Grammar journals get my students writing every day, increase their motivation to write, and teach grammar through practical application. Lately, we have been consuming more class time on Common Core writing, which is good, but I started questioning myself. Were my students writing enough to develop the writing fluency skills they need to pass state assessments? Was I teaching the pleasure of writing?
Grammar journals provide a risk-free zone where students can experiment with new grammar skills in the context of their own writing. I introduce them in a manner similar to the way I introduce warm-ups or bell ringers. Sometimes the students engage in free writes. Other times, when I am setting them up for a specific grammar lesson, I provide a prompt. My 6th graders love the journals! On the last grammar assessment, 97 percent of my 110 students scored 80 or above on pronoun questions similar to state assessment questions. The questions covered subject pronouns, object pronouns, possessive pronouns, and reflexive pronouns, which are part of the CCSS focus for grade 6. My 6th graders were successful because they could apply the rules they had learned in their own writing attempts.
For our journals, we use single-subject spiral notebooks. I teach one grammar rule each week, or 40 grammar lessons a year. I introduce the rule on Monday in a 20–40 minute lesson and return to it throughout the week.
The right-hand page of the notebook is for journaling. I give my 6th graders one minute to think and three to five minutes to write. It prepares them for writing under timed conditions. Later, if they choose, they can go back and write more.
The left-hand page is reserved for recording grammar notes. This way, by the end of the year, they will have a grammar reference guide and a journal to illustrate how much they have grown as writers.
The journals are introduced creating what Ralph Fletcher calls an “expert list,” that is, an idea bank or a list of topics that you know something about. This supports those students who get the deer-in-the-headlights look when asked to come up with a topic. A picture of my “expert web” from my own journal is pictured above.
On Monday, we begin each grammar lesson with a journal entry. I like to give them free writing time with very few stipulations. For example, students may like to write nature journals, weather journals, diaries, or stories. These are exemplars of journals they may keep as adults.
However, if I want to teach subject pronouns, plural and possessive, I would have them write about something they did with a friend or family member. Or, if the goal is to teach reflexive pronouns (myself, himself, themselves, etc.), I may ask them to write about a time when they went shopping with friends or family. Their goal in this case is to write in detail, describing what each person bought and for whom they bought it. This sets them up for the forthcoming grammar lesson. If I want to teach a lesson on prepositional phrases, I might have them describe their favorite room in the house, identifying where everything is located. My goal, in addition to teaching grammar, is to help them develop writing fluency, motivate them to write, and foster a love of journaling that they will carry into adulthood. During the rest of the week, my students continue to write, but I also post bell ringers that reflect state test assessments.
Students are not required to share their entries, but I do allow them the opportunity. You would be surprised what students will share. It is important to create a risk-free environment. In the upper right-hand corner, we code each journal entry. An open eye means it is public. A closed eye means it is private. My students know that I will honor their privacy and not share their entry with the class. One unplanned benefit is that you get to know your students on a deeper level.
After students finish writing, they take grammar notes on the left-hand side of their journals. Sometimes, in order to save time, I create half page notes, like the ones to the right, and the students glue them in. Each lesson contains a title, a definition, examples, and an interactive component. Sometimes the interactive component is a blank space, where students add their own examples, or a state test type of question. Feel free to download my subject and object pronouns notes.
The most successful lessons focus on the errors that the majority of the class is making. Once the rule is taught, students apply this knowledge to their own writing. They highlight samples of their writing that illustrate that they can use the rule correctly or samples they have edited according to what they have learned. It takes 20–40 minutes to introduce a grammar rule and apply it. The rest of the week we review and apply the rule to journal entries and academic writing.
Throughout the week, students write in their journals and complete one bell-ringer or warm-up exercise. We focus on the new skill, but also spiral prior skills that caused students to struggle. Most bell ringers reflect state assessment grammar questions. I walk around the room and quickly assess who has mastered the skill and who has not, and briefly meet with those who are struggling. A short class discussion closes the bell-ringer activity.
How do I grade all this writing? Ha! I am a busy person. I do not have time to grade 110 journals every week, especially if students are writing every day. My goal is to maintain the sandbox, risk-free atmosphere. I assess bell ringers daily, so I know whether or not my students are mastering the grammar skills. However, to foster accountability for journal writing, I walk around the room with a checklist every five weeks, while students are reading or writing an assignment, and grade journals with the following rubric:
Since introducing grammar journals, I've noticed that the intrinsic value my students place in grammar has increased considerably. In my classroom, we now have major grammar discussions. When students first acquire a new skill, they often overcorrect, and grammar journals give them the opportunity to explore and practice the newly learned skill. If they are proficient in their personal writing, they will be more successful at transitioning the skills to the high-level academic writing that is required from the Common Core. It also preserves the love of writing.
If you have a grammar reference book, most of the work is done for you. You can simply have students copy the rule in their journal and add examples, and provide a section for interaction. A great time-saving option is to use Scholastic Printables and Scope magazine’s grammar resources for notes and bell ringers. Sometimes, they have the rules in a box at the top of the page, so students can simply cut out the rules and examples and glue them into the journals.
I love the grammar lessons that Scope magazine offers on its companion Web site. Yes, this is new. “The Lazy Editor” provides an opportunity for students to practice and review skills beyond the grammar journals. For instance, Scope’s January 30, 2012, Lazy Editor includes lessons on capitalization, avoiding run-on sentences, correct placement of modifiers, word-variation, and sentence-structure variation.
Scholastic Printables has many grammar handouts, many of which are aligned to the Common Core. For example, according to the CCSS, 6th grade grammar should encompass an in-depth exploration of pronouns. Printables offer a differentiated pack on pronouns (grades 4, 5, and 6) to support the different level of learners in the classroom. To help introduce the different types of pronouns to my 6th graders, I used the handouts "Subject and Object Pronouns," "Indefinite Pronouns," "Possessive Pronouns," and "Pronouns Test Prep" (a bell-ringer resource).
Do you use grammar journals in your classroom, or have questions about how they work? Comment below.