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Grammar: What Made Me Care

When I was a college freshman, grammar was about as important to me as celebrity gossip. Sure, I glanced at the US Weekly headlines in the grocery checkout, and I performed the standard spell checks on my composition papers, but Brangelina? Subject-verb agreement? Who really cared?

Then I joined the staff of our campus newspaper, and my attitude towards grammar changed. Within weeks, I was poring through my AP Style Book to learn when team takes a singular versus plural verb, when and how to properly shift verb tenses, and the difference between beside and besides.

What caused this swift shift in attitude? Why did I suddenly care about grammar? And how can you get your students to care?

Three factors contributed to my own grammatical renaissance:

  1. Working on the newspaper staff helped me to take ownership of my writing. Instead of being assigned topics, I was responsible for finding my own stories and doing my own reporting. In short, I was more invested in my stories.
  2. I had editors (peers) pointing out my grammatical mistakes, offering suggestions, and motivating me to write cleaner stories.
  3. Most importantly, I was writing for a real, authentic audience. Up until that point, teachers, classmates, and parents were the only ones reviewing my work. A missed comma here or there may have hurt my grade but not my ego. That’s not so true when your stories reach 5,000 pairs of eyes.

Since that time, I’ve made an investment in grammar. I don’t always enjoy it, but I care about the correctness of my final products. I want to get things right.

So what are some ways to get students interested in grammar?

  • Be flexible in assigning writing topics. Encourage students to brainstorm new ways to tackle assignments.
  • Set up peer revising groups to discuss grammar issues.
  • Celebrate writing by sharing well-written passages or stories that you come across.
  • Implement minilessons (10-12 minute lessons) in which you address various grammatical issues.
  • Put conventions in context: In other words, don’t focus on them until the editing stage of the writing process.
  • Consider starting a classroom newspaper, blog, or wiki.
  • Look into ways for students to publish their work (local newspapers, writing contests, etc)

Above all, remember this: To get students to care about grammar, you must first sell them on the joy of writing.

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