Focusing on Grammar to Improve Student Writing

I remember my first “ah-ha” moment as a teacher. I was young, inexperienced, and quite naive. It happened during my teacher credential program when I was also long-term substituting in a ninth-grade reading intervention classroom. I was struggling to manage my class. I was struggling to deliver engaging lessons. I was struggling to be the teacher these kids needed. It wasn’t until I wrote a paragraph frame on the board with fill-in-the-blank spaces for their thoughts that I was able to get these students to write.

These weren’t unruly or ‘bad’ (as some people might say) kids who were completely uninterested in learning. These were students who were tremendously behind in school. How could I expect them to write an analytical paragraph when they couldn’t put two complete sentences together? These kids needed scaffolding and support. These kids needed a patient teacher who understood their abilities. And at that moment, the very first moment during my long-term sub experience, when every single student was engaged, working, and on-task, I realized something that has always stuck with me: sometimes we need to take many steps back to help our students truly succeed. And that is just what I did. I went back to the basics of grammar.

Since then, I’ve worked closely with many English language learners and underprivileged students. When I grade writing, I look at content and grammar separately. I know many of my students still need to learn how to write their thoughts so that they follow correct grammar conventions, but what I’m looking for when I grade their papers is what they have to say. Grading writing primarily for content is so critical, especially when some students might not have the necessary grammar and English language background that they need. Below, I've written about how I structure my grammar instruction in my classes to help my struggling students gain more confidence and become better, more confident writers.

Once I had students of my own, I found that so many of my freshmen did not know the parts of speech. They did not understand the difference between nouns and verbs, much less the difference between adverbs or adjectives. Understanding the parts of speech and how they function together is essential for writing. So I found myself going back to the basics and teaching my students about the parts of speech. After doing this, I saw an immediate improvement in their writing! When students know the parts of speech, they write better sentences.

This FREE interactive notebook download that covers both the parts of speech and sentence structure is ideal for helping students identify the parts of speech. After completing the sample exercises (there is one each for simple, compound, and complex sentences), have students use these sentences as mentor texts. Students can use these sentences to write their sentences utilizing all of the different parts of speech. Completing this activity frequently, and even over and over again with new student content, will help them become stronger writers.

Even if students have a firm understanding of the parts of speech and how they work together, students might still write with a few incomplete or run-on sentences. It is quite a common mistake, and sometimes students need to spend some time focusing on dependent and independent clauses to make sure that their writing is free from these errors.

One way I focus on this in my classroom after teaching it is by having students identify subjects and verbs and then highlight dependent and independent clauses in sample writing. This activity can also be done during peer or self-editing, especially if it is a skill you’ve just taught.

To improve my students’ writing and help them gain more confidence in their own writing abilities, I then teach them about sentence structure and varying sentence structure in their writing. This has such a tremendous impact on their writing because when students write as they think about sentence structure, they are actively thinking about and planning their sentences as they wrote. This is the growth we want to see!

An additional benefit of teaching sentence structure is that it helps reduce the amount of consecutive simple sentences that students write.

An engaging way to teach students about sentence structure is to assemble a mini flip book. This is also great because serves as a reference with mentor sentences for students to reference throughout the year. I have my students save their books in their binders and refer back to them as we encounter new writing assignments.

In addition to a physical reference flip book, students keep in their binders, I also like to utilize online tools. One handy online tool I like to use to help students see if they wrote with enough sentence variety is the Hemingway App. When I use this in my classroom with my students, I want to know that they have a few complex sentences sprinkled in throughout their writing!

Even though we might assume our students have this background understanding of the English language, it benefits all of our students to review grammar basic grammar concepts. Teaching the parts of speech, dependent and independent clauses, and sentence structure is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to teaching our students about grammar and usage. However, these three concepts help students gain confidence and improve their writing skills.

Additional resources for teaching grammar:
Grammar Escape Room Activity by Presto Plans
Grammar Learning Stations Bundle by Room 213
Grammar Usage Mini Book by The Classroom Sparrow

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