Thursday, October 29, 2015

Interactive Grammar: How I Use Writing Brushstrokes in My Classroom

For me, teaching grammar is a struggle. I know that my students need to know some of the basics if I want them to become better writers, writers who can manipulate clauses and phrases to produce different effects. But I also know that teaching "grammar for grammar's sake" is not an effective approach. Students don't make the connection between endless packets of worksheets--asking them to underline subjects once and verbs twice--and writing. They don't transfer those skills when it comes time to put pen to paper and make some magic. 

So, how do we, as teachers, make that connection visible? That's the question. 

I've been researching books on grammar pedagogy for a few years now, and my personal favorites are Jeff Anderson's Mechanically Inclined, Robert Cahill's Stack the Deck, and Harry Noden's Image Grammar, the latter which I am going to talk about today.

What I really like about Noden's approach is that it is so visual. He draws an analogy between the way a painter paints (using various brush strokes to create interest) and the way a writer writes (using various grammatical structures to create interest). To me, the analogy makes so much sense. After all, aren't we, as writers, trying to help our readers visualize our setting, our characters, our argument?Noden introduces five basic "brush strokes" of writing, which are the foundation of grammar instruction in my classroom: adjectives out-of-order, appositives, absolutes, participial phrases, and vivid action verbs. All of these concepts are mentioned in my grade-level Common Core standards, so Image Grammar is an approach that you can really get behind and get district support for. Also, once you've covered the basics, Noden provides plenty of ways that you can up the rigor and have students super-charge their writing.

Today, I'm sharing my Brush Stroke Notes. (Just click on the hyperlink to access them as a PDF file.) I created them using Power Point. Visually, they are very simple, but they print nice and clean on colored paper, or white paper for students to color or highlight. I print them out with two slides per sheet, and they end up being the perfect size for cutting out and gluing into an interactive notebook! 

Above left, is a copy of the "Vivid Action Verbs" notes printed on purple computer paper and added to a notebook. The empty space below the notes was used for students to list action verbs from a book or short story, and to create their own exemplar sentence using some of the best verbs that they found. Above center, you can see a sample of how to use the "Adjectives out of Order" page. I had students color-code their adjectives and the nouns they modify, in both the sample from the notes and in their own writing sample. Above right, you can see a sample "Absolute Phrase" page, where students learn the basics of building absolutes with a sentence construction chart, before introducing more complex versions of the absolute phrase.

If you already use Noden's Image Grammar, I hope that these will help you and your students. If you don't already know about Noden's approach to grammar, I highly recommend that you go to Amazon and buy Image Grammar right now. It really will transform the way you teach grammar!


  1. I love your notebook ideas!! I'm definitely going to "borrow" that idea for my students! Thank you for connecting with me. I look forward to hearing from you throughout the year.

  2. Thanks, Amie! Your presentation was amazing! I just got in my Killgallon book and can't wait to put these ideas into action. I'm also hoping to implement a smaller version of the 20% project this year, and going full-scale with it next year.