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Teaching Tips: Grammar Games to Deliver Fun and Confidence

by Mary Cotillo
 | Jan 17, 2012
ThinkstockPhotos-179222616_300pxFor most of my early adolescent students, writing is a four letter word. It’s something they dislike and look forward to with the enthusiasm I reserve for root canals and tax season. Ask them to write an essay and you might as well be asking for them to voluntarily abstain from their Xbox for a whole weekend. For most of them, anxiety arises from a basic lack of confidence; they don’t understand how to craft complete, never mind interesting, sentences. Sure, a teacher could correct this issue with a few days of basic grammar review, but the challenge is taking such a dry topic and making it interesting enough for the student to bother to learn it. Toward this end I’d like to share two mini-lessons with which I’ve had success.

Sentence unscrambling

English teachers know the difference between phrases and clauses; we can even tell you the difference between a subordinating and coordinating conjunction. But can our students? And, more importantly, do they need to? Do they need to know the names, or is it enough simply to understand how these elements function within effective sentences? For those who believe use is more important than labeling, this mini-lesson is for you.

Survey the texts you plan to teach but have not yet read, and choose three or four impressive sentences. The examples in this mini-lesson come from “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl. After all, she was not only harmless—there was no question about that—but she was also, quite obviously, a kind and generous soul. Now break that sentence into pieces. If you plan to continue instruction into phrases and clauses, you can break the sentence into phrases and clauses. Keep punctuation and capitalization. Mix up the order of the pieces and present them in list form.

there was no question about that–
a kind and generous soul.
but she was also
she was not only harmless–
quite obviously
After all,

Students should be tasked with then “unscrambling” the sentence and attempting to re-construct the original. Because the students haven’t read the story, they have to pay attention to the way parts of sentences fit together to complete the job. I usually allow students to work on the first sentence in small groups. After a few minutes of struggle, discuss with the whole class which pieces go in which order, and how they knew. Then give them a more challenging sentence. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This example is what I call “intermediate.” It’s great because it provides an opportunity to discuss how to use semicolons.

to stay in.
in a place like this,
Animals were usually a good sign
a pretty decent house
and all in all,
Billy told himself;
it looked to him
as though it would be

Animals were usually a good sign in a place like this, Billy told himself; and all in all, it looked to him as though it would be a pretty decent house to stay in.

This example is definitely a challenge!

forcing him to stay where he was
compelling him,
staring at him through the glass,
Each word was like a large black eye
and the next thing he knew,
and reaching for the bell.
holding him
to the front door of the house,
he was actually moving
across from the window
climbing the steps that led up to it,
and not to walk away from that house,

Each word was like a large black eye staring at him through the glass, holding him, compelling him, forcing him to stay where he was and not to walk away from that house, and the next thing he knew, he was actually moving across from the window to the front door of the house, climbing the steps that led up to it, and reaching for the bell.

The next step is writing. Students should write a sentence of their own that is modeled after the newly unscrambled sentence. Where the original sentence includes a prepositional phrase, students should write a prepositional phrase, a gerund for a gerund, etc. Whether they know the name “prepositional phrase” is irrelevant; they will construct their own meaning by thinking about how the pieces function as a part of the whole. They can write about whatever they like—the sky’s the limit.

(Modeled after the “Animals are usually a good sign” sentence above.)

A sense of humor is a good quality in a girl, Billy told himself, and truth be told, it looked to him as though she would be a pretty enjoyable date to the dance.

Taking this writing step provides your students with the opportunity to compose interesting, complex sentences, and it will provide you with a foundation for the rest of your writing instruction. Share sentences aloud; post the most original and creative. Reference them often during future lessons. Having successfully created two or three well-crafted sentences, students will be more confident during later writing assignments.


For those of you who believe it is important for students to be able to identify sentence parts by name, this strategy will help. Our math teacher colleagues have closets full of dice and plastic teddy bears and tiny cubes, but when is the last time you used a manipulative in a lesson? So many of my students struggle to understand the structure of different types of sentences, so I’ve made manipulatives to make the ideas a little more concrete.

Before students can use manipulatives, you need to establish a common vocabulary. I focus my instruction on simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences, so I teach the following vocabulary: subject, verb, independent clause, subordinate clause, subordinating conjunction, coordinating conjunction. Just simple definitions and examples are all I’ve found necessary for pre-teaching.

Then I give each student an envelope containing the following:

three slips of paper saying “subject”, three saying “verb,”
two slips with the words “coordinating conjunction,”
one slip with the words “subordinating conjunction,” and
two slips labeled “comma.”

I'll then ask the students to arrange the slips of paper in the correct order for a simple sentence. They should be able to come up with:

Subject Verb

Then I ask them to make me a compound sentence. I'm looking for:

Subject Verb Comma Coordinating Conjunction Subject Verb

If I ask for a complex sentence, I'll dictate whether or not I want a comma in the sentence. I'm looking for either this (with a comma):

Subordinating Conjunction Subject Verb Comma Subject Verb

Or this (without a comma):

Subject Verb Subordinating Conjunction Subject Verb

Eventually we work our way up to compound-complex:

Sub. Conj. Subject Verb Comma Subject Verb Comma Coord. Conj. Subject Verb

Once they get the gist, I start timing them. They get to the point where they can put the pieces in the right order in a matter of seconds.

Once they reach a point where they know the components of the sentence, I assign each student a role. Troy might be a coordinating conjunction and Marissa might be a verb. Then I shout out types of sentences and they have to match up with the appropriate peers to create that sentence. It’s chaotic, for sure. But dull? No way!

Of course, this cannot be the end of the instruction. Now we must put actual words to the names of the sentence parts. This can also be fun and silly. I like to let the students keep the manipulatives on their desks when first adding words. They can lay out the sentence in front of them and add words one by one until they arrive at the end product. Then, when they feel comfortable, I assign each student a word. Now Troy might be “yet” and Marissa might be “sing.” Call out types of sentences and have students meet up with peers to compose sentences. Sometimes the sentences work; sometimes they don’t, but the ones that don’t work make wonderful opportunities for editing.

The Payoff

Both the sentence unscrambling and manipulative strategies have game-like qualities to them, so students will learn without realizing they’re learning. After they have written long, intricate sentences using the sentence unscrambling model, and they can name the parts of and types of sentences after using the manipulatives, their confidence will be much improved. Sure, they’re not going to turn cartwheels when you assign an essay, but they’ll have the tools necessary to tackle the job with the self-assurance that heralds success.

Mary Cotillo is an 8th grade ELA teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, MA. Mother to two children, she enjoys engaging in light saber battles and hanging out on soccer fields. She earned her National Board Certification in 2009.

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