Back to Grammar

| Teaching Ideas | Mini Lessons | Assessment Ideas | Teacher Resources | Key Terms | References

"...Grammar, which even rules o’er kings and princes
And with high hand subjects them to its laws!"

Molière, The Learned Ladies

Theoretical Frameworks

Grammar: A Question

There are several different teaching approaches to consider when teaching grammar, each having been popular in the education system at one time or another. Grammar teaching methods and the amount of grammar taught in schools vary from teacher to teacher, so you must use your own knowledge of grammar and take from different methods to be effective (Andrews, 2005).
Looking back on grammar education in the 21st century, you’ll find that research has driven different tactics to the forefront over the years; from traditional drills in schools to almost no grammar teaching at all, grammar has seen an educational revolution (Kolln & Hancock, 2005). This wiki will focus primarily on teaching sentence construction and understanding sentence errors. However, the different elements of grammar build on each other: parts of speech, rules of usage, patterns of words, structures of sentences, and arrangement of sentences are all related. How can sentence construction be taught without a basic understanding of the structure of Standard English and its building blocks (Story & Greenwood, 2006)? This wiki will discuss the basic elements of grammar as well in the context of understanding sentence construction and errors.

To Teach or Not to Teach: The Grammar Debate

Despite the important role grammar has played in the education system in the past, much of the current research, curriculum, and practice has minimized the importance of teaching grammar. As mentioned in the preceding section, scholarly grammar education has seen marked change throughout the 21st century, and this is largely due to research that suggests grammar education has little to no effect on improving students’ communication skills (Kolln & Hancock, 2005). Conversely, some literature implies that it is not grammar that is ineffective in improving writing, but rather lack of integration into the curriculum and the methods used to teach it (Sams, 2003). Though students may learn grammar frameworks through the media, family, or peers, it remains that learning the rules and functionality of Standard English is important in ensuring students’ success communicating in and out of school (Story & Greenwood, 2006). Students must be given the tools necessary to decode others' writing and increase the effectiveness of their own (Tchudi & Thomas, 1996). That being said, there are different approaches to grammar that can come into play while teaching.

Approaches to Grammar

There are three main approaches to grammar:

Prescriptive: provide rules for correct usage

Descriptive: describe how a language is actually used

Generative: provide instructions for the production of an infinite number of sentences in a language ("Grammar", n.d.).

Traditional teaching involves a combination of prescriptive and descriptive grammar, while in-context teaching focuses on applications of prescriptive grammar, which can seem confusing as students likely won’t understand the reason behind the rules that they need to follow (Sams, 2003).

“…Theory [of transformational-generative grammar] was not intended as pedagogy” (Kolln & Hancock, 2005), and probably with good reason. It is not recommended to teach this type of grammar to improve students’ usage, but rather as an overview of how language functions (Tchudi & Thomas, 1996.

What Should I Be Teaching?

Interpretation of curriculum is your decision. Under the Ontario Curriculum for Grades 9 and 10 in the Overall Expectation of Applying Knowledge of Conventions, the grammatical goals are as follow:

Students will be able to..."use grammar conventions correctly to communicate their intended meaning clearly (e.g. construct phrases and clauses and arrange them appropriately to write complete and correct simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences; identify and correct a variety of sentence errors, such as sentence fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences; consistently make subject and verb agree and use appropriate verb tenses; consistently make pronouns agree with their antecedents)" (Ministry of Education, 2007).

This wiki will focuses on writing complete and correct simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences and identifying and correcting a variety of sentence errors, such as sentence fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences.

As you’ve probably inferred, there is no consensus on the "best methods to teach grammar", but you can use a combination of prescriptive and descriptive grammar to teach the basic rules in the context of writing.

Click on key terms to refresh your memory on the concepts behind writing clear sentences.

Sentence Structure

The following section outlines the different types of sentences. Accompanying each definition is a sentence diagram. Sams (2003) encourages sentence diagramming in teaching grammar as a good way to see sentence construction visually throughout the learning process. For optimal learning with sentence diagramming, Sams encourages a process of questioning about what is happening in the sentence, what parts of speech are represented, etc. while the teacher fills in the diagram, not the student. The goal in using this structure is to teach students about grammar, not necessarily how to diagram sentences.

For information on how to diagram sentences and use them for teaching, visit the English Grammar Revolution website.

Simple Sentences

"In grammatical terms, a sentence is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate. The subject is the person or thing you're talking about. The predicate is what you're saying about it" (Gucker, 1966).
(O'Brien, 2010)

Compound Sentences

"A compound sentence consists of two or more main clauses.
...The main clauses in a compound sentence are usually connected by coordinating conjunctions" (Gucker, 1966).
(O'Brien, 2010)

Complex Sentences

"A complex sentence contains at least one subordinate clause in addition to a main clause" (Gucker, 1966).
(O'Brien, 2010)

Compound Complex Sentences

"A compound-complex sentence is simply a combination of [complex and compound sentences]. It contains two or more main clauses and at least one subordinate clause" (Gucker, 1966).

(O'Brien, 2010)

Common Sentence Structure Errors

Run-on Sentences

A run-on is two sentences run together and punctuated as one. Two types of run-ons are fused sentences and comma splices (Gucker, 1966)
Fused Sentence: "A faulty construction in which two or more independent clauses are joined without a word to connect them or a punctuation mark to separate them" ("run-on sentence", n.d.)

"The fog was thick he could not find his way home" ("run-on sentence", n.d.). Fix: Add punctuation (semi-colon, colon, period) or a conjunction. "The fog was thick; he could not find his way home." "The fog was thick and he could not find his way home."

Comma splice: A faulty construction where two independent clauses are joined without a conjunction, with a comma between them, or when a subordinate clause introduced by a conjunctive adverb is introduced by a comma rather than a semi-colon" (Barber, 2006).

"She wrapped herself up in an enigma, there was no other way to keep warm" (Gordon, 1984).
"The grandee bought himself a pair of roller skates, accordingly he rolled down the avenida in his shirt-sleeves with an unsteadiness unbecoming to his rank" (Gordon, 1984).
Fix: Replace the comma with a period or semi-colon.

"She wrapped herself up in an enigma; there was no other way to keep warm" (Gordon, 1984).

"The grandee bought himself a pair of roller skates. Accordingly he rolled down the avenida in his shirt-sleeves with an unsteadiness unbecoming to his rank" (Gordon, 1984).

Misplaced Modifier

A misplaced modifier is a word or group of words intended to modify a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, or adverb. When misplaced, there is ambiguity in the sentence because it is not clear to which part of the sentence the modifier applies (Gucker, 1966).

"There were several books in the bag that he had bought in England" (Gucker, 1966)
"We could see smoke rising from our neighbor's chimney with a pair of binoculars" (Gucker, 1966) Fix: Reorganize the sentence to clarify "In the bag were several books that he had bought in England'" (Gucker, 1966) "In the bag that he had bought in England, there were several books" (Gucker, 1966)

rman1451l.jpgSentence Fragment

A writing error where a dependent clause or phrase is treated as if it were a complete sentence, separated from the independent clause to which it belongs by a period (Barber, 2006).

"I want more. Because I'm one of those insatiable robots, you know" (Gordon, 1984).
"Sometimes bras and panties would cry out for her to touch them. Navigating her way through the boutique" (Gordon, 1984). Fix: Rewrite the dependent clause to make it independent, or join it to an independent clause. "I want more because I'm one of those insatiable robots, you know" (Gordon, 1984). "Sometimes bras and panties would cry out for her to touch them as she navigated her way through the boutique" (Gordon, 1984).

Teaching Ideas

If your students…
Are overwhelmed by grammar
  • Show them how much they already know about it. Put a rearranged sentence on the board such as “specialist those bearded old Lithuanian ten linguists” and having students rearrange it to show how much knowledge they already have about sentence construction (Tchudi & Thomas, 1996)
  • Bring young students to the class to emphasize how much grammar is understood even by children (Tchudi & Thomas, 1996).
  • Consider doing a little grammar a day instead of a whole unit; students will find grammar less intimidating if they are given time to understand the steps of grammar (Sams, 2003).

Don’t understand the importance of grammar
  • Every dialect has grammatical consistencies, even slang. Show how grammar is everywhere (Larsen, 1996).
  • Students often don’t realize the advantages or disadvantages to using a certain “code” of language. Ask them to consider the impact of different language and grammar on various audiences (Larsen, 1996).
  • Show them how poor usage impacts clarity by using examples from the media (Story & Greenwood, 2006). This can include websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Fmylife, or newspapers and television. For an example of how you might show lack of clarity in a tweet (although this would likely be done a little differently in the classroom) take a look at the following YouTube video (start at 1:37) for an analysis of the grammatical clarity of tweets by Snooki of Jersey Shore.

Don't understand your proofreading notation

  • Choose a set system of notation and create a chart with the notation, an explanation of meaning, and an example. Keep a copy for yourself, but provide the students with copies as well. This way, when revising essays the students will have clear examples of what kind of error they have written and will know how to correct it. If you plan on revising in class frequently, consider posting a chart of the symbols as well. For a detailed chart of proofreading symbols and abbreviations, check out
  • Model how you would correct a piece of student writing by writing a few sentences on the whiteboard and using your notation to correct it. Let the students try as well (Story & Greenwood, 2006)

Keep making the same mistakes

  • Have them complete a "Personal Skills Record": a sheet for each student to record the date and title of the writing piece marked, the code word or symbol that the teacher has used to signify an error, and the rule that corresponds with the error.. This can be helpful for any student looking to improve their writing. (Story & Greenwood, 2006).

Mini Lessons

Identifying Parts of Speech and Sentence Structure

“Give students “jabberwocky” sentences [either from the poem “The Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll or any other nonsense sentences] in which they can demonstrate their knowledge of how English sentences function and carry meaning. This is a good way to reinforce the notion of noun and verb markers, tense, suffixes, and word position” (Maxwell & Meiser, 2005)

T’was brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

Though these are not real words, students can easily identify “slithy toves” as the subject and “gyre and gimble in the wabe” as the predicate.
Word position also indicates meaning: examining “in the wabe”, it is apparent that “the wabe” is something one can be in, and is therefore a noun.
Though not all adjectives end in “y”, ending in a “y” is an easy to identify marker of many adjectives or adverbs.

Have the students assemble in groups and formulate their own rules for identifying parts of speech. Share as a class.

See the chart below for some tactics that help explain how position and word form are categorized:


Desk, desks, desk’s, desks’

Fill, filled, will fill

Quiet, quieter, quietest or radical, more radical, most radical

End in “ly”
Not inclusive
End in “ly:
Not inclusive
He, his, him/ She, her, hers


“It is so .”

“Turn the radio _.”

“The squirrel moved _ the tree.”
And “One _ them left.”

(Johnson, 1966)

Descriptive Sentences for Clarity

“Turn to the sports pages of several newspapers. Look for verbs that sportswriters use to make the game come alive for their readers, many of whom would not have seen it in person or on television.
  • Make two columns: verbs used to describe the action of the individuals or teams; verbs used to describe the team’s performance.
  • Make column for three major sport: list verbs used to describe the action in each. Are they the same? Why or why not?
  • Find a photograph of an athlete (or several in the same event) in action. Make a list of verbs that describe that action.
  • Listen to a sportscaster during an athletic event or a sports anchor on the evening news. Make a list of the colourful words used to describe the event or athletes.
  • Rewrite these sentences, energizing them with strong, interesting verbs:
    • The basketball team entered the gym and looked at their opponents
    • Melissa took the ball down the field
    • Jason went back to the wall and caught the high fly ball” (Maxwell & Meiser, 2005).

Sentence Combination and Deconstruction

To practice using conjunctions and formulating sentences, have your students combine multiple sentences into one, expand simple sentences, and deconstruct and reorder poorly constructed sentences.

Give the students exercises like the following:

· “Combine the following sentences into one sentence.
o My parents found out about the party.
o They were furious.
o They kick all our friends out of the house.

How many options did you have? Why did you choose one over the other possibilities?
· Examine these sentences for the main idea; then, rewrite each sentence to make it clearer.
o Ann took finally driving lessons to which I had to drive her but things sure were different when she got her license than when I did.
o It is my belief that it is a matter of great importance for a student to plan a schedule for one semester in order to get prepared for all the papers and exams.
As you clarifies this text, what specific changes did you make (i.e. what was deleted or added) and why?
· Expand this sentence,
o Her hair was unusual.
What was you first grammatical instinct when you wanted to make this sentence better through expansion?Why?” (Maxwell & Meiser 2005).

Though it is generally assumed that worksheets, drilling, and other traditional means of grammar instruction are ineffective in improving writing, exercises like those above will prepare students to edit their own work.


Reading a text out loud is often helpful in hearing and identifying grammatical mistakes.

  1. To practice revision of compositions for grammatical (and other) mistakes, have all of the students bring drafts of their work to class.
  2. Write a paragraph with grammatical mistakes on the board and read it aloud to the class. As the mistakes become clear through your reading, mark the notation to indicate the specific mistakes and correct the paragraph.
  3. Have the students read their drafts aloud and mark their mistakes with the same notations. This can be done simultaneously so that students who aren't ready to share aren't embarrassed, or students can read aloud to a classmate.

Assessment Ideas


Testing grammar usage skills outside of the writing context may not be recommend, but within the context of writing it can show what types of errors or sentence structure the students are familiar with. Instead of a traditional test with individual questions, if your students have been revising a lot of material, test them by giving them a page of text to proofread. Using proofreading symbols, have them identify problematic sentences and correct them. This is a valuable assessment because success implies that they can proofread their own word and recognized faulty sentences.

Another possibility for assessment is to have the students write a short story in class. The students should have an allotted time for writing the story, and for editing it.

Students can also be tested by typical fill-in-the-blank tests, but assessment through writing is a better option.


Rubrics can be used to assess any piece of writing the students have produced. Depending on what methods of writing you have been teaching grammar in conjunction with, you can make a rubric evaluating content, development, organization, language use, and grammar (Story & Greenwood 2006).

Story and Greenwood (2006) recommend having the students help decide the criteria for marking. Grammar can be evaluated through poetry, short stories, essays, or any other form of writing.
If you have been focusing on a specific type of writing (i.e. poetry), have your students make a portfolio of several poems and assess through that.

Teacher Resources

Key Terms


Andrews, Richard (2005). Knowledge About the Teaching of [Sentence] Grammar: The State of Play. English Teaching: Practice and Critique. 4(3).
Barber, Katherine. Ed. (2006). Oxford Canadian A-Z of Grammar, Spelling, & Punctuation. Canada: Oxford University Press.

Gordon, Karen Elizabeth. (1984). The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. New York: Times Books.
"Grammar." In Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, (accessed September 25, 2010)
Gucker, Philip. (1966) Essential English Grammar. New York: Dover Publications.

Johnson, Falk S. (1966) On Identifying Parts of Speech. The English Journal. 55(6)
Kolln, Martha, Hancock, Craig (2005). The Story of English Grammar in United States Schools. English Teaching: Practice and Critique. 4(3).

Larson, Mark (1996). Watch Your Language: Teaching Standard Usage to Resistant and Reluctant Learners. The English Journal. 85(7).

Maxwell, R. J., & Meiser, M. J. (2005). Teaching English in Middle and Secondary Schools. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.

Milroy, J., & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in Language. London: Routledge.
Ministry of Education. (2007). The Ontario Curriculum Grades 9 and 10. Canada: Ministry of Education.
O’Brien, Elizabeth. (2010). English Grammar Revolution. Retrieved from

“run-on sentence”. (n.d.). The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Retrieved September 26, 2010, from website: sentence

Story, Ruth Townsend, Greenwood, Cathleen F. (2006). Grammar Lessons You'll Love to Teach: Highly Motivating Lessons-With Pizazz-That Help Kids Become More Effective Readers, Writers, and Thinkers. U.S.A: Scholastic.
Sams, Lynn (2003) How to Teach Grammar, Analytical Thinking, and Writing: A Method that Works. The English Journal. 92(3).
Tchudi, Stephen, Thomas, Lee (2006). Taking the G-r-r-r Out of Grammar. The English Journal. 85(7) Retrieved from: