National Writing Project

Book Review: The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching

By: Meg Petersen
Date: June 22, 2010

Summary: Meg Petersen, director of the Plymouth Writing Project, finds Constance Weaver's book useful as a guide to teaching the grammar required for successful writing, with a focus on strategies that take these skills beyond drills and integrate them into real-world writing.

 

Tell people you are an English teacher and one of the first things they are likely to say is "Oh, I'd better watch my grammar." This remark may make many of us cringe on many levels, not the least of which is that many teachers, even English teachers, are quite insecure about grammar.

Constance Weaver says she is directing The Grammar Plan Book toward three audiences of teachers: experienced teachers who need to unlearn grammar drills, mid-career teachers who are uncertain about syntax, and young teachers who know very little about grammar. I think that takes in just about all of us.

A Third Way to Teach Grammar

Weaver points out that the traditional method of reviewing grammar rules from A to Z outside of the context of writing has not worked well, but neither has the more recent phenomenon of teachers who ignore grammatical issues completely.

As one of my students put it in a self-assessment, "Free expression was always the focus in English class, and correct grammar would come later. Unfortunately, this 'later' never seemed to arrive in any of my classes."

Weaver advances what she calls a "third way" to approach grammar, which she bases on two principles: less is more, and teaching grammar "an inch wide and a mile deep."

She directs her book to "smart teachers" and makes clear that what she offers is an approach based on principles, most of which will be familiar to Writing Project teachers, such as that grammar needs to be taught in connection with the writing process, and that teachers need to serve as role models, sharing their own drafts and revising/editing strategies as well as final drafts.

She stresses the importance of grammatical constructions and the need to teach them across grade levels, yet also the need to help English language learners make their writing more interesting, and not just more correct. Weaver bases her book on these principles, and stresses that this is not a book of lesson plans or a discussion of one specific method. She offers a detailed, annotated list of references for all aspects of grammar teaching.

Hands-On Examples

A one-shot lesson is not enough for students to achieve mastery in new structures.

She opens the second chapter with a detailed example of how she used Robert Munsch's The Paper Bag Princess to teach participial phrases to a group of sixth-graders. What is especially notable about this description is how she includes all her missteps, her problems such as forgetting to bring transparencies to the class, and more importantly, her mid-course corrections in the planning based on what she and the teacher were seeing in the student work.

She effectively makes the point that a one-shot lesson is not enough for students to achieve confidence and mastery in their use of new structures. This is the type of observation that encourages reader confidence that Weaver knows how real classrooms work. She also discusses how she might revise the lesson were she to teach it again. In so doing, she makes clear what she means by teaching "an inch wide and a mile deep."

In succeeding chapters, Weaver explains and illustrates how to teach modifiers to enrich writing through sentence imitation, combination, and expansion. She uses children's books and exercises to lay out what she calls a framework for teaching grammatical concepts.

She includes a chapter on editing and preparing for standardized tests, answering questions about what to teach in order to prepare students for this testing, and providing a sensible rationale for undertaking this work. She uses her own analysis of the ACT test to highlight what would be most useful for students.

A Rationale for Every Classroom

In the second part of this slim book, Weaver lays out a grammar planner. Again, she begins with a set of principles to guide this work, cautioning readers that teaching grammar in isolation does not improve writing, that "teaching everything amounts to teaching nothing," and that good writing does not necessarily follow grammar book rules.

She also provides questions for teachers to consider, including their sense of what their students already know, where they will benefit most, and what they really need to learn.

The final section of the book addresses issues of style, rhetoric, and conventions, such as dialect and English language learning markers, and informal and formal variants of language. She provides references for identifying those features most common in African American Vernacular English, along with a "code-switching shopping list." She addresses stylistic issues and specialized uses of punctuation.

Grammar That Doesn't Matter

Finally, she addresses "rules that don't rule," attacking some of the sacred cows of grammar instruction such as not splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition. In keeping with the book's clear, practical purpose, Weaver provides a checklist/chart at the end for teachers to develop their own scope and sequence of grammar instruction.

Overall, this book is a wonderful addition to any teacher's library. However, there is one glaring omission: While a more critical perspective on language use may have been beyond the scope of this book, dialect and second language issues are ignored.

That said, the book is indeed designed for smart teachers who want to help their students use grammar effectively in their writing. I will be adding it to the list of required texts for teachers in our preservice English teacher preparation program.

About the Author Meg Petersen is the director of the Plymouth Writing Project, New Hampshire.

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