Rare is the English teacher who finds pleasure in teaching how to use commas and semicolons; correct verb tenses and conjunctions; even correct capitalization is a task that takes diligence and repetition that can keep a teacher up at night wondering how to drive the closest thing English Language Arts has to algebra into the minds of students who despise the content even more than they do.
Teaching grammar is difficult.
Its difficulty is not because the content is too complex or that students are incapable of learning it. Grade/teacher/parent-motivated students have been mastering it for years, and they currently lead the task force against social media offenders who do not know the difference between their and there. Unfortunately, too many students do not fall under this category, and lack the motivation to conquer proper grammar.
The challenge lies in relevance. Few teachers have avoided hearing the line from their students: “When am I ever going to use this?” or “Microsoft Word just corrects ALL of my grammar, so why do I need to learn it?”
First, if Word corrected all grammar errors, the “convention” portion of essay rubrics would always be marked perfect, and this happens about as often as decreases in teacher healthcare premiums.
And for when grammar will be used in real-life, it can be answered simply: “When writing cover letters, job resumes, important emails, college term papers, proposals, grants, etc.”
Unfortunately, this promise of future-use does not hold weight with the vast majority of students. The future is a vague illusion that does not carry nearly as much weight as the tediousness of English class and sheer boredom of learning and practicing grammar.
So how does one teach grammar to students who are not interested in the undeniable fact that correct grammar is a clear sign of intelligence, work ethic, professionalism and a firm grasp on language?
Perhaps by making it authentic.
My 9th grade students interviewed World War II veterans and created mini-documentaries about their interview subjects using cell phone footage and free online editing software. These documentaries would be shown on a big screen for the entire community, and the veterans would attend and sit in the front row as guests of honor. One of the requirements of their documentaries was that they had to include subtitles for those in the audience who were hard of hearing.
This would be a big event, and the work my students created would be seen by many more eyes than mine and a red grading pencil. Therefore, the writing in the subtitles needed to be perfect. Anything less would be seen by the crowd, and distract from the overall theme of honoring war heroes.
In the very same way, when another one of my classes wrote and published children’s books to send to an orphanage in Haiti to promote literacy, their writing needed to be grammatically accurate. Capitalizing their I’s and using commas correctly wasn’t just to please me, their teacher. Their work was meant to serve hundreds of children and needed to look professional to achieve its purpose.
Even the marketing campaigns my students completed for various school clubs needed to be done with excellence, because the work was public and errors would be spotted by hundreds of people and distract from the messages of the campaigns.
When students are given authentic tasks that have real meaning to them, it heightens the excellence they put into their work. It gives meaning to the teacher standing in front a whiteboard with a marker asking for volunteers to correct sentences. Sure the lessons can still be boring and the worksheets tedious, but now they have purpose. These lessons and workshops serve to ensure professional work is created and students can take pride in what they create. The teacher can make this clear to them, and engagement almost always follows.
Authenticity creates engagement, and engagement creates lasting learning. So when the projects are over and students move on from English class, proper grammar moves with them.