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Teaching Grammar in Context

Running Head: Teaching Grammar in Context

Teaching Grammar in Context: Stepping away from Grammar in Isolation


Laura Winkler
Peabody College at Vanderbilt University
Capstone
Fall 2009

Teaching Grammar in Context

ABSTRACT
It is often difficult to convince teachers and students that grammar
instruction is a necessary part of the school day. Some who do believe that it
is pertinent have a hard time of incorporating it so that it is authentic and
effective. Historically, the need for grammar instruction has moved all over
the spectrum of necessary and unnecessary. Researchers and educators
have debated this idea for decades and controversies have followed. Most
controversies are based around the methods of instruction used. Focusing
on researched based ideas, and discovering what it is that drives students to
learn can provide teachers with avenues that support the necessary side of
the spectrum while paying attention to how learners learn best. Tossing out
line item worksheets and creating reading and writing activities in the
context of what students are learning will eliminate any reservations about
grammar instruction in the classroom. Effective teaching methods can be
incorporated into the curriculum by using the activities that are occurring
daily in reading and writers workshop. As a teacher, creating a community
that fosters this type of learning will ensure that all students are confident
and ready to learn. Students who are able to work together can
constructively discover why grammar is relevant to their lives as readers and
writers. Assessment is a necessary piece used to drive instruction and prove
growth over time to students. Students need to see that they have corrected

Teaching Grammar in Context

errors and improved their grammar usage. This paper examines key ideas
for teachers to keep in mind when designing a classroom and curriculum
integrated with the teaching and learning of grammar.
Teaching Grammar in Context: Stepping away from Grammar in
Isolation
INTRODUCTION
When people communicate, through written or oral language, they
usually do not think about the grammatical aspect of communication. The
purpose of communication is to convey information. Depending on the
situation, the grammar used may not even be considered Standard English;
we all make mistakes. Therefore, the job of correcting the grammar errors
and teaching the rules has been passed on to teachers. With this job, the
controversies of how to teach grammar soon follow, debating traditional and
non-traditional methods of instruction. At the end of the day, everyone
agrees that grammar should be taught, but the method that should be used
sparks unrest between educatorsthe struggle of teaching grammar out of
isolation begins.
To move past the grammar instruction controversies, which have been
going on for decades, teachers need to keep several key aspects about
teaching and learning in mind. Teaching grammar can be difficult; therefore,
understanding how learners learn best, along with their motivation and drive
is necessary for a successful classroom community. Members of the

Teaching Grammar in Context

community who constructively accept each others strengths and needs are
the most likely to succeed. Providing activities that are authentic and
meaningful can also lessen the burden. Finally, using assessments that are
useful to drive instruction will create opportunities for learners to learn to
their fullest potential. Tweaking the methods that do not work can make a
huge difference in the classroom.

LEARNERS AND LEARNING PRINCIPLES


History of Grammar
Grammar often has a stigma attached to it, and even students can
recognize the negativity. In order to examine successful ways to teach
grammar, it is fair to glance at a snippet of the history of grammar
instruction, in order to see the big picture as to why teachers, administrators,
and the community disagree on the hows and whys of grammar instruction.
(Tomkins, 2005) Throughout history, ideas and beliefs about how students
should learn grammar best and the methods that should be used have
varied, causing controversy.
Grammar instruction can be dated back to B.C. when it was taught only
to boys, and it was considered that those who spoke correct grammar were
socially more prestigious than those who did not. (Weaver, 1996) Since that
time, several aspects and thoughts about grammar have changed vastly.

Teaching Grammar in Context

noteworthy event, which took place in 1935, came from an action taken by
the NCTE. They appointed a committee to make recommendations on
grammar instruction, which stated that grammar should be taught in
connection with writing, rather than isolation. They also set out objectives
that should be taught at each grade level. This approach was outside of the
comfort zone for educators, when comparing to the formal grammar
instruction that was taking place, and therefore, not well received. At this
time, further research that disapproved formal grammar instruction was also
being conducted, which added support to the NCTE; however, the
recommendations made by NCTE were never implemented. (Kolln &
Hancock, 2005) Various significant breakthroughs have happened
throughout more recent history, but it is important to mention the action in
1935 because the NCTE had the right idea decades ago and still today it is a
controversy. Even though efforts have been made by NCTE and other
researchers to make grammar instruction more functional, critics have
completely discredited the idea and continued with formal grammar taught
in isolation. The current research clearly shows that most students do not
benefit from skill and drill instruction on grammar, and in turn, it does not
transfer into speaking or writing; however, the struggle of teaching it the
way we were taught still continues (Weaver; McNally & Moreman, 2001).
Learners and Relevance
Too often, formal grammar instruction involves exercises in which
students have a minimal understanding. They become bored and simply go

Teaching Grammar in Context

through the motions, realizing that the teacher will get the answers from the
teachers manual (Weaver, 1996). A heavy focus is put on memorizing the
rules of grammar, parts of speech, and the ability to locate errors.
Application is used only to circle or underline parts of speech within a
sentence on textbook activities or worksheets, in isolation. When the term
isolation is used, it means that the activities are done individually and are
not relevant to what students are reading, writing, or discussing in the
classroom. For example, the sentence, John had an exciting day. could be
used to find the adjective, followed by ten more just the same. For students,
an activity such as this, can be described (using an adjective) as boring and
irrelevant. Students then fail to see the big picture and purpose of grammar.
Research is cited over and over again suggesting that isolated grammar
instruction, out of the context of reading and writing is not effective, and
does not benefit or improve a students ability to speak or write (Patterson,
2001). Students, who can see why we learn grammar, and how to use it to
their benefit within their own life, will discover that grammar is not a
meaningless aspect of instruction within the school day, but a tool that is
used to create the beautiful, creative language we love to listen to and read.
In any context, when instruction is meaningful and relevant, it is more
memorable and effective. Learners, or students, have high expectations
when it comes to their learning; like adults, they do not want their time to be
wasted. When students are fully engaged and understand the reasoning and
benefits behind the instruction; more than likely, they will be willing, active

Teaching Grammar in Context

participants. Teachers can foster this by providing authentic reading and


writing opportunities, along with helping them to notice their own strengths
and needs. By highlighting grammar that can be found anywhere outside
the walls of school, such as in a newspaper or magazine, students begin to
see (discover) how it is used in their everyday lives (Haussamen, et al.,
2003).
Motivation
In order for students to be willing, active participants they need to be
motivated to learn, which can be difficult with grammar instruction.
Motivation comes in a variety of forms. Students can set goals for
themselves, which in turn increases their motivation. These goals can be
driven by their need to learn information or to simply to receive good grades
or recognition. They may also have a natural curiosity for learning or feel the
need to do well because other students will be reading their writing during
writers workshop. (Alexander, 2006) Motivation can be the difference
maker in learning; it plays a key role in what is learned and how and when it
is learned (Gambrell, Malloy, & Mazzoni, 2007). Learners work best when
they are motivated and feel that there is a reason for learning what they are
learning. When students believe that what they are learning is valuable, can
be used to complete a task, and have a sense of control over the task, then
their motivation will flourish (Marzano, 1991). Educators need to be aware of

Teaching Grammar in Context

this, particularly those who are consistently using worksheets for grammar
practice.
Unfortunately, not every student will be motivated to learn grammar or
be willing to actively participate in group work or discussion. These students
may not feel that they are capable, do not see the value in grammar, or be
uncomfortable with sharing their work. (Alexander, 2006) They do the
minimal amount required to get the task completed and have no real desire
to internalize the material. Their goals for learning are short-term and the
long-term result of this is that they never truly learn grammar, which has an
effect on their ability to read and write (Tompkins, 2005). Therefore,
teachers should get a grasp of what it is that motivates students to learn and
take charge of their learning. In addition, they should work to find avenues
for those who are not as motivated. Accepting the learner, and supporting
them as a learner, is likely to build their confidence and promote motivation
(Weaver, 1996).
Social Interaction & Constructing Meaning
Grammar can be a difficult concept for students to master individually,
particularly because speaking is a large part of grammar. This is why social
interaction is a very important piece to grammar learning and instruction,
and possibly the missing link in the more formal methods of memorizing and
underlining, which have failed. Social interaction and constructing meaning
go hand in hand; it is difficult to have success in one, without the other. It

Teaching Grammar in Context

can be argued that students can construct meaning without interacting with
others; however, when combined, teachers create situation optimal for
learning.
Students need many supports for learning and talk is one of these
supports. Talk is important for learning grammar because students (or
teacher) can think aloud together and model or demonstrate what is correct
through guided participation (Waugh & Jollife, 2008). By the use of talk,
social interaction can occur, which is needed so students can negotiate and
construct meaning. As students talk through problems, they can bounce
ideas off of each other to determine what works best. The same holds true
with finding effective grammar as students can talk about why the
grammatical structures work so well.
In order for the interaction among students to be successful, they need
to be in collaborative groups, as suggested by Vygotsky. Collaborative
groups work when a range of students, with varied abilities work together to
solve problems. (Dixon-Krauss, 1996) The goal of this type of group is
collaboration, in that students are able to constructively discuss and decide
on one right solution that is agreed upon by all. This is important for learners
because each member of the group will have an opportunity to teach and/or
learn from each other.
A constructivist approach is often used in grammar instruction. This
approach requires teachers to leave behind individual grammar worksheets,

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teacher centered classrooms, and a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Students are


expected to learn and discover together with the goal applying the concept
without supports. In the right learning environment, students can construct
meaning with others, providing them with the opportunity to accomplish
tasks that they could not do alone or as well without the scaffolds of others.
Choice is also necessary. For example, when editing grammar in
writing, students should be allowed to choose specific areas in need of
improvement, giving them purpose and a sense of ownership of the task.
(Weaver, 1996) Putting focus on one concept and allowing students to gain
a deep understanding of the particular concept will be more beneficial than
only taking a glimpse of many concepts. Teacher support is important for
this concept as students may initially need help on deciding what to choose
and how to choose.
LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Teachers can effectively create and foster an environment that
encourages an authentic teaching of grammar. As a teacher, it is important
to understand that students will not automatically discover the rules of
grammar or errors made on their own. Over time, students may be able to
incidentally recognize patterns of grammar; however, knowing the students
and their needs will help when structuring mini-lessons and the learning
environment to teach grammatical skills. To avoid the stigma attached to
grammar, it should be taught within context of what students are working

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on, and not in isolation. Quick daily doses of grammar and walls filled with
student created charts will help to reinforce the concepts. (Anderson, 2006)
As students become grammarians, their knowledge and skills should be
shared with peers. In most situations, having a peer to rely on can be a nonthreatening resource; although some students may not feel comfortable with
the peer chosen. Creating a community that supports this type of
collaboration is an integral piece of a successful learning environment, as
they learn through social interactions with classmates and teachers.
(Tompkins, 2005)

Risk-Free Community
In a grammar classroom, the idea is that it should meaning-based, and
not solely focused on correctness and rules. (Patterson, 2001) With this
philosophy, it is crucial for students to feel comfortable enough to take risks.
They will need to understand that it is okay to make errors and be willing to
collaborate with their peers in order to discover the meaning behind the
terms or rules.
Creating this type of learning environment takes time and patience, at
any grade level. In her book, Reading with Meaning, Debbie Miller (2002)
devotes a chapter to creating a classroom community with positive
relationships that foster thinking and discussion. She believes that it is
important to first build genuine relationships, establish mutual trust, and

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create working literate environment (Miller, 2002). While the book was
written for the primary grades, the same concepts hold true for students at
all grade levels, as they need to be more willing to take risks, work
collaboratively, and think about their own and their classmates learning.
Keeping in mind that students will be taking a constructively critical
view of each others work, trusting relationships are needed within the
classroom. Learners build trust with each other as they get to know their
classmates and teacher. They begin to value each others ideas and
contributions to the group and classroom. Teachers should communicate
honestly with students about goals and expectations, providing them with
responsibilities and opportunities to take charge of their own learning. (Short
& Pierce, 1998) Giving students responsibility in the classroom for their
learning is extremely important, especially when they experiment with
difficult concepts, such as grammar. By doing this, students begin to see
themselves as valued, contributing learners in the classroom community
(Tompkins, 2005). By creating this type of environment, students can take
advantage of socially interacting with their peers to foster their learning to
the highest potential.
The Teacher
The teachers actions and attitude play a very significant role in the
classroom learning environment. The risk-free classroom community that
encourages collaboration and discovery of grammar rules is not an easy

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task. The type of talk carried out by the teacher can make a difference in the
overall tone of the classroom. Todays classroom has evolved from teacher
as the sole speaker to teacher as the facilitator of discussion among teacher
and students. As common as this has become, some students still face
difficulty discussing in small and whole group because their home and school
environments differ, or they may have not had experience with this type of
discourse (Pinnell & Jaggar, 1991). Because of this, teachers need to model
what is expected of students in classroom discourse, removing all
assumptions that the students know what to do. Creating a community of
learners who have built trusting, working relationships is only the foundation
of a successful learning environment.
When students are placed in a situation where they have to talk about
and critique each others work or collaborate together to look for patterns or
meaning, the talk used in this context should be explicitly modeled, at the
right moment, by the teacher to avoid potential problems that could arise
during future discussion. For example, if students are editing a paper and
trying to determine the correct tense to use in a sentence, they should
understand how to discuss with each other and to do it in a way that does
not offend the writer or the other peer reviewers. Teachers should look for
teachable moments when modeling explicitly, versus giving a list of correct
ways to talk. Understanding the viewpoint of the child and asking for or
making suggestions on the language that should be usedas a teamwill
demonstrate to the students that their ideas are valuable. The teacher can

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also model discussion language and, most importantly, discuss why this
type of talk works better in discussion. (Miller, 2002)
However, Peter Johnston (2004) warns that teachers should be wary of
their explicitness when modeling. He believes that being too explicit about
each utterance made in the classroom may take the thrill out of figuring
that happens during discussion, hence, removing the opportunity for the
student(s) to feel a sense of ownership of their learning. This could
potentially harm the student and teacher relationship, putting a dent in the
classroom community that was created. (Johnston, 2004) Knowing your
students and making thoughtful decisions will help to keep the tone of the
community respectful and positive.
Physical Environment
Referring to Debbie Millers (2002) comment about a working literate
environment in the context of grammar instruction means that students
should have many opportunities to read, write, and view grammar, its rules,
and the meaning behind the rules. Grammar has been referred to, in
several instances, as a reference tool. A tool used to make us better
speakers, writers, and to enhance our enjoyment in reading. It should not be
referred to as a subject in school. (Hillocks & Smith, 1991; Nunan, 2005;
Vavra, 1996) This indicates that the rules and discoveries of grammar
should be displayed around the classroom and be accessible for students to
use. Students should be allowed to have scaffolds, such as notebooks, to

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use at any time. The walls should be organized with charts and visuals to
serve as reminders and reinforcements. The most effective wall charts or
visuals are those that students have created together after they have been
discussing patterns or meanings. (Anderson, 2006) When students see their
work displayed, they feel a sense of ownership and pride in their learning.
As the walls can quickly become a plethora of tools for the students, it
is important to keep in mind the idea that the environment should be a
working environment. Concepts that students have understood should be
replaced with the new. Having walls charts that overlap can be a distraction
for students; therefore, they should be placed in an area where students can
refer to them easily once taken down.
The organization of the classroom is also critical for a successful
community. The way in which the teacher organizes the space is important
for the variety of activities and learning opportunities that take place in the
classroom (Short & Pierce, 1998). Students need to be able to move about
freely in an arrangement that fosters student interaction and group work; a
classroom with desks aligned in rows is not very inviting. Daily routines and
norms should be established as well. Providing students with a sense of
organization will add to the community of learners by providing with comfort
of knowing what to do.
Time needs to be spent on creating a classroom community of
learners. While it could be argued that this will take away from instructional

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time, it is important to remember that this time spent can be integrated with
teaching concepts as well. Providing structure in a trusting, supportive,
working environment will facilitate an environment that supports learning to
its fullest potential.
CURRICULUM AND LEARNING STRATEGIES
Sticking with tradition and providing students with grammar
worksheets and textbooks places limitations on what can be done in the
classroom. If students are focused on completing these line item tasks, they
are not reading or writing. (Hauassamen; Kolln; & Wheeler, 2003) A
significant amount of time is wasted on completing activities that are
meaningless to students. According to NCTE (2002), students find grammar
most interesting when they apply it to authentic texts. Heeding to their
advice, teachers can use real texts, such as newspaper headlines, to locate
various parts of speech. Childrens books can also be used. There are
various childrens books that focus on certain aspects of grammar,
appropriate for all grade levels. As students write, they make mistakes. A
key component of the writing process is editing. As students edit their work,
independently or through peers, grammar mistakes can be noted and
support can be given. Within a writing workshop, teachers can design minilessons to focus on specific issues students are having. Teachers should also
read students writing and become familiar with mistakes that are consistent

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so that lesson planning becomes more beneficial to student learning. (Feng &
Powers, 2005)
Reading
Wide reading is one of the best ways for students to improve on many
concepts, such as comprehension and vocabulary. Grammar fits into this
category as well. As students read or listen to good-quality literature being
read, they are exposed to effective grammar and can imitate it in their
writing (Weaver, 1996). As they read literature that keeps their interest or
makes them laugh, they can begin to understand how grammar is used
every day in their world.
There is a large quantity of great childrens books that offer examples
of speaking and writing, in terms of grammar. Many of those books,
grammar concept books, have been written specifically with explicit,
repetitive examples of what grammar should look like; it is easy for students
to find the patterns of grammar in these types of books. For example, Eats,
Shoots, & Leaves: Why Commas Really Do Make a Difference (Truss, 2006)
and Girls like Spaghetti: Why You Cant Manage without Apostrophes (Truss,
2007), were written with the intention to be used to teach the tricky rules of
commas and apostrophes, respectively. She gives clear examples of when,
where, and how each should be used. While these books do not have the
most intriguing story line, they are attractive and fun for children to read.
This, in turn, makes the lesson on commas and apostrophes more authentic

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and relevant than a worksheet that does not engage or humor the students.
When students are engaged in an authentic way, their motivation goes up
and they are more willing to accept the challenge of learning new concepts
(Alexander, 2006).
Books that do not offer such explicit, obvious examples can be
valuable teaching tools as well. Great books that children love often display
a wonderful use of grammar in which students can internalize. Officer
Buckle and Gloria (Rathmann, 1995) is filled with great examples that
demonstrate the four sentence types. Moles Hill (Ehlert, 1994) contains
complex and compound sentences. Small group activities can be used to
explore and discover the grammar used in these books, as well as other
books that exemplify grammar. For example, after the mini-lesson (a brief
lecture of value that can be applied immediately after instruction (Rosen,
1998), students could search through the books looking for their favorite
sentences to categorize, such as sentence type. They could also choose
their favorite sentences to imitate. (Tompkins, 2005) Similar activities can
also be created by using real world texts, such as newspapers. Showing
students that grammar exists in media outside of the classroom will increase
their awareness. Not only should teachers teach grammar, but also help
students stretch their minds to notice the rich texts in their world and the
grammar they present. (Kane, 1996) As students begin to manipulate and
take a deeper look at the grammar within various types of childrens

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literature used in the classroom, they will begin to notice and apply effective
patterns of grammar.
Writing
While most people still believe that some form of grammar instruction
is necessary, the struggle lies in how to make it relevant and exciting.
(Gribbin, 2005) Teaching grammar, not in isolation, but in the context of
writing is an excellent way for students to see how improving their grammar
knowledge can make a difference in their writing. Using writers workshop,
where mini-lessons, conferences, and constant discussion take place is an
effective way to increase grammar knowledge and awareness. When
teachers engage students in the writing process and discuss usage by using
student work, then students can use grammar to improve their writing
(Bromley, 2007).
The process approach to writing and writers workshop requires the
teacher to plan carefully. The grammatical mini-lessons designed should be
based on students work and contain meaningful activities that directly tie to
the writing process (Peterson, 1998). When lessons are directly related to
pieces that students are working on, they will see their growth over time and
recognize the improvements made from the first draft to the published copy.
Therefore, taking advantage of the authentic writing they provide is more
useful than using textbooks in isolation, as there is little to suggest that
students learn or enjoy grammar from those types of activities (Hillocks, Jr. &

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Smith, 1991). Using a textbook as the rule for grammar instruction is


difficult to completely justify, particularly when students provide pages and
pages of their own writing that display errors and grammar that can be
improved or expanded on. If teachers are not noticing pattern of significant
grammatical errors in student writing, new concepts or ideas can be
introduced. Effective literature that provides examples of various
grammatical structures should be used to expand the skill of the writer.
Again, the teachers role and gumption to take risks is crucial in order
to encourage students to take risks as writers. Refusing to ignore good
enough writing that can be improved suggests that the teacher has
confidence in the students ability. They need to be guided through minilessons and conferences as teachers continually create ways to help
students take their grammar and writing to the next level. This can be done
by allowing students to experiment with different avenues of grammar in
their writing, such as sentence combining. Sentence combining requires the
teacher to choose a dense sentence, break it up into simple sentences, and
have the students combine the sentences to recreate the authors original
sentence (Tompkins, 2005).
Since the writing process is recursive, revising and editing can again
spark mini-lessons for improvement. (Weaver; McNally & Moreman, 2001)
Of course, there will often be wonderful examples of effective or improved
grammar within the students writing. Paying special attention to these

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examples and using them to illustrate effective grammar will increase


confidence and help students to become better observers of their own
writing (Haussamen et al., 2003).
Teachers can enticingly introduce grammar within a mini-lesson or
conference. However, within these discussions, as students begin to write,
teachers should use caution when telling students to focus on one specific
aspect of grammar, such as the adverbs or adjectives, as it could limit what
they would do naturally. (Weaver; McNally & Moreman, 2001) The grammar
should be used as a tool to bolster their writing with the thought that all
areas of grammar are important and not just the one taught in the minilesson.
Image grammar, as described by Harry Noden (1998), Encourages
students to approach writing as art by using grammatical structures as brush
strokes. He discovered that imagery played a role in the writing process by
influencing writers to choose grammatical structures that shaped their
writing. Using imagery, students should be encouraged to show and not tell
in their writing, paying attention to detail so that the reader can see the
writing. Providing students with rich, vibrant pieces of art can also spark
writing that is detailed and full of imagery for the writer to pour into their
paper. (Noden, 1998) Though it may seem, this method does not entirely
omit the naming of grammatical structures using their technical terms, such
as verbs or participles. The terms are useful, but not necessary (Schuster,

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1999). Consequently, Noden (1998) does make the point that the technical
terms should be kept simple and not be the initial focus of the writing or
mini-lesson, suggesting that teachers ask students begin with ing words,
for example. By doing this, students can focus on creating a piece that
engages the reader.
In their book Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers, Haussamen, et al.
(2003) provide several examples of how teachers can teach grammar the
writing classroom. As a way to initiate thought and discussion, they can be
presented with three sentences, each stating the same idea but tells a
different story. For example, using: The shark bit his leg, to the bone. The
shark bit his leg to the bone. The shark bit his leg. To the bone. Through
discussion students begin to see how sentence choice and organization can
effect the reader. As students read literature that demonstrates effective
grammar, they can begin to imitate sentences in their own writing.
Teachers can use sentence imitation as a tool to introduce specific
grammatical structures or students can experiment with sentences to use in
their own writing. Students can pick up on this activity fairly quickly and can
be creative with their imitations, which adds a fun twist to the instruction.
This strategy will make students conscious of the grammar they are using
and encourage creativity, paving the way for successful writing.
(Haussamen, et al, 2003)

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In todays classroom, it is very common to find diversity and students


whose native language is not English, or English Language Learners (ELL).
The same concepts hold true for teaching these students through the use of
mini-lessons, conferences, reading, and writing in a community of learners
who feel comfortable to take risks. According to the Committee on School
Practices and Programs of the NCTE (1993), ELLs learn best under those
conditions. One of the most important aspects for teachers to remember is
that, when learning a new language, many errors will occur in their
speaking and writing, and that these errors are normal for language
development. (Weaver, 1996) As students have more practice with the
language and can take part in mini-lessons and conferences, then these
errors are likely to occur less often.
Many strategies should be used and applied to the grammar classroom
in order to discover which method will work best for students.
ASSESSMENT
Assessment, when given to determine students strengths and needs in
the context of what they are learning, can be a very powerful tool for
teachers. Ongoing assessments within a classroom can provide teachers
with knowledge to develop effective instruction. When assessing grammar
knowledge, students must be provided with more than one opportunity to
demonstrate success. (Cobb, 2003/2004) Using non-traditional, informal

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methods of assessment, teachers can learn more about their students and
the strategies that are most valuable to them.
Like grammar, assessments have a bad reputation with students, and
even teachers. This may be caused by the spotlight of standardized testing
and the lack of authentic tasks that these types of tests have come to
promote. In addition, the results fail to give an accurate measurement of
what the child is capable of, giving students a discouraged feeling (DixonKrauss, 1996). Most have traditional assessment ideas in their mind, of
multiple-choice or fill in the blank questions that require students to recall
information that may or may not be relevant to their lives as learners. A
teacher could use this method to assess grammar; however, it does not test
their ability to apply their knowledge in real situations. When speaking or
writing in the real world, life does not provide us with multiple choices when
deciding on the correct grammatical structure to use.
Informal Assessments
To remedy the negative thoughts about assessment, teachers need to
make use of informal assessments. Informal assessments include, but are
not limited to: portfolios, checklists, anecdotal notes, student evaluations,
and journals. Informal assessments can also be termed as authentic
assessments. They are authentic because the methods used to evaluate
students, such as the examples stated above, are based on real work done in
the classroom. The focus of informal assessments in grammar should be the

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on the errors students are making, as well as what they are doing well, in
order to plan future instruction. The application of traditional tests, in a
worksheet format, simply do not help teachers to find ways to influence
instruction, identify strengths, or determine grades for the purpose of helping
students succeed. Teachers also need to keep in mind that some errors are
more critical than others, and it is important to choose wisely when planning
for instruction. (Tompkins, 2005) Bombarding a student with a list full of
errors during a mini-lesson or conference can put a dent in their motivation.
Of course they need to know that there are several aspects of their writing,
for example, that can be improved; however, teachers need to let them know
that some are more important than others to fix at this point in time.
Focusing on too many errors at a time may also lead to a superficial
understanding of the task.
Not every assessment needs to be graded, especially if it is taking
place daily. Some assessments are basic evaluations so the teacher can
monitor progress and address needs. This type of assessment is also
important because it can provide teachers with information that can be used
to address problems and concerns in classroom; it can also be coined as a
dynamic assessment (Dixon-Krauss, 1996). With Vygotsky and the zone of
proximal development in mind, teachers are able to assess what students
are in the process of learning with social interaction. For example, during
writers workshop or reading activities that require students to search for
grammar, teachers can assess students by kidwatching, student evaluation,

Teaching Grammar in Context

26

or individual conferences. With these, teachers can get a first-hand account


of how the student completes the task and the strategies being used.
Checklists are an easy to use when observing because teachers can chart
students attitudes, strengths, and struggles, as well as the types of model
texts they gravitate toward (Goodman, 1991). Teachers benefit from
assessing, or gathering information, everyday by using a checklist because
they can make notes of the individual and collective needs of the class
(Anderson, 2005). Teachers can then decide to convey certain information
through an individual conference or collectively, through a mini-lesson. All of
these combined help to link assessment and instruction because it happens
during application, and not after. The after is what standardized
assessments evaluate.
Ongoing and Multiple ways of Assessment
Effective instruction begins with purposeful assessments (Cobb,
2003/2004). The key word in this statement is assessments; there should be
more than one type and they should happen more than once. In a classroom
with reading/writing workshops and ample opportunities for speaking and
listening to take place through discussion, assessing often in multiple ways
seems to coincide with what is already happening on a day-to-day basis.
In making an argument for more research on informal methods of
evaluation, Yetta Goodman (1991) uses the term interpretative evaluation.
By this, she means that teachers should evaluate their students daily in a

Teaching Grammar in Context

27

variety of ways for the purpose of getting to know your students on a deeper
level. The reasoning is so that teachers can fully understand their students
strengths, needs, and the best possible strategies to use for instruction. In
addition, as teachers continually build relationships with students, observe,
and conference with students, they have opportunities to reflect on their own
teaching and the methods of evaluation, or assessment, they are using.
(Goodman, 1991) Reflection and evaluation of oneself is equally important
to the instruction. It helps a teacher to decide how the learners are learning
best and which methods of assessment to use.
With respect to assessing grammar, students need to be able to
demonstrate their knowledge through more than one means and have
opportunities to see growth over time. (Cobb, 2003/2004) Portfolios satisfy
this criterion by including samples of student work, such as the life of a piece
written from start to finish or a list of patters of grammar found in a model
text. Growth can also be noticed over periods of time by looking at the final
products of their work. Students can notice common errors they were
making at the beginning of the year or additions to their grammar
knowledge. They may notice that they now use the correct there, theyre,
or their, or have imitated more complex grammatical phrases from model
texts. Portfolios also allow for student reflection as they take a critical look
at the work they have completed when making a decision on which pieces to
include. However, once students choose work for their portfolio, or selfassess and evaluate other tasks, the reflection process is not complete.

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28

Teachers need to have students write why the particular piece belongs in the
portfolio or how they feel about the work completed, including strengths and
areas thought to be difficult (Alexander, 2006). This helps the teacher gain
a deeper understanding into what the student truly knows about the task.
Making use of assessments that represent application of grammar
skills, to drive instruction is the only way for teachers to get a true
measurement of a students strengths and needs. When teachers can catch
errors and effective uses of grammar in the act, it is easy to support learning.
CONCLUSION
The overall message for teachers is that they should not be afraid to
teach grammar. Many teachers have bad memories of the way they were
taught (in isolation) and avoid grammar instruction as much as possible. It is
no longer about a strict reliance on rules and terms that must be memorized
in order to learn grammar. If fact, memorizing the rules and terms of
grammar is not learning grammar; grammar is learned best when applied to
a real reading or writing situation (Peterson, 1998).
Teachers can provide their students with the most effective methods
and strategies for teaching students by using the current research as a
backbone for instruction. Choosing a method, based on the needs of
students, with the use of authentic texts, can change the tone of grammar
within a classroom. Creating an environment that fosters the use of real
texts and constant reminders of rules will allow students to discover the

Teaching Grammar in Context

29

world of grammar around them, using it to improve their communication


skills. Providing a plethora of meaningful activities for students to practice
and assess their grammar knowledge will demonstrate the value of teaching
grammar in the context of real reading and writing, giving students a tool to
use for the rest of their lives.
IMPLICATIONS AND QUESTIONS
As mentioned in the history of grammar, the methods of grammar
instruction have been debated and discussed. Why is it so difficult to move
away from teaching grammar in isolationrelying only on line item
worksheets? The research clearly states what works and provides activities
that have proven to be effective. It is possible that grammar instruction
needs to have a more explicit role in teacher education (I do not recall any
specific lessons on how to teach it.). Or maybe, it is because teachers are
not confident enough in their own grammar knowledge and become
reluctant to step to go above and beyond.
Whatever the case, those who advocate for effective, research based
instruction should continue to have their voice heard in order to prevent
generations of students from remembering grammar as something they
circled and underlined on a worksheet.

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30

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Childrens Books References


Ehlert, L. (1994). Moles hill. Orlando: Harcourt Brace.
Rathmann, P. (1995). Officer Buckle and Gloria. New York: Dial.

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Truss, L. (2007). Girls Like Spaghetti: Why You Cant Manage Without
Apostrophes. New York,
New York: Penguin Young Readers Group.
Truss, L. (2006). Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: Why Commas Really Do Make a
Difference. New York,
New York: Penguin Young Readers Group.