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Should You Teach Grammar?

Help Kids Put it Into Context by Teaching Them to Proofread


Girl writing
Creative Commons/Flickr user Alexandratx

Let's face it. Most people only need to know enough grammar to construct sentences other people can understand. Unless you're a linguist, you'll probably get through life without ever having to identify a transitive verb or a dependent clause.

In fact, for most purposes, everything you need to know about the different parts of speech can be learned by playing a few rounds of Mad Libs. (Compare Prices)

Most of us pick up grammar automatically as we first learn to speak. Listen to a sentence in your native tongue, and chances are you can tell if it's correct or not, even if you can't explain why.

You can try to teach kids the mechanics of putting sentences together by using grammar worksheets. But even English teachers disagree about whether teaching grammar is a necessary part of teaching writing.

For me, the most effective way to teach grammar is to put it into practice in a real-life context. And I do that by teaching my kids to proofread.

Simple Proofreading Exercises

Proofreading is a skill that you can help kids develop. But it's tricky to find mistakes in your own work, so you might want to start with text written by someone else.

One way to do this is to have your kids proofread each other's work. However, this only works if your children are thick skinned about seeing their mistakes pointed out. You can also buy proofreading workbooks (Compare Prices), or search for printable proofreading exercises online.

But my favorite proofreading exercise for kids is to have them correct an excerpt from literature. This exercise is not only useful for practicing proofreading, it also shows students how authors use grammar as part of their story-telling toolkit. Here's how to create your own literature-based grammar exercise:

  1. Find the text. Choose a piece of writing your kids can read easily. It's probably best to stay away from books they would read for pleasure -- dissecting a favorite work can take away from its enjoyment. Books and documents in the public domain are ideal, because you can usually find the text online at sites like Bartleby.com or Project Gutenberg.

  2. Copy your selection into a word processing document. If you've found a piece of text online, you can simply copy and paste it into your document. Otherwise, type in the text you want to use.

  3. Remove all punctuation and capitalization. This is simple with the Find and Replace function in your word processing program.

  4. Have your children attempt to put in all the missing punctuation. As you'll soon see, there can be more than one right way to parse a sentence.

  5. Compare the student's version to the original. See how close it comes -- and point out how radically a change in punctuation can change the mood, meaning, or emphasis.

Professional Proofreading Tips

There are a few simple proofreading strategies that professional writers and editors frequently use. Teach your students to use them and they will pick up the vast majority of grammar mistakes.

  • Read it aloud. I'm not sure why, but the ears seem to be better at picking up language errors than the eyes. When you try to correct mistakes by skimming over a page, you may find that your brain automatically fills in missing words or eliminates duplicate words without your realizing it. Reading aloud is particularly helpful when you're trying to find mistakes in your own writing.

  • Simplify sentences. Years of writing under an editor's gaze has taught me to write simply and clearly. Usually that means "unpacking" sentences that are too full of information. If I can separate a long, convoluted sentence into smaller parts, I usually do so. And the shorter the sentence, the less chance it contains an error.

  • Simplify sentences (temporarily). Maybe you want your sentences to be long. Writing complex sentences is OK, as long as things don't get too confusing. An easy way to root out common mistakes is to streamline the sentence -- temporarily. You can quickly tell that there's a problem with the sentence "They went to the store with Roberto and I" if you leave Roberto out of it. Would you say "They went to the store with I?" Nope. See? Easy.

  • Let it sit. The more time you spend with a piece of writing, the harder it gets to spot the errors. If you've been working on a story for a while, put it down for a day before going back to give it one more reading. Mistakes that you glossed over multiple times will suddenly jump out at you when you look at your writing with fresh eyes.

Grammar Resources for Parents and Kids

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss is a helpful guide to correct punctuation. It gives common sense explanations that are easy to remember -- and it's an entertaining read as well. It also comes in a child's version, but the adult version is fine for kids too and has much more information. (Compare Prices)

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey is a lively description of how and why this method of analyzing sentences came about. Many people find diagramming sentences helpful. I am not one of them. But Florey does a good job of explaining why she finds it fun. If the idea intrigues you, check it out. (Compare Prices)

Mignon Fogarty's Grammar Girl website and podcast is another light and upbeat grammar resource. Fogarty has also written several books, including Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students. (Compare Prices)

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