Teaching these days is tough. Even before Covid, fewer people were entering the teaching profession. In one survey from 2019, half of teachers said they would not want their children to follow in their footsteps. And with technology and shorter attention spans competiting with your grammar lessons, the temptation to avoid teaching it is understandable. So how do you get students to like grammar lessons?
The key to have students like learning grammar is to look at it from the student’s point of view. Kids want to learn how to do stuff, so focus your instruction on what they can do with their newfound grammar knowledge. They might not come to fall in love with grammar, but at least they won’t be dreading grammar lessons.
#1 Teach Students Doing, Not Defining
Elementary and middle school kids want to know what to do with grammar, but we have been trained to teach grammar through definitions. So we start teaching our students definitions, such as what is a noun, what is a verb, and so on. Then the students get a worksheet (or online lesson) and are asked to identify them.
There are two problems with this approach.
First, what have the students done? Identified words that might be nouns. However, they haven’t used the words. Instead of an identification activity, how about a practical activity? For example, give students a quick definition of what a noun is and ask students to write a sentence using at least three nouns:
The dog ran into the yard and chased the ball.
Now if the student wrote this sentence
The black dog ran into the yard and chased the orange ball.
Then you can begin a discussion on why black and orange are not nouns but instead describe the noun. Because the students did something, you now have an opportunity to define a grammatical term. What you have your students do next is based on your goals and how much time you can spend on grammar. It shouldn’t take students too long to write another sentence or two and then label the nouns.
We teachers often fall into the mistake of thinking that students don’t already know how to use the language. But this cannot be right since your students are capable of expressing themselves. By respecting their knowledge, we make it easier for students to like grammar.
I mentioned the definition approach has two problems. The second is that our definitions are often incomplete or misleading. A good example is how we define noun–person, place, or thing. However, this definition leaves out an important type of noun. Freedom is an idea, and it is used as a noun, unless you write sentences such as this
I freedomed my way home.
There are two weaknesses to this approach. First, non-native speakers will need additional instruction. That would be true regardless, and until they learn more English, grammar lessons would not be much help anyway. Second, some argue that my not teaching grammar, we make it harder for our students to learn a foreign language.
#2 Let Students Start Sentences With And
Sometimes we ask students to do something and make it sound like a rule. One of the most common ones is “Don’t start a sentence with and.” This “rule” has been around since I went to grade school, and students still hear it today.
Do we want students to begin every sentence with a conjunction such as and? Of course not. But it is also not right to present students with our classroom guidelines or expectations and make them seem like a rule. Teaching our style guidelines as though they are rules will not make students like grammar when they learn something they thought was a rule isn’t. It will only confuse them.
So how do we get students away from starting sentences with and? One way is to have them experience it. For your read aloud, pick a book they know but havnen’t read in a while. Then add and or but before every sentence. Sooner or later a kid will raise a hand and say it doesn’t sound right. Now you can begin a discussion about why you want them to vary how they start their sentences.
Depending on their age, now is a perfect time to sneak in a comma rule–the one about joining two sentences with a conjunction. I wouldn’t recommend doing to kids just learning to write. Since you are using a book to model the expectation, base your guideline on the book. If the book has few compound sentences, they might not be ready to confidently write them.
#3 Use Direct Instruction, but Make it Short
I am a big fan of student-led discovery instruction, but direct instruction has its place in the classroom. There are times when we need to use time more effectively. Direct instruction can be more effective but only if we keep it short. Research studies say that to calculate attention span, multiply a kid’s age by two or three. A ten year old has an attention span of 20 to 30 minutes. You are not alone if you don’t trust those numbers.
If, however, one defines attention span as how much time a student can spend on a task, then a ten year old can handle a 20 to 30 minute grammar lesson. But how much of that time should be spent on direct instruction?
More than 25% of that time seems like a lot, doesn’t it? So how can grammar be taught in such short time? Here are a few tips:
- Build on something that was taught earlier. For example, once students can identify nouns, a short lesson on the types of nouns could give students deeper grammar knowledge.
- Teach in part. If you decide you want a lesson on verb tense, make it be about the three key tenses and save the past and perfect present for another day. Or if you want to teach basic forms of verbs, focus on three instead of six.
#4 Don’t Assume Students Always Enjoy Learning Through Games
Gamification is a trend in education that seems like it is here to stay. And I love gamification. For example, Mission US is an excellent resource for teaching American history. Whoo’s Reading has gamification features while also having students track their books and take quizzes. If you have never heard of Classcraft as a behavior management tool, check it out.
However, not every subject should be gamified. Good grammar instruction is about doing. And sometimes clicking randomly on answers is what the students are doing. So if they make a mistake, are they going to read the explanation? Will the explanation make sense? Will it be correct?
Remember that not all kids learn the same way, and some need variety. Use some games, but keep the grammar focus on using grammar to improve their writing.
If you have tips for teaching grammar, leave them in the comments.