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Grammar instruction and technology.

Much of the research literature from the past 25 years has supported the importance of teaching grammar in the context of writing instruction (Calkins, 1980; DiStefano & Killion, 1984; Weaver, 1996,1998). Unlike other content areas, practice does not make perfect when learning grammar. While isolated drill and practice of grammatical concepts may result in correct answers on a grammar workbook page, applying such complex concepts to writing is a much more difficult task (Weaver, 1998). As students become more technically savvy in creating and writing drafts, teachers also must consider changing the ways they integrate grammar instruction into the teaching of writing. In this column, I describe how I began to "conference" with students about their writing through online grammar/editing chats, and I highlight good Web sites that focus on teaching grammar.

Teaching Grammar on the Web

For the past five years, I taught a writing methods course for those college students seeking teacher certification at the elementary and middle school levels. Since 2003, I have taught the middle school section entirely online through Webct. Teaching such a course online was a challenge at first; however, over time, I discovered that teaching grammar in context on the Web was exciting, and the students truly enjoyed participating in both content and grammar/editing in a conference online.

If you do not teach online, you are probably wondering how such a conference is relevant to you. There are many benefits to integrating technology into writing instruction, too numerous to list in just this one paragraph. To begin, online writing conferences can take place after school, on the weekend, or in the evening. Most important, they allow students a chance to continue the discussion of writing/grammar beyond the classroom. Another reason to incorporate technology into grammar instruction is that technology has become an everyday part of most students' lives.

Marc Prensky (2001) describes today's students as "digital natives," whereas today's teachers are often "digital immigrants." What he means is that today's students use technology in every aspect of their lives, and so they are comfortable with the technology. Teachers who are digital immigrants do not feel comfortable with technology. Instead of grading an assignment online, digital immigrant teachers print out the assignment to read. They do not compose online, but instead write it out by hand and then copy it online. Because of the influx of new technologies over the past 20 years, today's students learn very differently than students of the past. Digital immigrant teachers must find ways to stimulate the interest of their digital native students--learning to speak the same language. By providing the place to meet and the technology to discuss writing at the students' convenience, teachers will encourage learning in a new format.

How To Begin

Begin slowly--only integrate technology to enhance and invigorate instruction. If you are not familiar with chats or online writing techniques, you might first begin by incorporating simple E-mail or threaded discussion boards in your class. Such a discussion board is a good way to offer both content and / or editing feedback. The benefit of such a forum is that when students revise they can refer back to this board for suggestions that their peers or teacher gave them about their writing. In the Winter 2004/05 edition of this column, I listed free online discussion and chat boards teachers can use (Lacina, 2004/05). When you are ready for a synchronous grammar/editing chat, begin planning small-group editing conferences. I recommend keeping such conferences small, with only about five to eight students. The problem with large chat sessions is that sometimes the "talk" appears too fast on the computer screen; students who are slow at typing may be left out of the conversation. Whether you begin small by integrating discussion boards or whether you prefer synchronous chats, you must include clear, organized directions on how to facilitate such a conference online. This way, students stay on task and, most important, they give and receive specific feedback to improve their writing.

Steps to Holding Online Grammar/Editing Conferences

1. Once students reach the editing stage of the writing process, plan a time for the group to meet in a chat room. I place students in small groups and assign a group facilitator to find a convenient time for each of the students to meet online.

2. Before the conference, post a chat etiquette page, such as the following:

3. Next, have each group member Email the other members with grammatical questions. Have them review grammar Web sites, such as some of the sites listed below, I also post short grammar mini-lessons to focus on specific trouble areas I noticed after reading each student's draft.

4. Meet in a secure chat room.

5. Begin the conference by stating something positive about one another's work, and then discuss ways to improve/edit.

6. The teacher then needs to E-mail, or post, the grammar conference chat transcripts in order for group members to remember their group's suggestions as they revise their paper.

The most effective conferences occur when the teacher attends the chat as the group facilitator, modeling and facilitating the discussion. If the teacher cannot attend the chat, it is helpful to E-mail comments/ suggestions, including the chat transcripts, to each group member.

At the end of this past semester, I asked my students for anonymous feedback through a survey I created using Survey Monkey (, a free online Web site. I posed the question: What did you like/dislike about the online grammar/editing conferences? The responses indicated that most students liked receiving feedback from their peers. The following responses were typical of the overall class responses.

I liked the editing conferences because they were online. You didn't have to look the person in the eye and tell them what they could spend more time working on. It was nice to get feedback from my peers, and it was even encouraging to see somebody write, "t really liked how you used--." I didn't really have any dislikes except that in some of my peer's papers, they had many grammatical mistakes, and I wanted to tell them about every single one. It was a little difficult to do this online.

I found the conferences to be helpful. My group, I felt, really took the time to read what I had written before the conferences and [was] really trying to help me make my story come across better in the end. I can't really put my finger on any one thing in particular that I disliked about the conferences.

I LIKED making "suggestions" to others in my group. The editing conferences for this course were quite positive. My group was able to accomplish a lot without being negative toward someone else's writing.

Those who were not satisfied with the conference noted that they did not believe their peers gave adequate feedback about grammar, or that they did not feel competent giving suggestions.

I felt like my group did not really help me. I ended up basically checking my own work. I like that I could have them [there] to answer any questions, but they really didn't help me.

Well, I personally did not like the editing conferences because I am not strong in grammar and I felt like I could not contribute a lot of help in the grammar area to my peers in my group. I also thought that during our online chat some of the group members were very rude. I know the only reason they were rude was because we were not face to face. Rudeness is uncalled for and very hard to deal with from people that you don't even know.

Some of the students noted that they had difficulty giving honest feedback, since they were afraid of hurting their peers' feelings. Those students who gave honest feedback sometimes did so in a way that was too straightforward and greater tact was needed.

I plan on continuing with the online grammar/editing conferences next semester. After reviewing the students' feedback, I will offer more structured mini-lessons to small groups of students while teaching grammar in the context of writing instruction. I may even have students illustrate through Grammar Mind Maps ( mindmaps.html) how they would teach grammar concepts that they struggle to understand and use correctly in their writing. Since these students will be certified middle school reading/language arts teachers within the next year or two, it is critical that they not only feel comfortable with grammar, but also feel confident in giving feedback.

In summary, teaching grammar in the context of writing instruction is not a new concept; however, integrating and incorporating technology in this area is a new and innovative way to interest students in learning. By learning new methodologies to meet the academic learning styles of digital native students, digital immigrant teachers are on their way to better understanding and reaching their students.

Grammar and the Web

As I began searching and studying online grammar Web sites, similar to Patterson and Pipkin's (2001) analysis of grammar instruction on the Internet published in Voices From the Middle, I was somewhat disappointed with the type of Web sites available; most were drill-and-practice, and few illustrated how teachers can actually teach grammar in the context of writing instruction. Despite this initial disappointment, I highlight here the few good sites that I found.

Purdue's Writing Lab:

This is my favorite Web site for reviewing various grammatical concepts. Each concept is thoroughly explained and numerous examples and non-examples are given.

Web English Teacher:

This Web site provides numerous interactive, hands-on grammar lessons. A wide variety of lesson plans are linked, including interactive lessons on teaching adverbs, conjunctions, and the parts of speech.

RX Write:,1876,5813-211855-476517,00.html

This Web site, created by Pearson Publishing, offers numerous prescriptive grammar lessons for teachers. Instead of following the prescriptive lessons, I recommend that teachers develop descriptive lessons, in which grammar is taught in the context of the students' writing. The examples on this Web site can be taken out of context and used at a teacher's discretion.

Grammar Links on the Internet:

The NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Assembly for the Teaching of Grammar created this Web site. It links numerous excellent Web sites for resources on the teaching of grammar. Most of the material is appropriate for middle level grades and higher.

Grammar Bytes:

This Web site includes grammar rules, interactive grammar exercises, and handouts. It is a great resource page for teachers in search of examples to illustrate various grammar concepts. Again, although this Web site is visually attractive, it is still another traditional example of grammar instruction.


Noden, H. R. (1999). Image grammar: Using grammatical structures to teach writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Noden compares the writer to a painter, since a writer must "paint" images. This book contains a companion CD with 100 illustrative examples. Noden's grammar lessons are fun, interactive, and taught in the context of writing instruction. His work is an excellent source, as you can plan ways to teach mini grammar lessons in the context of writing instruction. There is also a free Web site with examples of interactive grammar lessons (www3.

Haussamen, B., Benjamin, A., Kolln, M., & Wheeler, R. S. (2003). Grammar alive: A guide for teachers. The National Council of Teachers of English. This book is an appropriate resource for K-college teachers. The book offers hands-on approaches to teaching grammar in context, and the practical vignettes describe grammar lessons from a teacher's perspective. It is an excellent resource for teachers at any grade level.


Calkins, L. M. (1980). When children want to punctuate: Basic skills belong in context. Language Arts, 57, 567-573.

DiStefano, P., & Killion, J. (1984). Assessing writing skills through a process approach. English Education, 16(4),203-207.

Lacina, J. (2004/05). Promoting language acquisition: Technology and English language learners. Childhood Education, 81,113-115.

Patterson, N., & Pipkin, G. (2001). Grammar in the labyrinth: Resources on the World Wide Web. Voices From the Middle, 8(3), 63-67.

Prensky, M. (2001). On the horizon. NCB University Press, 9(5), 1-5.

Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching grammar in context: Why and how. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann-Boynton/Cook.

Weaver, C. (1998). Lessons to share: On teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann-Boynton/Cook.

Jan Lacina is Assistant Professor, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas.
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Title Annotation:Technology in the Classroom
Author:Lacina, Jan
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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