Often, when I’m on an interview committee at my school to hire an English teacher, I hear the candidate say, “Oh, I teach grammar through writing.” To me, that says, “I don’t really teach grammar.” At least at the middle school level, I think you have to be more didactic about teaching grammar.
Admittedly, grammar is always a challenge to teach. Although I love grammar – the logic! The puzzle pieces that all fit together to make a sentence! The diagramming! – a lot of kids don’t. Not only is it hard to make grammar exciting, but it’s also a challenge to manage all the grading that often comes with repetitive worksheet practice. Not only that, but grammar is intuitive for me. I know what is correct or incorrect simply because I know. So teaching others how to see what comes naturally to me sometimes stumps me.
This year, I decided to try something different. I started with a plan that every Monday, we would begin with grammar. We’d review on Tuesday and kids would do practice. I’d look over what they did, and if they were struggling, we’d go over it again on Friday.
I’ve mostly kept to that plan. It’s not always easy to make that fit with the other things I have going on in class, especially reading and writing, but by and large, that part is working. I was starting to get super-overwhelmed with my work load, though, because we don’t have grammar textbooks to use and I was having to type up all the exercises on my own. As I sat crying in my boss’s office one morning, he encouraged me to find a way to automate the grammar instruction or practice.
One of our new teachers had been using No Red Ink for her grammar instruction at a previous school, so I started to pick her brain about it. Then I got online and checked it out. Although NRI does not cover everything I have in my state standards for grammar, it does cover most of it, even in the free version. I can assign a diagnostic test to see where kids are. Then I teach the skill or content and give them my own practice to do (either a worksheet I make up, or something taken from an old grammar text in my classroom.) I might do an exit ticket for students to tell me how they think they are doing. Then I can assign NRI practice, where students have to keep trying until they get it right. I might go over it once more, and then give a growth quiz to see how they are doing. If students are still struggling, I can work with them individually and maybe assign more NRI practice.
It’s great because NRI gives me data charts with which I can justify what I’m doing. (And education is all about the data!) Although students groan about doing grammar, I see that they actually like NRI because the program uses names of their friends, pets, and favorite celebrities and book characters in the practice sentences, which are sometimes quite hilarious.
The question is whether my plan really helps students to understand and apply grammar.