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Learning Grammar Through Wordplay

Developed in partnership with: The New York Times Learning Network

Lesson Question:

How can students use wordplay to learn the grammatical components of a sentence?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students master some of the more interesting and challenging vocabulary words from a New York Times article by analyzing the writer's use of nouns and verbs in the article and then constructing original sentences using those words in different contexts. This lesson has multiple objectives-to teach the grammatical components of a sentence, to help students broaden their vocabularies, and to help students use wordplay as a means of teaching sentence structure.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  1. analyze and define the basic components of a sentence
  2. evaluate a writer's use of nouns and verbs in a New York Times article
  3. synthesize their vocabulary and sentence structure knowledge by writing original sentences with particular nouns and verbs as the main subjects and predicates of those sentences


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • copies of the New York Times article "At 16, a Star at the Chessboard, but Adrift in School and Life" (one per student), available at the following URL:
  • index cards in two different colors (enough for each small group to receive four cards of each color)

Warm Up:

Defining a grammatical sentence by example:
  • Write the following two-word sentence on the board in large letters: "Love stinks."
  • Ask students to write a response to the following question in their notebooks or journals: "Do these two words (i.e., 'Love stinks.') make a sentence?" If so, explain how these two words qualify as a grammatical sentence.
  • Elicit students' responses and establish that a grammatical sentence contains a subject (who or what the sentence is about) and a predicate (what the subject is or does) and expresses a complete thought.
  • Have students identify "love" as the subject and "stinks" as the predicate in the example sentence.


Using the VT to identify words' definitions and parts of speech in the context of a sentence:
  • Point out that although "love" and "stink" have multiple meanings and can act as different parts of speech that each of these words is being used in a particular way in the example sentence.
  • Challenge students to use the Visual Thesaurus to identify the parts of speech for the two words "love" and "stinks" in the example sentence. [You can model this process for the class by displaying the word webs for "love" and "stink" on the white board and then by asking students to help you identify the parts of speech and definitions for the words that apply to the context of the sentence "Love stinks." Students should recognize that in the example sentence "love" is a noun meaning "a strong positive emotion of regard and affection" and that "stink" is a verb meaning "be extremely bad in quality or in one's performance."]
Identifying interesting nouns and verbs in a text:
  • Explain that a sentence's subject often contains a noun and that a sentence's predicate contains a verb. (If students are unfamiliar with the concepts "noun" and "verb," review that a noun is a person, place, thing or idea whereas a verb is a word that expresses the action or existence of a subject.)
  • Distribute copies of the New York Times article "At 16, a Star at the Chessboard, but Adrift in School and Life" (see handout) or have students view the article on-line by providing students with the following URL: www.nytimes.com --don't know how to write this link... (Note: you could use any article, text, or vocabulary list for this activity. For example, you could use a list of SAT-prep words, a chapter from a novel, a textbook entry, etc.)
  • Inform students that they are about to read a New York Times article about a nationally-ranked sixteen year old chess whiz from Brooklyn who is in danger of failing out of high school. As they read this article, they should underline or otherwise note any interesting or challenging nouns or verbs that appear in the article.
  • Take a moment and discuss the content of the Times article by asking students if they believe chess has saved or ruined Shawn Martinez's life. How could both of these perspectives be supported by quotes from the article? How would Shawn Martinez answer this question?
Creating a word wall of subject and predicate options:
  • Have students join small groups to "pool" their lists of interesting or challenging nouns and verbs that they circled as they read "At 16, a Star at the Chessboard, but Adrift in School and Life." Then, distribute eight index cards to each group, four of one color for recording "nouns" and four of another color for recording "verbs." Groups should use the Visual Thesaurus in determining parts of speech for those words with which they are unfamiliar.
  • Inform groups that they should choose four interesting or challenging nouns and write each of these nouns in large letters on a separate "noun" card and then choose four interesting or challenging verbs and write each of these verbs in large letters on a separate "verb" card. The nouns and verbs that they choose do not necessarily have to act as the main subjects or predicates of the sentences in which they appear, but they should stand out to group members for one reason or another. For example, some interesting nouns from the article could include (but are not limited to) the following list of words: Brooklyn, Shakespeare, atrium, hustlers, truant, passion, White House, contradictions, enigma, pawns. Verbs could include (but are not limited to) the following list of words: eliminates, transforms, questions, parries, barring, intended, flunked, evolved, herded, assuring, prohibits, cracked.
  • Create a two-columned word wall on the board by posting each group's noun and verb submissions. As each group submits its word submissions, have them define the word and reveal where it was found in the article. Limit each group's submissions to four nouns and four verbs each and do not post repeated entries. After groups have finished presenting their words, you should have at least 15-20 nouns and 15-20 verbs.
Writing original sentences with the nouns and verbs
  • Explain that each group's next task will be to mix and match the nouns and verbs on the word wall to create five or six original sentences using the nouns as sentence subjects and the verbs as predicates. Groups are allowed to add words and to change the forms of the words as they form their sentences as long as a form of the original noun acts as the sentence subject and a form of the original verb chosen acts as the main predicate of the sentence. For example, one group could offer the following sentence created from the sample nouns and verbs listed in this lesson: "Despite his efforts, Shakespeare always flunks English class." Or, groups may also play with more figurative or poetic pairings, such as: "Passion parries with chance."


Presenting original sentences:
  • Have each group present one of its original sentences on the white board. After each presentation, have class members in the other groups identify the subject and predicate within the sentence. Then, depending on how far you would like to extend the grammar instruction, you could also ask students to identify those words or phrases that were added to the noun-verb pairings to enhance the sentence (e.g., adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, etc.).
  • If students get "stuck" while evaluating a particular word in a group's sentence presentation, use the VT as a resource in determining the definition and part of speech relevant to the context of the sentence.

Extending the Lesson:

  • Once you find that students have fully grasped the concepts of noun, verb, and what constitutes a complete sentence, you can expand this type of exercise to include additional parts of speech. For example, conduct a scavenger hunt for nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in a particular text; create a four-columned word wall with the four word lists; and then have students use word play to create original sentences or short, short stories combining all of the four elements in an original context.


  • Check each group's pooled lists of nouns and verbs to make sure that students correctly identified parts of speech.
  • Assess each group's original sentences to see how cleverly they used the nouns and verbs on the word wall as main subjects and predicates in their own writing.

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 3. Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions

Level III (Grades 6-8)

2. Uses nouns in written compositions (e.g., forms possessives of nouns; forms irregular plural nouns)

3. Uses verbs in written compositions (e.g., uses linking and auxiliary verbs, verb phrases, and correct forms of regular and irregular verbs)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

2. Uses nouns in written compositions (e.g., collective nouns, compound nouns, noun clauses, noun phrases)

3. Uses verbs in written compositions (e.g., present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect verb tenses; progressive verb forms, compound verbs)

Standard 7. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

Level III (Grades 6-8)

1. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts (e.g., electronic texts; textbooks; biographical sketches; directions; essays; primary source historical documents, including letters and diaries; print media, including editorials, news stories, periodicals, and magazines; consumer, workplace, and public documents, including catalogs, technical directions, procedures, and bus routes)

5. Draws conclusions and makes inferences based on explicit and implicit information in texts

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts (e.g., textbooks, biographical sketches, letters, diaries, directions, procedures, magazines, essays, primary source historical documents, editorials, news stories, periodicals, catalogs, job-related materials, schedules, speeches, memoranda, public documents, maps)

5. Uses text features and elements to support inferences and generalizations about information (e.g., vocabulary, structure, evidence, expository structure, format, use of language, arguments used)

Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

2. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate and form viewpoints of visual media (e.g., evaluates the effectiveness of informational media, such as web sites, documentaries, news programs; recognizes a range of viewpoints and arguments; establishes criteria for selecting or avoiding specific programs)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Uses a variety of criteria (e.g., clarity, accuracy, effectiveness, bias, relevance of facts) to evaluate informational media (e.g., web sites, documentaries, news programs)

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Comments from our users:

Saturday May 26th 2007, 7:20 AM
Comment by: OLMANDA H.G.
Thank you for publishing this lesson plan. It is a great exercise to teach vocabulary and grammar.
Saturday October 9th 2010, 6:45 PM
Comment by: Phyllis R. (South Holland, IL)
This is a great lesson. It is interactive and engaging. Students love going to the smart board (I'm blessed to have one) and selecting multiple definitions for the a word. What's nice about VT is that students can actually see the multiple meanings for a word including multiple parts of speech. This is not easy to do as a whole class with print dictionaries or thesauri. It is sometimes difficult for students to define a word and its part of speech and then apply that meaning in a sentence. This helps students use words in proper context.

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