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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Comments from our users:

Thursday December 16th 2010, 5:06 AM
Comment by: John S.
I have gotten to a point in life where I should care nothing about grammar, yet I am still curious about that subject I could never learn. English teachers tortured me with lessons and tests that I could never master and English was one of my worst subject--until I got to the level where we were just let go to write. I found out that I could write better than most, and that was my revenge. I have used my writing skills to my advantage most of my life but when you wrote something about adverbial conjunctions with semicolons it might as well have been a statement on Lewis structures! I wish I had had an English teacher with playful poems instead of workbooks and tests.
Thursday December 16th 2010, 8:08 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
I enjoyed your article, and will try to get hold of your books, but the main reason I am writing is slightly different. I am the language editor of MET (Modern English Teacher, a British journal for EFL / ESL techers), and would love to talk to you about your writing something for us. If you get this, please drop me a line!



PS There's not much mney in writing for us, but you would get plug for your book!
Thursday December 16th 2010, 10:17 AM
Comment by: Penny N. (Weston, MA)
I love the idea of teaching grammar through the patterns of poetry. Despite being a writer, I, too, was intimidated by the phrase "adverbial conjunctions with semicolons;" however, just as I was about to look them up, I reasoned out what they were. My tenth grade English teacher never taught us the formal term; nevertheless, he convinced us of their usefulness through a series of examples.

In my middle grade fantasy "Lost in Lexicon: an Adventure in Words and Numbers" one of the protagonists has to build a bridge of phrases fastened together by the correct punctuation. For one joint, he uses an adverbial conjunction with semicolon. The book also features feuding parts of speech and grammatical bees that sting people who make grammatical errors. You might enjoy it.
Tuesday December 21st 2010, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Janice S. (Asheville, NC)
Having taught ESOL for many years, I am now teaching Developmental Studies: English. I teach students how to write which is a scary way to describe what I try to do. Students are afraid of grammar terms. I have used a number of ways to teach grammar, one of them being movement. After having learned the basics: noun, verb, adverb, etc, I assign a student to be a part of speech. Then I ask them to find other 'words' to make a sentence: the students assemble into a sentence. Then I have punctuation marks (students) go to the parts of the sentence in which they are needed. Physical movement is one technique used by many teachers who teach ESOL.
Wednesday December 22nd 2010, 2:03 PM
Comment by: ulysses31 (San Francisco, CA)
I never though about learning grammar by reading poetry but it sounds great. being English my second language, I have worked really hard to learn and re-learn English grammar. using poetry, I think, is a great idea to try.

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