Annie Hatch teaches tenth grade World History and English and twelfth grade Writing at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland, California. Her Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry work last year focused on student learning through explicit grammar study.
I taught almost no grammar for my first four years as an English teacher; I subscribed to the theory that students would learn grammar through writing. For my students– 100% of whom were students of color who qualified for free and reduced lunch, 62% of whom were reading below grade level, and half of whom would be the first in their families to graduate from high school if they made it– I knew it was imperative that they leave my 10th grade classroom being able to write well.
And I believed, as Michelle Navarre Cleary claimed in a recent Atlantic article, “Just as we teach children how to ride bikes by putting them on a bicycle, we need to teach students how to write grammatically by letting them write.” So, I assigned many different writing assignments– in a variety of genres– and gave students lots and lots of feedback. I emphasized revision and taught mini-lessons on writerly choices. I hoped my enthusiasm for writing and the space to do a lot of it would be the golden ticket. After all, my teachers never taught me grammar and I turned out okay.
But, English was my first language, and my parents both had college degrees. Teaching my students the way I was taught wasn’t working. My students’ writing was hard to understand and they frequently seemed stuck at the sentence or word level. I urged students to “get it all out on the page,” but they asked me for help starting each sentence and agonized about each word they put down.
So, this year I did a 180. Instead of largely ignoring grammar, I began teaching weekly grammar lessons. Students started with the basics at lesson 1—nouns and verbs, and progressed to the more complicated—labeling sentence patterns and fixing run-ons and fragments. By lesson 21 students were asked to identify the relative pronouns and subordinators that make sentences complex.
As I plunged into these weekly lessons, George Hillocks’s dire 1984 warning haunted me: “…teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students… do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing.”
So I set out to study my grammar practice through my Mills Teacher Scholars research in order to determine whether this practice was doing students a “gross disservice” or not.
As the year progressed, I found that my students’ writing was cleaner and contained far fewer grammatical errors. I beamed when a student proudly reported, “I know how to fix fragments. I know that even when a sentence seems short, it’s still a sentence. You just need a subject doing a verb!”
When I did notice fragments or run-ons, I no longer fixed them for students; instead, I pointed out these errors and watched as students used the tools they had learned to make their own grammatical choices. I found that grammar study was empowering students. No longer did they need to turn to me for every grammatical dilemma. One student explained to me that grammar study improved her confidence as a writer because: “I can fix my own sentences without teachers helping me.”
And despite the popular notion that grammar kills the creativity and joy in writing, I found students made many creative choices when they had the tools to play with language. I watched as my fragment “Under the canopy” became, “Under the canopy, the hippo and the shark fell in love.” Upon successfully revising some of her writing from 9th grade, one of my students reflected on her process, saying: “The sentences are not making much sense, but now what I did was … I played around with words.” This “playing around with words” was something I hadn’t really expected upon embarking on grammar study.
I found myself having conversations with students that I never could have had before teaching grammar. For example, “How does the meaning of your sentence change when you choose this conjunction versus this conjunction?” or “Are these two sentences bonded enough to use a semicolon or would a period be better?” or even, “Ms. Hatch is it true that you need a comma when the dependent word marker starts the sentence but not when it’s in the middle of the sentence?” My students seemed reinvigorated– excited even– by English in a way I hadn’t seen before.
Lucy Calkins, founder of the Writing Workshop Method, tells teachers that: “When our students resist writing, it is usually because writing has been treated as little more than a place to expose all they do not know about spelling, penmanship and grammar.” Yet I noticed that as students were given more grammar tools, they felt less plagued by doubts and grammar insecurities. It seemed less of their cognitive power was going toward the task of constructing each sentence, or choosing each word. As one student told me, “[grammar] makes writing easier because if I don’t have to worry about grammar corrections then I can focus on my ideas more.”
I wholeheartedly agree that an English class obsessed with grammar and devoid of real writing is not what is best for kids. But in an era when we seem to swing dramatically from one end of the pendulum to the other– forever searching for our silver bullet– I urge teachers to welcome grammar back into their practice. As a teacher especially concerned with the effective teaching of good writing, grammar study has earned a place in my curriculum.