When Your Students Beg for Grammar, You’re Doing Something Right!

For the last three weeks, we’ve gotten busy with two different writing projects that are taking longer than I anticipated.  (Isn’t that always the way?) We’ve also been working on word investigations.  My students are enjoying these projects.  The word investigation-type projects are ongoing.  Whenever someone finishes a required project (such as one of the two current writings or their current word investigation) they bring their orthography notebook to my desk and I get them started on a new project.  It’s been my way of making good use of every spare moment we have together.  What I didn’t realize was that the students actually love knowing there is always a next project, and that they don’t have to wait for everyone in the room to complete a project before they can start a new one.

I love it too.  Everyone isn’t looking at the same thing at the same time, so when the students share their findings with the class, we have discussions about conventions and concepts that we circle back to when a group working on a similar investigation is sharing what they found.  There has been just enough time between the presentations to let things sink in and in that way, prepare the students to hear similar information and ask great questions.

So we’ve been splitting our time between writing (and all that it encompasses), investigating (looking at words, graphemes and the modern bases that derived from Latin verbs), and moving ahead in our understanding of the hydrosphere (watching and discussing videos).  I really thought I was checking off all the boxes for the curriculum I teach.  And then several students asked this question:

“Mrs. Steven, do you think we can analyze a sentence today?”

It had been almost two weeks since we last analyzed a sentence.  I was really surprised (and quite happy) to hear that it was something the students were missing!  So I said, “Sure!”  We must keep our students happy, right?

The basic plan I follow for teaching grammar comes from the mind of Michael Clay Thompson.  I have been fortunate enough to attend several workshops with him and just about a year ago I took his online Grammar for Adults course.  I use his book Grammar Voyage as a reference and have created my own interactive book to use with my students.  Using ideas and materials by Michael Clay Thompson has changed the classroom attitude regarding grammar!  When the students walk into my room and see a sentence on the board, they immediately start thinking about the overall sentence, the words in it, and the relationships between those words and phrases.  Seem hard to believe?  Here’s what happened on Thursday.

Some notes before you watch …

I split the video into two parts.  Part one focuses on the parts of speech for each word in the sentence.  It also focuses on the important parts of the sentence (subject/predicate/direct object, indirect object/subject complement).  As you watch, you’ll notice that it’s impossible to identify parts of speech without considering how those words relate to the other words in the sentence.  None of the steps in this four level analysis can be done in complete isolation.  That wouldn’t make sense.  As an example, one of the students points out early in the video that the word “her” can be both a possessive determiner (adjective) and an object pronoun.  Brilliant.  Then it becomes our job to figure out what its function is in this sentence before we can be satisfied that we have labeled it correctly.

You will notice that I begin by counting the words in the sentence and asking for that many volunteers to come to the board and identify the part of speech for each word.  You will also notice that I have an abundance of volunteers!  With everyone going to the board at once, no one is singled out as having put any particular identification underneath any particular word. And when they walk away, we have a place to start our discussion.  The students can consider the labels placed beneath each word and either support them with evidence or question them. As a class we can figure out not only why we don’t think the current label is correct, but also what we think the correct label is and why.  My plan is to turn the thinking and evidence finding back on the students as much as I can.  When they are stuck, that is when I step in.  You can tell by the types of questions they ask and the number of students participating that they are engaged in this type of analysis.

Here is Part 2.  In this video the students identified the prepositional phrases and the sentence structure.  You may have noticed that in Part 1 the students identified the sentence structure as complex when they labeled “because” as a conjunction.  Now it was time to repeat what was said then and to talk about the difference between clauses and phrases. Then we reviewed the difference between independent and dependent.  I love talking about the word sums for those two words and what the base’s denotation reveals to us about what the words mean.  According to Etymonline, the base <pend> is from Latin pendere “to hang, cause to hang; weigh.”  A few weeks ago when we first talked about dependent and independent clauses, I threw out the words “suspenders”, “suspend”, “pendant”, “perpendicular” and “pendulum.”   We talked about how they each share a sense and meaning of “hang.”

Then I drew the T Model (one of Michael Clay Thompson’s brilliant ideas to visually represent a sentence) on the board, and the students told me how to fill it in.  Normally the students create their own, but this was the first time we were using the T Model to represent a sentence with two clauses.  I wanted to show them how we might show the connection between the two.

I know that there are those out there who insist that grammar is black and white, right or wrong and can only be diagrammed with trees.  But in the same way that I am teaching my students to be open in their thinking about words, I am teaching them to be open in their thinking about grammar.  As you can see, the students seek to understand the logic of the sentence and how the order of the words can affect that.  You could probably hear them flipping through their grammar book (the interactive one I made for them) to find the evidence to back up their hypotheses about a particular word or phrase identification.  They are engaged, they are thinking, and they are making connections.  The next step will be to have them write their own complex sentences for us to analyze.  I anticipate that they will relish doing so!

Four-Level Sentence Analysis and Structured Word Inquiry – Both Rooted Solidly in Scholarship …

I love teaching grammar.  No, really!  I love teaching grammar.  Of course, I didn’t always love it.  I began loving it when I met Michael Clay Thompson.  He revolutionized the way I was teaching it.   It’s hard to imagine something other than what I grew up doing – going through each part of speech as laid out in our English textbook with plenty of fill-in-the-blank sentences, in order to prepare for a test on things learned in isolation.  But Michael Clay Thompson thought of a different way to teach it, and his idea is brilliant!

He encourages teachers to review/teach the parts of speech and the parts of a sentence within the first month of the school year.  That sounds crazy, yes?  That does not leave enough time to teach to mastery, but that’s okay.  The mastery happens later on, after the sentence analysis starts.  You see, after that first month of intense review and teaching, I start writing sentences on the board to be analyzed.  And we spend the rest of the school year understanding the interrelationships and functions of the parts of speech, the parts of the sentence, and the phrases because we see them over and over in different sentences as they are being analyzed. In other words, we spend one month of reviewing/learning and 7-8 months of applying what was learned.  See?  Brilliant!

To begin with, the sentences are simple and short.  But the analysis is the same:

Now here’s what that looks like with a real sentence:

The first row below the sentence is parts of speech.  If you are wondering what ‘det.’ stands for, it is an abbreviation for determiner.  Over the course of the last year, I have come to understand and embrace the idea of a ninth part of speech – that of the determiner.  Prior to that, I had, like a lot of people, considered articles to be a type of adjective.  But identifying a determiner as a word that begins a noun phrase has been especially helpful to my students.  When they spot a determiner (and because of their frequent use in sentences, this is one of the first parts of speech students become confident about identifying) they know that a noun (or pronoun) will follow.  It may be the next word, or it may be after one or more adjectives (or adjective with an intensifier), but it will be there!

Articles (definite and indefinite) are not the only types of determiners we see.  Other types include quantifier, possessive, interrogative, and demonstrative.  Identifying determiners in our sentences has given my students a predictable pattern to look for.  The noun phrase usually begins with a determiner and ends with a noun or pronoun.  In between those two we might see adverb-adjective pairs, adjectives, or nothing at all.  There is also the possibility that a determiner won’t be used, as is the case with some noncount nouns.

Other than the abbreviation for determiners, I imagine you can figure out that ‘LV’ stands for linking verb.  In the second row, the important parts of the sentence are identified.  Because this sentence has a linking verb, we look for a subject complement (calm).  If the verb was an action verb, we would look first for a direct object and secondly for an indirect object.

In the third row, we identify any phrases.  This sentence has an appositive phrase.  In the last row we identify the sentence structure.  This sentence is a simple sentence with one independent clause.  The word declarative identifies the type of sentence this is.

In a nutshell, my example above illustrates the four level sentence analysis my students and I engage in for 7-8 months of the school year.  Can you imagine how comfortable some of this feels by the end of the year?  They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the order of words in sentences!  They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the functions and interrelationships of words in these sentences.  They begin to realize that the function of a word within a sentence determines its part-of-speech label.  I particularly love it when a sentence contains a word that is able to function as more than one part of speech and the students need to reason out what its particular function is in the sentence before them!  They become so invested in figuring it out!

But a bigger benefit to all of this is what happens when I conference with the students about their writing.  I can address specific aspects of their writing using specific language that they now understand.  A typical comment from me might be, “You have a dependent clause here, but remember?  A dependent clause is not a sentence on its own.  It needs an independent clause either in front of it or behind it to complete the thought.”  I might also say, “You have written a pretty terrific complex sentence, but it is missing its comma.  Begin reading it aloud and tell me where the comma should be.”  The students understand what I am saying to them and feel good about being able to make fix-ups so easily.

This is what it looks like as students are actively analyzing a sentence:

So this is obviously scholarship, but what does it have to do with Structured Word Inquiry?  Yesterday I came across a recent article by Michael Clay Thompson.  It was posted at Fireworks Press where you can find all of the Language Arts curriculum materials he has written.  Click HERE to check it out.  The title of the article is “Doing four-level grammar analysis is like practicing your piano”.  In the article, he addresses why students need to continue analyzing sentences at every level, even if they’ve already been doing it for several years.

In my situation, students are analyzing sentences for the first time.  The benefits are obvious.  But what about next year and the year after that?  When is enough enough?  I sincerely hope you spend the time reading his response.  To that end I will not post the highlights of it.  If I tried, I’d have to post the whole article anyway!  I will, however, share two of his thoughts because they philosophically parallel how I feel about my other passion, Structured Word Inquiry.

“Four level analysis is different because it is an expansive-almost cosmic-inquiry into language, with four tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously, and it is investigating something that is not concrete or simple but that is essentially bottomless.”

For those familiar with SWI, do you see the parallel?  As I’ve been teaching my online class, Getting a Grip on Grammar, I’ve been realizing more and more how similar the investigations into these two areas can be.  I love thinking of SWI’s four essential questions as well as MCT’s four-level analysis as “tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously”.  And clearly neither is “concrete or simple”, but “essentially bottomless”.  There was a time when I would’ve thought of that as an overwhelming idea – thinking I would be expected to know all of it at some point.  But scholarship isn’t like that.

Scholarship is not what happens when you use a textbook, memorize definitions, and get tested.  Scholarship is done leisurely.  It is a continual pursuit to understand better what one only understands partially.  There is no test.  There are only questions to be posed, investigations to be launched, and evidence to be gathered.  Here I will share another quote from Michael Clay Thompson’s article.  In your mind, replace ‘Four-level analysis’ with ‘scholarship’ because clearly the one is a form of the other.

“Four-level analysis can lead you through the known, beyond the terms, past the things that have already been named, and on out to the edge, where the wild questions are.”

It’s alright if you read it a second time.  Because of my passion for both SWI and grammar, this sentence not only resonates with me, it also makes me smile!  Scholarship is a worthy pursuit, whether it be in regards to words, grammar, or in playing the piano.  Thank you Michael Clay Thompson for the beautifully written, inspirational article!

**If you are interested in learning more about the grammar instruction my 5th graders receive, there is a tab at the top of this page that says “Grammar Class”.  That is where you can find out about current schedules.  If there isn’t one currently scheduled, just let me know your preference for time-of-day and dates.  I will created a new schedule!