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Teaching Grammar: There Has to Be a Better Way (And There Is!)

Steve Peha

President of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy based in
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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".

© 1995-2011 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc. Used by permission. For more free teaching materials, visit Teaching That Makes Sense.

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Steve Peha

President of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy based in

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Bonnie Terry, M. Ed., BCET's picture
Bonnie Terry, M. Ed., BCET
Learning disabilities Specialist, Board Certified Educational Therapist

Have you tried The Sentence Zone game for teaching grammar? It teaches the 6 basic sentences through game playing. All words are color-coded which makes it really easy to play and retain the sentence types. e.g., You need a blue (noun - subject), a red (verb - predicate), capital letter (begin sentences with capital letters), and punctuation (end sentences with punctuation)and you have a sentence. Check out the video here. You can also play it for SAT prep.

Lynn Tarvin's picture
Lynn Tarvin
High School Newcomer ESL from Independence, MO

My professor at MU, Dr. Rachel Pinnow, is having me study about Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). SFL has been used successfully in GB and Australia to help students learn sentence structure. Instead of the traditional structural linguistics categories, functional linguistics looks at participants (what we would subjects and objects), processes (what we would call verbs/verb phrases), and circumstances (such as prepositional phrases, adverbs, etc.). I'm sure there may be more specific details, but I know that these three categories have helped my Newcomer ESL students to understand English sentence structure.

Steve Peha's picture
Steve Peha
President of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy based in

Thanks for all the wonderful feedback.I really appreciate it.

Where I start with the teaching of grammar is the same place I start with the teaching of anything. I always ask, What's the opportunity here?

Specifically, I'm looking for the learning opportunity in school that will lead to the life opportunity for kids down the road.\

In this case, the learning opportunity is to help kids learn to write great sentences, and the life opportunity is to be a good writer. Traditional Latin grammar does not apply in either of these cases as it affects neither of these opportunities.

Secondary learning opportunities in this context--ones that may or may not lead to life opportunities--have to do with giving kids access to academic vocabulary for tests and to culturally relevant vocabulary for "cocktail party" conversation.

Both of these things are important: one helps you in school, the other helps you feel like you are part of the "club of traditionally educated people". Both of these things matter, but they do not matter nearly as much as learning to write well, and are therefore lesser opportunities than the ability write great sentences.

As such, I teach to the primary opportunity first, giving it more instruction time, and to the secondary opportunities second, only as time allows.

I can and do teach traditional grammar terms through this method BUT ONLY AFTER kids have mastered the true purpose of grammar.

The highly simplified and readily accessible approach here gets kids actually mastering grammar right off the bat -- because the purpose of learning grammar is to be able to create well-formed sentences, not to learn Latin vocabulary and "rules" that aren't even rules at all but merely context-dependent guidelines.

I still teach the Latin vocabulary--after kids can write sentences--because it is culturally relevant and because it is relevant to testing.

The simplified system just makes teaching the traditional system much easier because once kids know that sentences are made up of parts, and how those parts can be combined, all I need to teach them are some slightly different names for parts they have a handy context to help them organize their new knowledge.

Out of the thousands of teachers I have worked with, I have found that most don't know their grammar any better than most college-educated adults to, which is to say that they have no functional understanding of it--they can't use it to improve their writing.

I've been a professional writer for over 25 years. I've published literally millions of words and grammar never enters into my work--except when I have to publish on grammar for an academic context.

I've interviewed many professional writers and they admit the same thing. Even E. B. White admitted to not knowing most of "the rules" when he had to edit the last version of "The Elements of Style" after Will Strunk passed away.

With time so short in the traditional school day, and so much pressure on us to get good results, we get better results when we think about what and how to teach things.

When something like traditional grammar comes up as a requirement, we have to ask ourselves two questions: What is the real purpose for acquiring this knowledge beyond the limited academic context in which we work?

And, if the real-world value is very low, as it is in the case, we have to ask, How can I teach this in a highly optimized way that minimizes the time it takes for kids to achieve mastery--and to retain this knowledge beyond the limited scope of my own instruction?

The problem with the "traditional grammar language first" approach is that kids have no idea why they need it and no useful context in which to apply it. Many, like me, just learn it and re-learn it year after year, right up to the end of high school, and then, of course, they forget it.

Survey a few college-educated adults and you'll probably find as I have that most don't actually know grammar very well, at least not well enough to use it to improve their writing. They may remember simple things, live what a predicate or a prepositional phrase is, but nothing useful beyond what we might call "game show" or "cocktail party" knowledge. And now that William Safire has passed away, arm chair grammarians don't even have a hero to help them sneer at the rest of us.

Teaching traditional grammar in the context of an easier, more accessible, and actually useful approach means that kids learn traditional grammar faster and have a better understanding of the reasons why knowing the vocabulary of grammar might be important to them (for a test, for cultural literacy, for a deeper understanding of language than a simple system can provide, to create more variations on basic sentence patterns, etc.)

All things being equal, things that make sense are easier to learn than things that don't. And my experience is that once grammar makes sense, it's a lot easier to learn. Using a simplified, non-Latin approach integrated with kids' writing makes sense--both to teachers and to kids.

But traditional study doesn't decontextualized grammar study doesn't make any sense inherently because it is based on a foreign language (Latin) and because even if one masters all the vocabulary, one may still not be able to write. There is literally no way for me to apply the language and concepts of traditional grammar in my daily life outside of formal grammar study. As such, the concepts aren't reinforced in the real world.

Just look at how much DOL is taught in the US--millions of hours a year--and how poorly our kids understand grammar.

If I can't write, what's my incentive to learn terms that aren't going to help me learn to write any better? And if I have no real-life application for the terms, the only way I can learn them is via rote memorization. This may get me by on a class quiz or a state test, but it's not likely to stick with me beyond these limited, and again useless, contexts. As such, the learning opportunity in school is of limited value as a life opportunity beyond school.

We want children to learn language so they can use it well. Learning traditional grammar does not affect the quality of language use. It just gives kids another knowledge base to understand another historical tradition. In this sense, it may have the same function as learning Western Civ. Still valuable, of course, but not as valuable as something like learning to write.

However, if we have to teach it, and if we want kids to actually learn it, then we need to think about the most efficient and effective ways to accomplish this. Since the traditional language of grammar comes up only in contrived academic contexts, (and game shows, cocktail parties, and William Saffire columns), having a real-life application through which to teach it is the key to helping kids see the relevance of learning it.

Understanding things that exist only in academic contexts is valuable--because so much of our lives are spent in formal schooling. So we want kids to know this stuff. The question is, do you they come to know it better by studying it in the abstract, or do you they come to know it better by studying it in concert with something useful they apply every day?

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)


Most literature on teaching grammar is ridiculously complex or reductive. Your approach "makes sense" and is immediately applicable. Thank you also for the treasury of resources that you make available (for free!) at

KC's picture
Teacher from Jersey

Thank you Steve! It is ironic how grammar instruction is making a comeback. My school currently has grammar workbooks, but they are so dry. I do use the SmartBoard to add a little spunk, but your suggestion seems so much more realistic. You are right, we want them to understand sentence structure, and be able to write a proper sentence. Great idea on teaching them using language they can relate to.

Amelia Kronser-Cole's picture

This is such a wonderful and insightful article. I currently teach middle school language arts and have always struggled in teaching grammar to my students (as grammar is not my strong point and still causes me anxiety). Our department is extremely divided when it comes to the issue of teaching grammar. Some educators teach it daily using only the Latin names, some pepper it in during the year, and others in our school refuse to teach it out of context. Needless to say, we have yet to come up with a unified solution to this problem.

From experience, I can honestly say that when I was a student, words like "clause" and "predicate" often brought up feelings of uncertainty. They were unfamiliar words to me that I never used out of the classroom and were vague and confusing. The grammar lessons did not even seem relevant to me until high school (more specifically when I started learning French) and college when I started taking grammar courses.

I believe that your method of teaching grammar will help students appreciate the concept or idea of what I am trying to teach without adding the anxiety of the more technical terms. We as educators sometimes need to see the bigger picture of what we want our students to learn. Is it better to memorize a term and try to apply it in writing, or to have the student draw on his own understanding and apply it more meaningfully in his writing?

Thank you so much for your practical idea. Maybe this will give me more confidence when I have to teach grammar lessons!

Leslie Braun's picture

This post is so relative to me, today in particular! I just got back from a reading and writing conference where I attended a session by Jeff Anderson that took a unique spin on teaching grammar in the same way you described. I am an elementary teacher so it was a little more simplistic, but the same basic model was there.
The school that I teach at has been using Daily Oral Language, for longer than most can remember, as the primary source for grammar instruction. I have never felt that it was a very effective way of teaching my students grammar, but it was something that was expected. What good is teaching students correct sentence formation when all the sentences they are encountering during instruction are grossly inaccurate?
The approach that Anderson uses is to expose the students to grammatically sound, well-written sentences or passages form mentor texts. The students are allowed time to explore the sentences and discuss everything they notice about its composition.
Daily Oral Language is taught in isolation, and the students don't understand how to bring those skills into their writing. However, the approach described above could be used as a writer's workshop lesson to develop a writer's craft through imitation of good literature.
I can't wait to try this strategy with my students! Thanks for a great article to reinforce what I just learned!

Steve Peha's picture
Steve Peha
President of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy based in

Thanks to all of you (and anyone I've forgotten) for your encouraging comments. While I have been excited about this approach to teaching grammar for a long time, I have rarely found so many compatriots.

Like some of you mentioned, our world is inundated with Daily Oral Language. To date, I have never found a teacher who has told me that it worked. Yet it is the most widely used approach in the country.

Once, at an IRA convention back in the 1990s, I asked a DOL publisher why he thought his product was good for kids.

I asked him, "Why do they call it "oral" language when it's done on the board or on an overhead?" He shrugged.

I asked him, "Why are the patterns of errors random and not the same as the patterns of errors in real language created by real kids?" Again, he shrugged.

Finally, I asked him, "Do you really recommend that teachers do this every day?"

To which he replied, "Oh, absolutely not. It's really only useful for prepping kids for those bubble tests where they have to correct mistakes in incorrect sentences. Two-to-four weeks is plenty."

So I pressed my luck, "So if it's not real language, and it's not done orally, and you don't recommend it for daily use, why do you call it Daily Oral Language?"

"Because," he said, with no self-consciousness at all, "If we call it DOL, people will buy it because they think they should use it every day. It makes people feel good to be teaching grammar every day. And the more lessons they teach, the more materials we can sell them."

I had just gotten out of the software business and gone into education because I had grown uncomfortable with the lack of ethics in software publishing. But I discovered that ethical considerations were just as compromised in educational publishing.

A couple years later, I got a small group of elementary teachers to conduct an experiment on DOL. For the first semester, they used it everyday as directed. For the second semester, they didn't use it at all. But we gave kids the semester post-tests in both cases.

In five of six classes, kids did better on the DOL post-tests after not having DOL for five months than they did after having it every day for five months.

Several people in this comment stream have recommended some wonderful ways of teaching kids the conventions of writing. I'm so glad to discover that there are so many promising alternatives. The challenge, then, I think has more to do with getting rid of DOL than with promoting any one other approach. Until DOL is gone, most teachers simply won't have the time in their schedules to teach grammar any other way.

Keep fighting the good fight!


Wendy's picture
10th Grade English Teacher

"I currently teach middle school language arts and have always struggled in teaching grammar to my students (as grammar is not my strong point and still causes me anxiety). Our department is extremely divided when it comes to the issue of teaching grammar. Some educators teach it daily using only the Latin names, some pepper it in during the year, and others in our school refuse to teach it out of context. Needless to say, we have yet to come up with a unified solution to this problem." - Amelia.

I like what Amelia said here in regards to teaching grammar because this is the exact same position I was in and I am sure that many other Language Arts teachers are facing this very same problem. There is still no answer to the grammar problem, and our schools need one.

One concern I would have if this approach was used for younger students is what would happen when they reach middle school or high school and the teacher expects them to know some grammar jargon and they have never been exposed to it before. Do you need whole school buy in for this approach to work?

I would like to know if this approach is appropriate for students of all ages or is it better to younger students who are just getting into grammar? I teach 10th grade and many of them still have trouble forming varying sentence structures and are not doing it correctly. Will this approach work at the high school level?

Thanks for the info!

mithun tanvir's picture
mithun tanvir
Motijheel Model High School

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