What are the Best Methods for Teaching Grammar?

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a teacher lament about their students’ grammar issues in their writing, I’d be a very rich woman.  Chances are, you’re emphatically nodding your head at this, thinking about all the times you’ve read your students’ work and have wanted to cry because of all the grammatical issues.  Chances are, you’ve stumbled across this blog post because you are desperately searching for methods for teaching grammar that’ll truly work.  

So let’s dig in!

For decades, we’ve known that isolated skill practice like Daily Oral Language and worksheets will do nothing to improve students’ application of grammar in their writing. 

As far back as 1985, NCTE wrote a position statement about it.  Way back then, these literacy experts said that “[t]he use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.” 

But I know what you’re saying.  You’re saying there’s SO MUCH to teach, how can we possibly avoid isolated skill work?  

What methods for teaching grammar will move the needle?

I promise I’ll share.  But first, let’s clarify a bit.

Grammar refers to the rules around the use of punctuation, spelling, and the way the words are arranged in a sentence to make meaningful sense.  This is where semantics really matters.  Punctuation, another way meaning is conveyed, can fall into this category, as with my use of the comma in this very sentence.  Or this common example seen everywhere on the Internet:  

Let’s eat Grandma!

Let’s eat, Grandma!

Spelling falls under grammar as well, because the correct spelling of words can often change the meaning, as in bare vs bear and your vs you’re. 

Syntax is grammar’s offspring–is all about word order and how those words relate to each other.  It’s a part of grammar.  Confusing, I know.  At the end of the day, we just want our kids to do it well and walk away with coherent, well-written work, right?  

So what are the best methods for teaching grammar that you can use tomorrow?

Before you can begin, you have to first determine what your kids can really do.  But you aren’t going to know that with just a writing sample.  The reason? 

Cognitive load. 

If you’ve ever missed a stop sign, driven past a well-known turn, or hit a bump too hard when driving, you know cognitive load.  You know what you’re supposed to do in every one of these instances, and you’ve done them correctly thousands of times.  But your mind is so full, you slip up.  

Kids are the same way.  When they write, they have to think about what they’re saying, what they’re going to say next, the word choice that will best say it, spelling, spacing, and letter formation.  And often, they’re writing, writing, writing, so these small things get missed.  Especially if they aren’t an ingrained habit. 

What's the best method for teaching grammar?  By teaching it within the context of real writing. It's the only way to make it really stick!
The act of writing is a big cognitive load for kids. Image via Wavebreak Media.

What to do?

It takes a lot of repetition for it to become a habit, but the fix is simple.  When you take a writing sample, have kids stop and reread their work out loud to themselves.  This can be just a whisper, but they have to hear it.  More often than not, they notice missed words, missing word endings, and many times, missed punctuation. 

Have them go through it a second time, again saying it out loud.  Even have them run their finger under the words–no matter what age–as they do this.  Nine times out of ten, this will help them see where they’ve missed punctuation and capitals (like that %$&# simple word “I” that they never capitalize), and they’ll be able to fix it on the spot.

Now you have a piece of writing that really represents what they can actually do–not what they produce when their cognitive load is heavy.  

This is when you can take stock of what kids are really doing.  (You also, by the way, now have a piece of data that you can use to remind your students of what they are perfectly capable of doing.) My bet is that most of the time, grammar standards like these, from my own state standards, are already in place:  

Use frequently occurring nouns (compound); distinguish between and use frequently occurring pronouns (relative), adverbs (relative), verbs (helping and linking), and proper adjectives
Distinguish between and use comparative and superlative adverbs; g. identify and use prepositional phrases; h. use frequently occurring nouns, verbs (regular and irregular), and simple verb tenses

It may be that your students do need more explicit teaching of even these easier concepts.  With the kind of writing that kids typically do each day–texting, emojis as words (or inappropriate code phrases), Instagram and Tik Tok comments consisting of very few, very informal, words, they are not used to the kind of formal writing we’re looking for.  They have not had much practice.  That’s ok–meet them where they are.

But it may also be that they already know how to do this.  

Now that you’ve gotten a clear picture of what your students can truly do, you can begin to teach what they actually need–a much more efficient use of your limited time.

One of the best methods for teaching grammar?

Through using students’ own work.  

Put a section of student work that needs fixing under the document camera (names covered, of course–or retype what they have exactly as is to preserve anonymity).  Read that section as is, so your students can hear it, and allow them to share why it’s not right.  This is practice for listening to the words read aloud in order to catch errors.  From there, explicitly show your students why it’s incorrect, and use a post-it to model and explain the fix– all right under the document camera.   

This sort of method is best because it’s not isolated skill work.  It’s in the context of real student writing.  And because it’s truly someone who’s in the class, kids have a lot more investment in it.  By leaving the sticky note on the child’s work, you’ve now also given a concrete reminder to that child for how to fix that mistake–and they can add it to their writing notebook as a future reminder tool.

“Students will not see the value in grammar unless we show them how it’s applied.”

Jeremy Hyler, Education Week

Another idea?

Peer partners can be a very effective twist on this same idea.  Partner 2 reads partner 1’s work aloud, partner 1 listens for parts that need fixing.  Or Partner 1 reads their own work to partner 2, and 2 does the listening and pointing out what needs fixing.  This is a great way to reinforce cross checking for sense, just like we want them to do in their reading!

And one more…

Let’s not discount Chat GPT.  Copying and pasting parts of student writing into the chat box and asking it to check for grammar not only gives a stronger version of that writing, it also explains the fixes and WHY these fixes were needed.  It’s a phenomenal feedback tool, even as part of a demonstration lesson if kids can’t access this tool on their own computers.  If they can access it, this is a tremendous time-saver for you–so you can work with students on other things.  

However, this kind of teaching won’t always be enough.  

For those times you’re ready to teach a more complex skill, explicit modeling is still one of the best methods for teaching grammar. 

Explicit instruction in grammar that students need to learn will always be a must.  

But the best method for teaching explicit grammar lessons is the same:  through authentic writing, not isolated skill work.

Model with your own writing, show examples of how authors of published books do it.  Pull out a sentence or two from these books and unpack them together.  Then, ask your students to write sentences of their own that emulate these models.  This can be done all across the day, not just in “writing time.”  This, in fact, is the whole premise of the excellent book The Writing Revolution–the idea that writing can and should be explicitly taught across content areas and across the day.  The key is to keep it connected to authentic writing.  

But begin with what they really need.  Help them get into the habit of checking for obvious grammatical errors every time they write.  

Make time for it, be intentional about it.  Expect it.  

You’ll see dramatic improvement!

Could you use a thinking partner to help develop lessons for improved grammar in your students’ writing?  I’m here to help!  Through virtual coaching, I can help you figure out ways to sneak in grammar instruction in meaningful ways from the comfort of your living room!  Just reach out at any time to set up a coaching call!

Did you find this post helpful?  Share it with your teacher friends so they can benefit, too!

Related Posts:  Powerful Instruction:  The Interactive Read Aloud, Powerful Vocabulary Instruction in Read Alouds, MSV Explained [and Why It’s So Misunderstood], The Significance of Syntax in Comprehension

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