I was not prepared to teach grammar.
My grammar lesson plans were not that great at the start of my career. Student engagement was about what you would expect from the old-school “drill and kill” lessons we’re all accustomed to. It was a struggle to not only keep my students’ attention but also make my grammar lessons effective. I really struggled the better part of my early years teaching, until I settled on a method that focused on what was important and was engaging.
Personally, I now feel strongly about grammar instruction even though for years I thought it was unimportant. I’ve seen how, for many students, teaching grammar explicitly in the context of writing does actually improve their writing. I also think many teachers struggle with it. This is why I’m giving you these strategies to keep students’ attention for grammar lessons. Many of these are plug and play – they will work with nearly any grammar concept.
Just FYI, I discuss all the concepts in this post in a Facebook Live video that you are welcome to check out here.
What does the research say about grammar?
In terms of grammar instruction, there has been a ton of research over the last 30 years that says over and over again: isolated grammar lessons are not helpful.
That means all those drills at the start of each class? Not helpful.
All those workbooks with grammar thoughts of the day? No good.
We essentially have created grammar lessons that students don’t retain and have no chance to apply. This becomes harmful in the long run when we set up an environment where students are afraid to write. They are taught a series of rules and instructions to follow. But they don’t learn to take risks in their own writing.
Unfortunately, this research has led some teachers into the movement of, “Well, then I just won’t teach grammar.” But what the research also says is that there are methods that can be helpful. The trick ultimately comes from making grammar lessons part of writing instruction, and ideally part of literature study. When we integrate our grammar lessons into writing instruction it becomes a tool for developing better writers. It gives a shared language between us and students when we tell them specifically how to improve parts of their writing. It gives them a “how” for better writing.
In the NY Times article, “Sentences That Matter, Mentor, and Motivate,” the authors (who are both English teaches) explain that simply correcting sentences full of errors is ineffective. What we really ought to focus on is having students notice those great sentences that have already been written so they can then use their observations to improve their own writing. Essentially, show students how great writers write. That imitation will allow students to develop their own craft. This is also how we bring together grammar, writing, and literature.
How do you get student attention?
Students unfortunately come into class with the preconceived notion that grammar lessons will be boring. They aren’t excited. In fact, they zone out from the beginning. The real key is getting students to pay attention right at the beginning. All you need is some type of game, and it doesn’t have to be very involved. I really like using Would You Rather questions. These can really just be super silly questions and if I can relate them back to my grammar lesson that’s a huge bonus. Another game that I like to play is “Name Your Price”– you give students a scenario and they decide how much someone would have to pay them to do the weird thing in the scenario. Again, tying these silly scenarios into the grammar lesson such as using vibrant adjectives and referring back to the scenario within your lesson.
How do you keep student attention?
When I get into the lesson, I focus on making sure my students don’t have the opportunity to zone out. It is far easier for me to keep their engagement than to earn it back in the middle of the lesson. Although I do use slide shows during grammar lessons, every slide has students doing something. Each slide fits into one of these three categories: observing, evaluating, or creating.
This includes using mentor texts or strong examples I’ve written, we evaluate these samples or their own writing, and I’ll have them create their own. This is a great layout for grammar lessons because it can easily be scaffolded and can use a variety of texts and opportunities to practice.
I also really love the element of play that we get to experience here with this method. Grammar is often an area of instruction where we leave out playfulness, but it shouldn’t be because writing is about taking risks and exploring concepts. Ultimately, we should be teaching students to become better writers and look for improvement. Those improvements are going to come from giving them opportunities to write.
Another quick tip, the examples and writing opportunities should also be fun! I try to use a lot of silly sentences and pop culture references. Even if my students don’t really think it’s funny, they do acknowledge it is interesting and not the same ol’ boring grammar lesson examples. I also sometimes use pictures or short animated clips to make things interesting.
The Three Big Strategies for Any Grammar Lesson
Let’s move on to the main event. These strategies can be applied to basically any concept or lesson and used over and over. It’s not really something that gets too repetitive if you do it well because it also sets students up to know what to expect with each lesson.
But first, if you’d like to get our entire ready-to-use parts of speech grammar unit, you can grab that today. Click the link below and we will send you every lesson in this unit so that you can start using these strategies for teaching grammar right away!
Strategy 1: Observe Mentor Sentences
There are a few different ways you can use these which makes them perfect for working at your class’ level and the abilities of your students. It is so easy to differentiate with mentor text. Let’s say you are working with adjectives. You can review what they are and how they fit within a sentence. Then show a variety of mentor sentences to observe. Discuss with students what you are looking for. Where are the adjectives? What are they? How is the sentence different if you change them or remove them entirely?
For more advanced students you might not even need to do reviews or lead them through a discussion. For example, instead of outlining what a participle phrase is, you can show a few sentences with the participle phrases bolded. You can ask students what they notice about those bolded pieces of each sentence. What characteristics do they share? How do they seem to function in the sentence? Before you even tell them the exact definition, they’ve already observed some things about it.
Basically, we want students to observe great writers and their writing. This can and should be a go-to strategy for any grammar lesson.
Strategy 2: Use Sentence Frames
I love using sentence frames. They are super versatile and help students bridge the gap between hearing the concept and actually learning it. As an example, we might have a grammar lesson on appositive phrases. We showcase the mentor sentences first. But then I will give students imitation sentences. The sentence will be given to them with only the appositive phrase removed and left blank. Students then think of their own appositive phrase for that spot.
Why is that such an effective strategy? For starters, I can use it in any lesson. Whatever topic we are looking at, that’s the portion of the sentence that is left out of the imitation. Students can also zero in on that specific concept. They don’t have to come up with a topic. They don’t need to come up with any other words except the word or group of words that fit the lesson. No one has to worry about stylizing. This is a great scaffolding tool for students as it puts the whole class on the “same page” during the lesson. You can work in as many sentence frames as you think are needed for adequate practice. It’s a great option for checking for understanding. You can use it as an exit ticket for the lesson. Students can work as a class, in a group, in pairs, or individually as they feel more confident in the concept.
Strategy 3: Allow Time to Write
This is an important strategy, but can also be really hard for some students. But if you have used strong mentor sentences and sentence frames for practice, your students are ready to tackle their own writing. Again, bring an element of play to this portion of the lesson. I usually give students a couple prompt options, but I have also used picture prompts. Animated shorts work really well. You can find many options that are short and class appropriate. I’ve even used interview clips as well. Anything that will resonate with my students and give them an unexpected (and engaging) opportunity to write. Whatever you choose, students will write about the prompt, picture, or clip using the grammar concept that’ve just used for the lesson. This allows students to write right away and apply it to their writing.
Bonus Strategy: Self Evaluations
When students write, I want them also to think about evaluating themselves. At the end of their writing session, I have students look back and select one good sentence they wrote during that class period. They can share as a class or with a partner, or something we just highlight for ourselves. What I want them to do is to evaluate what their best is and I want them to see that they are able to construct their own writing and affirm that they are learning these concepts and able to apply them to their writing style. Just a few minutes of evaluating their own writing can go far in their development.
Extra Bonus: Parts of Speech Unit
I’m so passionate about grammar and a huge believer in this method that I am giving away a free unit on parts of speech. That’s right – free. It has all the items you will need to execute these strategies with your students. You can find that unit here and get a head start on your grammar lessons this upcoming school year.
If you find these strategies helpful, check out the English Teacher Vault, where we have put two complete years of grammar instruction including a foundational grammar curriculum (intended for 9th or 10th grade students) and an intermediate grammar curriculum that can be used after students have a grasp of parts of speech and clauses. Check it all out here: English Teacher Vault Membership.