If you’re a middle school ELA teacher and you’re seriously wondering whether all that instructional time spent teaching grammar and the ins & outs of the English language is really worth it, I feel you. Grammar can be such a polarizing and exhausting topic. Do students really need it? Is it effective? Should it be taught in isolation? These questions resurface every year in the teacher forums, and the opinions rarely change! News flash: I’m here to tell you why I believe middle school students still need explicit grammar instruction and how you can make it both effective & engaging.
An English Teacher Who’s NOT an English Teacher
First of all, I need to drop a truth bomb. I am a 6th grade English teacher who does not have an English degree. ? All those English college classes? Nope. I only had to take two for my elementary ed degree. Why am I sharing this? Because I didn’t go into teaching middle school ELA with a host of content-specific higher ed knowledge. I was Johnny-on-the-spot my first year in middle school – and I learned SO much.
When I was introduced to my classroom and the curriculum the summer before my first year in 6th grade ELA, I picked up a simple-looking grammar booklet called DGP: Daily Grammar Instruction. My first thought was, “Yeah, we’ll see about that,” and I dropped the dusty book in my bag. At the time, I was in the camp that explicit grammar instruction was a waste of time. I believed that students would naturally learn the English language rules as they became better readers or as we occasionally looked at mentor sentences. These beliefs were formed during my first year in the classroom as I taught a curriculum that has recently come under scrutiny.
Anyway, after asking around at my new school, I got the impression that, much to my dismay, daily grammar instruction was not optional. My teaching partner was doing it, and the 7th-grade teachers who would receive my kids next year were doing it, so skipping out was a no-go. Reluctantly, I cracked open the manual. I was overwhelmed and had no idea what I was doing.
Parts of speech? Sure, let’s do it.
Sentence parts and phrases? Say what?
Sentence Types & purposes? No clue.
Diagramming? Take a hike!
Those poor kids! I did my best to muscle through that first year of grammar instruction. It wasn’t a priority (like teaching reading and writing), so I didn’t spend much of my planning time trying to “get it.” I just rolled out a new sentence each week, adhered to the DGP Structure, and held fast to my answer key.
And Cue the Lightbulb Moment!
The summer of my second year, I had a whole list of things I wanted to get a better handle on, and you can bet that grammar was one of them. I challenged myself to work through the sentences in the book without the answer key. I read countless articles online and devoured several grammar videos to truly learn about indirect and direct objects, predicate adjectives vs. predicate nominatives, etc. Elizabeth at Grammar Revolution was a huge help. And I REALLY got a kick out of finally being able to diagram a sentence.
Once I got the hang of what I was doing, it all started to make sense. I could finally see how the parts of a sentence worked together. I understood why a comma was needed here and not there. I could confidently explain how to create complex and compound-complex sentences. And – perhaps the most helpful realization of all – I could precisely pinpoint why and how a sentence was incomplete (isn’t this where most of our struggling writers get stuck?).
Teachers, I cannot emphasize enough how much these ah-has revolutionized my writing conferences!
- Students writing in incomplete sentences? Let’s make sure every sentence has a subject and a predicate! Underline the subject in red and the predicate in blue. Missing one? Add it!
- Students misplacing commas or not using them at all? Let’s make sure that we always use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (hello, FANBOYS!) if an independent clause follows.
- Students writing with run-on sentences? Let’s talk about simple, compound, complex, and maybe even compound-complex sentences.
Now that I personally understood grammar, I got why it was such a big deal.
Grammar this big could not be learned through osmosis by simply looking at and imitating a well-crafted sentence.
Grammar this big needed a segment of its own in our ELA curriculum, and now I was happy to find it.
The Case for Grammar Instruction
Beyond my anecdotal experience with grammar, here is my most significant reason why I believe middle school students still need explicit grammar instruction.
It helps students become better writers.
Students learn how to punctuate correctly – beyond simple sentences and placing periods and commas in the most awkward places. Students can write more effective sentences by arranging and rearranging the elements once they know how to. And finally, students can convey their ideas more clearly.
One last and final observation… speak with a foreign language teacher in your school and take a look at how they teach a new language. I think you’ll be amazed at the parallels between learning another language and grammar instruction!
Making Grammar Instruction Purposeful, Personal, and Pleasurable
Grammar instruction does not have to be worse than a trip to the dentist. A few things have helped me make learning grammar not just a pain-free experience but a fun and memorable one!
Keep it Quick & To The Point
Teaching a grammar rule doesn’t need to be a 60-minute lesson. Quite often, especially with the DGP curriculum, grammar instruction is short and direct. Five minutes here and ten minutes there reduces pressure, reinforces concepts, and gives students time to process the content without feeling overwhelmed. It also adds up quickly! You can cover a lot of content a little bit at a time.
Make it Personal
One of the most fantastic tips my ELA predecessor gave me was to make grammar relevant to the kids. Sure, you can use the sentence from the curriculum about Molly and Jake’s treehouse. Or you can take a popular song lyric or infuse the sentence with real students in your classroom. Suddenly, kids are interested!
Don’t Forget To Add The Fun
Middle school students are relatively easy to entertain. By giving them opportunities to be funny, collaborative, or creative, you’ll see them flourish with any learning objective.
You can download a sample of some of the grammar activities I use in my classroom, for free, by entering your email below. You can also read more about how I teach grammar, like the parts of speech in my classroom here.