Few people have found ways to make learning about independent clauses and correct uses of commas compelling. Snapchat, Twitter, and texting have made proper punctuation seem like a chore, something English teachers make you do, and make sitting through grammar lessons a boring nightmare for most students. And all of the teacher-speeches in the world about how knowing proper grammar in the future to write professional emails will come in handy, isn’t enough to stimulate and engage students. Not even the promise of a strong quiz grade is enough to compensate for the tedious work of learning grammar. Or as I like to call it, the algebra of English class.
So here’s the question, is there any way to make grammar engaging?
My students once interviewed World War 2 veterans and created documentaries with the footage. They created beautiful videos that were screened in front of the entire community at a local theater. I had the students create subtitles for the videos so everyone could understand what the vets were saying.
But in my first year of doing the project, I didn’t screen the videos with the subtitles prior to the event.
That was a mistake.
Veteran’s names were misspelled, the word YOU was spelled like this, and god forbid my students cared to use the correct form of their.
Following the event, everyone heaped my students with praise for their work, but person after person came up to me and said, “Great work, teach. But man you need to teach those kids how to spell and use grammar.”
I was mortified. Despite how great their films were, the poor grammar in the subtitles distracted everyone from the work. And so the following year during that project, I built in many grammar lessons, telling students that the subtitles in their films would be seen by hundreds of people, and that their use of syntax would need to be perfect. My instruction for teaching grammar was the same, but now it had a purpose, and students paid much closer attention because their grammar was leaving the walls of our classroom (and their gradebook).
When students see their is a real need for proper grammar, they heighten their attention because the stakes are higher. Every year, my high school freshmen create children’s books that we then bring to a local elementary school to read to younger kids. I stress to my students the need for proper spelling and grammar because elementary students will be quick to point out errors. And that is exactly what happens.
One year, I didn’t screen all of the books as well as I should have before visiting the elementary class, and one of my students didn’t capitalize their “I’s.”
There wasn’t a third grader in the room who didn’t notice (or point it out).
It turns out, third grade is about the time students start learning capitalization, and the skill was fresh on those kids’ minds.
Suddenly, my students learned that grammar is not just a rule that has to be followed for the sake of following, but a means to ensuring that you are not distracting your audience from your work. Of course the student’s book with the i’s and u’s was still readable, but it wasn’t polished, and that is all the audience could think about.
Simply telling students this fact isn’t enough. They need to be shown the value of using correct punctuation and spelling words correctly. Project based learning lends to this task well. When teachers heighten the gravity of the work students complete in class, there is almost always heightened engagement. This doesn’t mean teachers have to abandon the practices and lessons they already have, especially in teaching grammar. Those worksheets and direct instruction still have plenty of merit. Instead, they’re giving meaning for that work. They’re turning spelling tests from busy-work into meaningful assignments to prepare for an important presentation.
When teaching compound and simple sentences, I call local businesses and see if there are any marketing materials my students can help create. For proper punctuation, we send letters to elected officials petitioning for certain causes.
And for capitalization and comma usage, we create documentaries, and make sure the subtitles for them are perfect.
In the midst of all of these projects, I still stand in front a whiteboard at times and drill age-old rules into the minds of students who aren’t invigorated by grammar. However, they are energized by creating authentic work, and so do better on grammar quizzes.