For most of us, while we may be decent grammarians naturally, teaching the rules of grammar and writing (especially to students who don’t know even the most fundamental concepts — i.e. the ability to recognize a verb) is a daunting and exasperating task.
Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop by Jeff Anderson is one of the most valuable and well-used books I have on my bookshelf. According to the description on Amazon.com: “Mechanically Inclined is the culmination of years of experimentation that merges the best of writer’s workshop elements with relevant theory about how and why skills should be taught. It connects theory about using grammar in context with practical instructional strategies, explains why kids often don’t understand or apply grammar and mechanics correctly, focuses on attending to the “high payoff,” or most common errors in student writing, and shows how to carefully construct a workshop environment that can best support grammar and mechanics concepts.”
Anderson promotes the idea of using a Writer’s Workshop, and within that, about 10 minutes of the workshop time is used for grammar and mechanics instruction. He emphasizes the practice of teaching grammar and mechanics through literature, and encourages students to create authentic texts based upon this method. This method of teaching–not correcting–the concepts of grammar and mechanics through reading is fundamental and at the core of the book–something that I wholeheartedly agree with and espouse myself. Grammar must be put into context. Students know that they must put a period at the end of a sentence, for the most part. The challenge is getting students to transition from their everyday speech and dialect and slang to being able to “translate” their thoughts into formal language with appropriate grammar.
While this book is chock-full of useful information and ideas, a few concepts caught my attention in particular. First, Anderson advocates using short mentor texts to help students view actual writing, rather than “canned” correct-all worksheets created by the millions by publishers. Students can look in articles, short stories, novels, blogs, online texts, etc. to find examples of both good and bad writing right in front of them! Rather than wielding the red pen, use model texts to teach students what good writing looks like–and further, why. For example, students can be assigned the task of collecting sentences that demonstrate the use of compound sentences within the text they are currently reading. Of course, this is a task found in many of our Literature Guides, and something that I used to have my students do even before I read Anderson’s book, so I am particularly in favor of this very effective practice!
In addition to using models, Anderson details how to set up and use a Writer’s Notebook, and encourages the notebook as a playground for writing. From there, students are encouraged to keep returning to their notebook for inspiration on future writing, including essays. Students can also refer to another of Anderson’s methods, the creation of student-made visuals and charts that cover the walls of the classroom. This idea of a large visual that you can keep referring to is a living being in the class, as students are continually adding examples and notes to their charts.
Anderson details and explains common errors found in writing, complete with student examples, and ways to combat the problems in student writing. These activities are not only effective, but they are meaningful–and fun–for students. Most importantly, students are engaged through real writing in context to help them learn and remember the concepts of grammar and mechanics. Anderson’s engaging lessons and tools will not only squelch the “drill and kill” mentality, but will enhance your students’ confidence in their own writing.
For more about Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop, check out the book on Amazon.com for sample pages and foreword to the book, written by Vicki Spandel (author of Creating Writers, Creating Young Writers, and The 9 Rights of Every Writer)