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Three Key Mistakes Teachers Make with Workbook Exercises on Grammar

Every writing teacher embarrasses themselves badly when they first enter the profession: disastrous lessons, student revolts, class discussions that lead nowhere.

The teacher who claims it didn’t happen to them is either lying, or lacks the ability to self-reflect.

My first big embarrassment came when I was teaching issues of sentence combining and using correct punctuation in a developmental writing class. Having two Linguistics degrees and nearly another Master’s degree in English Composition, I figured I didn’t need to invest much time in lesson planning. I’d just stick closely to the structure of the workbook and fall back on my expertise.

Big mistake.

When I explained the relevant concepts to the class, I got only looks of boredom and confusion. When I assigned workbook exercises, many students couldn’t even get past understanding the directions. When I solicited answers from the class, the same two hands went up over and over, and I later realized that these students had already learned the material in a prior class.

Now I might have been able to live with this, except that I saw zero evidence that students were applying the grammar skills to the essays they turned in.

It is teaching disasters like these that lead many to the oft-repeated conclusion that “grammar teaching is a waste of time.” I was tempted to say the same, but because of my training, I reflected on whether the problem originated in how I was teaching or how the workbook presented the material.

In sum, I discovered I was making three big mistakes:

  1. I was moving through the material far too quickly. I began to see all the assumptions and hidden complexities within the material that had seemed to me so straightforward.
  2. My teaching was centered too much on the modality of me reading aloud from the workbook and then soliciting responses from students.
  3. My teaching drew no connections between the workbook exercises and the essays students were writing.

Since then, I’ve observed many other teachers and I’ve seen them make these same mistakes.

After some classroom experimentation, I found that students learned more quickly and understood more deeply when I adjusted three things about my teaching:

  1. I slowed things down and carefully sequenced out each step of how I presented the workbook content.
  2. I made my teaching multi-modal, meaning it appeals to students who have a variety of learning styles.
  3. I constantly reminded students to apply the grammar skills when they proofread.

In the rest of this post, I’ll cover the details of how I now do this as I teach, so you don’t have to embarrass yourself like I did.

In advance of the grammar lesson, I assign as reading the relevant pages of the workbook. I expect few students to read and fully understand the explanations in the workbook on their own; I simply want everyone to enter the classroom lesson with a vague familiarity with the concept, rather than being blindsided by the unfamiliar.

On the day of the lesson, I begin by quickly reviewing related grammar concepts covered in prior classes. For instance, if the lesson were to cover semi-colon usage, I’d briefly review concepts like ending punctuation, periods, commas, and independent clauses. This review helps activate students’ cognitive schemata, and makes it easier for them to assimilate the new information.

Then I will ask a student to read aloud the relevant parts of the workbook on the topic. As they read, I stop them frequently to answer any student questions or to highlight the important points. This creates a back-and-forth conversation between me and the class, breaking up the monotony of what could be a lecture.

While the concept is fresh, I want students to practice applying the skills through workbook exercises. But before students begin work on the exercises, I demonstrate for the class how I would do the first couple problems, explaining my reasoning step by step. Doing so not only shows students how to execute a particular skill and models my thinking for students who learn through detailed examples, but it also ensures that students understand the directions (not a trivial issue!).

I then have students work on the rest of that exercise in small groups. This appeals to students who learn cooperatively, it builds community and cohesion amongst students, and it allows strong students to help out students who struggle. The struggling students benefit from the extra help, while the stronger students reinforce their knowledge by teaching their classmates. As groups work, I circulate the classroom, keeping groups on task and clarifying any confusions.

When most groups finish, I call on individual students, proceeding sequentially from one desk to the next. I want more than just the strong students to speak up, and I want to check up on the understanding of as many students as possible. Students have already completed these exercises in advance with the help of their group, so they aren’t being put on the spot. And if they absolutely don’t want to answer, a student can pass.

When called upon, students are asked to do three things: read the sentence aloud, say what the error is, and say how they corrected any errors. Doing all three of these is important, since it appeals to auditory learners, and because it focuses the attention of the class on the current workbook problem. Were each student to simply announce their corrections, the discussion would move too quickly for everyone to follow. Also, when students have to say what error they’re correcting, they often catch themselves before they try to correct imaginary errors.

Throughout, this activity incorporates a digital component. I project copies of the uncompleted workbook exercises on the smart classroom projector in word processor format. When a student proposes an answer, I type it into the word processor for the class to visualize and evaluate. With these grammar activities, many students—especially the visual learners and ESL students—follow the discussions of grammar and mechanics easier when they can actually see and compare both the correct and incorrect edits to the sentences that the class is discussing. Additionally, presenting the material digitally saves much time, when compared with writing on the chalkboard.

Before I assign homework on the topic, I ensure that most students have achieved a moderately high level of accuracy in completing the exercises in class. It’s not enough to simply introduce a grammar topic and throw students a couple practice exercises. If students never learn to correctly execute the skill in class, when they do their homework, they will mostly reinforce making mistakes.

Ideally, the homework I assign will push the students further than the exercises in class. For instance, homework exercises might introduce added complexities or ask students to apply skills not just to isolated sentences, but to whole paragraphs or their own compositions.

When students turn in the homework in the next class, I often briefly go over parts that I expect will be particularly challenging to students. This gives me one more chance to check students’ understanding before I decide to move on to the next concept, and it serves as a springboard for them to raise questions that came up as they worked at home.

Finally, I remind students throughout the term to integrate the grammar skills I teach into their essay writing. No teacher aims to get their students good at merely completing workbook exercises, and it’s too easy for students to disregard all the grammar teaching when they write their essays. In practice, this means that they need to be reminded not just that they should proofread, but how they can do so.

When I do all this, most students do an impressive job of applying relevant grammar concepts to their papers. It comes at a cost though. Going through all these steps requires that I invest a significant investment of classroom time. You can’t cram these lessons into the last ten minutes of class. Of course, some other topic will have to be excluded, and students who learn quickly may feel as if the issue is being belabored.