Saturday, September 7, 2013

Legos Are Like Grammar

Not long ago in my teaching career, I came to a realization.

Every single book in my classroom library could be used to teach some kind of grammar skill.

Shocking, yes? (No.  I shake my head at myself.)

 I was coming off of five years as a Literacy Coach, and there were often many conversations about lists of books.  

"Which books are good to teach complete sentences?"
"Which books would be good to teach pronouns?"
"Are there lists of books that would be good to teach declarative sentences?"

I would always giggle a little bit.  

See, the problem is, every single book in the world is full of declarative sentences.

Almost every book would be great for supporting a discussion about subjects and predicates, and how they work together in our language.  

After reading Janet Angelillo's book Grammar Study, I realized that I needed to teach sentence patterns as fun, building opportunities.  In fact, Angelillo even likens grammar study to playing with Legos:

"Do we teach students that sentence are as much fun to build - and play around with - as Lego castles?  You build them, stand back to check them out and break them up and try them another way and so on." (p. 53)

When I returned to the classroom to teach again, I decided that I was going to teach grammar a different way.  I decided that I was going to start from authentic, much-loved texts, and move outward toward the inauthentic test-like question.

For example, we recently finished learning about types of sentences in our third grade class.  We studied them first in texts that we loved and knew well.  This way, the children were not focusing on the plot and content of the text, but on the language.

Later, they looked for these types of sentences in their own writing.  How amazed they were to find that these sentences were everywhere, and they had used them frequently!

By the end of the study, they were able to find and label these types of sentences in an inauthentic, test-like situation, with sentences pulled out of context.

Why did this work for us?

Because our grammar study wasn't tedious.  We didn't drown ourselves in declarative sentences worksheets.  We pulled sentences out of books from authors we absolutely adore, and played around with them.  What would happen if this sentence became interrogative?  What would it sound like?  How would it change the way it was read?  Why does this sentence work so well?

Angelillo writes, "Better to display sentences from books and ask them to discuss why each sentence works.  Thus we challenge students and make grammar part of our intellectual conversations, not a matter of 'I'm right and you're wrong' or some meaningless guessing game" (p. 55).

Grammar can be like playing with Legos.  And almost every well-loved book I own can support a study in some way.  

I suppose the moral of my story is, lists of books for teaching skills are fine.  But looking in my own classroom library for loved books was much more effective than using a text with which my students were not familiar.

So in the meantime, we will just keep building our word castles, checking them out, breaking them apart, and putting them back together.