Results & Findings
Part 5 of Inquiry
I discuss my findings through a linear progression of key events, showing how my ways of thinking developed over the course of the year in tandem with results. These episodes reflect moments of success and doubt in the inquiry, and map the path my students and I took to answering the question of what happens when we teacher grammar more descriptively to seventh graders.
Raising his hand in the middle of an adjectives worksheet during the second week of school, Isaiah exclaimed, “I have a question. Why does it even matter if we know how to identify nouns and adjectives? We all learned language as kids without knowing any of this.” All at once, Chris and Rohan jumped in, shouting variations of “so that we can do well in high school and college on essays.” Virgo countered, “No it isn’t about essays and school – it helps us communicate.” Looking at me for confirmation, the class ceased working entirely. Taking advantage of my pause, Isaiah added, “Why do we need it if there’s autocorrect?” I used the moment not to give answers, but to pose a question. I conceded that labeling was the least important part of grammar, just a step towards understanding. But I used this moment of their collective doubt, their frustration with not understanding why they were learning grammar, to set up our work together. Here, it became clear they were not going to accept learning grammar for the sake of learning grammar.
After we established a path to answering the question of why we were learning grammar, I played with different strategies for teaching my lessons. In a September discussion of why sentence structure is important, I happened upon a tool that I would use extensively going forward. When I asked why it is important to vary sentence structure, Virgo, Stanley and Leandros showed they could combine sentences with words like, “when” and “while,” but they could not tell me why certain sentences needed to be short and others long. I was stuck, grasping at vague concepts like emphasis, until I said, “it’s like in The Incredibles – no sentence is special if everyone’s special.” At this, it clicked, with a chorus of “ohhh” showing they had made connections through this example from popular culture. Filing that away, I saw frustration being alleviated when I put the grammar conversation into their context.
As the students got into a rhythm, and repeatedly told me they were bored from reviewing parts of speech, something we had to do for the whole first quarter per department curriculum, I abandoned traditional note taking and worksheets for a discussion about why and how we use adverbs. Within the discussion, kids showcased deeper understanding, getting into descriptive concepts such as fronting, emphasis, and variance without realizing it. I was hugely encouraged by their advanced understanding of adverbs until the subsequent quiz, where that knowledge did not translate. In going straight for discussion, I had robbed them of their foundation - they could tell me what adverbs did, but were unable to identify one. With the friction of needing to quiz prescriptively on labeling and creating sentences with certain structures alongside this collective desire to go deeper, I recognized a need to blend those two facets. For a complete understanding at this age, where the students had little underlying conceptualization of the terms, they needed prescriptive knowledge of grammar to be the base upon which those terms could be complicated. Descriptive grammar had to follow prescriptive work. When Isaiah, a professed skeptic of grammar, interrupted our early October discussion of pronouns to ask about the increasingly complicated way society uses gender pronouns, it affirmed my belief that we still needed to be doing more discussion, even as we worked to lay prescriptive roots. They were beginning to see the links between grammar and culture. Bored by memorization, they were eager to probe what they had previously just accepted, and wanted to engage in meaningful dialogue.
By late fall, the class found a routine, where we combined a prescriptive intro and traditional sentence review with descriptive discussions about the use of these terms and their communicative roles. In a conversation about the role of conjunctions, many of their answers came easier, as if they finally had a language to discuss what they previously had not known was even discussionable. While Chris said conjunctions made sentences more “complex to impress our teachers,” showing he maintained a self-perspective, Virgo spoke of conjunctions “connecting ideas,” and Ken went even deeper, saying they “showed the relationship between two words, ideas or phrases.” The answers hinted at how the latter two were conceptualizing grammar as a system of communication, and not a tool for self-advancement. But the following day, armed with this deeper idea of what grammar could be, they had had enough of the decontextualized sentences. Ken voiced, “these sentences are ridiculous. Nobody would say this!” He exposed the inauthenticity of that strand of my lessons, the way I had put grammar in isolation. While I had seemingly made one part of grammar more engaging with asking how and why, I needed to do the same with the more prescriptive part I had discovered must remain. When the October survey data (Figure 1) that same day revealed startlingly low scores for affinity for grammar, with only one out of thirteen students reporting any positive feelings toward the topic, a downward trend from the summer, I knew I must make my lessons more accessible.
The solution to raising affinity for grammar, built in conjunction with students and reinforced by a return to my journal entries from September, was to swap out the worksheets for something more engaging. Instead of teaching sentence types with decontextualized sentences, I created a list of song lyrics and movie quotes. A competitive game, in which students worked in teams to both guess the movie or song and simultaneously worked to understand the sentence types, produced universal approval. Previously disengaged students and those of all abilities dove into the activity, and four students separately told me after that this was their favorite class. Yet, a week later, the quiz results were less favorable, as more than half the class scored more than ten points below their average. I had leaned too much towards engagement, sacrificing the grammar for the sake of enjoyment. While I considered the activity a failure, it produced critical results for my inquiry, as it spoke to the power of emotional relevance. Supplementing this work with the descriptive discussions that worked so well to create a more nuanced understanding of language and culture, I needed to now create that captivating relevance without sacrificing the vital prescriptive foundation.
After another imperfect attempt when I let the students locate their own movie quotes to use as examples, but when again I saw a rise in energy, I recognized that I needed to make grammar more of the focus in the classroom. I had deemphasized the proper focus on course material and unwittingly promoted popular culture above it. The solution needed to infuse grammar with something relevant to the students, not the other way around. What I tried next seemed to accomplish what the classroom needed. I rewrote the traditional sentences around popular themes, centering them about old television shows, beloved movies, and even tried using sentences about myself. It was enough popular culture and topics of interest to get the students engaged, but the focus remained on the grammar. Moreover, I could fully control these sentences too, and properly compose them to create opportunities for the types of descriptive discussions I wanted to arise. Unlike the two previous attempts where I ceded control to found material, here I could guide us where I wanted to go. Placing inverted sentence order within the context of Mark Brown’s Arthur could make my sentences more accessible. For instance, after my students correctly identified the subject and could match the verb in the sentence, “In the backyard of the school watches a curious Buster,” they asked more follow-up questions about why someone would choose to use inverted sentences than when my examples were decontextualized. Notably, the following week, I saw Leandros, Rohan, Stanley, and Isaiah using inverted sentence structure for the first time in their writing. Just as Jones et al. (2013) found, writing developed most substantively through these grammar lessons. The why conversation that naturally followed our prescriptive work remained in the brains, even as they retained the foundational understanding.
By mid-February, when I concluded my data collection, the students' survey responses and focus group comments affirmed this new approach. As Myhill (2010) suggested might happen, grammar instruction did more than just improve writing. Expanding the researsh field, I could now name some of the outcomes. Ten of the thirteen students now rated their affinity for grammar as either a four or a five, up from the summer and fall (Figure 1). More students saw the importance of learning the subject, and while I complicated the world they thought to be previously simple, almost all still considered themselves successful. By changing how grammar was taught, mindsets began to change. In focus groups, Ken explained that I made the grammar lessons more engaging “by involving the class in the discussions instead of just lecturing.” The descriptive conversations felt less one-directional, and gave the students an outlet into the subject. “I didn’t really understand why I had to know [grammar] last year,” James told me, “And with that knowledge, I actually work harder and learn it more.” When I gave them a reason to engage, they stayed with me.
Altogether, this inquiry speaks to multiple needs in a grammar classroom. First, understanding the inherently prescriptive element of grammar that schools seek to teach and reinforce – rightly or wrongly – a teacher must create a foundation of rules and terms that society presently requires. As students seek to advance in a system that requires essays written in a certain way, a grammar instructor must recognize what administrators and parents want. However, to create deeper engagement with grammar and produce students who will be more than just cogs in a system, a teacher must bring a descriptive element to instruction. Asking students how and why these rules exist, and what they might say about our culutre, asking them what nuances varying structures can create, teachers can foster a mindset where grammar is a tool not to please others, but one to communicate more effectively. They will see they are learning grammar for an end, not just for its own sake, a common sentiment my students described when they did workbook exercises. They are not mindlessly memorizing, and can understand the rules within their historically fraught contexts. Using rhetoric that allows for personal meaning-making is vital for proclaiming that a student owns his or her own language, and is not beholden to this antiquated system that has long worked to suppress groups of people. Instead of telling students when they are wrong, this language can allow them to breathe within the space. Adding descriptive conversations on top of a prescriptive foundation lets students choose how they want to create meaning with their words.
The second part of the inquiry is more immediate, as it manifests not in growing mindsets, but in happier, more curious students who will be more eager to explore bigger grammatical issues. In order to get to those meaningful conversations, one must first find a way to make the prescriptive work more engaging. Diagramming decontextualized sentences has a way of turning people away. However, just as breaking down the walls of certain rules can make grammar seem more accessible, so too can producing contextualized opportunities for practice. Whether it be through popular culture, as I used in my inquiry, or any other emotionally relevant topic for students, teachers must build a bridge between students and grammar. They must welcome students into the space by connecting with their interests. In teaching grammar through a conversation about movies, video games, or even McDonald’s, a teacher is not giving up. The teacher is accessing potential for deeper learning rooted in emotion. In addition to building relationships by finding out about the students, and by building classroom camaraderie, a teacher is leveraging interests to produce lasting curiosity. While the grammar itself might not be emotionally relevant, putting sentences within those contexts allows teachers to reap the same, lasting results.
Together, we built a more joyful classroom
The experience of this inquiry has indelibly affected the way I think about teaching. In looking so closely at the developing mindsets of each boy every day, I came to know my students at a much deeper level than last year. I saw that learning is as much about trust and relationships as it is about content and delivery. To have students speak about picking up the joy that I put forward is empowering, affirming that so much of teaching is what one puts in. The process of inquiry will continue to guide the way I teach each year, as it demands thoughtfulness and attention to detail that breed better engagement for all. It brings a liveliness to each lesson and sense of discovery for the teacher.
While I am sure the Language Arts teachers at Gilman would benefit from adopting some of my techniques for deeper engagement with grammar, I recognize that such practices require a personal investment in descriptive grammar that is uncommon. As just about everybody has grown up with prescriptive grammar and its set of rules, buy-in to these new ideas is often difficult. Returning to Watson’s 2013 research, most teachers are not even aware that grammar can be conceptualized in a descriptive way. One hope of mine is that my research will have opened the door for their personal exploration. However, regardless of how they see grammar, Gilman teachers can learn the benefits of making grammar instruction more relevant. As relevance begets engagement, they can begin contextualizing lessons about the rules of adjective clauses with discussions about why one might deploy one in writing. They can swap out workbook exercises for sentences that are more relevant, and more targeted. They can begin to make grammar an exercise in thinking, rather than just one in memorizing. Finally, I hope this research entices my colleagues to probe their own methods, as the mere act of inquiry can redefine one’s existence in the classroom.
My work adds to the mounting amount of research suggesting decontextualized grammar is not getting the job done. However, in researching other outcomes than writing, I go further in establishing the power to reshape mindsets. By making instruction more meaningful and relevant with the students, both by discussing grammar's place in a modern landscape and by putting necessary drill work in new contexts, teachers can do more than just improve writing outcomes. In bringing the grammar to the students, rather than dragging them there, a teacher can help the students engage. They can turn grammar from a chore into something one looks forward to. It must not be something students and teachers collectively get through, but instead can be a shared journey towards understanding the greater nuances of language, creating masters of communications and decisive writers. When the teacher brings joy to the instruction and allows the students’ voices into the grammar classroom, everyone can flourish.
Just as answers came, however, more questions arose that can guide future inquiry into grammar education and into other areas of my teaching. Broadly, I wonder both how early one can teach descriptive grammar, and how soon one can entirely bypass feeding the prescriptive foundation. In assessing writing, how can we best assess sentence construction so as to encourage and sustain creativity with grammar while also setting students up to succeed in a variety of contexts? Might introducing how code-switching affects grammatical environments inspire conversations that can both help students understand others’ worlds and also give them tools to succeed in different writing contexts? Eventually, could we let students use their preferred code of grammar rather than teaching "academese?" Beyond these grammatical questions, I will walk into every classroom with a burning desire to probe what bores students and why. What else can be improved upon to better student experiences? Moving inquiry from project to stance, I will always keep my ears open, letting the words and needs of my students guide my drive for improvement as an educator.
Click here to continue to part 6 - my References
For each student, I coded survey responses for affinity for grammar, perception of own success, and the importance of grammar. Each student's coded responses are represented linearly (l-r) along the four months. Click on the images to enlarge.