Editor's Note: Steve Peha is the President of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy based in Carrboro, NC. He writes regularly on education policy on The National Journal Education Experts Blog. His work has also been featured in The Washington Post, DropoutNation, EdNews, and The Carborro Citizen. He is the author of three books on teaching: Be a Writer, Be a Better Writer, and Reading Allowed.
Grammar instruction is making a comeback but in all the wrong ways. The purpose of learning grammar is to produce well-formed sentences. But mastering the Latinate content of traditional grammar instruction has little to do with achieving this goal.
To help kids master sentence structure, I describe sentences with simple English words, not unfamiliar Latin words. I won't claim to have invented this approach; it just made sense to me when I began dealing with grammar problems in the classroom early in my career.
In my experience, this approach helps kids learn almost instantly how to write well-formed sentences. And because it's so simple, I can start it with primary kids and ELL students with limited English proficiency.
Every Writer Serves a Sentence
Take a look at this sentence:
On a bitter-cold winter morning, Malcolm Maxwell, a young man of simple means but good intentions, left the quiet country town in which he'd been raised and set off on the bold errand he'd been preparing for all his life.
Like all sentences, this one is made up of parts. In this system, there are four kinds of sentence parts:
1. Main Parts These parts contain the main action of the sentence: "Malcolm Maxwell,...left the quiet country town in which he'd been raised,...." (Notice that I don't have to call this a "main clause" or refer to a "main verb".)
2. Lead-In Parts These parts lead into other parts, especially main parts: "On a bitter-cold winter morning,...." (Notice that I don't have to worry about what Latin grammatical function this "phrase" performs. Is it "adverbial", "adjectival", "prepositional"? Who cares? Certainly not the kids!)
3. In-Between Parts These parts fall in between other parts. They feel like a slight interruption: "...a young man of simple means but good intentions,...." (Notice that I don't have to call this a "non-restrictive phrase or clause" or worry about things like "direct or indirect objects"; I can also avoid "subordination" here and when working with Lead-In Part as well.)
4. Add-On Parts These extra parts convey additional information about other parts: "...and set off on the bold errand he'd been preparing for all his life." (Notice that I don't have to worry about "compound, complex, and compound/complex sentences", nor do I have to explain "appositive constructions.")
Using this system, I can describe our model sentence like this: Lead-In + Main + In-Between + Main (continued) + Add-On.
New sentences can be created by combining different parts in different ways. To make longer sentences, more parts can be added. But it's surprising how effective we can be with just a few.
Six Simple Patterns
Here are six of the simpler patterns typical of those I use as models to help kids construct their own:
1. Intro + Main As class began, Mr. Funston dreamed of a winter vacation.
2. Main + Add-On He stared blankly at the blank faces of his students, convinced that he had nothing whatsoever to teach them.
3. Main + In-Between + Main The Lesser Antilles, he realized, would be the perfect place for a warm winter hiatus.
4. Main + Add-On + Add-On He saw himself on the beach, baking in the midday sun, enjoying tasty snacks and refreshing beverages.
5. Intro + In-Between + Main Ten minutes later, having dismissed his students early to lunch, he surfed the Net for a cheap trip to the West Indies.
6. Main + In-Between + Add-On Mr. Funston leaned back in his big teacher chair, forgetting about the twelve pounds he'd put on at Thanksgiving, and immediately tumbled backward into the October bulletin board he'd neglected to take down.
It Works in Reading, Too
By analyzing and describing sentences kids read, and using those patterns as additional models, students develop a robust repertoire of well-formed structures. I also use the system to teach combining and inversions.
I'm amazed at how well kids communicate by mastering six simple two- and three-part patterns like these. There are, of course, many more complicated structures I will teach them. But if they can learn these six, they'll be on their way.
This simplified sentence structure system is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of traditional grammar go down. When students create and analyze well-formed sentences, they have a meaningful context for the mastery of concepts that might otherwise seem arcane.
This is only part of the sentence skills curriculum I teach. For a more complete view, see some word choice lessons, here for sentence structure lessons, and punctuation lessons. Since grammar is the study of sentence construction, focusing on the sentence, in a way that doesn't depend on explicit grammatical knowledge, is the key to teaching an otherwise difficult set of concepts successfully to groups of diverse learners.
For a quick overview of major research studies going back to the 1930s on the inefficacy of traditional decontextualized grammar instruction, consult Chapter Two of Constance Weaver's "Teaching Grammar in Context".
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