Context is Everything: Grammar Lessons

Teaching students about grammar using popular, and well written, literature can be the best solution to a tricky topic.

By Jo Ann Zimmerman

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Once upon a time in America, students spent their school days parsing passive verb constructions, slaving over subject-verb agreement, and anguishing about antecedents. Those were the days.

Reformers are quick, and correct, to note that much about education has improved since the era of Warriner's. As English teachers, we rightly stress reading comprehension and the writing process over rote memorization of arcane grammar rules. We immerse students in rich literary experiences and use the latest technology our districts can afford to engage students in writing for real purposes. Yet too many students still struggle to read and write. What are we doing wrong?

In truth, the problem may be what we are not doing. With all of the other legitimate demands on an English teacher's time, it has been easy to let grammar instruction slide. Then, too, direct instruction in language mechanics has been out of fashion for some time. Much research supports the position that grammar, like vocabulary, is best learned in context. In classrooms across the country, this translates into the practice of using student writing to address grammar errors -all well and good as far as it goes, but where are the models of correct usage?

A rich source of material to model proper writing mechanics is right in front of us - the novels we read in our classrooms. Just as we pull vocabulary words from the story, why not use sentences from the novel to teach verb tenses? Isn't a big part of what makes books such as "The Phantom Tollbooth" and "Freak the Mighty" so readable the way their pronouns and antecedents agree? Wouldn't it be great to integrate lessons in language mechanics into existing novel study units? And how much could you reinforce reading comprehension analyzing sentences right out of the book?

Grammar Lesson Plans:

Literature-Based Skill Building: Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

Here's a group of lessons that ties together comprehension for specific chapters of the novel and word study exercises. Most activities are aimed at grades 5-6, though the dictionary lesson could easily be adapted to older readers.

Idioms...Not to be Taken Literally!

What better book to use for teaching idioms than The Phantom Tollbooth? This lesson for grades 4-6 uses internet sites with idiom activities to introduce the concept, then challenges students to identify idioms from the story.

Reading and Consolidating a Grammar Point

This lesson for grades 6-8 uses expository text to teach verb tenses. There is a link to a news story for students to read, though any grade level text could be used.

You're the Editor

Students in grades 7-10 read a news story about UFO's and edit the piece for grammar and usage. Includes a useful editing checklist.