This past summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about all the components of my writing workshop. I intended to make it a focus of study for myself throughout the school year. One of the areas I specifically wanted to look at was the most effective way to teach the grammar and mechanics I am required to cover by both state standards and district targets.
I spent a lot of time reading and reflecting on Jeff Anderson’s book Mechanically Inclined. He stresses the importance of teaching grammar and mechanics in the context of the writing workshop; it needs to happen in authentic learning situations. This concept fit right in with my belief that there had to be a better way to address grammar and mechanics instruction than through Daily Oral Language packets.
Soon after reading Mechanically Inclined, I also read an article Franki Sibberson wrote for Choice Literacy talking about the sentence observations she wanted to do with her class of 3rd and 4th graders. It was based on Jeff Anderson’s idea of looking at mentor text with students to help them discover how grammar and mechanics works with already published authors. This idea of “sentence observation” is also derived from Max Brand’s idea of “word observations” as described in his book Word Savvy. I decided to take all these concepts and adapt them to meet the needs of my 5th graders.
To get ready for my sentence observation mini-lessons, I choose interesting, well-crafted sentences from texts that we have read aloud together as a class. I then write the sentence(s) on a piece of chart paper before the lesson. The day of the lesson, I call my students to the floor in our meeting area.
I always start the lesson with the phrase, “What do you observe about this sentence?” The conversation that follows is dictated by my students; they are the ones who tell me what they observe. My job is to record the class’s thinking on the chart, and to clarify certain points about grammar and mechanics as they are mentioned. I always have multiple colored markers in my hand to help record their thinking on the actual sentence.
These sentence observations work on many levels. Sometimes, they help us “discover” something new about grammar and mechanics; we are getting a first exposure to a new concept. Other times, our observations help us review something we’ve already learned. In essence, each lesson is differentiated just because all 28 learners in my classroom have a different knowledge base.
For a long time, this activity has been a group activity I did with the whole class, or sometimes, with a smaller strategy group. I realized recently I needed a “read” on each student’s level of understanding as it applied to sentence observation. My answer for this need was a quick paper and pencil activity that served as a formative assessment for the students. The results of the assessment would help guide me in planning further instruction for each student. I gave the students 2 typed sentences, and asked them to write down everything they observed about the sentences on their paper. They turned them in, and at a quick glance, I could see the varied levels of grammar and mechanics knowledge. This helps me with the “next steps” in my grammar and mechanics instruction.
The lesson in the video took place in February, after many months of doing sentence observations and studying mentor texts as a class. It is amazing to see the level of sophistication the students show now as compared to some of the sentence observations they did earlier in the year. When you put a routine like sentence observation into your literacy workshop, it provides an authentic opportunity to learn about grammar and mechanics.