In Search of a More Meaningful, Effective, Enduring Way to Teach Grammar

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My whole teaching life I have been in search of a way to teach grammar that is meaningful, effective, and enduring.

I have tried bits and pieces of other people’s curricula for years––Kelly Gallagher’s Sentence of the Week, Nancie Atwell’s editing sheets and proofreading lists––but I’ve never been able to find my groove with these systems. And when I pore over student writing portfolios in June, I can see that my students have grown tremendously, but a lot of the writing is still grammar-rough (I’m using this term loosely––by grammar, I’m referring to all things grammar, mechanics, and usage). Not quite publishable. Still a few too many comma issues. Run-away sentences. And if I see one more misuse of the word their…

I know it could be better. Their writing. My instruction.

But how? I’ve tried almost everything!

For years I took Kelly Gallagher’s advice and highlighted three erroneous sentences in every students’ final draft. But this takes forever. And it sometimes takes my attention away from the writing itself––from the ideas and the structure and the heart of the message. I want to be able to glance quickly at the grammar, see the critical errors, and have a quick and painless way of moving forward to help that student.

I’ve tried Sentence of the Week models, and while weekly sentences can expose students to all kinds of syntax and sentence possibilities, it often feels random and disconnected from student writing. Sentence study is better framed as enrichment––as an “I want to try this in my writing” kind of lesson that students can get excited about.

Whole-class grammar lessons are only useful for a handful of students. This year, I am teaching a deleveled workshop, so my students’ grammar skills truly run the gamut. If I teach a lesson on comma splices, I run the risk of losing half the class.

I wanted so badly to make Nancie Atwell’s editing checksheets work for me. Her system was made in the true spirit of workshop––lessons drawn from patterns of error in student work, instruction delivered in conferences. But I struggle to give extemporaneous, bite-sized, simple explanations of grammar in 1:1 conferences. Students never take notes because they’re trying to listen to me, and I’m talking quickly so I can get to the next student… And when they lose their editing checksheets, we have no record of what they have learned and what they should be working on.

So lately, instead of getting down about my past grammar failures, I’ve been playing with ideas for a new system altogether, a system that has these characteristics:

  • The instruction must emerge from student writing––any lesson taught must be directly connect to errors students are making TODAY
  • Balances whole class, small group, and individual learning
  • Gives students multiple opportunities to practice identifying and fixing errors in their work
  • Is a regular practice in my classroom––it’s built into the curriculum in such a way that I don’t even have to think about it!
  • Is in the spirit of writing workshop, offering choice, time to practice/write in class, and teacher feedback
  • Puts the onus on students to track their learning––and eliminates some of the paperwork while freeing up time to focus on more important aspects of student writing

I know I’m asking for a lot here––but I’m willing to try almost anything to find a system that meets these needs!

I’ve been feeling experimental, so when I collected the last batch of essays, I kept track of each students’ critical errors––the top 2-3 most condemning errors in each paper. Students make the same errors from paper to paper, so the data I collected was representative of the general learning that needed to take place. Here’s one of those spreadsheets:

Student Errors

For feedback, I left three broad comments for each student: praise, a revision focus (about ideas, organization, word choice, etc.) and an editing focus. The editing focus was a grammar, mechanics, or usage comment. (Keep in mind, these were final drafts. Students had received much more extensive praise and feedback on initial drafts!)

And for the past week or so I’ve been rehearsing a new system in my head.

Enter editing portfolios, my latest experiment.

Here’s the basic idea, in student-friendly terms:

Editing Portfolio: An Overview

Many of you got a taste of what if feels like to be publish over the holidays! Some of you are still waiting to hear back from various publications––please let us know when you get word!

As you publish more and more, you’ll find that you look at your writing differently––you look at it through the eyes of your readers: you’ll get extra picky and want to fix every possible mistake before your work goes out into the world. In short, you’ll spend a lot more time editing your work.

Different from revision work, editing is all about strengthening the grammar, mechanics, and usage of your writing. It’s about putting the right street signs down on the roadmap of your words (do you need a semi-colon or a comma?). It’s about polishing the rough surfaces (the phrases that don’t sound quite right). It’s about telling your readers how you want your work read––and if you care about your ideas, you’ll care about this.

To this end, we are going to shine a spotlight on our grammar this semester, and get better at catching our own mistakes and fixing them. To support this editing work, you will compile an editing portfolio over the course of the semester, due in May:

Components of the portfolio:

  • During Tutorial, you will attend a minimum of one editing lesson per week (the calendar will tell you what lessons are being taught and when, and you will choose lessons based on the editing focus I put on your writing).

  • Before attending each lesson, you will watch an instructional video and take notes in your Writer’s Notebook. These notes will be your ticket into the lesson. No notes=no lesson (you’ll have to attend a make-up).

  • During Tutorial, I will answer any questions you have about the video. With a partner, you will work to edit sentences written by your peers.

  • After Tutorial, you will have homework due the next day: finish editing sentences written by your peers.

  • We will have in-class editing days a few times a month–the main focus will be editing our writing.

  • At the end of the year you will turn in a portfolio with your edited papers and some reflective writing.

When I take a step back to look at this system, I’m most excited that I will be spending less time highlighting student errors and more time answering questions, clarifying and designing practice for students. Here’s the breakdown:

I used to…

Spend up to 10 minutes identifying three recurring patterns in a student’s paper, and highlighting those errors

Now I will…

Glance at a student paper to determine 2 critical errors, and jot words like “comma splice” and “its vs. it’s” at the bottom of their page, directing them to an instructional video

Try to explain difficult grammatical concepts in 1:1 conferences Answer questions about funny/simple/smart instructional videos; clarify teaching points; provide practice opportunities
Find the same mistakes over and over and over again in students’ papers, and repeat the process of identifying patterns of error, highlighting sentences, returning these papers… Give lots of verbal feedback along the way in small group and individual lessons; assess editing work at the end of the semester through portfolios
Plan whole-class grammar lessons that  reach everyone, regardless of their abilities Pull 4-6 student sentences to use for editing work during the review session

This new (experimental!) system takes advantage of flipped lessons, enlisting the help of grammar videos to do the initial instruction for me. (I’m in the process of collecting smart/simple/entertaining videos and making my own videos if I don’t find one that I like for a specific concept.) Repeated practice occurs in both small group and individual spaces. Students keep track of their learning in their Writer’s Notebook and they help keep a digital record using one of these forms. Students have choice as to when they learn about the grammar topic they need help with. I will give lots of feedback along the way, and in true portfolio fashion, withhold grades until the very end (Rebekah’s I Quit Grading in baby steps!).

At the beginning of the year, Rebekah asked, “What grand solo experiments are you undertaking these year?” This is mine. Here I go.

How do you navigate the world of grammar instruction? What experiments are you embarking on this semester?

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  1. I am really interested in the videos that you use with your students. The link embedded above won’t function for me. (It may be restricted to users from your school domain or it may just be broken, but I can’t tell which.)

    Do you have a YouTube playlist or other links to these videos that you could share?

  2. Hi there I am so happy I found your web site, I really found you by accident, while I was browsing on Google for something else, Nonetheless I am here now
    and would just like to say many thanks for a marvelous post and a all round enjoyable blog (I also love
    the theme/design), I don’t have time to read through it
    all at the moment but I have book-marked it and also added your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be
    back to read a lot more, Please do keep up the awesome work.

  3. Alison…

    I am working on a web-based PD for a graduate class. The topic is teacher leadership through action research. Could I link this post as an example?


    1. Goodness! I am so sorry I never responded to this post. If the class has already passed, I hope you did link to it. If it hasn’t, by all means, link away! So sorry again for the late, late response. I hope you are having a great summer. Allison

  4. I’m intrigued by this idea. How many pieces do you anticipate will comprise the portfolio? BTW, I just got your book. It looks great.

    1. Hi there, good question. I think I will have them include their four process pieces for the semester, as well as two shorter one-draft writing pieces (notebook time writing), for a total of six!

  5. Allison, I am so jazzed about this idea! I love your idea about sharing praise, a revision focus, and an editing focus in your comments. I think I will follow your example this semester; using that language consistently will help my students figure out their next steps. I, too, have struggled with grammar instruction, and I think you’re really smart to employ flipped lessons as a part of your process. I can’t wait to hear more!

    1. Thanks, Sean! This looks awesome! And Charlottesville is my stomping grounds 🙂 I think we crossed paths at UVA…I remember you! I was in Curry in 2007 and 2008. Amy was my CI.

  6. I use Jeff Anderson’S Revision Decisions. It demonstrates how an author thinks and helps my students become more independent with their revision and editing. I use exemplars from his book for practice and validate student work by comparing it to the actual author’so work. Once students become comfortable with the process, they apply it to their own writing. I teach it at the beginning of the year so we can implement it throughout the year. It’s also very easy to create your own using mentor texts.

    1. Thanks! I love Jeff Anderson but don’t have this book. I usually many of his lessons from Mechanically Inclined. I also love his Express Lane Checkout for when students need a step-by-step process for identifying errors and explaining them. I will definitely check out Revision Decisions. Thanks!

  7. I’m so so curious to hear how this goes. I have been struggling with grammar instruction this year myself—the first half of your blog post is my experience exactly. I love your idea. Please update later in the year!

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