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Teacher to Teacher: Grammar and Conventions Instruction in Our Classrooms

The way we deliver grammar instruction will have a significant impact on how students retain the information and apply it in various contexts. Studying grammar in isolation does not make someone a lover of words nor a better speaker and writer. Neither will isolated grammar lessons and workbook pages create confidence and proficiency in grammar and mechanics. There is ample evidence to support this:

  • “…the results from tests in grammar, composition, and literary interpretation led to the conclusion that there was little or no relationship between grammar and composition or between grammar and literary interpretation.” (1986. C. Weaver, Teaching Grammar in Context)
  • “The study of traditional school grammar… has no effect on raising the quality of student writing.”(1991. Hillocks, Grammar and Usage)
  • “The meta-analysis [of grammar instruction involving the explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences] found an effect for this type of instruction for students across the full range of ability, but surprisingly, this effect was negative. This negative effect was small, but it was statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing.” (Writing Next, p. 21)

The simple truth is that grammar is always a writing trait that is on the backburner, regardless of whatever we focus on in our writing classrooms and across the day.  We often embed the teaching of grammar and conventions implicitly, stopping to chat about a skill or concept during conferences, small group instruction, or end-of-workshop reflection time. Sometimes, when we introduce something new, we move grammar to the front burner and do some explicit teaching.

When we look at conventions with our students, the emphasis should always be on readability. Conventions should support and enhance the message. As teachers of writing, we should always look beyond spelling. Writers can have other conventional strengths even though they may struggle with spelling. It’s important to accentuate the positive – look for what the student can do – not just what he cannot do. Neatness and handwriting should not be considered when scoring the conventions of your own students.  These are really separate issues. Think of yourself as a copyeditor. Ask, “How much work would I need to do to prepare this text for publication?”  Remember to teach conventions explicitly and implicitly.  Establish a culture of correctness by looking at mentor sentences and passages. Notice how the author is using conventions to make his meaning crystal clear to his readers. Students can imitate what they’ve noticed and talked about in their writer’s notebook, and finally, in their larger pieces.

For a fun way to build in work with parts of speech, try word splashes. Visit my blog,, for ideas and a procedure for word splash.


DSC_0455 (800x533)Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. She enjoys Continuity Days, the before-you-read-the-book gatherings, and sharing writing with other PAWLPers. She is looking forward to the 40th reunion of PAWLP on April 18th when she hopes to see so many friends and colleagues. In the photo, Lynne (left) is chatting with Rita Sorrentino at a Saturday Continuity event.




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