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Student Engagement

Context Is Everything for Effective Grammar Instruction

Looking at writing in meaningful contexts, including cartoons, helps students see how they can apply the rules of English.

August 12, 2021
PhotoAlto / Alamy

Despite years of research and practice, there is still no definitive blueprint for teaching grammar. The only thing that remains clear and uncontested is that grammar is most likely to be understood within the context of authentic reading and writing activities.

However, without knowledge of what meaningful contextualization looks like in practice, many teachers, particularly new teachers, are bound to continue teaching the rules of English in an isolated, drill-like manner. So I have a few practical suggestions below to help you support your students.

Teaching Grammar in Context

Create a life map: When I first taught nouns to a group of seventh graders, I asked them to create a life map comprising pictures of the people, places, animals, and ideals that had shaped their lives over the years. They then elaborated on these during an oral presentation. In the end, they learned not just about nouns but about the value of people and experiences, and they became much more reflective. 

Make photo albums and picture books: As an alternative, your younger learners could create photo albums with a similar self-focus. They may also make picture books with labeled images depicting vivid verbs, adjectives, and nouns they learn from the stories you or their parents read to them. This activity will also expand their vocabulary at the same time.

Here are some colorful examples from two popular children’s stories:

The Three Little Pigs—sturdy, clamped, scrambled away, narrow eyes, rage, scalding water

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters—mean-tempered, bountiful, grove of towering trees, proclaimed 

Teach mini-lessons: An expository writing session is an opportune time to teach capitalization in a meaningful way. For instance, if your students are tasked with writing a piece on America’s history or on an American stalwart, such as Frederick Douglass, they would naturally use many proper nouns—names of people and places, dates, titles of books, and more. Therefore, after they drafted their piece, you could host a mini-lesson on the appropriate use of capital letters. Following this, students could edit their drafts using their newfound knowledge. 

Incorporate read-alouds: During read-alouds or shared readings, pause momentarily to discuss conventions that the writer has used and the meanings they imply. For example, after reading a short story, prompt students to explain what the punctuation marks suggest about the characters’ tone, mood, or general disposition. Here are some questions to drive your discussion:

  • Which punctuation marks repeatedly follow the main characters’ speech? 
  • What do these suggest about their tone and mood? 
  • What seems to be their attitude toward the other characters?
  • What kind of person might they be? Explain.

When students see punctuation in authentic pieces of writing, they will better understand how the punctuation marks function and how they can be skillfully used. 

Play with sentences: Sentences are, undoubtedly, the building blocks of writing, so it is important to spend time teaching students how to create rich, varied, and fluent ones. As you read and discuss literature, for example, point out interesting sentence patterns to your students and collaboratively dissect them. Look at the word order, the qualifiers used, the clauses and phrases, and the connecting words.

Here’s a sentence I use with my students:

  • “Joshua laughed, a burst of white teeth.” (from A Cow Called Boy, by C. Everard Palmer, a Jamaican author) In this sentence, a noun phrase follows the main verb, and it further describes the subject’s physical appearance without creating two potentially short and choppy sentences.

That’s from a Caribbean text, so it’s culturally responsive for my students—you can look for sentences and texts that will speak to your students.

Give students opportunities to imitate these sentence patterns as they write about the happenings in a familiar text. Furthermore, an anchor chart showing various sentence structures can remain on display to help students revise their compositions.

Later, you can have the class read newspapers, magazines, and other favorites to collate well-written sentences. For 10 or 20 minutes each week, allow volunteers to share and briefly discuss their findings. Challenge your students, too, to attempt at least one newly learned structure the next time they write.

Use comic strips: A few years ago, I handmade a SpongeBob comic strip to teach students subject-verb agreement patterns, but you can use free online storyboards to make something similar. Build an engaging comic around students’ favorite cartoon characters, and after an aesthetic read, have the class attend to the main subjects and the corresponding verbs in the sentences. The questions below can be adapted for your discussions: 

  • Which letter ends all the verbs that tell us about SpongeBob’s actions?
  • Does this same letter come at the end of verbs that tell us about Patrick’s actions?
  • What happens to the -s at the end of these verbs when SpongeBob and Patrick are doing the actions together?
  • When one person is doing an action, with which letter(s) should the present-tense form of the verb(s) end? What happens to the verb(s) when two or more people are doing the same action simultaneously?

Students can then create their own comic strips and apply the same convention as they share an interesting superhero story. 

By providing rich and meaningful context, you can help your students to better understand, remember, and apply the grammatical rules taught. Their speaking and writing will improve, and they will thank you.

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  • English Language Arts
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