Every year, it happens without fail. Some adorable little newly-minted seventh-grader will look up at me with big innocent eyes and ask, “What’s a verb, again?” Then I quietly walk over to the closet and bang my head on the door. Actually, it’s not so quiet–there may be a noise like moaning and gnashing of teeth involved. My question today is three-part: why do we have to reteach parts of speech again every year, why is it worth teaching, and how can we make sure next year’s teacher won’t have to reteach this same stuff?
Why do students forget the parts of speech?
The biggest reason students don’t remember what they’ve learned about the parts of speech is that they’re taught in isolation. Research shows that grammar taught in isolation doesn’t stick as well as concepts that are integrated into a framework of reading and writing. It probably doesn’t help if students are subjected to a quick review of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. in the first few weeks of school and then never reference them again for the next nine months.
Is it worth reteaching parts of speech?
So why do we keep going over the same material each year? Obviously, my answer is that these things really do matter! I approach grammar instruction with students as if I’m introducing them to a new language: one that we both must master in order to communicate effectively. In order to understand each other when we are talking about the author’s craft in a text or about how to improve their own writing, we need a shared vocabulary to identify and describe words or sentence structures.
How can we make sure students really learn the parts of speech?
How should we change our grammar instruction so that it is meaningful to students? To ensure that they don’t forget it all after the dreaded know-all-your-parts-of-speech quiz in September?
1 – Build a foundation that can expand in complexity
As students move into middle school, the ELA standards shift to an emphasis on the meaning of words and the effect they have on a text. You can make that same shift in grammar: from “underline all the nouns” to “how does this noun affect the tone?” Relate new grammar content–the different phrases and clauses–to the parts of speech students are familiar with. A prepositional phrase will always act as either an adjective or an adverb. A gerund phrase always acts as a noun. A dependent clause can act as an adverb, an adjective, or a noun.
2 – Emphasize your shared vocabulary
Throughout the year, continue to use the terms that you want students to remember. Instead of asking students to list three “words” to describe a character, ask them to list three “adjectives.” It’s a simple change, but it will keep the vocabulary fresh in everyone’s mind. Reward students when they do the same. You can have a little mini-celebration happy dance when a student uses the term “linking verb” correctly in classroom discussion if that’s your style. If not, you could just give him a thumbs-up or acknowledge his mastery of content-specific vocabulary privately. Here’s a quick little time-filler that students have fun with. Give a word and challenge students to use it as different parts of speech. For example, “bike” could be a noun (My bike is yellow and black), a verb (We will bike through the state park), or an adjective (Where is your bike helmet?). I still remember doing this with my sixth-grade teacher. I was inordinately proud that I was the only student who came up with an adjective for “pressure” because my mother used a pressure cooker at home.
3 – Make the connections
Help students see how their parts-of-speech knowledge applies to other content in your class. One of my favorite examples is when teaching about metaphors. Once I explain that metaphor often uses a concrete noun to represent an abstract noun, both the idea of concrete/abstract and the concept of metaphors become easier for them to understand. I love to have students randomly draw an abstract noun from a bucket and then brainstorm concrete nouns that could be used to write metaphors. The more they practice this and become comfortable with it, the more fluid their use of figurative language in longer essays. Teacher win!
What do your students remember about parts of speech?
Want a quick pre-assessment to see what your new middle-schoolers already know about the parts of speech? Grab this Parts of Speech pre-assessment with answer key.
Bonus: it also comes with a list of all the Common Core standards (grades 1-12) that address the parts of speech so that you can easily see where your instruction fits into the big picture.