My eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Tony, was hell-bent on teaching me to diagram sentences and memorize parts of speech. I was an epic failure at both.
Fast forward a zillion years…
I had a student who struggled mightily with reading comprehension. If sentences were too long or complicated, he forgot words before he could work out the meaning. Despite the valiant efforts of Mrs. Tony to prepare me for success beyond eighth grade, I had nothing, nada, zilch in my bag of tricks to help him.
Because I had no language for talking about sentence parts, Ben and I had no shared language for the sentence parts we were wrestling with.
My parting gift to Ben when he left for college was a book called Grammar Sucks: What to do to make your writing much more better. I can still see the grin of gratitude on his face.
Fast forward over a decade to yesterday…
A colleague who took my Unlocking Sentences course asked me about a sentence she and a student struggled with:
Being taller than the other players gave Michael a distinct advantage during the basketball game.
“Being taller than the other players… What IS that?!”
GULP. “I don’t know what it’s called.” (Sorry, Mrs. Tony!) “What I do know is it’s acting like a noun, naming what gave Michael a distinct advantage.”
“Yeah, but the sentence starts with a verb,” she said. “Being is a verb!”
“I know, but that whole chunk of words is what gave Michael an advantage.”
Fast forward several hours of Googling…
Turns out that chunk of words is called a gerund phrase.
Like too many of my students, I know I will forget the term gerund phrase in a matter of hours. Unlike many of my students, I know I don’t need to remember the term gerund phrase in order to comprehend sentences that start with them.
What I do need to know is sentences that start with -ing forms of a verb may be shapeshifters. They’re verbs acting like nouns. Along with a few words that follow them, they form a chunk of meaning that tells who or what the sentence is about.
Now I have a pet name for these structures that sticks in my brain. And I can spot a shapeshifter from a mile away:
- Memorizing a zillion parts of speech takes time and effort.
- Analyzing sentences based on parts of speech taxes working memory and, by way of that, comprehension.
- Grouping words within meaningful chunks makes sentence comprehension easier.
- Giving sentence chunks sticky names helps students remember them.
Teaching sentence-level grammar is hard because a) grammar is invisible, and b) the terms don’t stick. We need to use “sticky” language if we want our instruction to stick. Shapeshifter would have stuck with Ben, but gerund phrase?
What if we talk about tricky language concepts with students in a way that sticks? What if we throw their working memory a bone and teach them to analyze sentences in bigger chunks than individual words? What if we focus on what sentences mean rather than what sentence parts are called and how to diagram them?
We can and should be doing better for students who struggle with grammar. It doesn’t have to suck.