Grammar in the Middle Grades: What and How
Melissa Gallegos, MAT ‘06
December 6, 2004
Observation and Question
The impetus for this project began in high school. My cooperating teacher told me to think of fun ways to review grammar for her eleventh-grade students taking the End of the Course Test for American and British Literature, a requirement for graduation. I thought it should be easy enough to think of a few ways to interestingly and effectively review grammar – after all, I’d just come from middle school, where lessons are supposed to be interesting and effective. I quickly realized I had no ideas in my arsenal. My high school cooperating teacher wound up assigning exercises from the grammar book in her room, slowly progressing through the review section of that textbook. I wound up rethinking what I had and had not seen during my observational period in middle school.
I had often felt frustrated with how grammar was being taught in my observation classroom at “GMS” (a name of use and not of fact). The method employed consisted of worksheet and overhead drills, using isolated, pre-manufactured examples. On nearly every Friday, the 90-minute classes would start with an overhead to copy and fill in. After about fifteen to twenty minutes, the teacher would then have students read the instructions aloud and give the answers for the questions. The teacher very infrequently asked “why” questions for correct answers or “why not” questions for incorrect answers. By the end of the “lesson” half the period would be over. Completion of the task, but not accuracy, would be given a grade periodically, without prediction.
The students did not seem to be learning. Though the students who volunteered to respond usually answered correctly within the first two tries, the participation group was not large. At the end of nearly every two weeks, all the students would sit for a school-imposed benchmark test. Ritually, more than half of this teacher’s students would not pass. For various reasons, certainly not all linked to the grammar instruction, more than half of all the students in any given class period had an F for their first nine-weeks grade.
I led this beginning lesson several times, always without warning. I would mimic what the teacher had done, though sometimes asking “why?” and “how do you know?” questions which the students usually could not or did not answer. I started inserting a verbal repetition for the process of determining whatever grammatical rule was up for the week. I also demonstrated a few “short cuts” that I remembered from my own middle school days. For instance, when going over the answers to a subject-verb agreement overhead worksheet, the class would not believe the correct answer. The “discussion” got so spirited (the teacher had been absent from the class for some time) that I had to silence the class and only work with small, voluntary groups of students.
The method I taught the isolated students, and then the class as a whole once the teacher returned, was as follows: when determining whether a subject needed a plural or singular verb, instead of repeating the dry rote of “a plural subject needs a plural verb, a singular subject needs a singular verb,” which potentially means nothing to students without the proper background in grammar-language, I introduced a substitution into the process. The process then became 1) find the subject – What is acting? 2) Determine number – can it be replaced with IT (singular) or THEY (plural)? 3) Replace the subject with the proper pronoun 4) what verb now fits?
This process invariably got them to the right conclusion, even for the tricky sentences that contained a list as the subject, with a singular noun ending that list. They were able to understand that the subject was in fact plural because it would be replaced with THEY and not IT. From there, they could rely on their ears, and not so much or the esoteric rule of what verb should follow.
On a later date, I was set to cover the entire class period while my cooperating teacher was absent from the room (again, without notice). I was given handouts and the day’s agenda. The handouts covered a variety of grammatical precepts, including verb conjugations and helping verbs. I made two changes: one was to hand out the handouts as the students finished up their journals rather than waiting for everyone to finish (a different kettle of troublesome fish) and the other was to let them work in small groups – letting them know that copying was not allowed, but teaching was.
Most of the students truly latched onto the idea of showing each other how to accomplish the tasks, and they seemed to work much more eagerly – including those who usually kept participation at a minimum. I kept a constant circulation to answer questions, which arose frequently, and to keep an eye out for copying, which did not. When I helped, I always started from the beginning of the process, gave them a tester (such as “put the verb in a sentence! If you eat today, tomorrow you __ ___ and yesterday __.”) and waited for an answer. In the case of the past tense, where the rule was “-ed except in some cases,” the tester worked much better than the rule in helping them come to the right answer.
Of course, I can never know whether these few, inconsistent changes in procedure helped or would have helped these students. I want to point to improved grades or some other demonstration of increased understanding, but I can’t. On the other hand, I can reference the comment from a visiting mother (she was patrolling her failing son) to my teacher, “Your kids really behave when you’re in the room,” an indirect comment about the constructivist and collaborative approach I had let them work in that day.
This mother’s comment is representative of the challenges within GMS that affect the instruction of the teachers. The school is situated in a mixed urban/suburban environment, fifteen minutes away from downtown Decatur. The school, in faculty, administration and student population is 98% Black. It has been open for three years and is facing the third year of not meeting AYP. The cultural environment and the government-mandated disapproval make GMS very different from the “average” school – especially from the predominantly white and “intelligent” classrooms in which much research and most teacher-written studies occur.
With echoes of Lisa Delpit’s “Other People’s Children” echoing through my head, I must also wonder how cultural differences affect the “shoulds” of teaching grammar. The question, then, is whether I was doing a good thing in that particular classroom, as well as whether I was on the right track in general. In order to answer these two questions, this paper will explore the current methods of grammar instruction and attempt to determine the most effective instructional course given ideal, and then realistic, circumstances for a public middle grades teacher of Language Arts.
Looking for a Definition
The term “grammar” traces through Old English and French to Latin and Greek, where it means “of letters,” an appropriately vague and jumbled history and meaning (American Heritage Dictionary 4th edition). What the term means to the average English-speaker today is just as varied and jumbled. The AHD’s first three entries are as follows:
In 2b and 3a, the words “implicit” and “normative” imply a vision of grammar not customarily imparted or understood by the general public – grammar as the natural structural outcome of language.
Looking at the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation and general societal expectations for perfect (and unchanging) grammar, however, highlights the “prescriptive” vision of grammar. Why put a comma there? Because we do. Why conjugate this verb in this tense in this situation? Because I tell you to. Such is the most common view of grammar, particularly as a subject in school; it is an arbitrary set of rules that cannot be changed or ignored, and so it is often taught that way.
National and State Standards
The standards for the State of Georgia (as affected by NCLB) and the NCTE standards reflect this general difference in perception of grammar. The Georgia QCCs for 7th grade Language Arts Grammar are:
2. Recognizes the function of the eight parts of speech in sentences.
3. Identifies the parts of a sentence in simple and compound sentences: subject, predicates, complements (predicate adjectives, predicate nominative, direct objects, indirect object), modifiers (words and phrases).
4. Forms singular, plural, and possessive nouns.
5. Uses principal parts to form tenses of regular and irregular verbs.
6. Identifies types of pronouns such as personal, interrogative, demonstrative, and indefinite.
7. Writes simple and compound sentences and avoids run-on sentences and nonfunctional fragments.
8. Combines sentences using coordination (i.e., compound sentences).
9. Applies standard rules of capitalization.
10. Applies standard rules of punctuation.
11. Spells frequently used words and applies common spelling rules
12. Applies standards of American English to: subject-verb agreement, cases of personal pronouns, pronoun/antecedent agreement, principal parts of verbs, comparisons of adjectives and adverbs. (Georgia QCC website, 2004)
This is a very complete list of the concerns most frequently understood by the public as grammar. They are positioned in their own category, with no mention of interaction with reading and writing. Though the standards listing for reading and writing both include a standard for “standard” grammar, there is no indication that knowledge outside of the “standard” is important or useful in any of these categories. Perhaps the detailed “rules” format and isolated impression demonstrated in this listing is partially to blame for the rules-oriented and isolated lesson plans that I encountered at GMS.
The corresponding NCTE standards are, of course, by nature much less specific, but they are still comprehensive as well as inherently constructivist. The following listing is a copy of the organization’s own estimation of how grammar is reflected in their standards from their grammar guideline (2003):
· Standard #3 refers to the range of strategies and abilities students should use to comprehend and appreciate texts, and among these is their understanding of sentence structure.
· Standard #4 explains that students should adjust their spoken and written language for different audiences and purposes, and these adjustments include changes in the conventions and style of language.
· Standard #6 states that students should “apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuations)” to create and critique both print and nonprint texts. (Italics added.)
· Standard #9 calls for students to “develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.” (Italics added.) Understanding basic grammar can help students see the patterns of different languages and dialects.
The idea of grammar is imbedded in larger goals, namely being able to understand texts, to communicate effectively and to understand situations new to the students. Grammar is never the end product; it is always a tool for further use. Unlike the understandably rather draconian presentation of the QCCs, NCTE’s rules imply that grammar should be imbedded, or integrated, in general language arts instruction.
Which should it be? Isolated or integrated? Rules or conventions? Or, to reference to the still unsolved problem of choosing a definition of grammar for schools, “the system of” or “the study of”?
NCTE looks far more appealing, especially considering the long history of the organization and its dedication to research. The organization, for instance, supports an entire board on grammar called the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, authors of the grammar guideline referenced above. Their definition of grammar involves “knowing about” how language comes out they way it does. It is the “study of,” but only in terms of the overall study of language. This definition appeals the most, especially because it constitutes a cohesive view of language arts instruction.
Even this definition, has its potential problems, though. Viewing the learning of grammar as the learning of a language that describes how we use language seems very convoluted and advanced. It is, in essence, meta-cognition, a term and idea rarely seen before college. Is the study of grammar too advanced for middle-schoolers?
The state standards imply that the appropriate time for learning grammar is middle school, mostly seventh and eighth grade. Before that point, grammar is restricted to more word-based concerns according to the corresponding QCCs. After that time, students are expected to know grammar, and move on to work on paragraph and whole work-related ideas (website, 2004). Based on the structure of the Georgia school system, middle school is the time to learn grammar.
Language acquisition theory, however, suggests that middle school is perhaps too late to be learning about language. According to M. Guasti’s comprehensive book, the grammar of language is learned by the age of five (2002). The knowledge is in the child. Why do we “teach” it in middle school then? The answer returns to the idea that the kind of grammar taught in school is manufactured (man-made) rather than the inherent grammar of the language. It is the grammar of writing well – not a natural ability that the common five-year-old has mastered. The ear may be trained, but the mind and hand are not.
The “Obvious” Problem
As hinted at by the NCTE standards, the scholarly feeling about formal grammar appears unanimous:
It is no secret that students chafe at learning the numerous abstract and often arcane grammatical categories and the almost equally opaque “rules of grammar.” They chafe most, perhaps, at the seemingly endless – and often mindless – drills and exercises designed to promote acquisition of the entire grammatical apparatus presumably needed for writing improvement. (Noguchi 1991)
Brosnahan and Neuleib add that “research into writing and grammar instruction has shown that students make almost no connection between traditional grammar instruction and the editing of their texts, and they make no connection at all between grammar instruction and the production of text,” most likely because they do not have Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (1995) – that is, they’re bored out of their minds.
R. Noguchi writes in his 1991 book, “we can say that formal grammar instruction may bear some relationship to writing improvement, but the relationship is not a direct one” (p. 6). After carefully looking at the parts of writing that formal grammar instruction could affect, Noguchi concluded that only one-third of the process -- that of style – could be positively affected. Content and organization are largely unaffected, thereby proving that formal instruction in grammar is not an effective way to teach writing.
Noguchi goes on to suggest that schools should emphasize “grammar for writing” rather than the more academic “study of grammar”:
Because of its specific aim, this type of grammar should not be taught for its own sake … nor should it be taught in isolation from writing activities. Ideally, this grammar will be integrated with writing instruction and presented as quickly as possible so that students can use it during the revision of proofreading stages of writing.
Noguchi concludes that “isolating the basic grammatical categories … obviates the need to teach grammar en masse, as has been the customary practice.”
C. Glenn, along with Noguchi, bases this “new” vision of grammar instruction on the old place of grammar in language studies:
The triangulation of grammar, rhetoric, and logic known as the trivium provided a stable, coherent, and comprehensive language-arts program … When grammar was a language art, it was more than punctuation and usage, more than rules of linguistic etiquette, more than isolated drills and exercises …[it was] style. (Glenn 1995)
Like Noguchi, Glenn points out that linguistic grammar is not part of rhetoric (organization) or logic (content), but part of the style of writing and speaking, inseparable from them. David Blakesley goes further and casts (or recasts) grammar as part of rhetoric, envisioning the function of grammar as “not as a system for expressing ideas ‘correctly’ (at the sentence level) but for generating ideas dialectically, through the many relations a grammar makes possible” (1995).
Viewing grammar as a tool in the writing kit reinforces its placement in the middle school curriculum. In fact, it can also place grammar in the elementary school classroom through this approach. According to researchers Invernizzi, Abouzeid and Bloodgood, using a very similar technique called Word Study in the late elementary classroom leads to an increased awareness of how language works – the very meta-cognition I questioned earlier (1997). Word Study is employed in the integrated language arts class and teaches students to develop hypotheses about grammar and meaning through spelling – thereby learning spelling as they go along as well. Such an integrated course can work, then, at an age younger than the 11-14 age bracket.
The question is how to go about integrating grammar into the writing and reading instruction. It is easy to do so in an incomplete way – as through marking every error in every composition. Brosnahan and Neulieb remark,
If grammar instruction has been used only to punish students for their language choices, then certainly they are right to want to avoid grammar. This fear of punishment must be replaced with an anticipation of success and enjoyment if future teachers are to be successful in their grammar classrooms. (1995, p. 212)
The clichéd reference to bleeding papers highlights the usual methods of teachers who incoporate grammar into the writing curriculum without bothering to restructure either plan of action. I saw a good deal of this at GMS.
Luckily, there are examples from numerous sources detailing how to accomplish this transition in thinking about and teaching grammar. For instance, Brosnahan and Neulieb offer this fundamental but closely personal account of how they begin changing their students’ perceptions about this much-maligned field:
The course begins by redefining grammar. Students’ original view of grammar is that it is a collection of do’s and don’ts for usage. We call these “rules” applied grammar and tell students that we will worry about these issues at the end of the course. In re-defining grammar first as unconscious grammar, our objective is to persuade them that they “know” grammar and to give them confidence in generating, analyzing, and make judgments about language data. (p. 209)
Even by the very act of questioning and reframing what “grammar” might mean, this assignment begins to build the concepts of constructivism and application that have proven so much more meaningful to these growing students.
Activities and Methods
In her book In the Middle, Nancie Atwell, following this belief about grammar, has no entry in her index for “grammar.” She lumps tenses, sentence parts and punctuation into a larger list of “conventions” of the English language, implying both the arbitrary and inherent aspects of grammar. She says “We do our students a big favor by approaching rules and forms not as minutiae to be mastered, but as a means of helping them make their writing look and sound as they wish it to and in order that readers will engage with a text and take it seriously” (1998, p. 185). Step number one for Atwell is establishing that each student is a writer engaged in important acts of communication.
From that point, she “chip[s] away, one at a time, at the ten or so conventions [her] kids violate most frequently” through individual work and tracking, independent word study and imbedded lessons she calls minilessons (p. 189). These minilessons usually include a visual and verbal description of the background info needed, an explanation of the current rule or whatnot, and a few examples. Then they write a few, and then they share. The process takes about fifteen minutes, and the students are back to writing and using what they’ve just learned in their work. The teacher can then look for and mark the conventions just covered in the compositions, rather than penalize for ideas not even introduced yet. These conventions are marked last, after the content is set. She goes so far as to recommend not even writing on the students’ work.
Jim Burke agrees that grammar editing should come towards the end of the student’s writing process. He also agrees on how grammar should be incorporated into English instruction: “If, however, students learn elements of grammar in the context of expanding their options as writers, it [grammar] has a place. It also has its place in the curriculum as a tool for thinking about relationships, patterns, and logic” (2003, pp. 126-127). His strong statement, “we must return to the notion of grammar as a way of thinking” along with these other corresponding views demonstrates how reluctantly American classrooms are incorporating this theory of integration. One recent reason, no doubt, is the government emphasis on testing. But Burke provides a means for using this trend – by using the tests as examples of language that must be decoded properly.
Burke’s version of minilessons are perhaps somewhat more complicated than most middle-schoolers would appreciate, but the process is still a good one, and similiar to Atwell’s. He introduces the concept with in-depth discussions about sample paragraphs with and without the grammar convention, and follows with short fill-in exercises for homework, but only after emphasizing the process for creating the change. Next he puts more examples on the overhead, especially ones from current events, the texts currently being read or other texts from multiple disciplines. For homework, he assigns a more independent worksheet that requires fluency in the skill. The handouts are reviewed the next day, acting as an assessment tool of the class’s progress. The format the activities can take in this mini-course varies greatly, and Burke provides quite a few suggestions on pages 132 to 136 of his book, including using student texts and identifying patterns.
NCTE’s Guideline, already referenced above, is another great source for practical suggestions for successfully teaching grammar in this mode. They describe four ways teachers can approach grammar instruction: focusing on building phrases, focusing on diagrams, focusing on metaphors and focusing on the verb of the sentence (2003). They also suggest, along with Noguchi, helping the students “how to apply [grammar] not only to their writing but also their reading and to their other language arts activities.” The students cannot be expected to make these sorts of links on their own – discovering how to use knowledge from one area in another is not a natural act for any learner.
NCTE also suggests incorporating the varying dialects and languages sure to be found in the classroom into the discussion of language, instead of limiting all thought to Standard English. They recommend letting students work with “authentic texts” as frequently as possible. The guide lists several examples of how to work easily with grammar, including the use of “frames,” or test sentences – just as I had done at GMS. I also received validation for my use of pronoun substitution in checking for subject-verb agreement. On the paragraph level, the guide suggests instructing the students that the subjects of sentences in a paragraph should all be related and paint a similar picture.
Generally, as O’Hare determined long ago (1973), as long as a class has a comfortable environment, one in which they can genuinely see themselves as learners welcome to make mistakes, and a process of grammar learning that makes them play around with the language, that class will succeed in learning grammar to the point of helping them better their writing skills.
The Less Ideal
I have still not answered whether this view point, these strategies, could work effectively at a school like GMS. Does the cultural difference alter the learning dynamic so much as to render this imbedded grammar useless? Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, only small amounts of research have looked at predominantly Black classrooms. Delpit’s work truly questions whether integrated grammar, like the Whole Language that she critiques, would not also fail these students. The best way to know, however, is to study. In the meantime, each child is treated according to his or her needs and abilities.
Conclusions and Resolutions
So, I cannot absolutely answer whether I was doing the right thing at GMS – certainly not without proper data – but I can know that the basic structure of my thoughts about how to make grammar more accessible and simply easier were tending toward a useful path. Grammar should be taught in the context of writing and reading. Students should be able to spend time investigating how their different actions can alter a sentence. Students should be spared the arcane rules and given clearer and more general useful strategies to work with language, like sentence frames.
It seems clear, now, how grammar instruction can work best in the ideal classroom. I cannot know how it will work in the real classroom until I am there, but the activities and strategies provided by Atwell and Burke among others will assist me in fitting my teaching to my students. With a firm understanding of the need to put aside Formal grammar instruction in favor of integrating grammar into daily lessons about reading and writing – or as NCTE puts it, “lots of discussion of language, along with lots of reading and lots of writing” – I know that I can help students learn, even with myriads of tests waiting to determine whether Johnny can tell the subject from the verb.
Atwell, N. (1998). In the Middle. 2nd edition. Heinemann.
Blakesley, D. (1995). Reconceptualizing grammar as an aspect of rhetorical invention. In S.
Hunter and R. Wallace (Eds.), The Place of Grammar in Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Publishers/Heinemann.
Brosnahan, I. and Neuleib, J. (1995). Teaching grammar affectively: Learning to like grammar.
In S. Hunter and R. Wallace (Eds.), The Place of Grammar in Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Publishers/Heinemann.
Burke, J. (2003). The English Teacher’s Companion. 2nd edition. Portsmouth, New
Delpit, L. D. (1996). Other People’s Children. The New Press.
Glenn, C. (1995). When grammar was a language art. In S. Hunter and R. Wallace (Eds.), The
Place of Grammar in Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Publishers/Heinemann.
Guasti, M. T. (2002). Language Acquisition. Cambridge, Massachussetts: MIT Press.
Invernizzi, M. A., Abouzeid, M. P., and Bloodgood, J. W. (1997). Integrated word study:
Spelling, grammar, and meaning in the language arts classroom. Language Arts, 74(3), 185-192.
NCTE’s Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. NCTE Guideline. (n.d.) Some
questions and answers about grammar. Retreived December 2, 2004 from http://www.ncte.org/about/over/positions/category/gram/107646.htm.
O’Hare, F. (1973). Sentence Combining: Improving Student Writing without Formal Grammar
Instruction. Urabana, Illinois: NCTE.
R. R. Noguchi. (1991). Grammar and the Teaching of Writing. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.