Is there a Place in Language Arts for Spelling & Grammar Instruction?

Yes, but not the way they were taught back in the day, which was drill-oriented, involved rote memorization, and was taught in isolation of authentic reading, writing and oral communication. Completing worksheets, learning rules, rote memorization of random spelling words and weekly quizzes are ineffective. They have been shown to be time wasters and do nothing to improve students’ reading comprehension, nor their oral and written language.

“A century of research shows that traditional grammar lessons—those hours spent diagramming sentences and memorizing parts of speech—don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers. Yes, they need to learn grammar, but the old-fashioned way does not work (Cleary, 2014).”

“It is not enough for students to understand the complex grammatical features they encounter in their reading and listening; they must also be supported in using such language in their own speaking and writing…What this means today is that grammar instruction needs to be thoughtfully integrated into the language arts curriculum. (Gartland & Smolkin 2015).“

FROM Gartland & SmolkinGrammarTable

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Implications for teaching spelling & grammar as an aid to writing

Schools that have moved away from teaching formal grammar using traditional methods, to teaching grammar through wide reading, studying mentor texts, sentence combining and authentic writing, “offer concrete proof that such approaches work (Cleary, 2014)”

To improve students’ grammar, teachers should:

  • Wide & close Reading: Give students plenty of opportunities and encouragement to read, read, read (Anderson 2014).
  • *Study mentor texts: Help students expand their syntactic repertoire by exploring “grammar in action.” Examine and discuss effective examples through mentor texts. Grammatical terminology can be used, but should not be taught as an end in itself.Students can then begin experimenting with style and syntax in their own writing (Anderson 2014).
  • *Sentence combining: Have students experiment with and discuss various activities in sentence combining, expanding, and manipulating (Kittle, 2009).
  • Authentic writing activities: students need plenty of opportunities and encouragement to write, write, write, about topics of their choosing for a variety of purposes and real audiences (Williams, 2009).
  • Just-in-time teaching in context: Teach only the grammatical concepts –through mini-lessons and conferences, that students need for exploring mentor texts, and for editing  and revisions of their own writing

Grammar table 2.JPG


To improve students’ spelling, teachers should:

  • *Word Study: This is an approach to spelling instruction that moves away from  memorization of random word lists and helps students learn about words. Students develop “orthographic knowledge and cognitive strategies” which creates a deeper foundation for spelling development. “Stage theory focuses on the consistent patterns in language, and views learners as pattern-seeking beings. Learners, then, can employ their understanding of sound or morphological patterns in known words to recognize unfamiliar words when listening or reading; this knowledge can then be applied to using these words accurately when speaking or writing (MoE  2012).”



  • Teach Morphology. “Morphological knowledge may begin with simple concepts such as markers to indicate plural forms, and then develop over several years to include sophisticated knowledge of derived forms, such as human /humane/ humanity/ inhuman/  humanist (MoE  2012).”
  • Word Walls. World walls are effective with all grades and for a variety of purposes: 1) spelling of new/difficult words; 2) frequently misspelled words; 3) content words; 4) words students can substitute for overused words, eg “said“; 5) forms that students find confusing eg. they’re, their, there,  “Children who learn in a classroom with a working word wall have a distinct advantage over students who don’t have such a resource in their room( Education World 2016).



*Example of Word Study Instruction in action (Williams et al. 2009)

A Brief Description of the Research In the first investigation (Beckham-Hungler & Williams, 2003), we used the words Title I students frequently misspelled in their journals as the basis for word study instruction. We organized the misspelled words into weekly spelling lists that focused on a specific orthographic feature or principle so that Diane (teacher-researcher) could systematize her instruction and focus students’ attention on the concept to be learned (see Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). For example, students frequently misspelled the words house, about, our, and now, so Diane developed a weekly spelling lesson on these two spellings of the /au/ sound. At the end of our project, we found that when students reused the target words in their journals, they spelled these words correctly 85% of the time. More importantly, we were impressed by the number of other words the children spelled correctly that contained the same orthographic features as in the target words. For example, after Diane taught the ack rime, Tyler (all children’s names are pseudonyms) wrote wacky in his journal, also using the y spelling for the long e sound, which Diane had previously taught. A few days later both Denise and Karla wrote the word snacks in their journals. After Diane taught the ay spelling for the long a sound, Daniel wrote the word pray and Denise wrote gray. After Diane taught the ow spelling for the long o sound, Austin wrote the word slow and Aaron wrote snowed. Our conclusion was that systematic word study helped the students learn the target words and apply the orthographic features to other words they were writing.

*Example of Sentence Combining in action(Kittle, 2014)

Combining Sentences In their meta-analysis of writing instruction, Graham & Perin (2007) cite combining sentences as one of 11 strategies that move adolescent writers forward. This strategy helps writers experiment with possibilities. I give students four sentences: Biff graduated #7 in his high school class and missed only three questions on the SAT. He was undefeated in tennis senior year. He received a generous scholarship in math. He was denied admission to three universities he hoped to attend. I ask them to combine the information into one or two sentences, applying their understanding of complex sentences. As students work, I teach in the moment to correct misunderstandings or reinforce smart choices. Issac says, “You’ll like this, Mrs. Kittle: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Biff was undefeated in tennis and graduated #7 in his class with a generous scholarship in math due to his stellar SAT performance; however, he was denied admission to three universities he hoped to attend.” He’s right. I love it.

*Example of Using Mentor texts in action (Anderson, 2014)

The importance of using mentor texts is in the analysis that naturally comes through the conversation that follows the reading, in the transaction with the text. When we talk about what works in the writing we read, we become more consciously aware of it (Eagleman, 2012). As students note what a writer does well, they are, at the same time, creating a menu of options they can use in their own writing. For example, when Jasmine notices that Leonard Pitts starts his editorial with a list of commands in second person, she now has another option for how to begin her essay.

Educators often separate writing and reading—not to mention the panicked Henny Pennies who run around squawking “Close reading!” “Grammar!” “Author’s purpose!”— but the truth is these activities are inextricably linked. We can teach them as part of one meaning-making endeavor. When Beyoncé sings, “If I were a boy” in her well-known song by the same name, young writers notice that she says “if I were,” not “if I was.” That’s close reading. The point of learning about the subjunctive mood,  isn’t so much to label it as to use it. The power of the subjunctive mood is to communicate something that’s contrary to fact. Students understand that Beyoncé sings “If I were a boy” precisely because she isn’t. And this new understanding that students gleaned from their reading will surface in their writing. Writing and reading are more than standards—they’re meaning-making itself. They are processes that can address the standards. Each application and discussion leads reading back to writing, and reading and writing back to grammar. It’s all connected.

FROM Gartland & SmolkinGrammar Take action




  • Anderson, J. (2014). What Writing Is & Isn’t. Educational Leadership, 71(7), 10-14.
  • Cleary, M.N. (2014). The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar. The Atlantic
  • Gartland, L & L.Smolkin (2015) The Histories and Mysteries of Grammar Instruction. Reading Teacher, 69(4), 391-399.
  • Kittle, P. (2014). Teaching the Writer’s Craft. Educational Leadership.71(7) 34-39. 
  • Leipzig, D. H. (accessed 2016) Word Study: A new approach to teaching spelling.Reading Rockets
  • Saddler, B. (2005). Sentence combining: A sentence-level writing intervention. Reading Teacher, 58(5), 468-471.
  • Williams, C., Phillips-Birdsong, C., Hufnagel, K., Hungler, D., & Lundstrom, R. P. (2009). Word Study Instruction. Reading Teacher, 62(7), 570-578.

TDSB teachers can request  full text Reading Teacher and Educational Leadership articles from the Tippett professional Library.

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