You’ve decided to make time for grammar instruction in your middle school classroom; now what? When do you teach it? How long should your lessons be? How can you make your grammar lessons effective? How will you differentiate them?
If it seems like your questions have multiplied, you’re not alone. I’m going to share what I make sure to carve out time for each year, as well as show you some helpful tips on how to fit it in, make it engaging and effective, and differentiate it to meet the different needs of your students.
Let’s start with the basics!
The Building Blocks of Middle School Grammar
Grammar instruction follows a very logical progression similar to math. Just as a math teacher wouldn’t teach multiplication and division before addition and subtraction, a grammar teacher wouldn’t teach diagramming without first teaching the parts of the sentence.
Students must have a firm understanding of the building blocks of grammar before we can ask them to apply or integrate the knowledge into their writing. This starts with the parts of speech (individual units of speech) and progresses towards the parts of a sentence (individual units functioning together) and culminates with the different types of sentences (or diagramming, should you want to go there).
Download my free grammar guide that will become your handy go-to grammar resource because it’s easy to print and stick in your planner, and it looks great, too.
So let’s start at the beginning: the parts of speech.
The Parts of Speech
There are eight (or nine) parts of speech students need to know: nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections. The ninth part of speech is verbals and is a bit more difficult for students, depending on the grade level. While I don’t teach verbals in regular Language Arts at the 6th-grade level, I do teach it to the advanced students.
Taking the time to make sure all of your students are on the same page regarding the parts of speech is the first step. I spend time reviewing each part of speech and dabbling in its complexities (for example, pronouns can be personal, interrogative, demonstrative, etc.).
After that, we spend a little time interacting with the parts of speech to build repetitions and familiarity. You can do this by having students generate lists or examples of each part of speech using collaborative posters, scavenger hunts around the room or in their books, complete mad libs, etc.
Once you feel that your students have mastered the parts of speech, it’s time to build on that knowledge and move them into the parts of a sentence.
The Parts of a Sentence
The parts of speech work together to form the parts of a sentence. The different parts of a sentence are the subject, predicate, complements, prepositional phrases, appositives, and nouns of direct address. Depending on your students’ age + knowledge level, you may only be able to go so deep with this step.
It’s helpful for students if you bridge the gap between the parts of speech and the parts of a sentence by showing them how:
- The main noun or pronoun usually becomes the subject
- The verb becomes the predicate
- Words that modify or describe the noun are part of the subject
- Words that modify or describe the verb are part of the predicate
- Prepositional phrases contain the preposition and the noun that completes it
Complements, appositives, and nouns of direct address require more in-depth mini-lessons to make sense to students.
Phrases & Clauses
If your students have a decent grasp of the parts of a sentence, it’s helpful to move them toward phrases and clauses to see how they form different types of sentences. There are four different types of phrases: infinitive phrases, participial phrases, gerund phrases, and prepositional phrases.
With 6th graders, I only teach them what I think they can handle. Most of my students can handle infinitive and prepositional phrases, but they are not ready for gerund and participial phrases. If your students have a bit more background knowledge of grammar, they may be able to handle gerunds and participials.
While time spent teaching phrases can be tricky, it’s essential for helping students to identify and punctuate clauses correctly. Many students confuse phrases with clauses and end up with misplaced commas (and sometimes end punctuation).
Once your students have been introduced to phrases, teach them about independent and dependent clauses. Spend time distinguishing between the three and writing sentences with a variety of phrases and clauses.
Types of Sentences
The final step is a breath of fresh air! It is the victory lap. Students need to be aware that there are different types of sentences based on how many and what kind of clauses it contains: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex are the basic four to start with.
To identify a sentence’s type, students must first identify the clauses and determine whether they are independent or dependent.
Spending time identifying and writing different types of sentences is a great way to improve students’ writing skills!
Knowledge of the different sentence types will help students:
- Punctuate their sentences correctly
- Vary their writing style
- Add complexity to their writing
Don’t forget to grab my free grammar guide where I explain each of these building blocks and include details and examples.
Making Middle School Grammar Instruction Effective (& Efficient)
Many middle school teachers recognize that their students need grammar support and want to make time for grammar instruction… but finding the instructional time to make it happen becomes their biggest obstacle.
What if I told you that effective grammar instruction need only take 5-7 minutes per day? If your school doesn’t have a separate block for grammar instruction (ahem, it’s 2023. I’m pretty sure that’s every school, but what do I know?), you can embed your grammar instruction in your daily bell-ringer or warm-up.
There are a few different ways you can do this.
Method #1: Weekly Focus
Teach a grammar mini-lesson on Monday. For example, you could teach all about nouns (concrete, abstract, compound, proper, etc.) on Monday.
Then, give a series of related questions or tasks as your warm-up Tuesday-Friday.
- Tuesday: Identify all the nouns in the sentence. Rewrite the sentence and add a proper noun.
- Wednesday: Generate a list of compound nouns.
- Thursday: Write a sentence containing both a concrete and an abstract noun. Circle them.
- Friday: Write a paragraph using a concrete noun, abstract noun, compound noun, and proper noun. Identify them.
With this method, you can map out your year and spend designated time on each concept. As the year progresses, spiral in earlier content to keep it fresh.
Method #2: Daily Focus
Spend instructional time upfront teaching the various grammar concepts just like a unit of study. Then, have students review and apply their knowledge through daily warm-ups.
Start the week with a sentence of your choosing (or your students’).
- Monday: Identify the parts of speech.
- Tuesday: Identify the parts of the sentence.
- Wednesday: Identify the phrases and clauses.
- Thursday: Identify the sentence type.
- Friday: Write a sentence that follows the same structure.
This is a more holistic approach to grammar since you are tasking students with looking at sentences as a whole. It has the added benefit of reviewing each concept every week, so the chances of learning being forgotten or replaced are low.
When incorporating grammar mini-lessons, it’s important to find a daily routine that you can stick to. Set a timer for 5 minutes and have your students start on the warm-up as soon as the bell rings. It’s a great way to start your class and teach critical content without taking up too much time.
Making Middle School Grammar Instruction Engaging (& Relevant)
Let’s get real: there isn’t much that middle schoolers don’t complain about. If they complain about grammar lessons and whine about “never using it in real life,” don’t take it personally. It just comes with the territory.
However, what you can do is speak their language and show them real-life examples of grammar fails. I find that grammar fails make excellent hooks and give my students the burst of enthusiasm we need to make it through another week. There are some hilarious ones here and here. (Warning: not all of these are appropriate for school. Preview ahead of time!)
Do you know what else middle schoolers like? Their music. They might grumble about grammar, but the second you ask them to pick a favorite song lyric to work with, they’re all eyes and ears! There are a few caveats to this. Obviously, the lyrics need to be clean and appropriate, but it’s also important that they pick a manageable line.
You can have students submit their song lyrics on Friday for you to review and approve. Then on Monday, it will be their bell-ringer for the week following the Method #2 structure outlined above.
Finally, find ways to make it funny or silly. Give students ridiculous or funny sentences to work with. It’s surprising how much harder students are willing to work when we speak their language.
Differentiating Middle School Grammar Instruction
I’ve alluded to the fact that students’ grammar abilities are all over the place. While some students find identifying participial phrases a challenge, others find differentiating between action and linking verbs a challenge.
To differentiate your grammar instruction to meet the needs of your students, here are a few ideas you might want to consider:
Each week, you could offer a level 1, level 2, and level 3 sentence. Level 1 would be your most accessible sentence, and level 3 would be your most challenging. Students could self-select which sentence they want to work with, and you could grade accordingly.
- Level 1: We ate spaghetti for dinner.
- Level 2: My family ate spaghetti with meatballs for dinner last night.
- Level 3: My family and I ate Italian spaghetti with meatballs for dinner last night.
Choice Boards/Learning Menus
Another way to differentiate your grammar mini-lessons would be to offer students a choice board. Each week may bring a new choice board, and students must complete 5-in-a-row or one from each column to receive full points.
All students may work with the same sentence, but the tasks they can complete might differ. This is a great way to incorporate student voice and choice and allow them to self-differentiate.
First Prioritize, Then Practice
When learning anything new, it’s important to first make it a priority. I’ve been talking about learning how to play the guitar for years. I just never made it a priority… until this year! I called an instructor and made it a priority to start my week with a guitar lesson. Making it a priority was the most challenging step! Similarly, if you don’t prioritize teaching grammar, it won’t ever happen. Evaluate your daily schedule and consider where you can shave a few minutes here and a few minutes there to fit it in.
The second hardest step to learning something new is carving out time for consistent and routine practice. Lessons can only help so much. Without taking the time to practice and apply what you’ve learned, retention rates fall, and frustration soars. Give your students regular time to practice and implement what they’ve learned, and you’ll see their knowledge and skill levels rise.
I know not everybody loves creating grammar lessons, but I happen to. If you want to get started but lack the time to prep your lessons or aren’t sure where to start, check out my middle school grammar resources below.