A teacher’s view

Teaching grammar and spelling: important and even possible!

by Dawn Burnette

At some point, you probably made a list of reasons to homeschool. Your list no doubt included points like education from a Christian worldview, a flexible schedule, and more time with family. I am willing to bet your list did not include the thrill of teaching grammar and spelling.

As an experienced English teacher with a master’s degree and National Board Certification, I feel confident teaching grammar and spelling.

The thought of teaching my children math and science, however, has always made me more than a little nervous. Teaching any subject can be intimidating, especially when it’s a subject we don’t especially like or understand ourselves. If grammar and spelling are not your strong suits, don’t be discouraged!

Grammar: appreciate, understand, apply

Figure 1. Sample of single-sentence approach to grammar

In fifteen years of teaching in a high school, twelve years of providing training for teachers, and nine years of homeschooling, I have made a simple discovery. Most classroom teachers and homeschooling parents (in spite of their degrees, preparation, and experience) struggle with three primary aspects of teaching grammar: helping students appreciate it, understand it, and apply it to writing.

First, you need to understand the relevance of grammar and convey its significance to your children. Grammar isn’t something we do for fun, for torture, or even just because it’s expected. Grammar is the language of writers. It’s a lingo for talking about writing so that we can intentionally craft better sentences.

Consider this analogy: My son doesn’t need to know golf lingo to play his sport, but knowing the lingo helps him communicate with his coach and make improvements in his game so he can be more competitive. Likewise, you may be able to write a paragraph without knowing what a noun is, but if you really want to take your writing to the next level (and correct your own errors), understanding sentence structure is quite helpful. So, embrace grammar as a meaningful writing tool and share that love with your children.

Next, help your children understand grammar as a big picture. This step requires that you delve into grammar at the sentence level. Instead of identifying nouns this week, verbs next week, and adjectives the next week (resulting in a fragmented and basically useless understanding of grammar), pull it all together. How? Work with just one sentence at a time, but really dig into it (at varying depths based on the ages of your children, of course). First, identify the part of speech of each word.

Then look at how those parts are functioning (subjects, objects, phrases, etc.). Next, figure out where the independent and dependent clauses are and what kind of sentence it is (simple, interrogative, etc.). Decide how to punctuate and capitalize the sentence and why. And finally, diagram the sentence to see how all of the parts connect. This single-sentence process shows students how all aspects of grammar function as a whole, therefore promoting true understanding, retention, and application. (See Figure 1.)

Finally, help your children apply this new lingo that they appreciate and understand to their own writing. Here’s how: Let’s say your child is working on a descriptive paragraph (or essay). She has been learning about concepts like verbs, nouns, prepositional phrases, and appositives. In her descriptive paragraph, she needs to incorporate elements such as vivid verbs, specific nouns, descriptive prepositional phrases, and appositives. Then she needs to label these elements and explain their impact on the paragraph.

Figure 2. Sample of grammar/writing connection

Another example: Your child is writing any type of paragraph (or essay). He has been learning about sentence structure. In his paragraph, he needs to incorporate sentence types such as simple, complex, a declarative, and interrogative. Then he needs to label these structures and explain how they affect the paragraph. You will need to tweak these writing activities for different ability levels, but your children will see the grammar/writing connection and engage in more thoughtful revision! (See Figure 2.)

If you want a formal grammar curriculum, look for one that focuses on connecting all of the concepts at the sentence level. Avoid mindless exercises that deal with just one grammatical concept at a time. Such exercises might seem easier at first, but they are less likely to result in true understanding.

Further, don’t limit grammar to your daily lesson. Help your children see how the concepts come into play in what they write—and even in what they read. Help them to use their understanding of grammar and sentence structure to correct errors in their work, always focusing on why certain wording is grammatically wrong, right, or just better.

Spelling: how and why

In the history of the written word, nothing has had a more negative impact on spelling skills than texting and autocorrect. We can decide that spelling is a thing of the past and teach our children to embrace autocorrect with its regular failures, we can waste time testing our children on lists of words they have memorized (and then promptly forgotten), or we can jump in with both feet and teach our children how to spell. The best way to teach spelling is to focus on spelling awareness—attention to how words are spelled and why. Though starting spelling awareness at a young age can prevent bad spelling habits, it’s never too late!

First, communicate the importance of spelling. While public apathy toward spelling is growing, show your children that you still care! When they misspell words, don’t look the other way for fear of crushing their self-esteem. Creative spelling is perfectly acceptable when putting ideas down on paper, but when students make corrections in later drafts, spelling should be a priority.

Figure 3. Sample of personal spelling word list

Next, be intentional about spelling awareness. Most people assume that voracious readers should be good spellers. Not so, in most cases. My 15-year-old daughter reads over 100 novels each year, but she doesn’t pay a bit of attention to how words are spelled as she devours them. Doing so would slow her down and interrupt the flow of the stories! To encourage spelling awareness, have your children keep a list of words they misspell.

Every so often, sit down with them and review their lists. What rules or sound families apply to the words? Learn and study those rules using traditional or electronic flashcards. What other words follow those same rules? What mnemonic devices (memory tricks) can they come up with for remembering their list words? For example, I always say “b-e-a-u-tiful” when I write beautiful. And I use the sentence Linda is careful, especially near sputtering engines to remember how to spell license. The crazier the better! (See Figure 3.)

If you want a formal spelling curriculum, look for one that focuses on foundational building blocks of spelling like rules and sound families. Steer clear of programs that rely heavily on memorization of word lists. Regardless of your curriculum, don’t work on spelling during your spelling lesson and then ignore it the rest of the day. Point out oddly spelled words when you see them. Encourage your children to find examples in the “real world” of rules they have learned. And expect your children to go back and correct spelling errors in their writing after they are finished drafting.

We each face challenges and frustrations in different areas of teaching, but remember: If it’s worth teaching, it’s worth teaching well. Don’t give up. Don’t be tempted to allow your children to rely on proofreading software like grammar and spelling checkers, which create lazy writers who are dependent on the software rather than intentional writers who think for themselves. Do maintain a passion for teaching your children, a willingness to incorporate methods that are meaningful for them, and a desire to learn along with them. The rest will fall into place as you trust God to bless your efforts!

Dawn Burnette taught high school English for 15 years. Nine years ago, God led Dawn and her husband Rod to homeschool their daughter and son (who will finish high school at home in 2018 and 2019). In addition to homeschooling, Dawn writes language arts curriculum for classroom teachers and homeschoolers. Students of all ages use her lessons in 50 states and more than 20 foreign countries. For information about and samples of her Daily Grammar Practice and Daily Spelling Practice series, visit www.dgpublishing.com. DGP Publishing also offers Daily Reading Practice and materials for teaching vocabulary and writing for grades 1-12. She is also a teacher at www.SchoolhouseTeachers.com.

Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Summer 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.