Friday, May 3, 2013

On Teaching Grammar; Basic Sentence Structure and Specificity, To Be Specifc. And working on observation.

Early last month, even at age 10, Tai was still unclear about what constituted a grammatical sentence. Mostly he writes in complete sentences anyway, but he could not tell the difference between sentence and a not-sentence—in fact, when asked specifically to write a sentence, sometimes he would write things that weren't sentences: “The ball bouncing.” or “Running down the road.”

Unschooling advocates would say, well, he speaks in sentences, doesn't he? He writes intelligible sentences, doesn't he? As long as he has an intuitive grasp of the deep structure, he's fine. Don't mess him up with technicalities unless he asks for them.

And I get that. But he was (and still is) writing longer and longer sentences and not putting commas anywhere which made them difficult to follow even though the word order and everything made sense and apart from the lack of commas they were grammatically correct. And, when I asked him to put commas where the breaks were he didn't always find the right places because, sometimes, when you talk you do pause after the conjunction, and not between clauses.

He reads a lot; the books he reads are punctuated correctly. So maybe with enough reading, he will be able to figure it out for himself. But I have a feeling that it doesn't work this way for everyone. My husband reads a lot. A lot. And he still uses comma splices, he just can't help it. It drives me crazy. Clearly it hasn't held him back in his career, but I just feel like you get more respect, rightly or wrongly, if you can write good sentences. And for a verbal kid like Tai, I see a future that will rely heavily on using language. Maybe I'm wrong. But it can't hurt to see that he understands the basics of sentence structure. I decided to start with the very basic elements of a sentence: subject and verb (predicate for you grammar sticklers).

So without further ado:
Finding and Making Skeleton Sentences
This is based on a grammar workshop I attended many years ago at a CATE conference. I wish I could remember who taught it so I could give her credit here.

1. I prepared some cool photos with clear subjects—more than one subject worked best. National Geographic magazine is a great source for photos that inspire. (Remember cutting them out of old ones donated to the school for projects and stuff when you were in grade school? I do.) I actually cut them out and glued them to construction paper, just like in real school. I don't know why—it just seemed less...arbitrary.

2. Together, we identified the subject(s) of the photos. No wrong answer here—any noun that appeared in the photo was okay, really. We wrote the word(s) on pieces of paper, including any articles (the, an, a). We talked about how the subject of a photo is what the photo is “about”—just like the subject of a sentence is what the sentence is about.

3.Choose a verb for each subject: What is the subject doing? Most kids will respond like Tai, with the gerund (-ing) form: “drinking”. Or maybe a passive form like “is covered”. At this point, to keep the whole verb thing as simple as possible, I made a rule against using “be” verbs as helping verbs: is drinking, are wrapped, etc. Just use the word itself: “The camel drinks.” Or “The camel drank.”

4. We wrote the verbs on new pieces of paper in a different color ink. Or you could use different color paper. At this point, we had the skeleton of a sentence. Every sentence, I told Tai, must have these two parts in order to stand on its own. It took a few examples, but Tai understood that even if short sentences like, “The camel drinks” don't get spoken often in real life, they make sense grammatically

5. I coached him through another picture: find a subject. Add a verb. Find another subject. Add another verb. Until he was comfortable with both terms and what they represented and could make skeleton sentences on his own (without using present participles: “is ___-ing” or passive voice “is covered”).

6. We then had a contest to see how many skeleton sentences we could make out of a given picture in five minutes. The rules:

  • The sentence must have one subject and one verb. Objects, prepositional phrases, etc.--what I called “extras” are okay, but the point is to go fast and write as many as possible, so too many “extras” are a disadvantage.
  • Any noun or verb in the picture would count, even the invisible ones, like wind, smells, sounds, or thoughts. “The radio blares.” “Joe wishes he had a cap.”
  • Each subject can only be used once.
  • Each verb can only be used once.
  • No “be” verbs.
  • I had to write three sentences for each one of his.

Especially with the odds stacked in his favor, he got motivated.

We did one or two together, and then off we went. After five minutes or so, I stopped him, and we compared notes. He won by a landslide, which pleased him. And he had nine solid sentences, which pleased me.

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