I spent many hours in elementary school diagramming sentences, parsing parts of speech on spidery branches of sentence trees. I must admit, though, I never found this procedure painful. For me the activity compartmentalized language. The parts of a sentence worked like Lego bricks, and once I understood the various “shapes” of grammar, I found enjoyment in rearranging them.
As an English teacher, then, I’ve always felt palpable guilt about the way I teach grammar…or more accurately the way I don’t. I teach it every year in every class, but my students don’t seem to do a very good job learning it. I was never satisfied with my approach or my students’ mastery of basic language rules…until I used Google Docs to have my students keep grammar journals. I leveraged technology to make students more accountable for their grammar work, but this technique could be adapted in any subject to keep an error analysis log.
The set-up of this classroom practice is simple. In the beginning of the year, I asked students to start a new Google Doc and then make at least one entry per week, on their own. I spent a portion of a class period leading a discussion on why grammar might be important to them, and I framed my expectations with this assignment description.
I walked students through the description, but I also used their own writing to guide this initial work. Prior to class, I had gone through the first writing assignment of the year and highlighted any grammar errors I found, limiting myself to ten.
Using the master list in the assignment description and their highlighted essays, each student made a bulleted list of grammar errors they were making. Using the comments features in Google Docs, I asked them to identify each error. They did NOT to fix the error; they simply labeled it. I imposed an “Ask Three Before Me” rule at this stage. They first had to ask themselves what the error might be. If they were unsure, they asked the student to their left and their right for help. If there was still confusion, they would call me over.
During the labeling of their errors, I was able to give feedback to each student multiple times, clarifying misunderstandings and formatively assessing each students writing skills. After the students completed their master lists, they chose two HOT BUTTON grammar issues, the two aspects of their writing that—if mastered—would have immediate and noticeable impact on their work. I had made notes as to which errors were made and which issues I considered the most pressing. The exit slip for that day’s class was to confirm with me which two HOT BUTTON grammar issues they had selected. I used this final check-in to ensure that each student was clear as to what he or she should work on.
I had finally realized that I needed to think of ways to put the burden of learning more squarely on the students’ shoulders. I needed a way to differentiate grammar instruction but still easily document the learning. The grammar journals via Google Docs proved invaluable.
I spent the rest of the school year teaching grammar as I most often do…using a hybrid of whole class instruction, online tutorials, and individual feedback. But, each week they were required to make at least one entry in their grammar journals. The entries were meant to be specific, personal, and honest….They did not, however, need to be long. I expected one entry to take between 20-30 minutes from start to finish, including research time.
I seldom wrote feedback. Instead, I completed quick face-to-face check-ins during class. While students were doing something else, I’d call up individuals and offer critique. I would offer suggestions for other sources and methods as well. Students also completed periodic self-assessments.
By using student-directed grammar journals, grammar concepts became “stickier.” In other words, by taking a more proactive approach, the students’ mastery of language increased. Also, because I set up multiple resources and activities, the students used varied modes to learn. They could come back to a tricky concept like parallelism many times in many ways. Through this differentiation, I found myself, less often, making repeated comments on essays throughout the year.
Because the use of Google Docs effectively organized their work and allowed me (and peers) to easily give feedback, I was more likely to come back to grammar every week. Grammar instruction stopped being a chore that we all agreed to avoid.
Student response was overwhelmingly positive. Even my most reluctant, disorganized students—the ones that always seemed to be missing or rushing their entries—eventually began to realize the value of patient, independent practice…and their writing improved as a result.