The word alone is either off-putting or inviting (you know who you are, grammarians). Perhaps you are imagining visions of worksheets, sentence diagrams, or a writing piece riddled with red ink. Or maybe you are someone who secretly corrects grammar in your mind as others speak. Wherever you fall on the love-hate continuum of grammar, we can all probably find common ground in at least one belief:
Writing loses power without the strong, intentional use of grammar.
If we think of writing as a way to share our voice with the world, grammar can help us do so with more command. Perhaps we should start with a slightly different definition of grammar: a set of tools that writers choose to shape their writing. Like an artist chooses certain brushes or sculpting tools, a writer uses grammar to mold, construct, and craft writing. Grammar and writing are not separate from each other.
It’s not grammar and style—grammar is style.
So if we give feedback to writers using this new definition of grammar—the writer-as-artist with a set of artistic tools—how might that change the way we teach grammar? First and foremost, we would probably ditch the red pen. Imagine an artist whose mentor came in with a red pen and “corrected” that piece of art until it was unrecognizable. No, Picasso, you cannot have one eye sideways like that. Let me fix that. Monet, those dots look a little blurry. Fill them in like this. Yes, I realize that these are accomplished artists, but they started as wannabe artists whose mentors apprenticed them to find their own style and greatness. Our role as teachers is to use this apprenticeship model so writers learn to grammatically style their writing.
When ditching the red pen, let me clarify (imagine marquee lights around this next statement): we must explicitly teach grammar as a part of writing. So instead of correcting grammar for the writer, we show how to harness powerful grammar and style. There are endless alternatives for helping writers grammatically craft their writing without doing it for them. And you may have noticed: correcting grammar for writers takes up a huge amount of time and leads to little or no improvement!
Either way, grammar is part and parcel of being a writer. My favorite way to teach grammar is to show how writers intentionally choose grammatical techniques. Grammar as a choice!
To clarify, there is no choice in whether to use grammar; rather, the choice lies in how to use grammar. We can show writers how to decide on punctuation, word choice, verb tense, sentence structure, quote incorporation, and more. This is a way of teaching explicitly not only the grammar rules that apply, but also the grammatical decisions a writer makes based on those rules, as well as times that writers intentionally break grammatical rules for effect.
Here’s how feedback with the intent of supporting grammarly choices might go:
- Ask the writer what s/he is trying to convey in the piece or a portion of the piece.
- What feeling, tone, message, or purpose is the writer intending? Who is the audience? What does their writing need, in their opinion?
- Zoom in on one grammatical approach that writers might use to style their writing to match their intention.
- Teach two to three grammar techniques within that approach that the writer can choose to use in his or her writing.
I was working with Jeanie who shared with me that, in her introduction of a piece of biography, she felt her sentences were pretty much the same structure and she wanted to add a little more “pizazz” to draw the reader in. I took a quick peek at the introduction and decided to model three ways she might revise her sentence structure:
- Use an appositive
- Switch around one part of a sentence by putting it at the beginning with a comma
- Add onto the end of a sentence to explain more
This is Jeanie’s before and after:
While Jeanie might spend a little more time working with her sentence structure choices, there is a significant evolution in style and sophistication. She did this through molding, constructing, deliberating, and revising her sentence structure using my coaching—not my correcting. This interaction with grammar as style in the hands of a writer helps to:
- Build ownership and agency with the use of grammar
- Equip the writer to try these techniques later in the piece and in future writing
- Internalize grammar rules and choose when to break them for effect
- Build joy and an artistic lens on the part of the writer
- Diminish the dreaded feeling many writers have when hearing the word grammar
- Tie writing and grammar together so they are no longer seen as separate skills
I have designed a chart of grammar skills with suggestions on questions or choices you may want to offer. These skills, in my experience, are those where my red penning trigger finger starts to itch. I use this chart to keep it at bay.
Finally, here are a few tips on using this chart:
To sum up, the trio of feedback, grammar, and choice creates an entirely new dynamic: grammar is viewed as a tool to add clarity, meaning, style, voice, originality, and purpose to writing. Writers, the world over, want this—need this. We, as their mentors, can teach them how choosing and using grammar techniques can help them reach their own writing goals.
Patty McGee is a Literacy Consultant with a passion for creating learning environments where teachers and students discover their true potential and power. She is the author of Feedback That Moves Writers Forward published by Corwin Press. Follow her on Twitter at @pmgmcgee