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When talking about grammar instruction, it makes sense to start at the beginning, and by beginning, I mean elementary school. Dawn Hallsten is a second grade teacher at a mid-sized, rural elementary school in Minnesota, and she shared what her eight-year-olds do with writing.
First, Minnesota has a set of academic standards which the kids must meet by the end of the school year. The Language Benchmarks (126.96.36.199 through 188.8.131.52) speak to grammar specifically, and cover the following topics:
Nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, making simple and compound sentences, capitalizing, commas in a list, contractions, spelling, thinking about different contexts for writing (formal and informal), and the expansion of vocabulary.
In her classroom, Mrs. Hallsten focuses on how a sentence should sound and what it should look like to provide a good foundation for future writing. She doesn't stress knowing the grammatical terms, but instead talks about, for example, "jazzing up" sentences with descriptive words. She also spends a lot of time talking about purpose. For example, when writing a personal narrative, they talk about why they're writing this (to connect with the reader, to entertain the reader, etc.). She tries to impart the advice that your writing projects who you are, and that's important to keep in mind when writing.
Students in her class not only work on formal assignments using the writing process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and proofreading, but they also jounal a lot. She tries to spend at least fifteen minutes of uninterrupted writing time a day, something that, unfortunately, isn't the norm for all classes. Because of this time investment, though, she is able to conference individually with students at the end of the year and talk to them about their progress in writing based on the journal entries.
The approach to grammar concepts with second graders is all about being hands-on. When teaching adjectives, for example, she'll give the students marshmallows and have them use their different senses and write down what they see, taste, feel, etc. When teaching possession, they will go out into the school and label things, like the principal's door or their desks. If the students do a worksheet on sorting words into categories of noun, verb, and adjective, she'll then have them create sentences out of those words to help students make the connection that the words are building blocks to solid writing.
Correcting errors is something all English teachers have to grapple with, and Mrs. Hallsten finds that the best way to work through errors is to talk one-on-one with her students. After they have a draft written, she will talk them through the errors and then will come up with the correct answer together. The students are then expected to fix those errors, though there is some leniency for mistakes in the final, "publishable" version. (They are second graders, after all!)
At the end of the year, students should be comfortable writing a good paragraph, which is considered a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence. They work throughout the year on creating great sentences and expanding their vocabulary.
I have to admit that I was amazed at the amount of attention that is given to teaching grammar in second grade, and, more generally, that they teach the entire writing process as well as considering purpose (and, by extension, audience). So if students are being exposed to grammar and sentence structure and are working the writing process as early as second grade, why do so many come to college unprepared to write at the college level?
Part of the answer lies in Mrs. Hallsten's experience. As we all know, just because you cover the concept in class doesn't mean that everyone is going to get it, and even if they do get it, it doesn't mean that the concept will be retained. We try to figure out why and lots of times, their difficult personal lives and histories are contributing factors. Mrs. Hallsten sees kids' lives outside the classroom affecting what they can do in class. She notes that she can tell those students who haven't been exposed to reading and writing at home. Also, when a second grader writes, they write about things that they've done or experienced. It's hard for some students to come up with ideas to write about when they don't do a whole lot at home, and that's tough to see.
These same things show up in our college classes, though. We have students who don't have anything to say, maybe because sharing has been discouraged or they've had bad experiences. We have students who don't read or write at all, and if there's anything that my research has taught me, it's that to learn to communicate in writing, people must read and write a LOT.
I think that we as college instructors can learn a great deal about how to approach grammar and writing in our developmental classrooms from our elementary school colleagues. It's not that we need to be condescending or treat our adult students like children, but there's something to be said for doing hands-on, practical activities or having students apply theoretical concepts to their own writing. Maybe the technical terms aren't important. Maybe it's important to have a sense of humor about all of it and to spend more one-on-one time with our students.
Above all, we should consider where our students come from and to try to cut them a little slack. Now, I'm not saying that we lessen our standards for our classes, because they were exposed to this stuff, even if it was as far back as second grade. But even second graders have to deal with life, and those reverberations can be felt in our own classes. To work with students who have had both positive and negative experiences, we need to know what those experiences are. It seems that it'd be worth asking them...and talking to their teachers.