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Do Grammar Worksheets Really Do Anything for Students?

Maybe. I understand that is a wholly unfulfilling answer (even though it's likely the truth), but I think we can expand on it a bit to see if we can come up with some things to look for in our worksheets to ensure they're effective for students in the long run and not just the short-term (i.e. their next quiz).


Nearly all of my students across the U.S. and Canada are bringing me grammar worksheets right now that they need me to help them "get through." There are a lot of worksheets out there thanks to the internet, and a lot of them are useless. I'm not going to join the masses, though, that are coming away with the false analysis that ALL grammar instruction is useless. It isn't.



Here's what I would love if teachers would consider when handing out worksheets:


  1. Does the worksheet involve practice?


And by practice, I mean writing. Not multiple choice. Not true/false. Not a game on a computer screen that has students label every single word with its part of speech.. As David Crystal so eloquently states, "Sentences actively create sense in language. And the business of the study of sentences is grammar." For a long time, we've given students activities and games that allow them to test their knowledge of grammar topics and have hoped that they'll make the jump from those activities to their own writing projects all on their own. From my experience, many students are unable and unprepared to make that leap. They need more targeted practice using grammatical elements by actually using them.


I had a student at one point who was learning about appositives. If you're not familiar with appositives, here's an example sentence with the appositive bolded: 


Seattle, the largest city in Washington, gets a lot of rain.


The student was asked to identify appositives in contrived sentences. He struggled with this, but after some direct instruction, he was getting the identification questions correct. Guess what he still couldn't do? He still couldn't use appositives in his own writing pieces. Isn't that the ultimate expectation, though? An effective practice may have had him writing multiple sentences about a topic and combining them into one sentence.


Seattle gets a lot of rain.

Seattle is the largest city in Washington.

Seattle, the largest city in Washington, gets a lot of rain.


Actually, there are a lot of things we could do to get students writing appositives in their sentences. I bet you're thinking of some ways right now. He would've been better off with whatever you're plotting, just as he was better off with me helping him join two of his sentences about the L.A. Dodgers into a single, interesting sentence.


  1. Have you taught the information explicitly to your students?


If you haven't, they can't do a worksheet on the topic. Okay, some are going to do well on the worksheets even if they've never seen the topics. We know aptitude exists and that some students display high levels of aptitude in certain areas, but all students benefit from explicit instruction of grammar topics. All of them do. And all of them need it early on. You can't introduce the comma that can come before the subject of a sentence if a student has no idea what a subject is. Students can't join sentences with conjunctions if they don't yet know what a conjunction is. We need to be able to build on understandings and that can only happen if students have the words attached to those understandings. And that only comes with explicit instruction.


  1. Is the worksheet accurate?


If you've been around this blog, you know that my son was given a worksheet with the task of underlining all of the prepositional phrases, and you know that the worksheet got prepositional phrases confused with infinitives. (You also know that I wrote a very kind note to the teacher in the margin of the page explaining why he didn't underline anything in that particular sentence. 🙂) However, I didn't realize at the time that inaccurate worksheets are much more common than most people know (including the teachers that assign them). 


I recently had a student who got an answer wrong on a worksheet that asked her to label parts of speech. The sentence included the phrase "the Nike backpack." My student labeled Nike a noun. She got it wrong. The worksheet's answer key labeled it an adjective. How can Nike be an adjective? Can I be more Nike than you are? Can you be the Nikiest of all? No, Nike is not an adjective, and, unfortunately, that wasn't the only problem with that worksheet. 


Even across the pond from me, the United Kingdom is facing the same issues with inaccuracies in grammar practices on teacher websites. (See Bas Aarts's blog at Grammarianisms for examples). With the prevalence of AI-generated lessons and activities becoming more popular, I feel like these inaccuracies may continue, especially if we don't take the time to vet the activities we're taking off the 'net.


The need for grammar instruction isn't going anywhere. Writing involves structure, and more than matching a part of speech to its definition or having students regurgitate the false understanding that verbs are action words or adverbs have an -ly, the beauty and clarity of the structure is best seen when it's actually written. 


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