Make Grammar Instruction Engaging and Authentic

by Whitney La Rocca

My 5th grader, Emmeree, recently auditioned for a role in Shrek the Musical through our local youth theatre company. She was hoping for one of two roles: Lord Farquaad or Gingy, the Gingerbread Man. “Not the gumdrop buttons!” To prepare, she decided to watch a variety of live recordings of the Broadway musical on YouTube. She studied the actors’ mannerisms, their voices, their craft. She observed, she noticed, and she compared and contrasted versions of these craft moves. Emmeree then tried out the moves on her own, imitating what she observed while also bringing in her own personality and ideas. She continued to practice, trying out the moves, revising them, recording herself and comparing them to her mentors on Broadway. Emmeree landed the role of Gingy, and I can’t wait to see this production live in May!

In her natural world, Emmeree used a simple process to learn how to do something authentically. In her academic world, Emmeree has used the same process to learn how to effectively use grammar and conventions in her writing without worksheets or endless editing/correcting practice. In our Patterns of Power resources (grades PreK-12), Jeff Anderson and I, along with several other coauthors, invite teachers to use this inquiry process to teach writers how they, too, can study the moves authors make and try those same moves out for themselves. 

 The Patterns-of-Power Process is simple and easy to use:

  • Invitation to Notice

Lift a sentence or short excerpt from a published piece of age-appropriate literature that demonstrates the skill you want to teach. If you have emergent writers in your class, use an entire page from a picture book that includes both pictures and words. Read the sentence aloud, and, rather than telling your students what to look for, invite them to share what they notice, allowing your students to take charge of their learning. 

Honor what they notice, no matter what it is. I like to invite them to point it out in the book or on the screen to ensure I’m not making assumptions about their observations. Name what they have noticed, or reinforce the name if they have the name for it. If they notice an apostrophe, for example, and call it a comma floating in the air, honor it by saying something like:

 Oh yes, that is an interesting mark the author has used. It does kind of look like a comma in the air. We call this an apostrophe. Why do you think the author chose to use this? Yes, she could have said cannot, but she chose to use the apostrophe to squish some letters out and make the contraction can’t.

You may also choose to extend on the noticing, giving your writers a little more about the skill:

Some other contractions writers might use are didn’t or won’t. What would these be if the author chose to not use the apostrophe?

The extensions are optional and you will choose which teachable moments you feel are beneficial at the time and which are not. Don’t feel that you need to extend on everything. 

Photo Credit:

Continue to ask What else do you notice? to engage your writers in conversation about the moves the mentor author makes. When the conversation moves in the direction of the skill you have chosen for the lesson, honor, name, and extend on it and introduce the focus phrase: a short learning target statement in the I-voice that is in child-friendly terms. For example, if you have chosen a lesson on nouns and the students notice the people, places, and things in the sentence, discuss the words the author chose to use. Then share the focus phrase–I use nouns to show people, places, and things.–which you have written on a sentence strip. Post this focus phrase in the classroom. You will revisit this focus phrase often throughout the rest of the process. 

Continue this conversation around what students notice for no more than ten minutes. The conversation is key here. It grounds students in choices writers make for meaning and effect rather than about what is right or wrong. We want our young writers to make their choices for their readers, not for us. 

  • Invitation to Compare and Contrast

The next day, revisit the mentor sentence and introduce your students to another sentence that is similar to it. This sentence is often an imitation of the mentor. Invite your students to discuss how the two are alike and different. Continue the conversation by honoring, naming, and extending on what the students observe. When the focus skill, i.e. nouns, is discussed, revisit the focus phrase, repeating it together several times. This part of the process should take no more than ten minutes, giving students enough time to dive deeper into the discovery of the moves writers make–why they choose to make them and how. 

  • Invitation to Imitate

Now that writers have been given time to really study short snippets of writing that illuminate a specific skill, invite them to try it out with you. Show them how to use the scaffold of the mentor sentence to compose a new sentence demonstrating the skill. Together, compose one through shared writing, interactive writing, or even with a partner. I like to use this time to really  model the planning and rehearsing that takes place when we write. 

What should our subject be? What types of nouns should we use: people, places, things? What should our verb be? What other details or moves from the mentor can we use? Let’s say our sentence aloud together. Ok, now let’s write it.

After composing an imitation together, students use their own ideas to imitate on their own. They may write their imitations on sentence strips, sticky notes, blank paper, index cards, or in a digital format. 

You may choose to imitate together one day and invite your students to imitate on their own the next day. This tends to be the class’s favorite part of the process because they have the confidence to make choices and apply what they have learned using their own ideas without a threat of being wrong on a worksheet. 

  • Invitation to Celebrate

We take time to celebrate the students’ imitations with a quick share and display. You may choose to play some music or add some movement to the celebration. Students can share with the entire class or in small groups or partners. I like to play music and give them time to walk around the room, sharing with several classmates. After some time for sharing, display the student writing with the focus phrase: a wall display, a door display, or even a digital display. I often take the imitations and compile them into a class book for the classroom library or on a ring to be hung somewhere accessible in the classroom.

This invitation is not to be skipped. With this celebration, we send the message that the writers CAN effectively use the skill and are ready to continue this work in all writing they do. 

  • Invitation to Apply

Now it’s time for writing in the wild for several days. You’ve used a mentor to get you started, but now you can take your students on other paths with the skill. Invite your students to continue to use the skill when they write in all subject areas. Repeat the focus phrase and refer to it often. You may choose to make an anchor chart or show your writers other ways to use the skill. For example, if you’re using the focus phrase, I use nouns to show people, places, and things., you may choose to create an three-column chart together by collecting nouns used in books the students are reading. Another option is to use a picture to inspire more writing. Label the picture with people, places, and things your students see and use the labels to write sentences or even paragraphs about the picture. Invite students to go back into their drafts in writing workshop to revise or edit with the focus phrase on their mind. The best kind of editing checklist is one that is created with the students, not for the students. Using the focus phrases to create a checklist together has an incredibly high impact on how writers edit their own writing. 

  • Invitation to Edit

To culminate the lesson, revisit the mentor sentence and invite students to share what they have learned from the author, including the focus phrase. Then, take the sentence and change something in it. This change could make the sentence incorrect, but it doesn’t have to. You  may choose to change the verb tense or maybe change some lowercase letters to capital letters. Invite your students to discuss what has changed and what is the effect of the change. This conversation continues to reinforce the idea that writers make choices for their readers. And every choice has an effect on the meaning of the sentence or on how the reader reads it aloud.  This conversation is about meaning and effect instead of right and wrong. Continue by sharing the mentor again with a different change made and then again. By the end of this invitation, your students have engaged in conversation about meaning and effect with three different options in addition to the original mentor. Students are more likely to edit their own writing with intent when they consider the meaning and effect they are creating for their readers.

This Patterns-of-Power Process is most effective when we give our students time to engage in it. We recommend ten minutes a day across two weeks for one lesson. Each invitation takes about ten minutes. By giving yourself two weeks, you are giving yourself and your students time to really gain an understanding of the skill and some flexibility in your schedule for interruptions. Because there are essentially seven steps across ten days, you may choose to spend several days on the Invitation to Apply, or you may choose to use one of the extra days to catch up on something else. Aren’t we always behind on something? Time in our day is always the biggest puzzle to solve. Because this process brings together reading and writing in conversation about author’s purpose and craft, you will find the time you spend in it productive and meaningful. The work your students do here will filter back into the work they do in both of your reading and writing blocks of time. It’s worth it. 

Our students, like my daughter, Emmeree, are constantly learning how to do things outside of school by watching others. This is how they learn. This is how they grow. This is what makes them confident in what they do. Let’s bring this same style of learning into the classroom. Ditch the worksheets and the constant editing practice. Use this process instead. Introduce them to mentor authors. Celebrate what your writers try out. Watch them grow and feel confident in the choices they make for their readers. 

To learn more about the Patterns of Power family of resources (PreK-12) with ready–to-use lessons that can be immediately implemented, check out this link.

Whitney La Rocca, with more than 20 years in education, has been a teacher, a literacy coach, and a consultant, working with children and teachers across grade levels, schools, and districts. With a deep knowledge of content, standards, and best practices, Whitney enjoys delivering professional development and coaching teachers to support children as they develop their identities in the world of literacy. She continues to learn from children each day.

Author: CCIRAblog

Check out CCIRA's website today at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: