected on the comments they wrote about how to improve my writing; like most other kids, I looked at the grade, then crumbled up the composition in a ball and tossed it in the trash can.)

Our Inner Writer course separates writing into two distinct parts: content and craft. Our belief is too many of us grow frustrated with writing because we jump past the content (ideas) and get overly consumed with craft (revising and editing content).

But in reality it’s content that’s more interesting. We all have thoughts, feelings, ideas, and opinions; we all have stories in our lives—those that are funny, poignant, inspirational, etc. Focusing on content during the drafting process lets us explore ourselves; it’s fun and freeing to write more intuitively, allowing your mind and thoughts to go in unpredictable directions. I used to think that writing in a diary was self-indulgent, but I’m guessing there is a correlation between those who wrote in a diary and those who are now confident writers.

Revising (is the content of what I’ve written clear and complete?) and editing (did I follow the standard conventions of writing?) are secondary to content. Yes, we need to get there but too often prospective writers get bogged down, bored, and intimidated by focusing too much on the standard rules of writing. When should I use who, when should I use whom?

In preparing for our Inner Writer course, I read a number of books on the writing process. My favorite was On Writing by Stephen King, the horror writer. I was  fascinated that when he writes a new novel, he doesn’t first dutifully lay out the plot in a sequence as I assumed. Rather, he writes based on a situation: for example, what happens if dead family pets buried in the backyard come back to life? Then he just lets his imagination run wild within that scenario and focuses on content, content, content. After he completes the initial rough draft, he waits at least a month before beginning to revise and edit.

I certainly hope our eleven intrepid faculty and staff are seeing that writing is more about freedom and habit than rules and structure. And I hope many more of you at some point get to take the course with us!

But I really wish 30 years ago, I had just sat with the boy I was tutoring and talked with him about his interests and passions and then just let him write without worry about spelling, punctuation, etc.


The poor quality of student writing is a common lament among college professors. But how are elementary, middle and high school teachers supposed to teach it better?
This is an area where education research doesn’t offer educators clear advice.
“What’s very odd about writing is how small the research base is,” said Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “There’s remarkably very little high-quality evidence of what works in writing.”
Compared to subjects such as math and reading, the amount of research on how to teach writing is tiny. Earlier in 2019, Slavin searched for rigorous research on teaching writing from second grade to high school. He found only 14 studies that met their standards. By contrast, he found 69 studies just on teaching reading to high school students.

Many popular writing programs used in schools around the country, such as Writer’s Workshop or the Hochman Method, might both be excellent teaching methods but there are no controlled studies of their effectiveness. However, a large scientific study of Writer’s Workshop is underway and results are expected in 2021.

The 14 studies looking at 12 different writing programs were described in Slavin’s 2019 review. Some focused on explicitly teaching the writing process from planning to drafting to revising, others emphasized working with classmates and making writing a communal activity, and one other was to integrate reading with the writing.
It turns out all three approaches worked some of the time but none clearly outshone the others.

One broad lesson that emerges from the study was that students benefit from step-by-step guides to writing in various genres. Argumentative writing, for example, is very different from fiction writing.

Another lesson is that students also need explicit grammar and punctuation instruction but it should be taught in the context of their writing, not as a separate stand-alone lesson.

“Motivation seems to be the key,” Slavin wrote. “If students love to write, because their peers as well as their teachers are eager to see what they have to say, then they will write with energy and pleasure. Perhaps more than any other subject, writing demands a supportive environment, in which students want to become better writers because they love the opportunity to express themselves, and to interact in writing with valued peers and teachers.”

It may be that nearly every thoughtful writing curriculum is likely to produce results because it’s making kids write more than they currently are. In this country, pressure to score well on reading and math tests has pushed writing instruction down the priority list so there isn’t a lot of time spent on writing instruction.