So you want your students to get better at something, but drill-and-kill is clearly not the answer. Been there, done that, didn’t like it. So what’s a creative teacher to do?
Today I’m going to pull an example of a grammar skill and walk through five different ways to practice it without those groans you dread. While the skill I’m zooming in on may not be the exact one that’s your focus right now, you can apply these five different strategies to pretty much anything. I’m hopeful that by the end of this quick show, your mind will be buzzing with new ideas for tackling the next skill your students need help with.
You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
Let’s start with our Skill
OK, so let’s say you’ve noticed all your students’ sentences are looking the same. It feels like you’re reading hundreds of quick texts over and over, with no complexity to the sentences. There’s a subject and it does something and that’s it. You’re reading too many papers like this: “Gatsby loves Daisy. But Daisy loves money. Gatsby’s love for Daisy isn’t enough for her.” You want your students to try writing different forms of sentences, but you’d rather not give a Powerpoint on a sentence type and then have them drill down on writing them over and over.
Try this: Feature Students’ Interests
Crucially, you can practice many skills with almost any subject matter. Are your students obsessed with blue Takis? With Manga? With which Taylor Swift song is best? With sneakers? With Emojis?
Model the skill you want in the context of the subject your students are currently into. Project a photo collage of blue Takis and then get your students to help you write three types of complex sentences about them on the board. Talk about the puzzle pieces of each sentence as you write them, so you’re creating models for future sentences. Flip the picture to purple Takis and invite students to try out the types of sentences with a partner.
The next day, maybe your sentences focus in on Sneakers.
Try this: Let your Students learn to Teach the Skill
OK, here’s another angle. You can’t teach what you don’t know. As you work on integrating skill practice, try putting students in charge of the teaching. To go with our example of writing more complex sentences, you might invite them to create an educational social media post about how to write a certain type of sentence.
It could be an Instagram carousel, with a hook square, a teaching square, an example square, and a call to action (writing prompt) square. It could be a TikTok video, with text overlay that teaches the concept, models it, and invites viewers to try it out. It could be a Facebook post with a visual infographic.
Let four groups work on four different types of sentence social media posts on Monday, then present them back on the remaining four days of the week. Everyone gets a chance to teach AND be taught, through a medium that they find engaging.
Try this: Use a Real-World Context with Mentor Sentences
We all know the power of mentor sentences. Seeing the way language shows up, effectively, in the real wide world is a great way for students to understand how it works.
You could go on the hunt with students through their choice reading books. Invite them to find sentences that are more complex than a single unpunctuated statement. Have them write down the coolest sentences they can find, then put their favorite up on the board in a kind of amazing language collage.
Then take some time every day throughout a week to examine the sentences they find intriguing. What are the moving parts? How could they write similar sentences? Which ones follow the same patterns?
Alternatively, you could pull mentor sentences from anywhere – journalism, social media, your whole class text. Share examples of a type of sentence you want students to have in their toolbox and break down their moving parts. Then invite students to use them in whatever writing is going on that week – journal entries, sensory postcards, argument paragraphs, podcast scripts. Keep circling back.
Try this: Create a Game
Of course you can’t come up with a game for every single skill you want to practice, but when you can, you’ll get more buy-in and the activity becomes extra memorable.
Let’s look at an example of a sentence structure game. I wanted students to learn about different forms of sentences, try writing with new structures, see examples from their peers, and somehow find that fun.
So I created a mash-up of skill practice and the game, Apples to Apples. Students would write their sentences about a funny image slide, then vote to give points to the most creative sentences in a game format.
As I created the slides, I tried to make them as entertaining as I could, while still packing in the information about the types of sentences I wanted students to experiment with and showing examples.
I’m showing a complex example, as its the only game I’ve designed for this particular type of skill. But whether your game is simple or complicated, it can help stir up students’ interest in whatever skill you’re teaching.
Try This: Create Visual Connection
One year early in my career I went to an all-day workshop at NCTE called “Image Grammar” (and bought and read the associated book). It was an intriguing look at connecting writing to visuals. While I didn’t end up following the image grammar curriculum exactly, as usual what I did instead was integrate it into my overall toolbox (a side note that could go on and on, I never really go for the idea that any one solution is THE solution!).
When it comes to teaching a skill, there are so many ways you might create a visual connection.
I’ve experimented with having students choose postcards from my collection to inspire a short piece of writing (incorporating some skill we are practicing).
I’ve played Youtube videos I know they’ll love or find hilarious and then connected a prompt (which involves the skill) to the Youtube video.
Recently, I designed these visual prompts to help students really SEE how different types of sentences can be combined to create varied and interesting paragraphs. The shapes of the boxes invite them to experiment with different lengths and structures of sentences.
Ready to Try It?
Practicing skills throughout the year can be challenging to plan for, since you don’t want to fall into the old “drill-and-kill” vibe. But experimenting with these different small tweaks – featuring students’ interests, making them the teachers, leaning on mentor texts, adding a game element, or integrating fun visuals – can all help elevate skill practice to make it more fun, more memorable, and ultimately, more effective.