Some of you are writhing in pain just looking at the title. I’m glad.
And, as promised, here is what I’ve found to be effective.
Start with yourself. If you aren’t confident, you won’t teach grammar well. That doesn’t help your students. Here’s the story of how I learned. When I was in junior high, my English teacher, Mrs. Genovese, was worried about my grammar. She was right to be worried. I didn’t know it at all, and I am dyslexic to boot. She handed me a copy of English 2600, by Joseph C. Blumenthal, which I promptly stole. I’m not sure why, but I held onto it for years and years. I carried it to college, I carried it to Japan, and I took it into my classroom with me when I started to teach English.
This is a very odd book. It looks funny. It’s a workbook made up of 2600 questions on grammar. To achieve this without using an entire forest of paper, Blumenthal formatted the page with variegated stripes of white and grey. You start with frame one where it asks you if “dog barks” is a sentence. Turn the page, and you see the answer. There is no need to cheat, or pretend you already know, because it’s right there. You follow the stripe of white to the last page, where you flip back to page one on the grey stripe. Repeat. The lessons build upon each other, ultimately teaching you how English grammar supports itself.
When I started needing to know grammar (really needing to know it), because I was teaching it, I went back to Mrs. Genovese’s book. I realized what a gold mine I had been carrying around with me, and I really finally learned grammar by going through the book with my students.
I typically use the book in a group setting by handing each student a copy (if money is tight two students share it—it’s an expensive book), and I lead them through it question by question asking them to write down their answers before they look at the answer. I’ve had students in Japan and exchange students here in the US get very high TESOL scores using this method. But I also remember a frustrated Korean student doing practice tests at the dorm. He had convinced his English teacher that he didn’t need the grammar lessons. The next year, he came to me not knowing why he was getting questions wrong. I marked a chapter in the 3200 book (the college-level version of 2600) and said, “Here, read this.” He handed me the book back a day later totally confident in his knowledge. (He passed.) I’ve also had American students tell me that the SAT was much easier because they had studied from this book.
But my favorite story is about a former student who was taken out of the public school I was teaching at and placed in a parochial school. He came to me really upset because his new classmates were so far ahead of him in English. He was failing. After some thought, he decided it was about his grammar. I handed him my English 2600, which he promptly stole. About a month later, I opened my mailbox at school and found a copy of his report card. B+ for English and a post-it note saying, “Thanks!” He kept the book.
And once you’ve got English 2600 down, you can move to English 3200. It’s the same concept, just more advanced — and 600 more questions. I find that my students who have gone through the book can easily point out the difference between a phrase, a clause, and a sentence. They can write a complex sentence and a compound one. They can see the effectiveness of the simple sentence used well. They can choose to use a fragment for effect.
Most importantly, I am rarely stumped when it comes to the why of grammar. If I want a down-and-dirty explanation of a grammar concept, I log onto Purdue’s OWL website, because it gives me a quick answer. But when I needed to learn the materials, I needed a text that lead me, step by step, to enduring understanding.
I don’t mean for this to be a commercial for Blumenthal’s book. Do whatever works for you. But do something. Learn it so you can teach it.