Day 3 Conversation with Dr. Mary Ann Corley: Contextualized Grammar

Hi Everyone!

Welcome to Day 3 of our discussion about the beginning stages of writing with Dr. Mary Ann Corley!  Yesterday, we had a great discussion about collaborative writing.  This lively conversation centered on such topics as the benefits of collaborative writing, methods for using it in the classroom, and what recent research says about it.  Please remember that this is a conversation, not a lecture.  Thanks in advance for making comments and asking questions! 

To gain a complete picture of the three-day conversation, please see Tuesday’s discussion about pre-writing.  All resources from this discussion are stored at a Google Sites page HERE.  

Teaching Grammar in Context

During the 1990s, the adult education program I worked for took the approach to language arts instruction that students needed to learn grammar first and then we would teach them how to write.  Using their TABE Language score, students were asked to navigate through one (higher TABE score) or two (lower TABE score) workbook-based grammar courses.  I was continually surprised to see how little of what students seemed to learn in their grammar course(s) translated into their writing.  Surely there must be a better way for students to learn grammar than plowing through these workbooks.  I had no idea what research said about best practices for teaching grammar.  I wish I knew Dr. Corley then!     

Mary Ann, I will lead off today's discussion about contextualized grammar with these two questions:

Please explain how teaching grammar in context works

Why is teaching grammar in context more effective than traditional grammar instruction?

I look forward to a robust discussion today!  Thanks so much for your help Mary Ann!


Steve Schmidt

Moderator, LINCS Reading and Writing Community of Practice


Grammar instruction is the explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and the structure of sentences. We know that learners should study grammar because a working knowledge of grammar will enable them to produce good sentences when speaking and writing, sentences that clearly communicate, whereas faulty grammar often fails to convey meaningful messages. BUT studies show that the traditional approach to grammar instruction, i.e., the three Ps of Present, Practice, Produce, presents a disadvantage in that students fail to apply to their writing the rules of grammar that they have studied. They may master grammatical rules taught in a decontextualized manner (i.e., not in the context of real communication, whether spoken or written), but they do not transfer this knowledge of grammar to their performance. In other words, they may know the rules of grammar explicitly but fail to apply them when communicating. Why is that? In traditional grammar instruction, learners are given isolated sentences, which they are expected to internalize through exercises involving repetition, manipulation, and grammatical transformation. But such exercises do not provide opportunities for learners to see the relationships that exist between form, meaning, and use.

The publication Writing Next (Graham and Perin, 2007) reports a negative effect of traditional grammar instruction on student writing, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing. So—if teaching grammar is important but traditional approaches are not effective, what is the best way to help students learn grammar and transfer that learning to their performance in writing?

Writing Next recommends alternative procedures, such as teaching sentence combining using students’ own writing samples, are more effective than traditional approaches for improving the quality of students’ writing while at the same time enhancing syntactic skills. In addition, Fearn & Farnan (2005) found that teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of their own writing (versus as an independent activity) produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing. Therefore, although teaching grammar is important, alternative procedures, such as teaching sentence combining, are more effective than traditional approaches for improving the quality of students’ writing.


Fearn, L., & Farnan, N. (2005,April). An investigation of the influence of teaching grammar in writing to accomplish an influence on writing. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.

Thanks for presenting these research findings Mary Ann!

When I describe to instructors during writing professional development workshops how 30 years of research shows the failure of traditional grammar instruction, the reactions I receive typically fall into several categories:

1. Instructors are dumbfounded and find the information impossible to believe.  They cling to the idea that since they learned decontextualized grammar by sentence diagramming or other methods from their grade school teacher Mrs. Clutchbucket, their students can learn it this way too.    

2. They misinterpret the information and think the research is saying that they should not teach grammar at all.  I make it as clear as I can that we need to teach grammar but teach it using evidence-based strategies.  These strategies are clearly teaching grammar in the context of students' writing.

3. Participants realize they need to teach using evidence-based practices and openly adopt contextualized grammar teaching methods. 

I find the research on contextualized grammar to be almost unknown by adult basic skills instructors.  Thanks so much for helping to make it more widely known!  


Hi Mary Ann,

On April 4th, Helaine W. Marshall, an ESL/ESOL professor at Long Island University in Hudson, New York posted in the LINCS Integrating Technology group a link to a PowToon video she had made to introduce students to her grammar class. (Her post will be found here.) Both the medium, an animated video with music, and the content of her message attempt to persuade students that a grammar class will be fun! Do you -- or others in this discussion -- think there are ways that learning grammar can not only be meaningful to students if taught in the context of their own writing, as you pointed out, but also fun? Have you seen effective grammar teaching strategies that students think are fun and engaging? If so, please share them with us.

David J. Rosen

Getting students to work in pairs or in small groups can be a lot more energizing for students than working independently. Members of a group can each share their own sample written texts (remove students’ names on the texts, if this is necessary at first to make students comfortable with sharing their work). Group members can work together to combine shorter sentences to produce more complex and sophisticated writing for each student’s sample text. Most students enjoy this type of collaborative effort.

Group competition in a game can be fun. For example, break students into groups of three or four and present them with a complex sentence, such as the following sentence from Steinbeck’s The Pearl:

“The dawn came quickly now, a wash, a glow, a lightness, and then an explosion of fire as the sun arose out of the Gulf.”

Ask each group to de-combine this sentence into as many kernel sentences as they can and then have groups share their ideas. I came up with the following nine kernel sentences:  

The dawn came.

It came quickly now.

It was a wash.

It was a glow.

It was a lightness.

Then it was an explosion.

The explosion was of fire.

The fire came as the sun arose.

It arose out of the Gulf.


Although not strictly teaching grammar in the context of a student’s own writing, this type of activity can generate some laughter as each group tries to identify the greatest number of kernel sentences. In addition, this is another good learning tool. Now turn this same activity to students’ sample writing—are there examples of combined sentences that are extremely convoluted and hard to understand? (This may be rare.)  If so, ask the student to de-combine his/her long sentence into kernels.   

Does anyone else have ideas for fun ways to teach grammar in context?   

Many adult ed students produce written texts consisting primarily of a series of short, simple sentences. The result often is a text that is monotonous and uninteresting. To help students to produce more complex, sophisticated, and interesting writing with sentences that are varied in form, the teacher can demonstrate sentence combining and then then ask the student to revise his/her essay by combining two or more shorter sentences into one smoother, more detailed sentence. Sentence combining is a great way to “sneak in” grammar instruction in context! In the process of having students learn sentence combining, they also learn about sentence construction, subordinating and coordinating conjunctions, compound verbs or compound subjects, punctuation, compound versus complex sentences, parallel structures, etc.

Among other advantages, sentence combining…

  • Varies sentence length and increases the reader’s interest (It avoids short, choppy sentences).
  • Builds students’ writing fluency.
  • Builds word choice and reduces unnecessary repetition.
  • Provides practice creating sentences of increasing sophistication.
  • Helps the teacher assess if students can produce sentences that are grammatically correct.

To help students learn to combine sentences, it is helpful to teach the following sequence:

  • Combine the kernels of two shorter sentences in any grammatically acceptable manner that sounds effective.
  • Eliminate unnecessary or repetitive words and phrases.
  • Change the form of words, as necessary (e.g., “grew” to “grown”).
  • Add appropriate function words to connect the two sentences (e.g., conjunctions, relative pronouns).
  • Rearrange by moving words, phrases, and clauses around to produce the best effect.

Here’s a sample exercise in sentence combining. I have deconstructed two sentences from Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen. If this were a sample of student writing (instead of a published piece), I would ask students to combine the following short sentences into one longer sentence:


The handcuffs bit at his wrists.

The handcuffs were steel.

The handcuffs were worn. 


Cole Mathews knelt.

Cole Mathews was defiant.

He was in the bow of the skiff.

The skiff was aluminum.

Cole was facing forward.

The wind was cold.           

It was September.      

Just look at all the possibilities for teaching grammar that lie within these exercises!! There may be variants on the final sentence that is produced—and that’s fine, provided that the variants are all grammatically correct and convey the same meaning.

In reviewing students’ writing, the teacher can identify common areas of difficulty, such as all simple, choppy sentences, too many “and”s, repeated sentence types, and the teacher can ask the student to focus on that issue.     

When students have produced a draft text and are ready to revise their work, remind them of the sentence combining exercises. Ask them to identify two or more sentences that they can improve. (When they read aloud, they are more likely to hear the choppiness or repetitions than when they read silently.) Ask student pairs to identify two or more sentences in each other’s writing to work on together to combine or clarify.

To help students evaluate their own revised text, ask them “Is it better?” Help students focus on the following three aspects of “better” when evaluating combined sentences:

  • Clarity and directness of meaning
  • Rhythmic appeal 
  • Fit for intended audience

Reading Mary Ann's post has me thinking about ways to use technology to help our students learn sentence combining.  During our discussion in May, Ashly Winkle mentioned using the free resource she uses for remote learning with her students.  As Mary Ann indicated, ideally we would want to use a students' own sentences for them to practice this skill.  I see as a way for busy instructors to give students' additional practice.  

I was unfamiliar with, so I took a look at Quill Connect, its sentence combining practice.  It began with a print lesson demonstrating how to use a comma and a joining word.  It shows examples of short sentences (You See) and then shows how to combine them with and, but, or, and so (You Write).  It then gives students eight practice questions where students are asked to type in a compound sentence using a comma and joining word.  The artificial intelligence (AI) Quill uses to judge correct answers is sophisticated detecting capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and word usage errors.  When students get answers wrong, the AI gives feedback and several chances to make corrections.  Should students still be unsuccessful after several attempts, it finally gives them a multiple choice option.  

I know there are many other technology options out there for helping students learn to write more clearly.  How are you using technology to help students learn sentence combining or other grammar skills in context?

We so appreciate all your great insights Mary Ann!

During Tuesday's discussion on pre-writing, we mentioned how challenging it can be to get our students to write.  Writing is very personal and having an instructor or fellow student criticize their writing by saying its grammatically incorrect may cause a student to shut down and stop writing.  

Mary Ann and others, any thoughts about how we can teach grammar in the context of students' writing without them feeling criticized and shutting down?  Thanks!


Thanks, Mary Ann, for these suggested activities! I think you are right to focus on getting students to use language 'in action' rather than in isolated exercises on worksheets, etc. One variation of the sentence combining activity that I have enjoyed is having students put one word per note card when writing their sentence fragments and clauses - then we 'build' the sentences across the floor as a team, moving the note cards around to reshape the sentence that sometimes stretches the length of the room!

Thanks for this idea, Anita. I had one teacher tell me his idea for helping low-literate ESL students grasp parts of speech, also using word cards. He color-coded the cards so that nouns were red, verbs were blue, adjectives yellow, adverbs green. He also had other colors for prepositions and conjunctions (I'm not sure what colors--maybe black and white?). Students were to take the cards and create sentences--and every sentence must contain at least a red card (subject) and a blue card (verb). He said that it was a fun way to help students learn about language construction in English. I've never tried it, but I wanted to share this idea. 

Mary Ann, the WIOA legislation encourages us to teach using the latest evidence-based practices.  Would you please comment about any recent writing research we should keep in mind as we teach our students?  Thanks so much!


Steve and all:

Three recent and significant publications—all meta-analyses of large-scale research—inform effective practices in writing instruction. These are landmark studies in that they tell us what works (see list below), and what doesn't (e.g., de-contextualized grammar).

I have referenced the first of these publications several times over the past few days--It is Writing Next by Steve Graham, professor and researcher at Vanderbilt University (more recently at Arizona State University) and Dolores Perin, professor and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University. (Dolores was a subject matter expert on the TEAL advisory board, and she contributed enormously to the TEAL publications and online courses). Writing Next highlights specific techniques for teaching writing and identifies 11 elements of writing instruction found to be effective for helping students learn to write well and to use writing as a tool for learning. Recommendations include the following:

  1. Teach writing strategies for planning, revising, and editing.
  2. Teach summarization strategies.
  3. Use collaborative writing.
  4. Set specific product goals for students.
  5. Use word processing as instructional supports for writing assignments.
  6. Teach sentence combining, which teaches students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences.
  7. Teach pre-writing, which helps students generate or organize ideas for writing.
  8. Use inquiry activities, which helps students in analyzing concrete data so they can develop ideas and content for a particular writing task.
  9. Use a process writing approach that provides extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction.
  10. Have students study models of good writing.
  11. Use writing as a tool for learning across content areas.

 For the complete publication, visit 


The second publication,Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading, also was co-authored by Steve Graham and one of his graduate students, Michael Hebert. This publication identifies writing practices found to be effective in helping students increase their reading skills and comprehension. Recommendations include the following:

  1. Have students write about the texts they read. Comprehension of science, social studies, and language arts texts improves when students write about what they read, specifically when they…
  • Respond to a text in writing (Writing Personal Reactions, Analyzing and Interpreting the Text).
  • Write summaries of a text.
  • Write notes about a text.
  • Answer questions about a text in writing.

2.   Teach students the writing skills and processes that go into creating text, specifically when teachers…

  • Teach the Process of Writing, Text Structures for Writing, Paragraph or Sentence Construction Skills (Improves Reading Comprehension)
  • Teach Spelling & Sentence Construction Skills (Improves Reading Fluency)
  • Teach Spelling Skills (Improves Word Reading Skills)

3.   Increase how much students write.

For the complete publication, visit,reading%20skills%20and%20content%20learning.


The third publication, Informing Writing: The Benefits of Formative Assessment, was co-authored by Steve Graham, Karen Harris, and Michael Hebert. This publication examines the effectiveness of formative writing assessment and identifies best practices in writing assessment. Recommendations include the following:

1.  Use formative writing assessment to enhance students’ writing. Writing improves when teachers…

  • Provide feedback to improve student writing.
  • Teach students how to assess their own writing.
  • Monitor students’ writing progress on an ongoing basis.

2.  Apply best practices for assessing writing in the classroom.

  • Allow students to use the mode of writing in which they are most proficient when completing a writing assessment —pencil/paper or word processing.
  • Minimize the extent to which handwriting legibility or computer printing bias judgments of writing quality.
  • Mask the writer’s identify when scoring papers.
  • Randomly order students’ papers before scoring them.
  • Collect multiple samples of students’ writing.
  • Ensure that classroom writing assessments are reliably scored.

For the complete publication, visit

Thanks to all for a good discussion over the past three days. Happy writing and happy writing instruction!!


Thank you Mary Ann and others here for the wealth of ideas and great resources and tips shared on a very controversial topic for some and for all of those shared in the last couple of days!

When to teach grammar reminds me to the question about when to teach kids about the birds and the bees. When? When the time is right. With grammar, when it fits the context.

I have been a strong advocate of integrated instruction, long, long before IET and WIOA, when we called it contextualized or interdisciplinary instruction. Different environments commonly use a number of different types of grammar to communicate. For example, STEM occupations are filled with dependent clauses to express definitions, cause and effect, and more. How many ways can one express the same or related idea using different sentence constructions? There are not limitless ways, but there are many ways, each using different structures and punctuation. I call that playing with grammar, and playing is fun. 

                                    Because force is a vector, with a magnitude and direction, it can be represented as an arrow.

  • Force is a vector, so...
  • Force is a vector; therefore...
  • Since force is a vector...
  • Force has magnitude and direction. An arrow can represent it because of that.
  • If force didn't have ....
  • When something has magnitude and direction, like force...

History has its own language. CDL training has its own language. So do nursing, construction, and other environments. On and on  :))))) As this thread has emphasized, context is everything!
 Thanks, Mary Ann and all! Leecy

Hi Everyone,

We have been blessed to have three days' discussion with Dr. Mary Ann Corley this week!  On July 14, we learned more about pre-writing skillsJuly 15th's conversation was about collaborative writing, and of course this thread discussed contextualized grammar.

When I conduct a professional development workshop, I always leave time and space at the end for reflection.  Confucius is quoted as saying, "Learning without reflection is a waste."  Please take some time and look over each of the three days' conversations.  Consider your teaching practice and reflect on these questions (which, incidentally, I borrowed from Dr. Mary Ann Corley!):

What is something in these discussions that:

1.  Reinforced something good that I already am doing?


2.  Reminded me of something I used to do and will try again?


3.  Gave me a new idea that I plan to try?


 This discussion remains open, so please share your thoughts!

Thanks so much,