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Building Students’ Vision So They Can Put the Grammar Pieces Together


Imagine you have been handed a 1,000 piece puzzle… in a plastic bag. There is no helpful picture on the outside of the box to provide vision for how these pieces fit together. You start fumbling, trying to remember the few puzzle strategies you know. It all results in feeling frustrated, defeated, and ready to give up. You don’t have enough to go on.

When we provide explicit grammar instruction (puzzle pieces) in one part of the day but then stop there- without teaching students how to apply the fundamentals in the context of their reading and writing later in the day - we’ve done the equivalent of putting puzzle pieces in a plastic bag and expecting a miracle.

We can provide students with the full-color picture of what each grammar concept we teach looks like in real life. This is how grammar comes alive, and we can do it through highly-scaffolded practices our students are already familiar with, such as shared reading, shared writing, and interactive writing. These powerful teaching moves provide a vision of what it looks like to take existing knowledge and apply it when and where it counts.

MOVE 1: Find the Corner Pieces with Shared Reading

Shared reading is comprised of multiple 5-to-15 minute instructional sessions where the class reads and revisits the same text, each day with a different focus or lens. Typically a cycle of shared reading lasts about 4-6 sessions. Session 1 is traditionally dedicated to literal comprehension. The last session is often focused on inferential comprehension and/or analytic thinking, discussing, or jotting. The possibilities for the sessions in-between are almost limitless, and language study is worthy of at least one session. During a language-focused shared reading session, the class gets a chance to see the conventions being taught in context - how this looks, sounds, and enhances a piece of writing. This authentic teaching of targeted conventions helps students see and understand how these concepts are actually utilized. Check out these examples of shared reading cycles and notice that each has at least one session focused on taught language standards.

MOVE 2: Round Out the Border with Shared Writing

Shared writing is the mirror image of shared reading. This instructional structure is also comprised of multiple 5-to-15 minute instructional sessions over a series of several days. Here, the class co-creates a piece of writing. The students participate by sharing ideas and the teacher does the heavy lifting by getting these ideas onto the page. Shared writing provides students with a vision for how it looks to engage in the recursive writing process, using what is known about words, language, and the genre.

Bonus: Students are much more likely to take risks with ideas and apply new learning when YOU are doing the labor of transcribing their spoken words onto the chart paper. Here is an example of a plan for a cycle of shared writing in first grade that highlights remembering and trying to use recently introduced conventions.

MOVE 3: Fill in the Middle with Interactive Writing

Shared writing takes place over several sessions and the teacher does all the writing. By contrast, interactive writing is often a “one-and-done” experience and students become more engaged in the process by doing some of the writing. Interactive writing focuses on getting ideas onto paper and using known conventions and strategies to make these ideas accessible to an audience. Again, students share ideas and the teacher writes, but when the class gets to a pattern word, punctuation mark, or convention the class has been exploring, students become the writers, jumping in and doing this highly targeted writing.

Here is an example of digital interactive writing experience where students participated by showing off recent math and language learning. The students had recently studied regular and irregular verbs. Additionally, most of the class was studying suffix-driven spelling patterns. These early efforts toward transferring learning can be seen below. The class generated the sentences and the teacher recorded most of these ideas. The specifically chosen points where students participated in the actual writing are shown in red.

Shared reading, shared writing, and interactive writing are three dynamic components to incorporate into language instruction. These collaborative experiences help every child learn language in a meaningful context. By using the highly-scaffolded instructional practices outlined in this blog, students gain a deeper understanding of how the puzzle pieces fit together, and the possibilities of what these pieces can create. Next up: a blog exploring explicit instruction that helps students to apply these understandings to their own writing. Until then, share photos of the trying and tinkering happening in your classrooms! Don't forget to tag @PamKou and @drgravitygllc.

NOTE: This blog is part of a series on teaching the language standards with greater consistency and intention. Together, we have taken a journey, and tried to get students curious about and interested in words. We spent time rethinking the priorities of language instruction and how to bundle language standards into units of study in preparation of a year of balanced language learning.