(Continuing a previous post, answering questions from a new teacher. The first question was about the KBAR independent reading program. Click here if you’re interested in that one.)

Question: Pedagogically speaking, when do you teach grammar? Or is it something that simply presents itself at an opportune time? I was thinking of something like Grammar Wednesdays or something at the very beginning of the year, but I’m not sure what that would actually entail quite yet.

nelson“Something that simply presents itself at an opportune time?” As Nelson Muntz of Simpsons fame would say, “Haw Haw.” You do get a lot of what they call, “teachable moments” in middle school, but not many of them involve grammar. Do your best to connect to whatever else you’re doing (“Ponyboy is narrating in first person, so his PRONOUNS…”), but you also have to make it part of the routine. One of the few things I actually use that came with our anthology is the book of grammar worksheets. I write my own warm ups and pretests and quizzes and such for grammar, but the worksheets (we call them pink sheets because my student assistant a few years ago decided that “all grammar sheets should be pink”) are an easy starting point. I send home a two sided sheet on Monday with side one due on Tuesday and side two due on Thursday. I check the sheets (just for doneness – we’ll correct in a bit) while they do the warm up (if you read the KBAR post, you’re starting to see a pattern here: “while they’re…I’m checking…”). Then we correct and do a pretest, and maybe watch a related Schoolhouse Rock video (click the link and go buy the dvd…now). So Tuesdays and Thursdays usually have a grammar session with related warm up questions all week. And of course, there’s always a test on Friday with a grammar section.

So your idea of Grammar Wednesdays is on the right track. Remember, in middle school you have to have a routine AND some variety. And incentive. Those who score high enough on the exercises during the week can exempt themselves from the grammar portion of the test on Friday. As you can imagine, exemption is highly coveted. There have been screams over a missed pretest question.

Question: I’ve been thinking of having a weekly vocabulary test, but I’m not quite sure if the way I was taught would be the best. (You get a packet of words and exercises to help you study and then you take the test on Friday with packets turned in.) How have you done word study and does it work with the middle school age? I know they love a good ritual for sure.

nigelI have said before how important I think vocabulary is. To rephrase Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, “It’s like, how much more important could this be? And the answer is, none. None more important.” My kids get 10 vocabulary words per week, minimum. All of them come directly from whatever we are reading that week. Always. They always notice, when we read in class, all the vocabulary words. I also alternate weeks with spelling lists (usually 20-25 words with a spelling theme – drop the e…or not? ant or ent? etc.) and academic word lists. We have a vocabulary pretest every Wednesday. Before it, I go over the exercise they had for homework, demonstrate how the words are used, and take questions. Those who ace the pretest exempt themselves from the real one on Friday. Warm ups throughout the week also work the vocabulary. Sometimes we draw representations of the definitions, sometimes they do crosswords. But no word search “puzzles.” I hate word search.

The easiest way to see how I try to make it all fit together is by going to the What-Did-I-Miss section and the Homework section of my class web page, and checking out the day-to-day things we do. It’s pretty much all there.

Next time from The Mailbag: 600 Words per Week?!