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The question about whether or not teachers teach grammar has bedeviled writing instructors for the last 100 years. We probably know as much about this particular aspect of writing as we know about anything else. If you were to ask me the traditional approach to teaching grammar, should we do it, the answer is no.

So what does that traditional approach look like? Typically, it involves going from definition to example. So we define what an adjective is. And then we ask kids to generate examples. Then what happens is we have them practice that skill in de-contextualized situations, filling in the blank, picking the correct answer. And there’s never any transfer over to your writing.

We don’t want to ignore grammar all together. One of the ways to teach grammar is to use a procedure like sentence-combining. We have considerable evidence that when you teach kids to take small kernel sentences, model how to combine those into more complex sentences, work with them to help them do that until they get a handle on the skill, and then have them do it with others and then do it in their own writing, that has a positive effect both on the quality of their writing and the complexity syntactically of what they write. So it improves grammar — and not only grammar, but also quality.

The other approach, and this is a little bit more risky because we don’t have a lot of research on this, is to turn traditional grammar instruction on its head. So instead of “definition to example” we do present an example and use that to establish the definition.

For example, we might start off by writing down all the “describing words” that students can think of for a dog. And then we say, you know what?, another word for “describing words” is “adjective.” So we know that kids know what the describing words are first. Then we use those to define a new word (adjective).

Here’s another example. I might ask students to help me generate as many describing words about a person, place, or a thing. And that’s pretty easy for kids to do. Then we’ll move from that to getting a definition. But that still requires no application. So what I then might do as a teacher is give a small kernel sentence: mailman, dog, bite.

And I might say, you know, we really don’t know a lot about this dog. And we know nothing about the mailman. So let’s generate some describing words together that will describe this dog. And the, we’ve got all these words, now let’s rewrite the kernel sentence. The vicious huge dog bit the cowering, running mailman. And so what we are adding in more description to that. We do more of those kinds of exercises together, and then the students go back to their writing. And they look for places where they can add more description to it — and we encourage that.

We don’t have a lot of evidence on this strategy yet. It’s a small corpus of work that supports it, but I hope that grows over time.

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