Playing with Parts of Speech by: Tosh McGaughy

This past week, I began reading Martin Brandt’s new book about grammar, Between the Commas. His ideas about the “pillars of sentence instruction” made me think about meaningful and effective instruction for the building blocks of sentences, the parts of speech, and how I taught them to students.

I thought about all the different ways that I tried to teach these functions to my students through sentence composing (thank you, Killgallon), sentence sense (thank you, Charlene Tess), and my own student-sample mentor text work. Mere labeling and defining was never successful with my students, and I disliked spending much of my precious workshop time direct-teaching parts of speech. But, I also couldn’t get my students to grow as writers if we did not have a common language to discuss how their words were forming meaning and then how they could make craft choices with the selection and position of their words in sentences. 

As a seventh grade teacher, I knew that anything effective with thirteen-year-olds had to be repeated… often. For the fundamentals, they needed to revisit and reapply those concepts at least six times during the year to actually “get” them. Robert Marzano’s ideas about vocabulary acquisition pushed me to think about the role of “play” in the recursive vocabulary work I needed my students to do. After lots of trial and error, I came upon two ideas that easily wove into our Readers/Writers Workshop classroom and gave us opportunities to make connections to the terms we needed to use as writers and to reflect and revise our understandings of the terms throughout the year. 

Idea #1: Parts of Speech Personality Test

My social media savvy teens loved taking online personality tests, so I started the year with one of my own. The students were given eight different descriptors and they read them, discussed with friends, and then chose the descriptor that they most closely identified with. They had to write a super short rationale for why they felt the descriptor described them. I kept the labels a secret until the big reveal, when I would have each of the 8 descriptor categories come to the front of the room for a group photo and the part of speech that matched their descriptor. They would pose as a group with a large poster of the part of speech, and I would make the photos into posters for the walls.

The funny thing that happened in every class was how the students began calling each other by the categories. “Man, you are being such a verb. Take a walk and settle down.” Or, “Sarah is the best to have in a group because she is such a conjunction. She always helps everyone bring their ideas together.” Basically, they began to apply the functions of the parts of speech to actual people, and those connections and discussions helped solidify their understandings of the terms enough for us to be able to dive deeper into sentence work during our writing conferences, without having to do a bunch of “circle-the-noun-and-underline-the-verb” work in their papers. 

At different points in the year, students got to revisit the descriptors and decide if they had changed at all. (If you know middle schoolers, they are an ever-changing group of humans, so the changes and the rationales for the changes were some rather enlightening short writing pieces.) Also, when I needed a quick grouping, I could also ask them to “get with someone who is a different part of speech” or “get together with someone who is the same part of speech”. It enabled us to discuss the parts of speech during the workshop in a way that was rooted in function, but that also gave us an organic way to keep the terms on the tips of our tongues. (And, it eventually became like a “sorting hat” when new students arrived. The class would eagerly await for the newbie to choose a descriptor and then that group would welcome their newest member. Yes, the interjections were always the loudest.)

Idea #2: Parts of Speech Physical Metaphors

Once a six-weeks, writing groups would have a quick warm-up creating metaphors for the parts of speech. Every group would be given an identical set of objects. (In the beginning, I gave exactly 8 objects per group, but to make it more challenging, I would do 10 objects by the end of the year so they had more choices and could add parts of speech they had learned recently.) The groups would have a parts of speech reference (one-pager with the definitions and examples) and a stack of different student-focused grammar and style guides that they would then use as they created their metaphors from the provided objects. As they agreed on a metaphor, one group member would write out the group’s reason that the part of speech was that object. All groups would share out, and the class would agree on the “best” metaphors. By the end of the year, students would begin to bring in their own “sets” of random objects for us to use for this activity, and they enjoyed bringing very weird things to spark discussions as they discussed the best metaphors. 

Both of these activities were quick ways for my students to have conversations about terms that I needed them to understand on a deep level. Making them discussion points rather than paper-based “progress checks” succeeded in adding them to my students’ academic vocabulary in an open-ended and formative way. And, for the record, I am very much an adverb.

  • Sentence Composing for Middle School by Donald Killgallon, 1997.
  • Between the Commas by Martin Brandt, Heinemann, 2020.
  • Simple Steps to Sentence Sense by Charlene Tess, Kindle version, 2019.
  • Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools by Robert Marzano, ASCD, 2004.


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4 thoughts on “Playing with Parts of Speech by: Tosh McGaughy

  1. Amanda Rahlf December 19, 2019 at 7:08 am Reply

    Love this! I will be sharing with teachers.


    • toshmcgaughy December 19, 2019 at 7:24 am Reply

      Awesome! We are diving into some vertical grammar work this summer, and I’m “gearing up” for the framework and structure to how we will design 6-12. So….it’s constantly in the back of my mind right now, even though textbook adoption really should be my sole focus! 🙂


  2. Ruth December 19, 2019 at 5:40 am Reply

    This is brilliant. I’m retired now, but it is this kind of engagement with necessary, but often boring concepts that I loved to turn into work that was fun. After listening to too many sentences with odd and frankly wrong verb tenses, I came up with verb boxing. It got kids up and out of their seats, plus we worked on conjugation by boxing, giving a punch for each.
    Ex. I am; you are; he/she/it is and so forth. The boys were really into this, but the girls would give me that “do you really expect me to_____” look. I’d tell them it would help to prevent under arm wiggle and was cheaper than going to the gym or buying weights.


    • toshmcgaughy December 19, 2019 at 7:26 am Reply

      Thank you, Ruth! Verb boxing sounds great! Anything that gets students up and discussing (or boxing) has a better chance of sticking with them. 🙂


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