When I started teaching I naively assumed most high school students were pretty solid on their understanding of parts of speech like nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. However, I soon realized that this is not the case.
What I found was that many high school students have a spotty understanding of grammar concepts in general, but an even bigger problem is that they don’t relate their knowledge of grammar to the actual practice of writing.
Fellow teachers, this is a problem.
Grammar instruction must be integrated into writing practice, or it produces students who are afraid of writing because they might “get it wrong.” If you want to read more on this subject, check out this article from The Atlantic: The Wrong Way To Teach Grammar. It’s a sobering article about the pitfalls of isolated grammar instruction.
At the beginning of the year, I find that my students can easily tell me what a noun and a verb are. Most of them can tell me what an adjective is. A few can tell me the definition of an adverb (at least in part).
While students can give me basic definitions of grammar terms, their writing does not showcase a robust understanding of how strong nouns, vivid verbs, and well-placed modifiers can bring a bland sentence to life.
With that in mind, here are my 3 biggest tips for how to teach parts of speech in high school, so that students become people who like to write and are not afraid of grammar.
Showcase great literature, and relate it to grammar concepts.
Usually, when we teach literature we teach the BIG stuff: the overall plot, symbolism, character development, and literary terms. But we don’t always take the time to look at the craft involved that allows the writer to make you feel something. Writing craft matters tremendously, and it’s something students can appreciate.
Using grammar as a springboard is a good way to showcase how the craft of writing matters.
You can choose mentor sentences from what you’re reading as a class, or you can choose from books the students are interested in; by using familiar texts for the mentor sentences you study, grammar will not be isolated.
If you start the school year with teaching verbs, you can showcase a powerful sentence with vivid verbs, like this one from Oscar Wilde:
After you talk about the verbs in this sentence, have students take out their independent reading books and look for one sentence that has a powerful verb in it.
Then, using that sentence as a “mentor,” have students write a sentence similar in style, with a different vivid verb.
By doing this, you are allowing grammar and literature to remain connected (as they should be).
Give students opportunities to write with the grammar concepts they’re learning.
When you teach grammar, it’s best to remember that you want your students to become better writers and that is why you’re devoting classroom time to teaching grammar concepts.
You don’t want to create a bunch of grammarians, because let me tell you, you are not more popular if you know all the grammar rules. There is no point in knowing grammar rules if it doesn’t translate to more clarity and risk-taking in your own writing.
And you certainly don’t want to create students who are afraid of grammar and writing because they might get it “wrong.”
In the article, “Effectively Teaching Grammar, What Works And What Doesn’t Work," the author states, “the best grammar instruction includes extensive reading and writing.” Over 90 years of research has shown us this again and again in different studies!
You might be thinking, “There’s no way I can assign more writing!” I hear you 100%.
I developed a shortcut here: and it’s pretty simple. Give students quick writes, but require them to craft at least one sentence in that quick write response.
For instance, I might ask them to write about an influencer they follow and tell me whatever they want to about this person. But they must also write one sentence with an opening adjective. Then, they must highlight that sentence and/or share it with the class or a partner.
After students write 10 quick write responses over time, I might collect one or two. Or I might not. Students are graded on every essay for diction, fluency, and grammar conventions, so in that way, they will be held accountable for their understanding of grammar.
If you give students quizzes, allow them to showcase their writing on these quizzes; consider a quiz to be another learning opportunity.
It can be tempting to ask students to fill in multiple-choice questions when you’re assessing grammar because there is a “right” and a “wrong” answer. But, if you do this, you could be robbing students of the chance to translate their head knowledge to a skill that they possess.
Here’s what I suggest instead: give short quizzes to determine that they are understanding the concepts, but make most, if not all, the questions ones in which they must write at least a sentence.
These do take longer to grade than multiple choice quizzes, but it’s better teaching and it’s better learning. AND there are a few shortcuts. For instance, I might ask students to write a sentence with an opening adjective and then have them highlight that adjective and draw an arrow to the word it modifies. Then, when I’m grading, I just scan the quiz for their highlighted words.
It’s also worth noting here, that you don’t need to give grammar quizzes or grammar tests to be sure students are learning grammar. Practice writing, and when appropriate, give feedback on students' writing, and their grammar will improve. Read more about that here: How To Teach Grammar: 5 Best Practices.
Don’t reinvent the wheel.
All of this may sound like a lot of work. It’s a lot more nuanced than assigning students exercises from a grammar workbook or outsourcing your grammar instruction to a computer program. But, I assure you, it’s better learning.
I’ve devoted the last few years to creating a grammar curriculum that eases the load of teachers who want to teach grammar in more meaningful ways, but just don’t have the time to create strong, engaging, research-based grammar lessons.
Grab the free unit that will walk you through how to get started teaching grammar in a way that works for you and your students or check out the English Teacher Vault which includes parts of speech lessons and more, like verbals, phrases, active, and passive voice, and comma usage.
Teaching nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in isolated ways can create students who are fearful of writing, but integrating these grammar concepts into reading and writing can create students who feel empowered to write and take risks.
Curious about other great tips for teaching grammar in high school? Check out these posts:
Interested in more research on this topic? Check out this ebook:
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