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Teaching Grammar as Organically as Possible

English teachers face a never-ending conundrum when they collect student essays: how to address the grammatical errors that frequent most papers. The tendency for young teachers is to try to correct every mistake, as if we are not doing our jobs if we do not address each individual issue in a student paper.

Most veteran teachers have learned, however, that trying to correct every error is not just time-consuming, but also counter-productive. Students who see their essays covered in teacher ink marking their every mistake, no matter how small, inevitably become deflated. A more efficient and productive way of addressing grammatical errors is to target the most fundamental issues first and then gradually increase one's scrutiny to address more sophisticated concerns as the year progresses.

Early in my teaching career I came across a grammar textbook by Teresa Ferster Glazier and Paige Wilson entitled The Least You Should Know about English. Their book inspired me to limit the number of grammatical concepts that I wanted students to master by the end of the year. Most people would agree that the two most fundamental errors in writing are run-on sentences and fragments. Being able to identify what constitutes a complete sentence — and what does not — is the first step to writing clear, effective prose. The primary purpose of grammar, I emphasize with students, is to provide clarity for the reader. No matter how good an idea may be, if it is not clearly communicated to the reader, it will most likely be misunderstood.

Ultimately, I decided to focus on ten fundamental grammar rules each year, beginning with run-ons and fragments. Borrowing an idea from a former colleague at The Rivers School outside of Boston, I named my ten grammar rules "The X-Files" and created a cover sheet for students to place in the front of the grammar section of their binder to use as a quick reference guide:

After introducing the X-Files to students, I would proceed to cover one grammatical concept each week so that every concept would be addressed by the end of the first quarter, which generally lasted ten weeks. When introducing a new concept, I would give students a secondary worksheet that explained the rule in more detail and provided a few sample sentences with errors identified and corrected:

After introducing the new concept and going over the sample sentences as a whole class, students would attempt the first few sentences on their own. Students would then share their thoughts with a partner and discuss any discrepancies they might have on how to correct the sentences before we would go over them as a whole class. For homework, students would try to correct the remaining sentences on their own, which we would then go over at the beginning of the next class.

As we introduced each of these grammar concepts over the course of the quarter, students would then be held accountable for adhering to these rules in their essays. For instance, if a student passed in a revision of an essay in the first few weeks of the quarter, that student would only be held accountable for the rules we had covered until that point. An essay passed in after the first week, for example, might have only run-on sentences marked, like the essay below:

As new concepts are introduced over the course of the quarter, subsequent drafts of the same essay would need to comply with each new concept covered. By the end of the first quarter, all ten grammar rules would have been introduced, and all subsequent essays would need to comply with every rule in the X-Files.

To hold students accountable for learning these rules, students would receive both a content score and a grammar score on their revisions. For instance, a student might receive feedback on an essay that has the following temporary score at the top: 92/-8. What that score means is that the essay should be a 92 (A-) based on its content, but the eight grammar issues would potentially subtract eight points from that content score, making it really an 84 (B), if those errors are not corrected in the final revision. As students continue to revise their essays over the course of the quarter, they need to address not only the content concerns, which are expressed in the margins via clarifying and/or probing questions, but also the grammar issues to prevent points from being deducted from their final drafts.

The purpose of this approach is to have students work on grammatical issues as they appear organically in their own writing. It will quickly become clear which issues are most problematic for which students. One student may have issues with run-on sentences, while another might have difficulty with pronoun agreement. In this way, basic grammar rules are introduced to everyone, but are then practiced and reinforced individually as students write their essays.

After the first quarter ends and students have been introduced to all ten grammar rules, we use our designated grammar day each week to identify and correct X-File violations found in sample student essays. When choosing student sentences to project on the whiteboard, I generally use ones that I think create interesting grammatical issues for the writer, such as the following from the essay shown above:

When the sentence is projected onto the whiteboard, students copy the sentence into their grammar section and try to identify and correct any X-File violations they see. After a minute or so, students discuss with their partner what they think might be the issues. In the preceding sentence, for example, there are two X-File violations: the entire sentence is a run-on and there is pronoun disagreement between the singular "nobody" and the plural "their" and "they."

After students discuss the issues with their partners, students then share their observations and offer suggestions on how to correct the errors with the whole class. As we discuss possible solutions, we may also address stylistic concerns, such as the phrase "a great quote" in the preceding sentence, which is vague and unclear. Students will consider how to make the entire thought more concise, specific, and compelling in addition to correcting the grammatical issues.

At times, there can also be teachable grammar moments that the teacher can address. For instance, in the above sentence, the teacher could point out the need to use the conditional "were" (as opposed to "was") because the clause refers to a hypothetical or unreal situation that requires the subjunctive mood , rather than the indicative. The writer is trying to show that a work of literature does not actually provide answers to the questions it raises, but wants us consider the consequences if it did, theoretically.

At the beginning of the third quarter, we begin introducing more advanced grammatical concepts — such as dangling or misplaced modifiers, active versus passive verbs, or the proper uses of a colon. It is important to stress to students that they will not be penalized for violating any of these new concepts introduced in the second semester; rather, the more advanced concepts are ones that students should try to incorporate into their own writing whenever possible. The primary focus of the class is still on mastering the ten most important grammar rules, which are contained in the X-Files.

When introducing these new concepts, we first start by identifying and correcting any X-File violations that occur in the sentence. For instance, when the following sentence is projected onto the whiteboard, students should write down the sentence in the grammar section of their binders and try to identify and correct any errors that they find. In the following sentence, students should see three fundamental issues: subject-verb agreement, commas in a series, and pronoun agreement.

To correct the first issue, students first need to be able to identify the subject of the independent clause ("forms") and the corresponding verb ("challenges") and then notice their disagreement. The second issue is the missing commas after the first and second items in the list describing the types of literature. (Yes, we do mandate the Oxford Comma in my class, which is standard in academia even though it is discouraged in journalism). Finally, students should notice that the singular noun "reader" does not agree with the plural pronouns "themselves" or "them." After correcting these violations, the sentence should read and be punctuated as follows:

At this point, we have corrected the X-File violations, but students might recognize that a problem exists with the parenthetical clause in the middle of the sentence. We have discussed in the X-Files how to punctuate sentences with dependent clauses that precede or follow independent clauses, but we have not discussed how to punctuate a dependent clause that occurs in the middle of an independent clause. Students may recognize that this is an issue and understand that we may need to set off this clause off with commas if it is non-restrictive — meaning it contains extra, non-essential information. If students are not familiar with this grammatical concept concerning "parentheticals," we will provide direct instruction to introduce it:

Before we return to the original sentence, which contains a parenthetical (i.e. non-restrictive) clause, we will first look at the same sentence with a common parenthetical word, such as "however," inserted in the same location. We will discuss how to punctuate non-essential information by placing a comma before and after it so readers know that these words, while helpful, are not necessary to convey the overall meaning of the sentence:

Building on this idea, we will then expand that parenthetical word to create a parenthetical phrase (i.e. a group of words that does not contain a subject or verb) that is also non-restrictive and thus needs commas before and after the non-essential information:

Finally, we will return to our original sentence that contains a parenthetical clause (i.e. a group of words that does contain a subject and verb) that is non-restrictive and could be removed without the sentence losing its original meaning. Again, the non-essential information should be preceded and followed by a comma:

Now that we have inserted the parenthetical commas, we have a stylistic decision to make. Students may notice that the sentence now contains a lot of commas in the middle (four to be exact), which may cause confusion for the reader. Since the purpose of punctuation is to create clarity, we can potentially fix this problem by replacing the parenthetical commas with dashes:

We tell students that whenever a non-restrictive clause contains commas and interrupts an independent clause, it is probably wise to replace those parenthetical commas with dashes. The same would be true if we moved that non-restrictive clause to the end of the sentence:

If the parenthetical clause containing commas begins a sentence, however, the dash should not be used. In that situation, the sentence should be punctuated as follows:

We also tell students that writers can use dashes to replace commas to add emphasis to a parenthetical phrase — even if there are no commas within it. Again, this is a stylistic decision that writers need to make on their own; grammatically either choice is acceptable.

Now that we have introduced restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, the next logical step would be to discuss the difference between using "that" (restrictive) versus "which" (non-restrictive) when beginning a dependent clause. Even though most students use these words interchangeably, they indicate two different meanings for the reader and should be punctuated accordingly. When "that" begins a dependent clause, there should be no commas because it is restrictive; when "which" begins a dependent clause, commas should be used because it is non-restrictive. Perhaps that would be an appropriate grammar lesson for the following week.

Even though most students (and teachers, let's be honest) would argue that grammar is not the most exciting element in an English class, it is important and can be interesting. By limiting what students are required to learn, we allow them to stay focused on what is most essential. By holding them accountable for these rules in their own writing, we differentiate instruction and help students work on their individual deficiencies. By using sample sentences from actual student essays, we keep the instruction relevant, and by gradually introducing new concepts over the course of the year, we challenge students to continually think of language as a tool to communicate their ideas in the most clear, efficient, and effective manner possible.

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