5 Tips for Helping K-2 Students Actually Apply Their Grammar Learning

It’s one thing to teach a grammar skill or a writing convention … and another for students to actually apply it!

I mean, how many times have you talked about capitalizing the beginning of a sentence—and then still seen your students forget to do so in their writing?!

Getting kids to apply their grammar learning isn’t easy. It takes time and careful intention. But it IS possible! In this post, I’ll share my five top tips for getting kids to apply their grammar learning to their writing.

Tired of the missing capital letters and periods? The incomplete sentences? If you want your students to actually apply their grammar learning to their writing, try these five tips! I wrote the post for Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade teachers, but the concepts still apply for the older grades.
Photo Credits: ESB Professional, Shutterstock

Tip #1: Show students how grammar concepts apply to real reading and writing.

I’ve talked about this extensively in previous posts, but in case you missed it — the research shows that grammar is best taught in the context of reading and writing instruction.

Kids need to see how authors use capitalization, punctuation, and other grammar rules in their work. And they need support with applying those same skills to their own writing.

Traditional grammar drills and sentence editing are not effective instructional methods. If we want our students to apply their learning, we have to show them real-life examples of grammar and conventions in texts. And we have to get them to practice those skills in their own writing.

For more tips on how to do that, check out this post and this post.

Tip #2: Make sure students understand the WHY, not just the HOW.

At first glance, the study of grammar and conventions seems mostly about memorizing rules. You always need to capitalize a sentence. You always need a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. The subject and verb need to be in agreement. Etc.

But in reality, there are REASONS why these conventions exist!

For example, ending punctuation marks tell us a) that a sentence is finished and b) how we should read the sentence. They contribute to the meaning of the text!

Another example: there’s a reason why we have past and present tense forms of verbs—so the reader or listener knows when something happened!

When we present a grammar or conventions concept to students, it’s important that we first focus on the WHY (Feigelson, 2008).

Why is this convention important? What does it accomplish for us as readers and writers?

We can also apply the “why” to our conversations with kids about their writing.

Instead of saying, “You need a period at the end of this sentence,” we can say, “Where do you want your reader to pause and take a breath on this page?”

When kids understand why they need to use a certain convention, they’re more likely to actually use it in their own writing.

Tip #3: Provide editing practice AFTER you teach students about the convention—not during the initial instruction or instead of the initial instruction.

Even though our grammar instruction should be closely tied to our writing instruction, we need to hold off on editing practice for a bit.

We should wait to provide editing practice until after students have learned about the convention and had some opportunities for practice that don’t involve editing (Anderson & La Rocca, 2017).

And this makes sense, right? We have to build a foundational understanding before our students can really apply the skill.

If we want to teach our students about using apostrophes in contractions, for example, we want to show them examples of correctly-formed contractions. We’ll want to point out examples in published texts. We’ll model how to create contractions and have the kids create a few of their own to practice.

Then—and only then—our students might be ready to edit their own writing, looking for contractions and inserting apostrophes.

In a nutshell: it’s hard for kids to see errors in their own writing, and it’s even harder if we haven’t provided enough appropriate instruction in a concept before we ask them to make corrections to their writing.

Tip #4: Give kids opportunities to see the convention used correctly in multiple contexts. Give kids practice editing for the convention in multiple contexts.

Published texts (like the books we read during read-alouds or shared reading) are great for showing kids examples of conventions and grammar rules used correctly.

But we have to show them more than one example for the idea to really “stick!”

And when we ask our kids to edit for a specific convention, we can’t expect them to practice once and then be able to do it independently from then on. We need to give our kids supported opportunities for editing practice in multiple contexts—multiple pieces of writing (Anderson & La Rocca, 2017).

Tip #5: After you introduce a grammar skill or convention, don’t immediately add it to an editing checklist.

I guess the theme of Tips 3-5 are “give them time!” 🙂 It just takes time for students to really master a concept. It’s not reasonable to teach them a skill one day and then expect them to use it correctly in their writing the next day.

It’s great to have a growing and changing editing checklist, but we have to give our kids enough time to master a skill before we make them “responsible” for it by adding it to the checklist.

Conclusion

If your kids are struggling to apply the grammar skills and conventions that you teach them, you’re not alone!

But the good news is this: you don’t have to teach them ALL the things in one year. It takes kids time to learn these skills. We can support them by grounding our instruction in real texts, presenting multiple opportunities for learning, and giving kids time.

Do you have any tips for helping kids apply their grammar learning? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

References

Anderson, J., & La Rocca, W. (2017). Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language Grades 1-5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Feigelson, D. (2008). Practical Punctuation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Graham, S., MacArthur, C. A., & Hebert, M. (Eds.). (2019). Best Practices in Writing Instruction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Ruday, S. (2013).  Five Recommendations for Teaching Common Core Grammar to Elementary Students. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.




How to Integrate Grammar Instruction into Shared Reading or Close Reading (for K-2)

Want to provide the absolute best grammar instruction for your students? Connect it with your reading (and writing) instruction!

Research shows that teaching grammar in the context of reading and writing is MUCH more effective than worksheets, editing drills, and isolated practice.

We want our students to see grammar and conventions used correctly in real texts. We want them to have opportunities to practice in their own writing.

In my previous post, I explained how I make grammar a part of my writing instruction.

In today’s post, we’re going to focus on integrating grammar into reading instruction!

Grammar instruction is most effective when it's connected to your reading instruction. Learn how to do that in your Kindergarten, first grade, or second grade classroom in this post!

First, I want to mention that when I say “integrate” or “embed,” I don’t mean that I don’t teach grammar separately. I do—not every day but at least once a week I have a separate grammar lesson. When I can, I make grammar instruction part of reading and writing lessons that I’m already teaching. But some parts of my grammar instruction stand on their own. Just wanted to make sure that was clear! 🙂(In an upcoming post, I’ll provide more details about my preferred schedule for teaching grammar.)

How to Use Texts as Part of Your Grammar Instruction

When I wrote my post about integrating grammar into writing instruction, I explained that books/texts have a big role at the beginning of my instruction on a certain skill.

When I introduce a grammar skill or convention to students, I like to show them examples from real texts.

And my preference is to use texts that we’re already using—maybe in shared reading, close reading, or from a read-aloud.

I don’t usually bring in a completely new text just to teach a convention. Time is limited, and I’d much rather my students make the connection to a familiar text if I can!

Here’s an example:

Let’s say that we’re working on exclamation points: what they look like, what they’re called, and why authors use them. I show students a couple of misc. example sentences on the board, but then I pull out two texts we’ve recently read together.

In those two different texts (one at a time), I turn to pages where the author has used an exclamation point.

We discuss why the author did that and how the exclamation point contributes to the meaning of the text. We read the sentences aloud chorally, making sure our voices reflect the exclamation points. We may even discuss how the text would be changed if the exclamation points weren’t used.

And that’s it!

Easy, right??? But it’s meaningful because the kids are seeing how real authors use the convention (exclamation points, in this example) for a purpose. They see what effect it has on the text and on the reader.

Of course, I follow that up with more practice (including eventually having the kids use exclamation points in their own writing), but showing kids examples in real books helps ground their understanding of the convention and why it’s useful.

Why Shared Reading and Close Reading Are Excellent Opportunities to Discuss Conventions

In the example above (for exclamation points), any type of text would work. You could grab a read-aloud text, an article you read together…anything.

But I also want to point out that shared reading and close reading provide excellent opportunities for embedded conventions instruction.

In both instructional practices, you usually…

  • Display the text so that students can see it clearly and read along
  • Read the text more than once

These aspects make shared reading and close reading PERFECT for conventions instruction!

Displaying the text “up close” gives students access to the print, so they can more actively participate in the discussion of the grammar skill or convention.

Reading the text more than once is essential when you use a book for grammar instruction. During the first read or two, you just want students to understand the text. Once they understand the text, their attention is freed up to focus on other things—like grammar!

Here’s an example of how you might teach students about question marks as part of your shared reading routine:

On Monday, you read a short text and focus on comprehension.

On Tuesday, you read part of the text again and focus on a decoding strategy.

On Wednesday, you read part of the text again and focus on a convention, e.g., question marks. You discuss why the author used them and how it impacts the meaning of the text. You connect the author’s use of question marks to a fluency strategy: “make your voice go up at the end of a question.”

Again…easy! But effective!

Working with Grammar Skills That Are Trickier to Integrate

In both of the previous examples, I mentioned punctuation marks. Those are pretty easy to integrate into your reading lessons, right? Capital letters are relatively straightforward too.

But what about those grammar skills that are a little trickier to integrate? Here are some more ideas to get you started:

Nouns – have students identify nouns in a text that describe a character, describe the setting, or tell where an animal lives.

Common vs. proper nouns – with a nonfiction text, create a t-chart of the common and proper nouns from a few pages and discuss why the author chose to use a common noun in some case and a proper noun in others

Pronouns – practice finding the antecedent of a few pronouns in a story

Verbs – work together to make a list of all the action verbs used in a story, discussing how the verbs differ and what they mean.

Adjectives – in a nonfiction book, discuss how the author uses adjectives to “paint a picture in our minds” and teach us detailed information

This proper and common nouns activity can be done with any nonfiction text. Read the post for more grammar activity ideas for Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade!

Conclusion

Integrating grammar into your shared reading or close reading instruction is a simple—but effective—way to teach students about the way language works.

In my next post, I’ll share more about how to find time for your grammar instruction, because as I mentioned earlier, not all of my grammar instruction happens during reading and writing lessons.

Happy teaching!




Best Practices for Teaching Grammar in K-2

When you think about your own experiences with learning grammar, what comes to mind?

As a student, I remember diagramming sentences…using a musty old grammar book with yellowed pages….exercises that put me to sleep…and generally disliking grammar altogether.

Can you relate?

As a teacher, I’d never want my own students to have the same experience. But at the same time, I see grammar and language arts instruction as absolutely essential! We can’t leave them out of the curriculum entirely.

If you’re a primary-grades teacher like me, you want to give your students a solid introduction to grammar, AND you want to keep your grammar instruction engaging!

So I’ve designed a series of blog posts to help you do just that. Today is the first post in this series, and we’re going to explore best practices for teaching grammar.

These practices apply to all elementary grades, but my blog is primary-focused, so that’s what we’ll focus on.

(And yes, I include Kindergarten in my definition of primary…but of course, grammar instruction in Kindergarten looks extremely different than it does in other grades!! We’ll talk more about grammar in Kinder in future posts!)

Okay. Let’s dive in!

Want your grammar activities and grammar lessons to be super effective? Read this post to learn how to teach grammar in Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade!
Photo Credits: stoatphoto, Shutterstock

I think it’s helpful to explore what NOT to do before we get into best practices!

What Doesn’t Work in Grammar Instruction

As it turns out, the grammar instruction I received not only put me to sleep…but it was also ineffective.

But you don’t have to take my word for it! Here are a couple of quotes from the research (all of these are different studies, but I found them in Grammar Matters (Dorfman & Dougherty, 2014):

“The study of traditional school grammar…has no effect on raising the quality of student writing.” (Hillocks and Smith 1991, 248)

“The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.” (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Shoer 1963, 37-38)

In a nutshell, grammar worksheets, sentence fixing (sometimes known as D.O.L.), and sentence diagramming don’t usually help kids learn grammar skills. In fact, they can actually have a negative effect on students’ motivation and overall literacy learning. Yikes!!

So maybe your first reaction to this is: “Well, then, let’s do grammar games and more hands-on activities!”

And I’m 100% on-board with you in wanting to make grammar fun!

But we have to be careful. It’s not just the worksheet itself that’s “bad.”

It’s the activities ON the worksheet that aren’t effective. Because they don’t help kids apply their grammar learning to their writing.

If you look back at those two quotes above, they both mentioned writing as the ultimate goal. I mean, that’s why we teach grammar, right? So our students can learn to write well. (And of course, it can also help with oral language and reading.)

So in trying to avoid the “traditional” grammar instruction that’s been shown to be ineffective, we have to be careful not to accidentally replicate it.

Taking a worksheet and turning it into a game still doesn’t change the nature of the activities that kids are doing. Does that make sense? It’s subtle, I know.

So then, what should we do instead?

Best Practices in Grammar Instruction

We need to teach grammar so that kids can actually apply it to their writing.

That means that much of our grammar instruction should take place in the context of writing instruction so that kids take what they learn and use it in their own writing!

We’ll talk more about this in my next post, but here are a few examples:

  • Teaching adjectives when you’re teaching students how to write more complete descriptions of animals for their nonfiction books
  • Introducing commas in a series to help students list out ingredients/supplies in recipes or how-to books
  • Having students identify verbs in their own personal narratives

Of course, before students can apply a grammar skill or a convention to their writing, they have to learn it. And that’s where reading and mentor texts come in!

As I mentioned in the previous section, having kids fix incorrect sentences (sometimes called Daily Oral Language) is not, by itself, an effective way to teach grammar and editing.

We don’t want to repeatedly expose kids to incorrect examples, because then all those errors “stick” in their brains!

Instead, we want to show our students how authors use conventions successfully! To fill their minds with good examples!

We discuss grammar and conventions in the context of real texts, so students can see how authors use them correctly.

In a shared reading book or a close reading passage, for example, we can have students identify verbs…find a capital letter…locate the punctuation mark.

And once we’ve discussed a correct example with students, we can also discuss how the text would be different if the target grammar concept was not used (Ruday, 2013).

For example: What if the author hadn’t used this exclamation point? How would that have changed the meaning of this paragraph?

In sum, grammar instruction is most effective when students see it used in real texts and when students have an opportunity to apply these skills to their own writing.

Makes sense, right?

The Importance of the “WHY”

As we teach grammar skills in the context of real reading and writing, it’s also important to help our students focus on the WHY.

The English language might seem a little nuts at times, but there’s always a reason why a convention or grammar rule exists.

There’s a reason why we capitalize sentences, right? A reason why we use a question mark…or an adjective…or a comma.

Our students need to understand reasons—not just memorize rules.

Asking our students, “Why did the author do x?” is a powerful question! So is, “How can you get your reader to y?”

Both of these inquiries get students thinking about why authors use conventions, as well as how they can use conventions to accomplish certain things in their own writing.

Supporting Students with Special Needs

If you teach students with special needs, the good news is that you can still apply everything I’ve shared in this post!

Research recommends that, for special education students, we “[s]ituate grammar instruction in an authentic writing context where students apply learned grammar skills to writing and connected texts” (Graham, MacArthur, & Hebert, 2019).

Recognizing What Students Already Know About Grammar and Celebrating Diversity

It might seem like our students have poor grammar skills in their oral language…or just don’t know much about grammar when they arrive in our classrooms.

But they actually do. If a child can speak (or even just listen), they’ve subconsciously absorbed a whole lot about how our language works!

And this is true even of our students who are learning English as a second language or who speak a “nonstandard” dialect of English.

Even as we teach our students conventions and grammar, we need to recognize and welcome students’ home languages and ways of speaking.

I think these quotes say it best:

“Upon entering school, those who speak language and dialects other than standardized English (Hudley and Mallinson 2011) are often asked to disconnect from them in favor of mastering the “correct” way of speaking. Rather than building on students’ prior knowledge, celebrating linguistic diversity and the wonder inherent in multiple ways of speaking, grammar programs all too often silence home language and dialects; in the process, they also silence children’s lullabies, jokes, and family stories” (McCreight, 2016, xvii).

“Does it not smack of racism or classism to demand that students put aside the language of their homes and communities to adopt a discourse that is not only alien but has often been instrumental in furthering their oppression?” (Delpit, 1994, 297) (McCreight, 2016, 45)

Teaching grammar is complicated and nuanced, and we have to find ways to celebrate and acknowledge what students already know.

We can discuss how people speak differently to their friends, their families, authority figures, etc. We can discuss how characters in books speak differently than we do to our peers.

This is definitely an area of grammar instruction that I’m learning about and want to pay more attention to!

Conclusion

Grammar instruction doesn’t have to be something we dread; we can really bring it to life for our kids by focusing on how it matters in real books and their writing!

Check back in the following weeks for my upcoming posts in this series—we’ll dive into topics like how to integrate grammar into writing and reading instruction, how to find time for grammar instruction, and more!

Happy teaching!

References

Anderson, J., & La Rocca, W. (2017). Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language Grades 1-5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Dorfman, Lynne, and Diane Dougherty (2014). Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips & Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Graham, S., MacArthur, C. A., & Hebert, M. (Eds.) (2019). Best Practices in Writing Instruction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

McCreight, J. (2016). Celebrating Diversity Through Language Study: A New Approach to Grammar Lessons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ruday, S. (2013).  Five Recommendations for Teaching Common Core Grammar to Elementary Students. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.