Let’s talk about what grammar instruction your upperclassmen really need in order to succeed in their last few years of high school and what grammar matters the most for them to do well in college or the workplace.
Typically students learn grammar starting around first or second grade, so as high school English teachers we might initially think that grammar does not need to be a big focus of our secondary ELA instruction. However, after you grade that first essay or two at the beginning of the year, I imagine that you’ve had to pause and reconsider where you’ll need to insert a few grammar lessons.
The fact is that even though students have probably been taught what a noun is since first grade, they likely don’t know how to use grammar to make their writing stronger.
Couple that with the fact that grammar instruction varies depending on a certain teacher’s commitment to it, so some students get through many years of school with only a hodgepodge of grammar lessons instead of a cohesive scaffolded approach that is built over years.
I’ve found that even juniors and seniors need the following grammar lessons to knock those college applications out of the park and to prepare for the working world.
1.) Your Upperclassmen Need To Understand Clauses
Understanding independent and subordinate clauses is critical for a number of things. When your students understand clauses they can:
- Write compound and complex sentences well
- Write fluently for their audience and purpose
- Know how to punctuate their sentences correctly with commas or semicolons
The impact of spending a class period teaching clauses and then following that up with a few writing prompts for practice is well worth your time and something that your students will use for the rest of their life no matter what job or career they choose.
How To Teach Clauses
Real quick, if you are a little nervous about teaching clauses because you're not totally confident about whether your students understand some of the basics, then try this free unit on parts of speech first. It's fun, and it'll give you an idea of where your students are. It's critical they have a strong grasp of verbs before moving into a lesson on clauses.
I approach teaching clauses like I approach many grammar concepts: with brief direct instruction, followed by observing mentor sentences, then practicing the concept through writing.
Sometimes you've just got to give direct instruction; there’s no way around it. But you don’t have to drone on for an hour about what a clause is and further push your students away from grammar.
Make your direct instruction short and sweet by giving students the definition of an independent clause with a few examples, a definition of a subordinate clause with a few examples, and then jump right on in to the beautiful world of mentor sentences!
Bonus: A pro tip with direct instruction is to make your examples funny or filled with references to pop culture or even students in your class.
After spending some time on the definitions of clauses, showcase some great mentor sentences. You can choose sentences from books that you and your students have read together that semester or use ones that others have compiled (more on this in a minute).
Loads of research confirms that students grasp grammar concepts more fully when it is integrated into literature and writing, which is why teaching grammar in conjunction with mentor sentences is a powerful way to make it stick.
I like to start by showing students a mentor sentence and having them discuss it. I may give a few guiding questions depending on the group, such as “What stands out to you about this sentence?” “Do you notice a subordinate clause?” “How would the effect be different if it was two short sentences instead of this longer sentence that combines two clauses?"
Once students have observed a few mentor sentences, give them a sentence frame so they can start practicing writing intentionally with clauses. Sentence frames allow for students to just practice one concept without having to come up with a topic for that sentence.
Sentence frames and sentence starters have proven incredibly powerful in the scaffolding of grammar instruction.
Once students practice with a few sentence frames, give students a writing prompt (I love using animated shorts or interesting pictures) and have them write a few sentence in response to the prompt.
Here are a few things you can ask your students to do based on the writing prompt:
- Write a sentence that starts with a subordinate clause about the conflict in the short film
- Write a sentence with one independent clause about the main character
- Write a sentence with two independent clauses about the setting of the story (be sure to punctuate it correctly!)
Once your student have a strong grasp of clauses you’ll see fewer run on sentences and comma splices, plus they’ll be primed for a lesson on fluency. Which leads me to….
2.) Your Students Need To Practice Fluency
Once your students understand clauses, they can work on the concept of fluency. In order to truly get what fluency is, students need to know the different sentence types so that they can combine sentence types to create fluency.
Teach your students what the sentence types are: simple, compound, complex and compound complex.
This takes a bit of time, but if you’ve put the time in by teaching clauses, teaching sentence types goes much more smoothly!
How To Teach Sentence Types
I use the same general structure for teaching sentence types as I do for teaching clauses:
- Start with brief direct instruction
- Showcase great mentor sentences
- Use sentence frames
- Follow up with some fun writing prompts
One thing that is useful for teaching sentence types is to give students a bit longer of a writing assignment in which to practice because fluency only happens in the context of several sentences.
I like to use “quickish” writing prompts to give students a chance to practice fluency after the initial lesson.
These are fun, open-ending writing prompts that any student can almost immediately think of something about which to write. So coming up with the content is easy. Then, they just need to focus on their writing craft.
I encourage them to include at least one of each type of sentence in their response: simple, compound, complex and compound complex.
Then, it’s a good idea to have them highlight one sentence from their response that they think is a particularly well-crafted sentence. This allows them to reflect on their writing, and they are usually quite proud of what they can craft when they are truly thinking about their writing craft.
Even though I call these “quickish” writes, the fact is that when students are thinking about using all four types of sentences in a response, sometimes this takes a bit of time. And that is fine! It take a lot of practice for something like sentence fluency to become just part of the way one writes.
Allow them the time to write that response.
If it sounds a bit overwhelming to compile all these mentor sentences and create fabulous quick writes, I hear you! I’ve dropped all these lesson in the English Teacher Vault, which you can find out more about here.
3.) Your Juniors and Seniors Need Lessons On Parallel Structure
Want a surefire way for your Juniors and Seniors to set themselves apart on college entrance essays? Teach them parallel structure.
I love, love, love a sentence written in parallel structure. Anybody else? They just make me feel something, and I know college admission officers are no different.
Although I love the concept, I used to be really afraid to teach this concept. It seemed so advanced. But it’s actually not out of reach for your juniors and seniors!
Yes, they do need to have an understanding of some grammar concepts before going into lessons on parallel structure, but they do not need to know all the grammar rules to know how to write using parallel structure.
If your students at least know parts of speech, you can start teaching the concept of parallel structure.
How To Teach Parallel Structure
Start by showing your students how parallel structure is cool by showing them some famous sentences written in parallel structure such as:
"I came, I saw, I conquered." -Julius Caesar
“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” -Benjamin Franklin
Then, show them how sentences can be cumbersome or awkward when they do not employ parallel structure.
By displaying the difference, you can get some buy-in. Students will see that a well-crafted sentence is actually better, and hopefully they’ll want to see how they can craft some lovely sentences.
Then, start simple. If your students know what verbs are, show students that a sentence written in parallel structure may include multiple verbs in a row all in the same tense. So, if your first verb is in past tense, keep all the verbs in past tense. If you have an infinitive verb, all three verbs need to be in the infinitive form.
Of course, I use mentor sentences to display this and then I use sentence frames to give students a chance to practice.
Once students do this lesson, they are less intimated by parallel structure, and they will see how it gives them a tool for better writing. It’s a simple tool, but one with a powerful effect on their writing.
Once students feel comfortable with the general concept of parallel structure you can show them how the same concept applies to writing sentences with clauses and phrases.
Another bonus of teaching your upperclassmen parallel structure is that this is one of those things that comes up on a lot of standardized tests. So, their writing will benefit from them knowing and practicing the concept and their SAT scores will improve as well! Can’t beat that!
I’ve put together a bundle of 3 lessons for teaching parallel structure that really pack a punch! They build on each other and they break the concept down so completely that it will no longer be intimidating to you or your students. You can grab all of those when you join the English Teacher Vault!
Give your upperclassmen the tools they need to success on college entrance exams and/or transition into college and the workplace by giving them a few simple but powerful grammar and writing lessons on clauses, fluency and sentence types.
These lessons do not have to be intimidating or boring! When you use mentor sentences combined with meaningful writing practice, your students will have some simple tools that will absolutely set their writing apart!
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