Tagged: grammar

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“The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar”

No more diagramming sentences: Students learn more from simply writing and reading.

Mark Isero‘s insight:

I like The Atlantic, and usually, the magazine gets education matters right, but this article about grammar misses the mark by oversimplifying the issue.

Michelle Navarre Clearly argues that teaching grammar directly doesn’t work and that we should teach grammar “through” writing.

The reply of most English teachers: Duh. Of course. Best practice is to see where your students struggle and then help them.

But then the next step — how to do that — is where it gets complex. It seems like Ms. Clearly would advocate a one-on-one approach, where the teacher conferences with each student. That sounds great but takes too much time to be a teacher’s only strategy.

Whole-group instruction also has its flaws, even when done well (with sentence combining, for instance). My experience suggests that students don’t internalize whole-group grammar lessons.

My colleagues and I are exploring small-group intervention, in which 4-6 students meet with the teacher on a specific grammar concern while the rest of the students work independently on a writing activity. This seems like the best of both worlds. There’s enough personal attention, but the process doesn’t take forever.

See this article on m.theatlantic.com, or see it on Iserotope Extras.

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grmr.me makes essay grading easy for English teachers

gorillasfavicon Most English teachers agree: The worst part of the job is grading students’ essays.

And when I say “grading,” I use that term interchangeably with “assessing,” “giving feedback on,” “reading,” and “evaluating.”

Let me be clear: I love looking at a student’s writing and offering suggestions for improvement. But I don’t like looking at 150 students’ writing. It takes way too long.

Plus, commenting on a student’s essay (whether it’s actually on paper or on Google Docs or even on EssayTagger, which is cool but expensive) doesn’t teach the student anything about writing.

I can correct run-on sentences all day, but that doesn’t mean that my student will magically avoid them in the future. Or I can spend time writing a little note explaining the three ways to fix a run-on sentence. But that takes way too long, and who wants to read weird tidbits about random grammar rules?

This is why I’m really excited about grmr.me, a relatively new service by Kevin Brookhouser, an English teacher in California. Check out the intro video:

See how neat? Instead of making tons of corrections, you focus on your students’ main grammar challenges and direct them to watch a video that actually teaches them how to improve.

Mr. Brookhouser’s videos are short and funny, and students can take a quick quiz to see if they get the concept. Right now, I count 18 videos, including ones covering big-ticket items like subject-verb agreement, literary present tense, its vs. it’s, and comma splices.

It’s possible, of course, that watching a video won’t immediately cause a student to eradicate a longstanding grammar issue (follow-up practice is necessary), but what I love about grmr.me is that it reminds me that I’m a writing teacher, not a copyreader. And it tells students that grammar is actually a thing that can be learned, not just silly little inconsequential red squiggly marks on an essay.

Check out grmr.me and let me know what you think! favicon

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Writing and grammar: The work continues in college

favicon I’m not teaching this year, but several of my students, now in college, have contacted me for help on their writing.

Interesting Point #1: The students seeking my help are those who struggled the most last year in my class. It makes me happy that they view me as a resource.

Interesting Point #2: We do our work on Google Drive. In fact, the students are using the same accounts they received as high school freshmen.

Interesting Point #3: Issues with grammar and mechanics do not go away. Just because you’re enrolled in college doesn’t mean that your longstanding problems with run-on sentences magically disappear.

Out of those three points, I’ve thought the most about the last one. After looking at New Dorp High School’s success with teaching writing, which emphasizes a bottom-up approach of teaching writing as complex thinking, I began to wonder: Was my approach on conventions the wrong way to go?

In other words, is there something wrong with having students write, showing them an error, explaining why it’s wrong, giving them ways to correct it, and encouraging them to be more conscious in the future?

There must be. After all, most of my students with significant grammar and mechanics problems still struggle with them. And they’ve probably wrestled with these concerns since fourth grade.

The students can fix the problem if I identify it, and they can identify it if we read their essay together, but on their own, they have trouble proofreading and revising their own work. They don’t see by themselves what they can see with others.

That’s the hard part for me as a writing teacher. Writing — especially the grammar part — is such a mystery. Why do some students just automatically know how to construct complex sentences? (It’s not just the amount of reading they do.) And then why are others able to improve rapidly, while some grapple with the same grammar obstacle year after year?

A question for loyal Iserotope readers: Let’s say a student habitually writes run-on sentences in the following two ways: (1) sentence and sentence, (2) sentence, conjunction sentence. What ways would you approach this student so that she can, for once, feel confident that she “gets it” and can move on? favicon

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Live virtual proofreading on Google Docs

favicon Want to see something that is really boring but incredibly powerful?

Take a look at the screencast below. It’s a student and I proofreading an essay together — live, from different places — on Google Docs.

It’s simple: I highlight places on the student’s essay where I see errors, and then the student makes changes. We use the chat box to ask questions, get hints, and reflect on what we’ve learned.

Here’s a five-minute snippet (if you can handle it!):

This virtual proofreading process takes about five to 10 minutes and has been much more popular for my students, who dislike coming after school, than real-life conferences.

Proofreading on Google Docs is not ideal, of course. Much deeper learning could be done in person. But until I figure out a way for more students to stick around school, I’ll make do using a bit of tech. favicon

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Late-night online grammar breakthroughs

favicon This year, I’m trying to teach my students the importance of having zero grammar errors in their final essays.

For the most part, I haven’t been successful…yet.

But tonight, I think I had a (minor) breakthrough.

As students completed their corrections on Google Docs, I jumped from document to document, student to student. In the chat window, I asked if students wanted support getting down to zero errors.

About five or six agreed.

Then, I worked with each student until his or her essay had zero errors. Along the way, I taught a few grammar rules. The students asked questions. We noticed patterns of challenge and areas of improvement. It was fun.

It wasn’t anything special. But it worked.

Like my six grammar coaches, who provide weekly one-on-one tutoring for 12 students, my online coaching worked. Here’s why:

1. I didn’t let them stop until they got to zero errors. There was no way for the student to wriggle away from the standard.

2. They knew they weren’t on their own. There was trust. (In fact, there might have been more trust online than in real life. More about that in another post.)

3. It wasn’t mandatory, so students could opt in. Choice matters. As a teacher, I’m learning how to transform otherwise tedious learning activities into options attractive to students.

I’m pleased with my results. Yes, it took a long time, and by no means was this process efficient. But I’m hopeful that it will send a message that my standard of zero errors is both important and possible.

To me, that lesson — that error-free writing is both crucial and doable — is much more important to me than fixing the little errors themselves.

My teaching, after all, is about building individual academic character and collective academic culture. favicon

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Am I a teacher or a proofreader?

favicon My students’ skills in grammar and mechanics aren’t improving fast enough.

I’m not sure what to do. I’m convinced the problem has three parts:

  1. I’m good at identifying grammar problems but not good at teaching grammar so that students improve their skills,
  2. My students don’t spend enough time proofreading, and when they do, their approach is not meticulous enough,
  3. Despite my efforts, my students haven’t built a network of peers and adults to help them proofread.

My problem is not that students struggle with grammar. After all, I understand that learning is a process. But it’s worrisome that there are so many errors that don’t seem to go away.

Right now, in a short, five-paragraph essay, my students average 20-30 errors. That’s after a week of revision and proofreading. Many of these errors fall into these popular categories: possessive apostrophes, tenses, run-ons, subject-verb agreement, and commas after introductory clauses.

But then there are the bizarre errors: double periods, quotation marks that go the wrong way, misspelled names from the prompt, titles that are italicized and underlined, and uncapitalized names of characters.

When I read my students’ essays, I have an otherworldly experience. A few reactions emerge simultaneously.

  • Did they even proofread this?
  • They know this grammar rule. Why isn’t it automatic yet?
  • What am I supposed to do about this?

Really, I’m at a loss. All students have an online writing mentor who offers comments every week. I look at their essays every week and teach a grammar lesson based on patterns I see. Then each student has a peer reviewer. I even make them listen to Grammar Girl. Finally, 10 students have in-person grammar coaches, and eight other students have completed Grammar Camp, a small-group intervention I lead during Lunch.

Ideas, please? favicon

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Teaching proofreading is not easy

 I know all the tricks: Read your essay out loud. Read it backwards. Have someone else read your essay.

These proofreading tips just aren’t working for several of my students this year.

Is it because they’re lazy? Sloppy? Have low standards? Or is it because they can’t spot their errors — or that they don’t know grammar?

It’s probably all of the above. But in order for me to help them improve their writing, I need to figure out exactly what’s going on.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  1. Ask students about their proofreading process. How do they proofread? For how long? How do they know they’re finished?
  2. Observe students proofreading their essays. Suggest different methods and see which ones yield better results.
  3. Assign a standard proofreading process. Tell them exactly what to do and see if the uniformity works.

That’s just a beginning list. I’m inclined to do all three. In fact, I began today with one student. I asked her about her feelings toward grammar and proofreading. (“I hate grammar!” she said.) She then proofread her essay in three different ways, and we talked about which method worked best for her and why. (The method she liked the best — reading a printed copy out loud — also found the most mistakes.)

I like #3, too. My students benefit from specific directions. One idea is to make all my students do the same exact proofreading process. Another (better) idea is for the students to proofread based on their grammar patterns. I know that other teachers do this, but I haven’t figured out a good way to pull this off. Please let me know if you have ideas! 

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The good and bad news of Grammar Week

 Last week, instead of doing a new AP Practice Essay, my students and I focused on grammar and proofreading.

Their assignment: Choose an essay they’ve written this year and then eliminate as many errors as possible.

Here are the ways my students received support:

  • I read each student’s essay and reported the total number of errors to find and correct. Important: I didn’t identify the errors on the essay.
  • Next, their peer reviewer and online writing mentor read the essay and identified potential errors.
  • We also devoted 30 minutes in class to find and fix errors.

Grammar Week had some good and bad news.

The good: Some students dramatically reduced the number of their errors. One went from 42 to 7. Another went from 56 to 15. This pleased me and sent a message that hard work and precision can lead to grammar growth.

In addition, the average number of errors decreased from 25 to 11. That means that my 23 students fixed a total of 322 errors in their essays.

One more piece of good news: One student had zero errors, and another six had fewer than five.

The bad: There are still way too many errors. You just can’t have 11 errors in a five-paragraph, two-page essay. The AP readers are going to eat them alive.

Although some students showed evidence of working hard, some did not. I was flabbergasted that one student had 42 errors at the beginning of the week and then 40 at the end. Another student dropped from 18 to 14, a minuscule improvement. My feeling is that many of my students still need to learn better work habits, a stronger sense of grit, and a heightened sense of what’s good enough. Too many people (me, their online writing mentor, their peer reviewer) are working too hard for my students to be working so little.

Here’s the worst part: That’s 11 errors after substantial revision. Remember that students take their handwritten draft through a week of revision (with peer and adult support) before turning in their essay. This Grammar Week was an additional revision process. Exactly how many errors exist on their original handwritten draft? I’m scared to broach this subject. It might be too painful.

Despite the bad news, I’m doing what I can do as a teacher to help my students with their writing and grammar skills. This is a process, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I just wish that results would come more quickly and more easily.

It’s impossible to tell which efforts (Grammar Camp? individual grammar coaches? online writing mentors? peer reviewers? time in class? one-on-one conferences with me?) work best.

Looking at the data, I find that in-person intervention has worked most effectively. Students who have grammar coaches or go to office hours to conference with me do better than those who rely on online support alone. This observation is good to note, but then it leads me to the next question: How exactly am I supposed to get 20 minutes of in-person support every week to every student?

Stay tuned (for my next idea): Virtual one-on-one conferencing using Jing

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It’s Grammar Week in AP English

 Sometimes I feel like AP English should be renamed AP Grammar.

My students’ reading, writing, and thinking have grown over the past two months, but unfortunately, their grammar remains horrific.

Therefore, instead of writing a new essay this week, I’m having students select an old essay to perfect. Their goal: Eliminate all errors.

This means errors of grammar, mechanics, usage, and conventions.

It’s a tall order: Right now, the average number of errors (in a typical two-page essay) is 25. (And that’s after revision!)

Having 25 errors in just one essay is going to prevent my students from passing the AP test in May. The graders will say, “Nice ideas. Too bad the errors distract me so much.” That’s why it’s crucial that I take class time to address this issue.

According to my students, there are three parts to the problem:

  • My students don’t take time to proofread. When their essay’s done, it’s done.
  • My students don’t know how to proofread. Even though I’ve given them tips, they don’t yet use those tips consistently. They see errors in others’ writing but not in their own.
  • My students’ sense of grammar is spotty. They may know the rules, but they have trouble applying them.

How do I fix this? I’m not sure. I’m trying a number of things: grammar lessons once a week, grammar tutors, writing mentors, peer reviewers, and Grammar Camp. It’s still not enough.

Do you have ideas? If so, please share! 

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Am I doing enough to prepare kids for AP?

 I’m doing a lot so far this year to give my students a shot to pass the AP English Literature exam in May.

Office hours twice a week. Reading and reviewing weekly essays. Getting each student an online writing mentor. Starting up Grammar Camp. Asking for computer donations.

I’m easily working 15 hours a week on this class alone. If I had a full schedule, I’m not sure I could keep this up.

But when I read an article like “Incentives for Advanced Work Let Pupils and Teachers Cash In,” recently in The New York Times, I question whether my effort will be enough.

Writer Sam Dillon focuses his piece on the National Math and Science Initiative, a program that gives money and resources to schools that increase the pass rates of students of color on AP exams. But for me, the heart of the article is teacher Joe Nystrom, whose skill and energy seem unparalleled.

We all know, after all, that while money and resources make a difference, the most important factor to student success is the quality of the teacher.

And so far this year, I’m finding out that I can be effective. But a lingering question remains: Is what I’m doing enough?

My quick answer is no. For example, Mr. Nystrom’s students attend Saturday classes. Mine don’t. He does lessons on YouTube. I don’t. His students get one-on-one tutoring. Mine don’t.

Although I understand that this is my first year teaching AP, and that I don’t have a partnership with a national nonprofit organization, and that it’s not sustainable to spend 20 hours a week on one class, I also realize that my students won’t pass unless I do more.

A good example is grammar. In my last post, I wrote that my students need individual help on their grammar if they’re going to improve. If I provided that help, it would increase my workload by at least seven hours a week. So my idea was to recruit people to come to the school one day a week to work with students.

So far, that project is very slow going. It’s hard to get strangers to devote two hours a week (1 hour with students, 1 hour traveling back and forth), particularly for no pay. Local writing centers and universities have also said no. It looks like this is going to be a one-by-one, word-of-mouth project that might take months to get off the ground.

Problem is, we don’t have months to spare. I believe strongly that my students have the work ethic to bridge the AP gap. They don’t need a financial reward to entice them. They need instruction and time with skilled coaches. I am hopeful that I’ll have the energy to pull this off.