Tag Archives: grammar

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.

Making Grammar Tangible: Designing Ways for Students to Interact with Tools & Rules by Tosh McGaughy

As a seventh grade writing teacher, I adored conferencing with student writers but I struggled with the lack of impact that those conferences had on my students’ understanding (and application) of grammar concepts. I modeled; I provided mentor sentences; I corrected (with non-red Flair pens); I even… assigned a few grammar workbook pages that came with our textbook. (Yes, I was that desperate.) I knew that I needed to teach grammar and conventions within their writing, but I also knew that the things I was doing weren’t working for the majority of my seventh graders (especially my students who were not avid readers.)

The Impetus

Fate intervened and my own daughter transferred to my campus and landed in my English class. Having the benefit of knowing this particular seventh grade learner since birth, I was privy to a depth of understanding about how she learned best which equipped me to design learning tailored for her. A dancer since an early age, she communicated and learned through movement. Though exposed to many books and rich text experiences, reading did not involve enough physical activity to be one of her passions and she had not “absorbed” grammar through prolific reading. Knowing all this, I was presented with the challenge of designing grammar experiences that would actually “reach” this learner because if I was only going to get this one year to be her teacher, I wanted to make the most of it.

The Action Research aka. trial & error

So, I threw out everything I had done previously with grammar and approached it from a different perspective: how can I make the nitty-gritty and fascinating tools of grammar something that students can physically touch, move, and manipulate? This led to me nailing down a process to identify what my students needed to understand, through our writing conferences and formative writing tasks in our journals, and then creating “tangible grammar” tasks that I could use with students during small group instruction based on their specific needs. The lesson components I found most effective with my students were manipulative, cooperative, personal, and memorable.

The Process

The process that evolved was centered around answering four core questions related to those components. 1) How can I make this concept touchable and moveable? 2) How can I get students to discuss and work together on this concept? 3) How can I help students connect the concept to their own writing and usage? 4) How can I design an experience that students will remember as they learn this concept?

Chart with hyper link

The Successes

One successful mini-lesson that came out of this process was “Punctuation Clothespins Dialogue“. Hearing students repeatedly say that they didn’t “see” the punctuation in sentences and that they felt that punctuating was largely an arbitrary process, I wanted to create a lesson that made the tiny pieces of punctuation BIG while providing opportunities for discussions and revisions to punctuating choices.

HOW: I took colored card-stock and printed out the different pieces of punctuation, with end punctuation printed on one color, and all other punctuation printed on another color. Then, I hot glued (okay…my family members hot glued) the punctuation to inexpensive full-size wooden clothespins. In class, I provided my small group with a mentor sentence from a read aloud text that included punctuated dialogue. (The inclusion of the comma in relation to the quotation marks was baffling my students.) They created their own imitation sentences on paper and then re-wrote them, without punctuation, on large sentence strips. Next, they exchanged with one another and used the punctuation clothespins to punctuate each other’s sentences. The author of the sentence would then check the punctuating and discuss any differences in how their peer punctuated and how they punctuated the sentence. Because the clothespins were moveable, they would just clip and unclip to move them around during these discussions. The whole thing took only 15 minutes, but they engaged with a mentor text, wrote their own imitation sentence, punctuated multiple imitation sentences, and discussed punctuation choices with multiple peers. One of my favorite overheard comments was, “these are top punctuation and these are bottom punctuation” when one student explained where the quotation marks and commas went in a sentence. In all my years of teaching grammar and punctuation, I had never thought of the physical position of these things in relation to a sentence, but that was important to these learners and the clothespins helped facilitate that discussion in a way that my proofreading marks and writing conferences never had.

The “Hot Messes”

I’ll admit, not all all of my “tangible grammar” ideas were a hit. My brutally honest daughter would get in the minivan after school and pointedly ask, “How do you think that went?” Ouch. One particularly spectacular miss was “Punctuation Pasta”. Though having the many shapes of pasta for students to sort, choose, discuss, and use to punctuate their own imitation sentences seemed like a creative idea, it devolved into a crunchy pasta-on-the-floor debacle with seventh graders eating raw pasta (that other classes had touched) and few students (if any) leaving with a better handle on the nuances (and beauty) of correct hyphen use.

The Shift

But, my daughter’s incisive and reflective feedback did push me to take more risks that year, and I kept trying new things to reach those learners that I came to realize I had not been designing for: my kinesthetic students and my students who did not read for pleasure. It also pushed me to research the science of constructivism and concept building in order to tap into the pathways of learning that I had previously ignored. (Visible Learning for Literacy by Hattie, Fisher, & Frey was particularly helpful.) Moving away from “covering” grammar rules in my mini-lessons to truly “teaching” the tools of grammar with chunked, explicit, and very tangible tasks helped my students build understanding in multiple ways, which showed in their writing and improved the quality of our writing conferences.

Integrating Reading & Writing Instruction: Craft Studies & Mentor Texts

This is a continuation of our post from yesterday.

#3TTWorkshopWhat are you reading now, and/or what are your latest finds that could be strong mentor texts?  

Jackie:  For fun, I am currently reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and for AP Literature, I am currently reading Othello.  I read Ready Player One as a departure from my typical YA reads.  I was never a gamer or 80s enthusiast, so I wanted to “challenge” myself by choosing a new genre.  Ernest Cline brilliantly writes action pieces.  Somehow he manages to translate the video game structure into a novel AND make it interesting for non-gamers like me; I am planning to use an excerpt to discuss movement of time either when we work on our multi-genre project this year or our fictional writing next year.  

Most recently, my CP freshmen read the picture book The Promise by Nicola Davies as a mentor for our narrative fiction unit.  In my academic freshman classes, we recently completed process papers based on The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.  Mentors for these included “What you will need in class today” by Matthew Foley and “Instructions for a bad day” by Shane Koyczan.  Students used each as a mentor text by which to craft their own poems and then eventually built them into unique survival guides ranging from “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” to “How to survive a friend’s breakup.”  As Shana said yesterday, I like pairing professional work with my own to show them the messy process of writing, so prior to class I get a head start on my own piece and then I continue developing it while projecting my writer’s notebook on the board at the beginning of workshop time.    

img_1056-1Shana:  I just finished the beautiful Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.  I love it as a mentor text because it’s a bit multigenre, and it’s an engaging YA love story, AND it’s gorgeously written.  With tons of parallel structure and a short-chapter format, it’s a quick read but one that lends itself to lots of frequent re-reading.  I’ll use this text for craft studies at the sentence and paragraph level to teach things like repetition, parallel structure, and varied sentence structure.

Another book I just read was Caitlin Doughty’s memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory, which I usually booktalk with Mary Roach’s Stiff.  This tale of Caitlin’s experiences working in a crematory will be useful for my students to analyze at the chapter level, during which she employs narrative to blend her adult experiences in the crematory with the formative experiences of her youth in order to make a claim about the nature of human life and death.  It’s a powerful example of the use of narrative within nonfiction.

I also recently read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, which tells the story of a high school senior who falls and loses all memory of everything after sixth grade.  As a result, most of her life story is revealed through dialogue with other characters, so this will be a fantastic mentor text at the whole-text level–how can we craft a short story that uses dialogue to reveal movement through time, a character’s background, or a character’s personality traits–all without that dialogue being spoken by that character?


How will you integrate your current reads into your practice?

Shana:  I like to share this article about noticing beautiful writing with my students.  We use it as the basis for two sections in our notebook–“Quotes & Craft Study” and “Wondrous Words.”  I like to break down with my students why a particular line or paragraph or chapter in a piece of writing is so powerful–at the word level, the structural level, the punctuation level.  When we read like writers, we can notice all of those details and begin to imitate them in our own writing.  

img_1057My students asked for more craft study and grammar instruction in their midterm exams.  With our new notebook setups, I’m hoping to create a routine for the wordplay we’ll need to constantly return to in order to strengthen our use of punctuation, specific diction, sentence structures, and other craft moves.  I want to employ more “triple-plays,” as Penny Kittle calls them–books that act as a booktalk, a quickwrite, and a craft study mini-lesson.  For example, I’ll take the chunk of Everything, Everything pictured at right and make copies of it for my students to glue into their notebooks.  Beneath it, we’ll imitate the parallel structure of the sentences, and the exercise will serve to teach parallelism, talk up the book itself, and be a quickwrite we’ll call “it could be.”

Jackie:  Inspired by a course we took this summer with Tom Newkirk, my colleague and I are putting together a superhero unit for our academic Freshman English classes.  The unit will involve both a persuasive essay and a comic strip students make about a hero in their life.  In turn, I’ve been skimming comics and graphic novels to find inspiration for students.  

In this unit, students will practice storyboarding their own comics while studying the use of craft like onomatopoeia, movement of time, and internal and external dialogue.  My hope is that these building blocks will provide a foundation for us to further discuss the use of colors to portray goodness and evil within a comic (or novel) as well as the use of framing or perspective in the pieces as well.

Please join the conversation–how do you approach the study of craft with your student writers?

My Pained Word-nerd, Grammar-geek Soul Demands

Guest Post by Tess Mueggenborg

In a world plastered with poor writing, it is a struggle to convince students that learning to write well is a task worthy of time and energy.  Yet I persist, in this tedious and possibly futile pursuit, because I believe it is best for my students, and crucial to the intellectual sustenance of humanity.

 Grammar 5219037_45d05ab4ebMy students are, supposedly, the best and brightest of their generation.  Contrary to what some other teachers think, this doesn’t mean they’re easy to teach.  My classroom battles begin in much the same way as every other teacher: convincing my students that what I’m teaching them is worth learning.  But I have an added challenge: worse than just being apathetic, my students are often combative, and they have the brain cells to back up their resistance to my proffered educational nuggets.  In their daily life, my students are inundated with crappy writing…written by people who are getting along just fine in life.  By and large, their parents don’t know what a comma is…much less how to use it correctly.  Their peer-to-peer dialogue is a mashed-up mixture of text-speak, generation-specific slang, and Spanglish.  And with this hybrid cut-and-paste short-cut of a “language,” they feel that they are able to communicate quite effectively.  So why should they have to pay attention to my lessons on commas and dangling modifiers, homophones and varied syntax, and the difference between a semi-colon and a dash?  (I shudder to think of their protests if I tried to differentiate between an em-dash and an en-dash…oh, the horror! the horror!)  With a nod to pragmatism, I’m forced to concede: to a large extent, they’re right.  

Many of my fellow teachers don’t know comma rules (or don’t take the time to employ them), and they certainlychair message 481733_505529322815138_2005352416_n struggle with homophones (attention: IT’S means IT IS – it’s NOT a possessive pronoun.  Oh, sorry, you don’t know what a possessive pronoun means, so that tidbit doesn’t mean anything to you).  But they’re certainly not in any danger of losing their jobs for this, or being dinged on their annual reviews for imprecise use of language…since the administrator will probably comment to them: “You’re communication is excellent – your a great teacher!”.  When I see such errors committed, a little part of my soul cries in pain: not for the stupidity and ignorance of my coworkers, but because of the example they set for my students.  My students are right to question me and push back against my lessons on grammar and usage: if everyone else is living happily in the land of grammar ignorance, and are none the worse for it, why should they bother with the mundane nuances of the English language?

 My answer to my students’ queries of “why” is simple: because you can.  Because you have the brain cells to notice and understand what are, to many people, subtle or irrelevant differences.  Because you should try to be the best person you can be, and that includes communicating.  And if that means you have to learn some new things and you’re irritated every time you see grocery store sign advertising “Banana’s for sale,” so be it.  hp jr highimagesCAT0A6BA

 In spite of ever-mounting evidence that I have litttle chance for success, my job is to convince my students that they must learn to write well, and that writing well is a worthwhile pursuit…and I will continue in this likely futile endeavor, because it is what my pained word-nerd, grammar-geek soul demands of me.



“Professor” Tess Mueggenborg teaches English (and anything else with which her students need help) at RL Turner High School.  Her academic passions lie in comparative language and literature.  The Professor lives in Dallas with her husband, Jeff. Tess’ on Twitter @profmueggenborg

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