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Discover ways to adapt your grammar curriculum for the online classroom.

Grammar Instruction in the Time of Remote Learning

Posted on: November 18, 2020

Written by Sean Ruday, author of The Elementary School Grammar Toolkit and The Middle School Grammar Toolkit.

Early in the 2020-2021 school year, I had a conversation with a group of teachers about the best practices of grammar instruction. The teachers’ concerns could be best summed up in two sentences: Teaching grammar is hard already.  Now we need to figure out how to teach it remotely!

The teachers’ concerns are well-founded. Grammar is certainly difficult concept to teach effectively and grammar instruction, like so many aspects of education, has become even more challenging to implement in remote and distance learning.

During the past several months, I have worked on applying the best practices of grammar instruction to remote learning and have shared these ideas with other educators. When I talk with teachers and students about grammar and grammar instruction, I emphasize that mentor texts and metacognition are essential to teaching grammar effectively. I explain that the best grammar instruction provides students with authentic examples of high-interest, published mentor texts that feature key grammatical concepts, helps students understand how and why authors use the grammatical concepts in the ways they do, and ultimately equips students with the skills and knowledge they need to apply these concepts to their own writings.

Applying the Best Practices of Grammar Instruction to Remote Teaching
So, how can we educators put the methods of effective grammar instruction in action in remote contexts? While the specific methods of delivery and interaction will differ, I feel that all of the components of effective grammar instruction can be achieved in remote learning. Let’s look together at a five-step instructional process that you can use as you apply the best practices of grammar instruction to remote teaching and learning.

Step One: Introduce a Concept Using a Remote Mini-Lesson
To begin the process of helping students understand the key aspects of a grammatical concept and its importance, I recommend creating a brief video mini-lesson that you can deliver through a remote learning platform.  I have conducted these mini-lessons live through Zoom and also recorded the videos for students who could not join the class live. Whether you teach asynchronously or synchronously, you can use this video lesson to share with students the key features of the concept on which you will focus. For example, if you’re focusing on prepositional phrases, you can share with students the essential attributes of this concept and provide them with examples that will help them understand important features of this concept. This information will prepare students to then think further about how the concept is used in writing and why it is a tool that authors incorporate.

Step Two: Conduct a Video Read and Think Aloud
After you’ve shared information with students about the key features of a grammatical concept, the next step is to use a video learning platform to read aloud an excerpt from published text that features the focal concept and to think aloud about how and why the author uses a particular that concept in their work. There are a variety of platforms that support this work and will allow you to share it effectively with your students. Some options are to conduct the read and think aloud live through Zoom or to create a recorded video on your computer and phone and email the recording to your students. No matter the format you use, this step is a great way to help students understand the ways authors use grammatical concepts in authentic and purposeful ways.

Step Three: Use Remote Collaboration Tools to Facilitate Student Analysis
At this stage of the instructional process, students work together using remote collaboration tools to analyze the importance of the focal strategy to effective writing. To do this, students work together as they look at a published text, analyze the author’s use of the focal strategy, and reflect on how and why the author chose to use that strategy. For example, I’ve done this activity with students by organizing the class into groups and emailing each group a published mentor text that contained our focal concept of prepositional phrases. The students then met via Zoom breakout rooms to discuss the texts they analyzed and the importance of prepositional phrases to those texts. If Zoom is not a possibility, students could also conduct this activity by using Google Docs to share the examples they find and their thoughts on the importance of the concept.

Step Four: Hold Remote Writing Conferences with Students as They Apply the Focal Concept
Now, it’s time to provide students with an opportunity to put their understandings of the focal grammatical concept into practice in their own writing! To do this, I recommend asking students to work on whatever piece of writing they’re currently composing and to keep the focal concept in mind while doing so. For example, if you’ve been focusing on prepositional phrases with students, you can encourage them to think about how they might utilize this concept when they’re looking to add details to their works. As students do this, I recommend holding remote one-on-one writing conferences with them. While they’ll take different forms than they would in an in-person, non-socially distanced classroom, we can still use writing conferences in remote learning. One effective tactic for holding remote writing conferences with students is to place each student in their own Zoom breakout room during their independent writing time. Then, to confer with a student, you’ll join their individual breakout room and hold a one-on-one conference with them about the piece they’re writing. Another way to hold a remote conference is by using Google Docs to have a written exchange in which you ask them questions about their work, identify specific strengths, and note particular suggestions for improvement.

Step Five: Ask Students to Reflect on the Importance of the Focal Concept
To conclude this instruction process, I recommend asking students to reflect on the importance of the focal grammatical concept and to share their ideas with you and their classmates through remote collaboration tools. I like to encourage students to think about the significance of the concept we’ve been discussing by asking them questions like “How did this concept enhance the effectiveness of your work?” and “How do you think your writing would be different if you didn’t use this concept?” There are a variety of ways students can share these reflections while utilizing the features of remote learning. One especially effective practice is to ask students to use a shared Google Doc to share their responses and read one another’s insights. Alternately, students can also share their responses in Zoom breakout rooms with small groups. Afterwards, volunteers can share their ideas with the rest of the class.

Final Thoughts
This instructional process will provide you with a framework to use when putting the best practices of grammar instruction into action in your remote instruction. I encourage you to reflect on which remote learning tools best align with the resources available to you and your students as you apply these instructional insights to your teaching and your students’ learning. While some specific tactics will vary based on the format of your instruction (such as asynchronous, synchronous, hybrid, or another modality), these instructional steps will help you engage your students in high-quality grammar instruction in remote learning.