Slice of Life: Playing With Grammar

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“The purpose of grammar is to enhance writing. Writing is ALWAYS the goal,” Jeff Anderson told a packed conference room last Saturday. Spending an hour and half with Anderson at the New England Reading Association Conference gave me new insights into how engaging grammar instruction can be.

Photo by Aaron Burden via unsplash.com
Photo by Aaron Burden via unsplash.com

Anderson began the session by reading a section of his book, Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth. He correctly pointed out that there are often times when kids (and adults) need to be “juiced up” for writing. Reading a snippet of a book, poem, or article can “inspire great writing.”

After hearing about Zack and his school’s anti-bullying assembly, we had at least four topics to choose from for a free write:

  • assemblies
  • being/feeling different
  • picked on/bullied
  • teachers

I wrote a stream-of-consciousness riff on watching middle school kids at my school, which took me back to my own middle and high school days.

Anderson then explained that grammar “rules aren’t hard; it’s applying them that’s hard.”

So how can we make our grammar instruction effective? By focusing on function and practical application.

Why does this matter? Because grammar “helps writing come alive.”

Anderson urged us to abandon our practice of putting up sentences with errors, a la Daily Oral Language, for correction. Rather, we should display correct sentences, then study these mentor sentences to figure out why they’re effective. In this way, we “merge craft and grammar” instruction.

“Every choice a writer makes has an effect,” Anderson pointed out. By studying models, we can begin to “view grammar with a sense of possibility.” We can begin to imagine how we can use grammar to “help our writing come alive.”

“All grammar decisions add elaboration,” Jeff explained. This seems so obvious, but I had never thought about it that way. He went on to say that “commas act like a zoom lens—going from the big picture to close details.”

Using the first line of Ali Benjamin’s book, The Thing About Jellyfish, Jeff modeled exactly what he meant by this, and how to design a cycle of instruction to “immerse kids in the power of grammar and editing.”

The first step is to display a sentence, then invite kids to NOTICE what the comma is doing when they read it out loud. Then have them read it again and think about what the comma does when they read with their eyes.

Once kids have noticed something and thought about how a comma is used, they begin to see it everywhere, thanks to our reticular activating system. (Thank you, Jeff, for naming this phenomenon.) Once they’re aware of this pattern, the “more likely they are to try it in their own writing.”

Now invite students to COMPARE & CONTRAST the mentor sentence with a teacher-written model. Discuss how the construction of the two sentences is similar and/or different. Then talk about the impact of the two sentences. Is one more intriguing? Why? What grammar decisions (which are really CRAFT decisions) did the author make to create a powerful sentence?

Then collaborate to write a similar sentence together. (We didn’t have time for this in our session, but it’s the logical next step in a gradual-release model. You can view Anderson’s presentation slides here).

Invite students to IMITATE the mentor sentences. By trying it on their own, students will be able to see and understand the “possibilities of grammar acrobatics.” Inviting kids to imitate also gives them choice. Choice of what to write about, but also choices about how to imitate the mentor sentence.

Finally, invite students to REVISE. Have them revisit a piece of writing and “find a place where you can sharpen an image.” Have them imitate the model again, whatever it was. On Saturday we were using “the right-branching closer.”

Here is my revision from the free write we did at the beginning of the session:

Original:

What an act of bravery it is, though, to come to school in middle school with the new shoes or new pants that you think are like everyone else’s, but something isn’t quite right. Now, instead of feeling cool and fitting in, you feel like even more of an outsider. The Levi’s tab isn’t red.

Revision:

I strode into school, feeling cool in my brand new Levis with the red tab waving from the back pocket.

I know I never would have written this sentence without Anderson’s “invitation to play” with my writing. By inviting our students to do this work, not worksheets, we invite them to see what’s possible, and in so doing, invite them do their best work.

Functional application at its finest!

Thank you to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

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11 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Playing With Grammar

  1. I often tell student the only reason–other than passing a standardized test–to know grammar rules is to hone writing style. I learned to model syntax from a fabulous college professor long before I could label many grammatical constructions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this, Catherine, although I’m not teaching anymore, it’s valuable personally, too. I did have students do different writing with differing punctuations, also found that they can “see” changes that can occur if they practice on someone else’s piece. Thanks a bunch!

    Liked by 1 person

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