Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bringing grammar to life

The Common Core State Standards include a number of standards related to both understanding language and word use by authors and producing written material by the students themselves. Below is a sampling of the objectives that reflect such learning:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
·         CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.3 Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

·         CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.2.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

·         CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Although Deborah Dean's book, Bringing Grammar to Life, was written before the publication of the CCSS, her book is aligned with these goals in that she sees grammar instruction an arm of language instruction that needs to be incorporated throughout ELA instruction. Her book delves into secondary English instruction and teaching grammar in the context of teaching reading and writing. She analyzes the writer's craft as she discusses passages in the readings, looking at devices, what makes them effective and trying other ways of writing sentences and deciding which the students like better and why. I particularly like the idea of having students write sentences in multiple ways, and discussing why some of them are more effective than others. She guides students to notice things about writing and then asks them to implement the techniques discussed. 

As teachers moved away from teaching grammar in isolation because it did not improve reading or writing skills, many of them dropped grammar instruction all together. While teaching grammar in context is slower and requires more time, it does result in greater learning for students. How do you ensure that all the concepts get coverage if you are teaching in context? Whole language reading instruction showed the dangers of just sending teachers off without a scope and sequence, hoping that they would understand the acquisition of reading skills and how to pass those on to students without strict guidelines. Many students never learned phonic rules and struggled with reading. In order to prevent a hurly-burly approach, Dean's recommendation is that different aspects are targets each month/unit. For example, focus on using appositives and adjectives effectively this month and prepositional phrases, their punctuation and different writing registers next. Pages 142-3 of her book detail grammar focuses for the book To Kill a Mockingbird. Beautiful examples of literary devices, grammar and language should not be ignored as you come across them, but you can briefly comment and move on. This promotes the idea that in reading we need students to analyze the effect of grammar and language on meaning.

Elementary teachers might not find this text as useful. All the examples are solidly secondary. There is an assumption that students know the meaning of a sentence and have some familiarity with definition of major parts of speech. Preparing this background is the purview of the elementary classroom. The techniques could, however be adapted to lower level classes. Since so much focus in the elementary classroom is on language development, many teachers already incorporate some elements into their instruction.

The book has a rich array of resources for learning grammar yourself, picture books that illustrate examples of grammar and using mentor texts to teach grammar and language. These resources allow teachers to supplement their skills and provide guidance on where to go for examples.

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