Click play below to hear mistakes to avoid to improve grammar with student writing:
When I was in the classroom, grammar was not something that I particularly enjoyed teaching, or even thought I taught well for that matter. Then, after a few years, I realized I was making some major mistakes with my grammar instruction, student practice, and application. Once I made a few key changes, it not only improved my students’ grammar skills, but their writing as well. In today’s episode, I’m sharing what you need to avoid doing and what to do instead regarding grammar with student writing.
I found that my students could master grammar practice and assessments, but never transferred the skills to their writing. I decided I needed to make some changes, which actually came from a surprising resource: the standards. After looking at what they actually wanted from my students, I made 3 important changes when it came to my grammar instruction. With each that I ask you to avoid, I provide an alternative on what you should do instead in order to see grammar with student writing improve.
It can be frustrating when you teach a concept that doesn’t transfer into the student’s application of the skill. I felt that frustration, so I made necessary changes when it came to teaching grammar. By making these simple tweaks to my instruction, my students were able to grasp the skills and transfer those skills to their writing. I know that grammar with student writing will also improve in your students, too!
In this episode on improving grammar with student writing, I share:
- 3 grammar ideas you want to avoid and what to do instead
- How grammar skills aren’t transferring to student writing
- Authentic and effective grammar activities to use with your students
- Why reviewing the standards was the key to improving my students’ writing
- Opportunities to embed or practice grammar authentically in your class
- Sentence Writing Routine Resource: Free Sample
- Sentence Writing Routine Resource: TPT Store
- Sign up for my Private Podcast: Confident Writer Systems Series
- Check out the Stellar Literacy Collective Membership
- Free Literacy Block Workshop
- If you’re enjoying this podcast, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts!
Related episodes and blog posts:
- Episode 131, Practice Sentence Deconstruction [Small Steps to S.O.R. Part 2]
- Episode 131, The #1 Mistake Upper Elementary Writing Teachers Make
- Episode 101, A Literacy Routine for Building Students’ Sentence Structure Skills
- Episode 87, Breaking Down the Elements of Language Comprehension (and Practical Implementation Ideas!)
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Welcome to the Stellar Teacher Podcast! We believe teaching literacy is a skill. It takes a lot of time, practice, and effort to be good at it. This podcast will show you how to level up your literacy instruction and make a massive impact with your students, all while having a little fun!
Your host, Sara Marye, is a literacy specialist passionate about helping elementary teachers around the world pass on their love of reading to their students. She has over a decade of experience working as a classroom teacher and school administrator. Sara has made it her mission to create high-quality no-fluff resources and lesson ideas that are both meaningful and engaging for young readers.
Each week, Sara and her guests will share their knowledge, tips, and tricks so that you can feel confident in your ability to transform your students into life-long readers.
Hey, there, Happy Monday. Welcome back. I’m your host, Sara Marye, and I am so happy that you are joining me today.
So I am always curious for you as a teacher, how often do you think back to your own elementary experience or your experience with education? And how often does that inform the way that you either think about teaching or the way that you currently teach? And I often think back to and reflect on so many of my learning experiences as a student, not only in elementary, but middle school, high school, college even.
And I have some very vivid memories of my sixth grade year. I had a wonderful sixth grade teacher, I remember she read so many great books out loud to us every day after lunch, we had 30 minutes of a read aloud from a chapter book. And I just loved everything she read to us.
But I remember in sixth grade having this massive grammar textbook, we had a very specific textbook for grammar. It was small and narrow. So like not the size of a full textbook, but it was very, very thick. And I just remember, it was very awkward to try to fit it in my desk. And I didn’t like this textbook at all. And I remember everyday we had a grammar lesson. And it was probably 20 or 30 minutes. And we worked our way through that entire textbook that year. We made it all the way to the end.
And I remember we had worksheets, and we had practice questions. And we were underlining things and identifying things and circling things, and matching things. And I think at one point, we were even diagramming sentences. And I remember taking tests that were just focused on our grammar rules. And even though I didn’t necessarily love grammar, I actually did really well in the subject.
I always got an A, because we had a separate grade for grammar. And I was a good student, I knew how to study. So I actually usually, you know, Aced all of my grammar worksheets and tests, not to brag or anything. But my writing my actual student writing in sixth grade, and even probably well into high school, it was awful. I was a horrible writer.
And you know, I had no problem being able to identify a fragment or a run on sentence on a worksheet that I could do. But it didn’t stop me from using run ons or fragments in my own writing. And I could name and define all the parts of speech. But I definitely did not use adjectives and adverbs correctly in my own writing.
And my own experience with grammar in sixth grade, you know, doing very well in these isolated grammar skills, I think was very similar to my students experience with it when I first started teaching. They did great during my grammar lessons, but they still struggled to apply them to their writing.
And I think that’s probably pretty normal. I’m sure you’ve had some experience with that, where you teach a grammar concept, but then, you know, your students get 100% on a worksheet, or they do really well, but yet they forget to actually transfer that to their writing. And I think in general, just teaching grammar is hard. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today. So this we are headed somewhere here.
And I think there’s a lot of reasons why teaching grammar is hard. I mean, first of all, there are so many very specific grammar rules. And there’s also so many exceptions to the rules. And I think usually as teachers, you know, we don’t at least I didn’t, I did not automatically know all of the grammar rules I was supposed to teach in fourth grade.
And I remember having to do a lot of research and looking things up to make sure that I was explaining things like prepositional phrases and coordinating conjunctions correctly. You know, it’s like, okay, I’m, I’m using these things correctly when I’m writing, but I don’t know how to actually communicate and teach students about these concepts. You know, so often we teach grammar lessons to our students, and yet they still struggle to apply those concepts we teach to their writing.
So our grammar instruction isn’t necessarily resulting in our students becoming better, stronger, more proficient writers and I think that part of that is is that there is this disconnect with how we teach, and also what we expect as the outcome from grammar.
And I don’t know if you’ve made this realization yet, but one of the things that really took me a while to realize when I was looking at our grammar standards, because I would always zoom in, and I used to be a teacher in Texas, and I loved the Texas TEKS, because they have this nice little checklist, like here’s all the standards you need to teach. But the standards don’t expect students to memorize grammar rules or be able to regurgitate them, the standards expect students to be able to apply these rules to their writing.
You know, if you look at the common core standards, the header above all of the specific skills, it says, be able to demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking. And then it goes on to list out all of the specific conventions and grammar and usage rules. And the Texas TEKS. It says the student uses the writing process recursively to compose multiple texts that are legible, and uses appropriate conventions, then it goes on to list all of these grammar rules.
So with all of the standards, the important thing is not that our students know and can memorize these rules. But the important thing is that they can apply them to their writing. And I feel like I missed that for a long time, I was like so focused on getting them to memorize rules and being able to just like understand the concepts, and we didn’t spend as much time actually transferring it to their writing.
And I think unfortunately, the way that our educational system has sort of traditionally taught grammar, it doesn’t actually contribute to student’s success with applying grammar rules to their writing.
So we want to change that, obviously, we want to be really intentional about how we teach grammar. And you know, teach it in a way to where it will lead to an improvement in students actual writing. So there are three things that I think are pretty common with grammar instruction. And I actually want to encourage you to try to avoid these three things and do something different.
And of course, when I tell you what to avoid, I’m also going to share with you what to do instead. And I’ve got some very specific concrete examples I’m going to share with you. So let’s talk about the three things you want to try to avoid when teaching grammar this year.
So the first thing you want to try to avoid doing is teaching grammar in isolation. So this means that we want to avoid having things like our writing block, and then our grammar block. And this is because research has really shown that teaching grammar skills in isolation doesn’t actually improve student’s writing. And I personally experienced that. And I saw that evidence of that in my students writing.
And again, remember, if you look at the standards, the goal of grammar instruction is for students to apply it to their speaking and writing. Which means we really need to be intentional about mentioning, discussing, teaching and practicing these grammar rules when our students are speaking and writing.
So we don’t want our students to think of grammar as something that is only important during our grammar lesson. Which means that we really need to make our entire literacy block, you know, our grammar lesson or our grammar time. Basically, we want to try to avoid teaching grammar as a separate subject.
So what do we want to do instead? So instead of teaching grammar as something by itself, we want to naturally embed it in the context of students writing, and not necessarily just our formal writing instruction, you know, when students are working on an expository paragraph, or essay or narrative, paragraph or essay, but really, anytime students are writing, I always like to remind teachers that anytime students have their pencil to the paper, you have an opportunity to teach writing, which also means that you have an opportunity to teach grammar to your students.
So I am towards the end of this episode, I’m going to share some specific examples that show you and give you ideas of what this could look like. So that way you can understand it’s like okay, well, if I’m not teaching grammar, in isolation, when am I teaching it? So I am going to share some specific examples at the end. But the first thing avoid teaching grammar in an isolated grammar block.
The second thing that we want to avoid is to avoid explicitly teaching every grammar skill in a formal whole group lesson. Now, I’m not saying that you want to avoid explicitly teaching every grammar skill. I’m just saying that not every grammar skill that’s listed out in your state standards needs to have a full lesson with an introduction and a teacher model and guided practice and student practice and closure and assessment and an entire week of your instructional focus.
You know, the main reason why I don’t think that this is necessary is because students don’t need to have that level of instruction in order for them to achieve mastery of some grammar skills. You know, especially if you are feeling short on time If you really only want to use your instructional time for things that are going to be really high impact, and really move the needle forward on your student’s growth, and the reality of it is, is that there are some grammar skills that aren’t necessarily going to be really high impact on your students becoming stronger writers.
And there’s also a lot of grammar skills that your students we we tend to as teachers want to spend more time on the grammar skills that our students actually already have a pretty good foundation of.
So for example, I think it’s important that we remember that grammar skills usually build on each other year after year. And if you have not, I know it takes a little bit extra time. But it can be really insightful, to go back and look at what grammar skills are expected from first grade all the way to fifth grade. And just to see what is the progression look like.
So, for example, if you look at the language Common Core State Standards from first grade to second grade, in first grade, students are expected to capitalize dates and names of people. And in second grade, students are expected to capitalize holidays, product names, and Geographic Names. And in third grade, students are expected to capitalize words in titles.
And in fourth grade, they’re expected to use correct capitalization, and it doesn’t list out anything specific. And then in fifth grade, it doesn’t even mention anything about capitalization. And it is just assumed that they will be able to use correct capitalization. And it’s not listed as a separate sort of sub skill in the language standards.
So really, by the time a student gets to fourth and fifth grade, they are fully aware of what capitalization is, now, are they always using it correctly? No. But just because a student isn’t using something all of the time, doesn’t mean that we necessarily need to explicitly teach it in depth.
You know, we don’t have to spend a week teaching formal grammar lessons on capitalization in fourth and fifth grade. And we don’t need to spend time reviewing all of these capitalization rules whole group. And that’s because our students already know this information.
The problem is, is that they’re not applying it to their actual writing. So what we really need to do is we really need to give students plenty of reminders and opportunities for them to apply their knowledge of capitalization to their writing. So we don’t need to teach capitalization like it’s a new skill, we just need to remind students that this is something that they do.
So a couple of things that you could do, you know, maybe you give them a reference sheet that does list out all of the capitalization rules and remind them Hey, in first grade, second grade, and third grade, these are things that you learned. You know, when you’re reading aloud or working with students in a small group, maybe you point out some of those very specific, you know, capitalization rules, you show them that we capitalize, you know, titles, or we capitalize proper nouns or dates or holidays. And you highlight that in the text and remind them of that rule.
And before students begin writing, whether it’s a summary, or a reading response, or even something in science and social studies, you remind them of the relevant capitalization rule, so they’re reminded before they begin writing, it’s like, oh, yeah, I am supposed to capitalize. You know, and maybe you even give students something like a highlighter, or you prompt them to underline or circle words that need to be capitalized on a few of their writing assignments.
So we don’t necessarily need to spend more time teaching capitalization in order for our students to master it. But what we do need to do is we do need to be really intentional and spend more time about giving our students opportunities to practice capitalization in their real actual writing, rather than a worksheet.
Which leads me into the third thing that I think we should avoid. I’m not going to say we should avoid grammar worksheets altogether. But I am going to say we want to be realistic, and we need to not expect grammar worksheets to lead to mastery, because they don’t.
I know I might get some pushback on this because I get it grammar worksheets are easy. They are quick to plan and prep. I used them when I was in the classroom with my students. And I think part of the appeal for teachers to want to use a grammar worksheet in addition to the fact that they’re quick and easy to plan and prep. But also they’re aligned to the specific skills that we feel like we need to teach.
So we look at our standards and we say, Okay, I need to teach my students about the different types of conjunctions. Here’s the worksheet that’s going to teach them about the different types of conjunction so I’m making progress on the standards.
But grammar worksheets don’t actually work and they don’t help our students become stronger writers. And like I said, I used them when I was in the classroom towards the end of my teaching career, I stopped using them because I’m like, these are not they’re not working, because I would get so frustrated. You know, I would teach a grammar skill. And my students would practice it with a worksheet and then I would give them another worksheet. either for morning work or homework that would spiral through the previously taught skills, because I didn’t want them to forget anything.
And yet, my students still struggled with writing, and they struggled to apply what we talked about in grammar to their actual writing. They were unable to apply that transfer. So instead of using grammar worksheets, so much, and really, instead of expecting grammar worksheets to lead to mastery, what we really want to do is we really want to look for more authentic opportunities so we can focus on explicit grammar practice.
And like I said, I’m going to share with you a few really practical examples of what this could look like. And these examples actually tie in all the three points that I’m making in this episode. So they’ll help you see how you can, you know, avoid teaching grammar in isolation, they will help you understand how you don’t have to necessarily explicitly teach every grammar skill as a whole group lesson. And they also give you ideas on how you can focus on grammar without a worksheet. So hopefully, they helped give you an idea for what your grammar instruction could look like.
So first of all, one really easy thing to do is to give students really explicit grammar focus, or grammar expectations for their own writing. So like I said, anytime students are writing you know that anytime their pencils to the paper, you have an opportunity to help them grow as a writer, and you have an opportunity to highlight or focus a specific grammar skill.
So whether it is you know, they’re writing a response to a science or social studies question, or they’re writing a reflection for the end of the day, or they’re writing a letter to someone, you can focus on grammar.
So let’s say your students are getting ready to write a summary for something that they’ve read. And you can simply say something like, when we write, we always start our sentences with a capital letter. And we end our sentence with correct punctuation. And if we are writing about a specific person or place, we need to make sure that we give that proper noun and a capital letter as well.
So that short little reminder is going to take you less than a minute. And you are clearly reminding your students of, you know, key punctuation and capitalization rules, which means you don’t need to spend 20 or 30 minutes explicitly teaching these to your students.
And anytime students are writing, you can prompt them to notice something in their own writing, it doesn’t have to just be capitalization or punctuation. You know, you could tell them, I want you to pick out one sentence that you wrote. And I want you to underline the noun phrase in that sentence, or you can tell students, you know, I want you to look at your writing. And I want you to circle one adjective that tells you know, how many or what kind?
And then can you give me an additional synonym for that adjective, you could tell your students, you know, look at a simple sentence in your writing, can you expand that sentence and turn it either into a compound or a complex sentence. So while they’re completing an assignment, you’re also prompting them and giving them an opportunity to practice and apply some of these key grammar skills that we know are important.
You can also have students underline a circle box, you know, or do really anything that highlights the application of these grammar skills in their own writing. And if they start to notice it in their own writing, they’re going to be much more likely to replicate it and practice it.
And the other kind of cool thing about this, you know, if students are like, wait a minute, I don’t see an adjective in my writing, or I don’t see any capital letters that I can circle or highlight, then it’s like, okay, we need to fix that we need to go back and add some of these things in, so it really helps them be a lot more reflective of their own writing.
So let me quickly give you some other specific examples on how you can easily address the language arts, aka grammar standards, you know, without a worksheet, and without necessarily doing it in very specific isolation.
So let’s say you want your students to focus on the language arts standard for Common Core 4.2 B, which says Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence, very important role we want them to know. So one of the things that you could do to support the standard is to incorporate intentional sentence writing activities or tasks into your writing block or your literacy block.
And a really easy way to do that is to use our weekly sentence writing routine. I did an episode on it back in episode number 101. I know a lot of teachers in our audience are using this routine. It’s a part of the Stellar Literacy Collective and we also have it on TPT. So we’ll link to both of those in the show notes, along with the podcast episode.
But this routine incorporates a wide range of sentence level activities or sentence writing tasks. And one of the tasks in this routine is to get students to practice combining two sentences. So if you’re wanting to practice the standard, use a comma before a coordinating conjunction, you know, when you get to that day and the weekly routine, before students complete it, you’re going to take an extra two to three minutes before students complete that writing task, you’re going to remind them that one way they can combine a sentence is by using a comma, and a coordinating conjunction.
You might quickly review a list of what the coordinating conjunctions are. And maybe you show them an anchor chart that has that. And then you’re gonna have them practice combining sentences with the example in the sentence writing routine. And the cool thing is, is if you’re using our sentence writing routine, then every week, your students are going to get actual writing practice applying the skill of using a comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence.
So this means you don’t ever have to give them a separate grammar worksheet on coordinating conjunctions and compound sentences. Because they’re doing it they’re actually writing and getting practice doing it on a weekly basis.
So another example, let’s say you want to focus on the language standard in fourth grade, which is 4.1 E. And that is to form and use prepositional phrases. So one thing that you could do is to have your students practice expanding their sentence to include a prepositional phrase. And again, expanding sentences is one of the sentence writing tasks that we have in our weekly routine.
But this is honestly something that you can have your students do, anytime that they are writing, it can be so helpful to you know, have them write a response, and then tell them okay, we’re going to go back, and we’re going to expand that sentence. And we’re going to add some more details. And one of the things that you could do is tell them that we’re going to expand the sentence by including a prepositional phrase.
And so you’re going to tell them what a prepositional phrase is, you’re gonna model you’re gonna give them an example, real quick, again, you’re not taking a full, you know, 10-20 minute lesson, we’re talking one to two minutes just to remind them and show them. And one of the things that you could teach them, or let them know is that prepositional phrases can express time.
So you can even have your students do something like at the end of each day, or at the end of each week, you could ask your students to write a sentence that talks about something that they did during the week. So you could tell them, you know, they can share anything, the only thing that they need to make sure that they’re doing is including a prepositional phrase that expresses time.
So your students could write something like, on Monday, we had gym. We listened to our teacher read until noon. I had to finish my science project before I could go out to recess. So in all of those sentences, there’s a prepositional phrase that expresses time students could write their sentence, underline the prepositional phrase, it takes, you no time, or you know, a very small amount of time, we’re talking two to three minutes to do an activity like this, but it’s very focused.
They’re getting a reminder of what a prepositional phrase is, you’re giving them a few examples. And then they’re getting an opportunity to write about it in a way that makes sense for them. And again, you’re not for this specific lesson. If you’re talking about prepositional phrases that express time, you’re not teaching them everything they need to know about prepositional phrases, or giving them a long list of prepositional phrases, you’re giving them one little small tidbit that they can immediately apply and practice with their actual writing.
So another example, if you want students to focus on the language arts standard 5.2 D, which is a fifth grade standard use underlining quotation marks or italics to indicate the titles of work. So this is something that you could address or remind your students of, if they are getting ready to prepare a book talk, or if they have to mention the title in their summary.
And you could even tell them, Okay, this week, I want you to mention the title in your text anytime you’re doing a reading response. And then you can tell them and the reason why we’re going to do this is because we’re going to practice indicating the title of a text. And you can do that by underlining using quotation marks join italic.
So, you know, before students actually start writing, you’re going to do a quick little mini mini mini lesson. Again, this is going to take you maybe two minutes, you’re going to quickly tell them the rule, give them an example, maybe show them a chart model a little bit. But then students are going to every time they’re doing a reading response throughout the week, they’re going to practice including the title of the text, and then they get an opportunity to practice whether it’s underlining using quotation marks or italics.
And I think the important thing is to recognize that you don’t need to do a really long separate lesson where students are getting 15 practice questions related to the grammar skill. You know, it’s like, we can embed this into the things that we’re doing and students can get quick practice all throughout the year, and they don’t need to have separate isolated worksheets that give them you know, like I said, 1520 practice questions related to a skill because that’s not going to actually help them apply it to their actual writing.
So hopefully these ideas and examples, give you some ideas for you know how to step away from relying so much on teaching grammar in isolation and using grammar worksheets.
And if this is something that you’re like, Okay, I get it, I want to do more of this this next year, I think one of the best things that you can do is take a little bit of time, read through your standards for language or grammar, and just pick one or two skills that you think your students do need to practice. And then think about, okay, when and how can I incorporate these into their natural writing?
You know, even giving yourself a reminder that it’s like, okay, we’re going to focus on this specific skill. And I’m going to mention it during math, I’m going to mention it during science and social studies, I’m going to mention it when they’re doing their, you know, daily reflection, and I’m going to remind them to use this in their actual writing. Because again, the goal of our grammar instruction is not for students to memorize these language skills, or do really well on isolated tests. But the goal is for them to actually use these language skills in their writing and their speaking.
So I know teaching grammar is tough. But hopefully this episode does give you some ideas for how you can be just a little more effective with your grammar instruction this year. And let me quickly recap.
So instead of teaching grammar in isolation, we want to be more intentional about incorporating it into our actual writing instruction. And really, anytime students have their pencil to the paper, we want to take that as an opportunity to help them work on some grammar skills.
The second thing we want to remember is that instead of explicitly teaching every single grammar skill, as a separate lesson, we want to look for opportunities where we can just teach, practice, discuss and reinforce grammar into our current reading and writing and not having to take additional time away to explicitly teach something because it can be easily practice and embedded into what we’re already doing.
And then the third thing, you know, instead of relying so much on grammar worksheets, especially if we’re trying to get our students to master something, we do want to look for those more authentic opportunities for grammar practice.
So hopefully, this gives you something just to think about this next year as you get started with your grammar instruction. If that sentence writing routine sounds like something that would be helpful for you, definitely check out the link in the show notes.
I always love hearing from you. So if you’ve got questions about anything we talked about today, don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Instagram, you can find me at @thestellarteachercompany. And of course, I hope you have a stellar rest of your week. And I’ll see you back here next Monday.