Teaching Grammar to High School Students

Instructor: David Raudenbush
High school students, whether they are headed to college or into the workforce, need a command of standard English grammar. The best practice for teaching grammar in today's classroom is to provide grammar instruction in the context of writing lessons.

Why Teach Grammar

Here's a quick quiz: in what two ways should a pronoun agree with its antecedent? If you said in number and in gender (or something close to that) then you understand one of the standard English grammar conventions every college or career-bound high school student needs to know. As a teacher, however, you may wonder if your students know the right answer.

Diagramming is an old school way to teach grammar

In most high school classrooms, long gone are the days of sentence diagramming and Warriner's English Grammar and Composition textbooks. Decades of research showed that teaching grammar in isolation had no impact on improving how students used language. However, that doesn't mean students still don't need to speak and write well. Notice the phrasing: 'speak and write well' rather than 'speak and write good.' That's standard English grammar at work.

The SAT and the ACT, the two tests commonly required for college admission, have questions on grammar, punctuation and writing style. The Common Core State Standards, used in many states to guide curriculum and assessment, also specify the importance of understanding the grammar conventions in writing and in speaking. Any high school graduate applying for a job should expect their grammar to receive scrutiny on applications and in interviews.

Grammar in Context

The best practice in teaching grammar today is to incorporate it into writing lessons. Constance Weaver, a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and author of several books on grammar instruction including Teaching Grammar in Context, links grammar instruction to the way young children acquire language. They emulate the speech they hear.

Weaver supports the type of grammar instruction advocated in the writing workshop pedagogy taught by Lucy Calkins of the Teachers College at Columbia University. In the writing workshop classes, students learn grammar in short mini-lessons as they work on essays, stories, and poetry. When students learn grammar in the context of writing, they discover that skillful writers think about what they want to say and how they want to say it.

The Mentor Approach

In their book Grammar for High School: A Sentence Composing Approach, Don and Jenny Killgallon from Johns Hopkins University, argue for teaching grammar by analyzing the work of great writers. Their idea works like this: find examples of various grammatical structures from authentic works of literature. Students can collaborate to uncover what the structure is and how the writer used it in the sentence. Then, teach them to imitate the structure in their writing.

Suppose you want to teach students to use an appositive. Your first job as the teacher is to present them with some literary examples of appositives. These models become mentor sentences, a sentence that students learn from. (You might notice the use an appositive in that last sentence.)

This sentence from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams contains an appositive:

  • ''Panic sprouted again, desperate fleeing panic, but there was nowhere to flee to.''

The first part of the lesson is to identify the appositive, which is 'desperate fleeing panic.' Next, define the purpose of the appositive in this sentence. In this case, the appositive provides more information about the type of panic that ensued. It's important to note the use of commas to offset the appositive. You could also notice that the appositive could appear after the subject of the sentence, panic.

Once the class has thoroughly analyzed Douglas Adams' appositive, the teacher can imitate the sentence, changing the subject, the appositive, and anything else needed to craft a unique sentence.

  • Joy erupted, a boundless overflowing joy, and there was no way to stop the flow.

From there, students write their imitations of that sentence and share their writing with partners or the class to receive feedback.

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