Teaching Grammar: What Works and What Doesn’t
I have been recently working with my Keys to Literacy colleagues to develop our new Keys to Early Writing professional development program — we will pilot it next month. An important piece of comprehension and writing instruction for young children, (and also for older struggling writers) is teaching sentence structure. What’s the best way to teach sentences? A recent article by Lauren Gartland and Laura Smolkin in The Reading Teacher titled The Histories and Mysteries of Grammar Instruction presents some interesting history about grammar instruction and some suggestions for effective teaching, but first let’s address why students need explicit sentence instruction.
Sentences do the work of the text! One by one, sentences communicate ideas that add up to make meaning. When students are writing, crafting sentences that accurately convey the intended meaning is particularly challenging, and manipulating sentences is both effortful and critical (Saddler & Preshern, 2007).
Syntax (i.e., grammar) is the system (i.e., rules) and arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses that make up a sentence. Syntactic awareness means understanding grammar and the ability to apply that knowledge effortlessly when reading or writing sentences. Children start building syntactic awareness as soon as they listen to people talk in sentences. As they hear and eventually read text, the exposure to more complex sentence structure increases. Some students enter school with significant syntactic awareness, and others do not, which has an impact on their ability to learn reading and writing skills.
Not surprisingly, the number of words students include in their sentences grows as they move through the grades and their syntactic awareness increases. Saddler (2012) found that in grade 1, children’s sentence are just a few words, mirroring the sentences they are exposed to in their readings. By grades 2 and 3 sentence length increases as students read more complex material. After grade 4 the length, sophistication, and complexity of most students’ sentences increases: the average number of words in a sentence at grade 4 is 13, and at grade 8 it is 16.
In their article, Gartland and Smolkin point out that, as a result of the Common Core setting standards for grammar knowledge, grammar has reappeared in many teachers’ conversations. They also note that many teachers are uncertain of their own grammar knowledge or how to teach grammar. This is something I encounter with many teachers I train. As a result, some teachers resort to teaching grammar the way they were taught: lots of labeling of parts of speech and memorizing rules of grammar. However, research tells us that this is not very effective (Graham & Perin, 2007).
After Gartland and Smolkin present a brief (and interesting) history of grammar instruction, they present two research-based approaches: contrastive analysis (the systematic study of a pair of languages emphasizes their grammatical differences and similarties) and sentence combining (an activity that helps students build syntactic awareness by manipulating words as they combine two or more sentences). I am a big fan of sentence combining and started using it in the 1970’s when I first began teaching students who struggle with reading and writing. Last year I wrote a blog entry with suggestions for teaching sentence combining that includes numerous links to information about the technique. Gartland and Smolkin provide information about a particular approach to teaching sentence combining called Sentence Composing. This approach uses exemplary children’s literature as mentor texts for students to examine and imitate.
I’ll end by emphasizing that sentence combining is an effective (and often enjoyable) instructional technique for developing syntactic awareness and improving students’ ability to read and write more complex sentences.
Gartland, L. B. & Smolkin, L. B. (2016). The Histories and Mysteries of Grammar Instruction. The Reading Teacher 69 (4).
Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve the writing of adolescents in middle and high schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Saddler, B. & Preschern, J. (2007). Improving sentence writing ability through sentence-combining practice. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39 (3), 6-11.
Saddler, B. (2012). Teacher’s guide to effective sentence writing. New York: Guilford Press.