Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Using Poetry to Teach Grammar

We recently spoke to Nancy Mack, author of Teaching Grammar with Playful Poems, to find out how she was inspired to use poetry as an innovative entry point for teaching grammatical patterns to young students.

VT: In your book Teaching Grammar with Playful Poems, why did you choose to use poetry to teach grammar?  Students can often be intimidated by poetry and by grammar.  Some people might expect that your book represents some sort of toxic mix from a student's perspective!

Nancy: A lot of research has shown that workbook grammar drill activities don't have any transfer value to writing.  So I started to notice that poetry and even picture books, if they had a repeating pattern, often contained a grammatical pattern. And I always loved Jack Prelutsky poetry — and Shel Silverstein, of course, which my students loved — and I started to notice that the poems had a repeating pattern. So I tried to see if students could first imitate those patterns with no discussion of grammar.

Of course, that's how the brain learns language — by imitation.  And it turns out that my students could imitate the pattern without any problems. Then all I had to do was introduce the grammatical term as it applied to the patterns. It just worked so well it almost frightened me.  When you try so many things and they don't work, when something does work, then you have to back up and say, "Well, why did that work?"

I really think it's just based on the fact that it's brain-compatible. I started reading more about the brain and patterns and how much our brain is wired to notice patterns because it helps us to survive, and I just kept going with that.  My second grammar book, Teaching Grammar with Perfect Poems of Middle Schoolers, does the higher-level grammatical concepts like infinitives, gerunds and clauses.

VT: You make a point in Teaching Grammar with Playful Poems about how imitation should precede the discussion of grammatical rules and the labeling of the constructs you're demonstrating in the poetry.  Why is that so important?

Here's what Nancy Mack has to say about how the Visual Thesaurus can encourage language learning:

The Visual Thesaurus is very attractive to look at, and you'd want students to be curious as they're looking at the different words they might not be familiar with. You might want them to brag to their peers, "Gee, look what I found. This is a new word," Students can independently find words in some graphic dimension that they find interesting. They can explore by clicking on the different words that roll out. They can go to something at their ability levels and beyond. "Oh, well, what's that one? Let's click on that one and see what it is." And then, if they share back to the whole group, you've got new information coming into the social classroom.

Nancy: I think the grammar terms can be off-putting.  Anybody who has taught knows that if you go into the classroom saying, "Today, boys and girls, it'll be subordinate clauses," that students roll their eyes, and they become frightened.  I taught for a decade in prison, and the inmate students were perhaps a little less sophisticated, and they would definitely give me immediate feedback when they didn't like something, which I appreciated.  There is a bias against grammatical terms, and the terms sound so sophisticated.  I think learners need the success of imitating the patterns, and then they're more interested and motivated, particularly if it's identifying the grammatical concepts in their own writing. 

VT: You believe that writers need grammar instruction, but you don't necessarily believe that grammar instruction improves writing. Explain that seeming paradox.

Nancy: Like a lot of concepts, after we master them, they move into our subconscious.  And when we write, we don't normally say, "Gee, I need a better adverb here."  We just think of the meaning that we're trying to create.  But I think a case can be made for the idea that if we want to talk about sentences, then we need a common vocabulary.  Certainly it's important for foreign language instruction, and like many things, having those grammatical terms might help us to think about things more metacognitively.  I don't think, as a writer, I would have tried to use adverbial conjunctions with semicolons if I hadn't thought about that consciously.  And now maybe I'm doing it subconsciously.

I tried every imaginable way to teach grammar.  We made skits. One of my friends on Facebook was reminding me, "Remember when we dressed up and did magic tricks with grammar?"  It becomes kind of funny when you try all these various methods and none of them work, and then you try something simple like imitating, and it works like gangbusters. 

Nancy Mack is a veteran classroom teacher who has won several teaching awards and has taught in middle school, high school, and college. In addition to her work with new teachers as a professor of English at Wright State University, she coordinates the college's Summer Institute on Writing and Teaching and works with local PBS stations to develop multi-media support programs for teachers. Her publications include chapters in books from Heinemann and NCTE and articles in English Journal, The Writing Instructor, and Pretext. Scholastic Professional Books has published two of her books: Teaching Grammar With Playful Poems and Teaching Grammar With Playful Poems for Middle School.

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