We English teachers know from multitudes of research, books, peers, administrators, and the general teaching ecosphere that we are supposed to incorporate grammar into students’ writing.
However, during our daily grind, this can be difficult. We have certain concepts we’re supposed to cover in our curriculum, certain types of writing students are supposed to produce, and often it’s just easier to cover each area separately. I’ll teach the grammar over here, the writing over there, and hope that the two will magically come together.
I have found out the hard way that this phenomenon doesn’t happen, no matter how much grammar practice I give my students. Somehow, the grammar would just never make its way over to the writing, at least not in any deliberate, meaningful way on the students’ part. Instead, I had to explicitly teach students how to include the grammar lessons in their writing, let them practice, and then require specific concepts for different assignments. Only then did I start to see an improvement, and the language of my classroom expanded to include our grammatical terms.
I had two sources of inspiration for this change: Harry Noden’s Image Grammar and Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined. The ways they incorporate grammar and mentor texts to ultimately improve students’ writing very much appealed to me and changed how I thought about and taught grammar. Noden’s main theory is that certain grammatical structures can be used to create images in readers’ minds, which obviously make the text richer and sound more advanced. Anderson uses mentor texts as a springboard for student writers; every grammatical structure that could ever be covered is used by talented and published authors. Students, therefore, can imitate authors’ work, and improve their writing in this way.
After reading Noden and Anderson’s books, I tried to decide how I could use these methods in a way that would be both manageable for me and approachable for my students. I also needed something that I could use for a variety of grammatical and writing concepts, such as verbals (infinitives, gerunds, participles), clauses (adjective, noun, adverb), and complex and compound sentences.
I greatly value basic routines, especially with English, because I ask my students to take risks in many ways with their writing — yet the way we practice grammar does not necessarily have to be part of that. I wanted something consistent and predictable, that they could do on a weekly or biweekly basis, and serve as the backbone for the grammar I would expect them to incorporate in their writing assignments throughout the year.
So I came up with “Step Sheets,” which combines Noden and Anderson’s general ideas and the needs of my classroom. They are called “Step Sheets” because students have to go through different steps to gain fluency in the grammar lesson taught for that week.
First, I give a presentation on the grammar concept I want them to learn and have them practice in their small groups. This might take anywhere from 10 or 15 minutes to a whole class period, and usually takes place on Mondays (we have about 45 minutes for this class). Then on Tuesday, I will review the concept, perhaps have additional practice in class, and then give the Step Sheet out as homework. I give some time to work in class, but anything that is not finished is usually due by Friday.
The Step Sheet can vary, depending on what the students are learning, but I typically include spaces for the following items. I leave it blank and have the students fill in almost all of it so I only have to change the picture each time.
- Name of concept
- Example from class
- Mentor sentence from our read aloud book (we talk about the structure of the sentence and how the grammar concept is used; then we mark it up with the different parts of speech)
- Imitation of mentor sentence
- Use a picture to write a sentence using the concept
- Write your own sentence
- Write a paragraph using the concept at least two to three times (as naturally as possible)
When students are finished, I grade them; they’re usually not too difficult to grade, and I focus only on the grammar concept and nothing else. Then, I give the Step Sheets back, discuss common mistakes people made, review as needed, and students fold them in half and tape or staple them into their notebooks alongside the notes they took in class.
After that, I always have a list of about three to five concepts they should have in their next writing assignment. Prior to turning in the assignment, I give them a self-evaluation sheet to fill out, which includes the list. They must find the concepts in their writing and write them down on the self-eval, and that is their “test” that they actually are using them, can recognize them and are incorporating them correctly.
Since I have been using these, I feel like my teaching is much more focused, students know exactly what to expect, and they can see pretty quickly how their writing is enhanced when they use the various grammatical structures from their writer’s toolbox.
Here is a PDF of what a typical Step Sheet looks like in my class:
How do your students incorporate grammar into their writing?