To Grammar or Not to Grammar

ChildWritingDuring February’s Network Team Institute in Albany, my colleagues and I spent some time digging in to the Common Core’s Foundational and Language standards, as well as analyzing the current research regarding reading foundations.  After speed walking the concourse from the Egg to the New York State Museum’s classrooms, we arrived at our first session… sweaty and a little more than slightly out of breath… but eager to begin.  We started an activity called “From Frenzy to Focus,” during which we were instructed to very briefly review a variety of research articles and select one to focus on.  As the “frenzy” commenced, my eyes fell on an article called “To Grammar or Not to Grammar:  That is Not the Question” by Constance Weaver, Carol McNally and Sharon Moerman.  For me, the frenzy was over.  This article was clearly begging for me to read it!  Because, the thing is, grammar has become kind of a hot topic for me.  Over the course of my years in classrooms, the issues of if, when, how and how much to teach grammar have surfaced… and then re-surfaced…. and then surfaced again.

As a K-2 teacher in a Day Treatment Program, I often heard other teachers talk about their grammar instruction.  And I had to admit that when I opened our basal series, I skipped over the grammar section completely.  I wanted my kids to be able to read, write and speak, so that’s what we focused on.  But I often wondered if I was neglecting to give them something that they really needed.  As a second grade inclusion teacher in a public school district, I found myself questioning, time and time again, the practice of Daily Oral Language and its effectiveness.  Were our students really applying what they were “learning” into the context of their writing?  The answer to that question was loud and clear… they weren’t.  So, instead, I began embedding those conversations with students about grammar into my mini-lessons and conferences during writing workshop.  As a literacy coach, I observe grammar instruction and engage in conversation with teachers, administrators and my literacy “peeps” about grammar instruction almost daily.  I wonder… and I question… Do we really know, from the answers on this worksheet, whether our students have internalized the rules of the English Language?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Poor grammar makes me cringe with the best of them.  So what’s the answer?  I’m not sure… but after all of this, I think I’ve narrowed it down to one essential question:

What is the ultimate purpose of our grammar instruction?

And thus, my excitement over THE ARTICLE (which you can find here) is explained.  According to the research cited in To Grammar or Not to Grammar:  That is Not the Question, “most students do not benefit from grammar study in isolation from writing, if indeed our purpose in teaching grammar is to help students improve their writing (e.g., Hillocks and Smith, 1991). In short, teaching traditional gram-mar in isolation is not a very practical act.”  So what is the practical approach if we want our students to truly have command over their language when they are speaking and writing?  Constance Weaver, Carol McNally and Sharon Moerman recommend the following steps:

  • Use great literature as a model
  • Teach only the MOST IMPORTANT grammar concepts
  • Teach students how to improve their sentences through detail, style and voice
  • Teach grammar and syntax before writing and during revision
  • Teach conventions in the context of editing their own writing
  • Avoid terminology

“The question is not a simple dichotomy, ‘To grammar or not to grammar?’ Rather, the question is, “What aspects of grammar enhance and improve students’ writing, and when and how can we best teach them?”  Now THIS is a conversation that I can’t wait to have.

What are your thoughts about grammar instruction?  What instructional practices have you found to help your students transfer grammar skills into their speaking and writing?

Catie Reeve

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