Somebody please help me find the research (and I know it’s out there) which states that worksheets do not transfer grammatical knowledge to students. I’ll give you a cookie. (This is why I can’t wait to get into a doctoral program. I will finally have time to find the research or do it myself.) Research or no, I’ve seen where students are given a rule and then are expected to practice it. Yet the knowledge goes no further than the recycle bin that they all drop the worksheet in once they’ve scanned it for their grade. Ask students to write a sentence or a paragraph and the rule goes right out the window.
Think about what goes into writing a paragraph. Let’s take one of my students, sitting at her desk, as an example. She needs to be able to concentrate. She needs her writing journal. She needs a writing implement. She needs to know how to write. (Stay with me. All of this really does count. If you have ever tried to work with a student who doesn’t have one of the above, you aren’t going to get very far writing a paragraph.) She needs an idea. She needs to be able to transfer what is in her brain to her paper. She needs to communicate the idea in a way that helps others understand. She picks up her pencil and writes something. Did you see thinks about all the grammar rules she has ever learned and applies them to her idea in there? It was in the “communicates idea” sentence. She sure didn’t. And she didn’t stop to think to herself, “Hmm. It’s the beginning of a sentence; I need to capitalize.” Nobody does that.
Furthermore, grammar knowledge varies wildly from student from student. Some will be very adept; many will not. To ask all students to do worksheet after worksheet when they already know the material just seems really dumb to me. I want a program that is specific to the needs of the learner.
Grammar rules in action need to happen by rote. Automatically, like flushing the toilet. (If you are raising your hand to argue about whether flushing the toilet is automatic, go stand in the corner.) Which is why worksheets are so seductive. It looks like you’re asking students to grind in one point so that it’s ingrained. But when one sentence out of 100 has a noun clause, the rule learned by that worksheet is unlikely to be remembered when it is written authentically. (Let’s not get into the question of how in-authentic schools are right now. Let’s save it for another day.) In previous posts, I have waxed rhapsodic on the merits of English 2600, but I’ll be honest, if practice has not been coupled with it, the textbook is little better than worksheets. (Maybe a little better, but not much.) So, how do you make the practice authentic?
Let me start out right now by admitting I’ve never even tried the “writing applications” that comes with the new edition of both 2600 and 3200. They struck me as not really useful, but I’m willing to be proven wrong.
I lucked into a conference where the Grammar Goddesses were presenting. (I can’t seem to make the link to their website work, but I’ll have my tech support, i.e. husband, help me later.) Instead of editing student work with the tradition editing symbols, they give students codes at the error which reflect the grammar mistakes their students made. Students then write out a list of the codes, write the rules correctly, and then fix their mistake on the next draft. It’s brilliant. It dove-tails nicely with English 2600 because, well, it would. It’s all the language of English.
They also made an important point. Don’t write on a paper that students are not going to revise. Students look at a grade and toss it away. If you are going to take the time to give feedback, make it worth their time. This is where authentic practice comes in to play. Students are already writing for you. Whether they be writing a sentence or a paragraph or a 20-page paper, if they are turning it in for a grade, that is the time to have them make a Personal Skills Record (PSR).
Here’s how it works in my class: students write something I am going to edit. They hand it to me. I take a pen and write codes like “sp” for spelling or “comma-sub. clause” for a comma error when it has to do with a subordinate clause at the place the error happened. I do this for every error I catch. I hand the paper back. Students take a new piece of paper and write down the codes I gave them and the grammar rule off of a Code Sheet that they keep in their writing tools. Then they fix their paper. They turn in the edited draft, the PSR, and the next draft all at the same time. I need the original document to see where the errors were, I need the PSR to see that they studied the grammar rules they broke, and the final draft to give them an A on their paper. The next time they know they need to turn in a paper for me to edit, they check their PSR to see what mistakes they made last time.
Somewhere I lost the book that I bought at the conference explaining how to do this in better detail. As I looked at the Grammar Goddesses’ website today, I didn’t recognize the titles, but since they wrote it, I’m sure they would know what I’m talking about. They struck me as very nice ladies. I’m sure you could contact them for specifics. Or, you could ask me, too.
Over the years, I have tweaked the code sheet for the grammatical needs of each class. Instead of asking students to write the rule every time they made the mistake, I ask them to tally up the number, so that they know how often they made it. Sometimes, I ask students to look at the codes they garnered and choose one or two that everyone (or almost everyone) needs a lesson on. As students move through the grammar program, they see it play out in their own writing. By the end of the year, students pride themselves on having fewer and fewer errors. The grammar rules really do become a habit. But be warned. Like any habit, if your school falls out of making it a priority, your students will stop doing it. We can’t assume that because students were taught appositives in 5th grade that they will still be using them correctly in 9th unless all of their teachers hold them accountable to the rule.
So, there it is, my long-winded description of how I try to make grammar authentic for my students. There are other things I do, but I think the marriage of a strong grammar program and an opportunity to practice with real work does more to cement grammatical ability than anything else I’ve seen.