Students get a lot of hands-on learning opportunities in elementary school, and for good reason. It’s effective! But when students get older their opportunities for hands-on learning become fewer and fewer.
I believe this happens for several reasons. One reason is that high school teachers typically have large numbers of students in their classes, and hands-on learning can be trickier the more students in a class. It also involves more prep time than, say, a lecture.
However, I am going to break down some of those obstacles here, and make the case that hands-on learning is just as crucial in high school as in the early years of education.
Benefits of Hands-On Learning
When students can learn by manipulating pieces, moving things, and even moving their own bodies they benefit in multiple ways.
- They understand the information more fully.
- They retain the information for longer.
- They enjoy the learning process more.
One reason for these multiple benefits is that hands-on learning allows students to use both sides of their brains. The left side of the brain is responsible for listening and analyzing while the right side of the brain is responsible for spatial processes. When students use both sides of the brain, they make more connections and simply put, they remember things longer (Arholz).
Movement also activates the part of the brain called the cerebellum, which is the part that is responsible for memory, attention, and spatial perception. This is why when movement is part of the learning process, students can retain the information longer (Priore).
Although hands-on learning benefits all learners, it may be especially beneficial to students with learning differences, ADD, and ADHD. Read more about that here: Hands-On Learning in ELA - ASCD
Hands-On Learning In Subjects Students Often Hate (I’m Talking Grammar)
I love making grammar hands-on because it turns an area that most students hate into something fun.
I also find that grammar is an area of instruction where teachers tend to do a lot of isolated instruction, worksheets, and find-the-error drills. Granted, these are not the best way to teach grammar (far from it--see the article The Wrong Way To Teach Grammar, or my blog post “How To Teach Grammar In High School”), but because students often have this experience with grammar they get nervous when grammar is involved.
By turning grammar instruction into a low-stakes game, you can free students from being defensive or nervous when it comes to grammar. They can play with language, and they don’t have to worry about getting everything “right.”
Mind you, it is important it stays low-stakes. This means that students shouldn’t feel the pressure of time limits or that they have to perform in front of others or get their answers all “correct.”
Having students work with partners, at learning centers, or in an environment where they can share and check with peers helps to keep these games low stress for everyone.
How To Do Hands-On Learning In High School (3 Ideas)
Do Hands-On Grammar Warm-Up Activities
One of the best times to use hands-on activities is at the beginning of class because it sets the tone that they’ll be doing something in class, not simply be passively receiving instruction.
Taking 10 minutes at the beginning of class to put students into pairs to do a hands-on activity or to have them work individually gets them thinking and moving right away.
One of my favorite activities to use at the beginning of class is to give each student a half sheet of paper with a well-written mentor sentence on it. I then have them do a “four corners” type of activity with this. If they have a simple sentence, they move to the corner for simple sentences. If they have a compound sentence, they go to that corner. Same thing for complex and compound-complex sentences.
After they move to their designated corner, they can all take some time looking at each other’s sentences to see if they are indeed all the same type of sentence. If a student realizes they need to move to a different corner, they can. Give all the students an opportunity to move to another corner if they need to and remind them, it’s fine if they have to move! We are all learning!
You can add on to this activity or leave it at that. If you leave it at that, it takes about 10-15 minutes. If you want to add on to it, have students take their sentences back to their seat and use their sentence as a story starter. They can spend another 15 minutes creating a story with their mentor sentence as the opener.
Make Grammar Hands-On With Learning and Review Centers
A great way to work in grammar instruction and review is to have a class period devoted to learning through centers or stations. Here’s how you can set this up:
Create 4 or 5 different centers in your classroom:
Give students a stack of mentor sentences and have students separate the stack into 4 different piles. One pile for simple sentences, one pile for compound sentences, one pile for complex sentences, and one pile for compound-complex sentences.This is similar to the concept I mentioned above, but turned into an activity to do at a station. This should take about 10-15 minutes to complete, depending on how many mentor sentences you give them. Want a set of mentor sentences designed for this activity? Click here: Hands-On Sentence Types
If you’ve taught different types of phrases and verbals, this is a great activity to review those concepts. Very similar to the above activity, you can give students a stack of mentor sentences to look at. They will then need to determine if each mentor sentence has an appositive phrase, an infinitive phrase, a gerund phrase, or a participial phrase. Check out the mentor sentences I’ve gathered for this station here: Phrases Review Activity.
Scavenger Hunt Station
I love this station because it involves browsing through books! Gives students at this station a stack of high-interest YA books and a few classic pieces of literature. Then give them the directions that they must do the following:
- Write down a sentence with at least two action/vivid verbs in it
- Find a sentence that STARTS with an adjective and write it down
- Find a compound sentence and write it down
- Find a sentence that ENDS with an adverb and write it down
Active and passive voice can be really tricky, but when students get a chance to look at sentences written in active voice and passive voice right next to each other, it seems to really click. Have students look at writing from published works and determine which are written in active voice and which are written in passive voice. You can engage them in a brief conversation about why the author might have chosen to write some sentences in passive voice.
Even older students need to review verbs! It’s such a simple way to make one’s writing more powerful. At this station students can work with mentor sentences to see which ones have vivid verbs, which ones have linking verbs, and which ones have both! I’ve taken a bunch of sentences from short Sherlock Holmes’ stories that are perfect for this activity. Check them out here.
After students have completed each station, spend a few minutes debriefing. You can ask students if any of the concepts sunk in a little deeper when they were able to move them around and interact with them physically. It’s informal data, sure, but it’s still helpful in determining if it’s worth the effort to make hands-on learning part of your routine.
Use Hands-On Activities To Review Before Tests or Essays Are Due
If students are particularly stressed before a big essay is due or before standardized tests, use one or more of these suggestions at the beginning or end of class to de-stress. It can remind students that it's ok to play with language, and that is SO important if you want to lead students toward becoming writers who take risks with their writing and enjoy the process.
The last activity I’ll suggest is great as an individual or partner activity It does involve some prep (cutting out sentence parts and putting them in little baggies for students or pairs). However, it is such a great way to see how language can be moved and manipulated to create a slightly different meaning.
Basically for this activity, you give students sentence parts that are cut out. You can give them clauses, phrases, different parts of speech, and punctuation. Then, give them a set of tasks, such as:
- Create a compound sentence (be sure it’s punctuated correctly).
- Change your compound sentence into a complex sentence by keeping one of the clauses and adding a subordinate clause.
- Create a simple sentence that starts with an adjective (be sure it’s punctuated correctly).
- Add to that simple sentence by placing an adverb somewhere in it.
This is such a cool way to interact with language, and it’s something that doesn’t happen naturally when students type their ideas onto a computer screen. It’s also a way to teach and work with punctuation. If you’d like to use the sentence parts I’ve created, check those out here: Hands-On Sentence Parts.
Prepping For Hands-On Learning Activities
One reason high school teachers don’t use hands-on learning in their classroom is simply the time it can demand to create these types of lessons. That’s certainly the reason I avoided it for many years.
But then I found a better way. Instead of me spending hours cutting hand-held cards for students to observe and move around, I found ways to outsource this, namely to my students. Here are 3 ways to outsource the prepping of hands-on activities:
- if you have students that come to your room to visit/hang/chill before school: have these students do some cutting while they gather in your room.
- If you have students looking for volunteer hours, they can help with your prep.
- When you have a catch-up day, enlist the help of your students who are already caught up on their work.
Don’t feel like you need to do all of these ideas any time soon! Start small, and see how it goes. You can use any of these ideas as warm-up activities, and some involve very little prep! And remember, once you’ve done the prep, you can pull these activities out year after year.
If you do want to try a few of these suggestions, check out my hands-on bundle that includes everything I've highlighted in this article. You can check it out here: Hands-On Grammar Bundle.