How do you differentiate grammar?

by Christopher Paslay


Once a report card period, students in the Philadelphia School District are required to take a benchmark test in every core subject to see if they are meeting the state standards set forth in the District’s Core Curriculum. 


After the students complete these benchmark examinations (and after they are collected and graded), teachers are required to analyze and review test results in order to see where their students’ strengths and weaknesses lie.  Teachers must complete a Benchmark Data Analysis Protocol Sheet and come up with a plan to strengthen their students’ weakest skills.  Teachers must also reflect on teaching strategies, and discuss the results of their benchmarks with colleagues and also with the students themselves.    


I teach three sections of 11th grade English.  On December 18th, I was required to give my students the English 3 Fall

Benchmark B test (the second benchmark of the year).  Today I analyzed my results and completed my Data Protocol Sheet.  Although my students are not where I want them to be, as a whole, they scored 14% higher than the Philadelphia School District Average (the District average for the 11th grade English Benchmark was 46% correct; my students averaged 60%).    


This is far from perfect.  But they are improving.  On the first benchmark that they took in October, my kids only outscored the District by 10%.  So they are improving at a rate of 4% faster per quarter than the District as a whole. 


My students weakest skill was the following:  PA State Standard 1.5.11.F: Edit writing using the conventions of language.  Basically, it is a skill involving grammar. 


Here are the two questions that stumped them (as well as the District) the most:


1.  Select the best version of the underlined part of the sentence:


He faced many trials and challenges

throughout his life he never gave up on

his dreams.


A.  life he never gave up on his dreams.

B.  life, he never gave up on his dreams.

C.  life and he never gave up on his dreams.

D.  life; however, he never gave up on his dreams.


The answer is D.  According to the Language Handbook in our textbook (Holt’s Elements of Literature, Fifth Course), you are supposed to Use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb or a transitional expression.  EXAMPLE: Dexter knew that Judy was selfish and insensitive; nevertheless, he continued to adore her.      


A is wrong because you need a comma (,) after the word life, as well as the coordinating conjunction and be fore the word he.


B is wrong because you need the coordinating conjunction and before the word he.   


C is wrong because you need a comma (,) after the word life.


Only 29.3% of my students got this correct (and 29% of the District).


Here is another question that they bombed:


2.  Read the following sentence:


Because I was tired, I left the party

earlier than I had planned.


What is the adverb clause in this sentence? 


A.  left the party

B.  I had planned

C.  earlier than

D.  Because I was tired


The answer is D.  According to the Language Handbook in our textbook (Holt’s Elements of Literature, Fifth Course), an Adverb Clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a verb, and adjective, or an adverb.  It may come before or after the word or words it modifies, tell how, when, where, why, to what extent, or under what condition.  An adverb clause that begins a sentence is always set off by a comma.   


There are only two clauses in the sentence: Because I was tired and I left the party earlier than I had planned. 


The first (Because I was tired) is the only subordinate clause (it does not express a complete thought and cannot stand alone as a sentence).  There fore, it is the only correct choice. 


Only 24% of my students got this correct (and 22.8% of the District).


This benchmark data is no new information.  Students in Philadelphia have been bombing grammar questions since the beginning of time.  Why?  Because there’s been a trend in public education (especially urban education) to marginalize the importance of Standard American English grammar (can you say Ebonics?).  Writers of educational policy seem to favor ambiguity over concreteness—subjectivity over objectivity.  Or to put it another way, they favor creativity over mechanics.     


Feeling and inspiration come first; grammar comes second.  The hot trend in Philadelphia and the rest of the nation is differentiated instruction and higher level questioning.  That’s been the topic of every professional development I’ve been to so far this year.  It’s also one of the National Academy of Education’s recommendations found in their White Papers Initiative (a group of Washington-based scholars trying to influence education policy in Congress).     


Here is the irony, however: There is absolutely NO WAY to differentiate grammar.  An adverb clause will always be an adverb clause.  A coordinating conjunction will always be a coordinating conjunction.  You either know it or you don’t.  Period. 


And how do you learn it?  By MEMORIZING the rules.  Yes, I’m talking about rote memorization.  On Bloom’s Taxonomy, this would be low-level RECALL questioning.  Just the kind of questioning that’s become taboo in public education. 


Why don’t Philadelphia teenagers know English grammar?  Because you can’t dumb it down no matter how hard you try.  You can’t put catsup on it or sprinkle it in sugar.  You have to swallow it whole, every gerund, every dangling participle.  And you must do this in spite of the backward trends in education.          


Grammar questions still make up 25% of every District benchmark.  Why?  Because you’ll find lots of grammar on the PSSA.  That’s what makes the situation so farcical: High stakes standardized tests aren’t differentiated by a student’s ability level.        


In light of this information, here is how I completed my Benchmark Data Analysis Protocol Sheet.


Question 1:  How will you group or regroup students based on the information in the necessary item analysis and optional standards mastery reports? (Think about the strongest data and how those concepts were taught.


Answer: I will partner stronger kids with weaker ones.  Then: I will teach them standard American English grammar.  Period.  I will make them memorize the rules.  Period.   


Question 2:  What changes in teaching strategies (and resources) are indicated by your analysis of benchmark reports?


Answer:  This question is ambiguous.  To this day, I still do not know what it is asking. 


Question 3:  How will you test for mastery? 


Answer:  I will give quizzes (oral and written), and have students write papers and complete projects (and journals) to make sure they are using correct grammar. 


Question 4: In order to effectively differentiate instruction (remediate and enrich) I need to . . .


Answer: . . . find someone who knows how to differentiate grammar. 


Question 5:  Based on patterns in my classes’ results, I might need some professional development or support in . . . .


Answer: . . . finding someone who knows how to differentiate grammar.           


Question 5:  As I think about giving students a better understanding and more ownership for their learning based on benchmark assessments, I . . .


Answer:  . . . feel warm and fuzzy inside. 


8 thoughts on “How do you differentiate grammar?

  1. Chris,
    I am also an English teacher. A few years ago, I took a class to help me pass the MY English Praxis test. (I passed it the first time.) We spent weeks on grammar, even though there were not many grammar questions on the test. During these lessons, I learned so much about grammar. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, you have to memorize the rules. There’s no way around grammar.
    Also, when I was getting my ESOL certification, I could always tell which students were from other countries. They knew so much more about grammar. I remember being taught there are only three tenses – past, present, future. That’s it. I also went to public school. I didn’t deconstruct sentences like most parochial and private school students. I mean, before college, I had no idea what adverbs and adjectives were. Sad, but true. I know it’s old-school but maybe we should stick with what worked in the past.
    Also, I know several people who grade Praxis tests. They’ve told me that spelling doesn’t count when grading the tests! This is ridiculous because they’re testing teachers!
    I’ve said it for years and I’ll repeat it now. Technology is good for some people but we now have a generation of people who can’t communicate face-to-face, who would rather sit and play video games instead of socializing with their peers, many who email, text, facebook, etc. ad nauseum, and some who pride themselves on NEVER having read a book let alone a TV Guide!
    I worry about the future and what is out there and it makes me sad. Hopefully, change is good!

  2. You are so right, Chris. You can’t differentiate grammar, nor any of the standards and skills that we are required to teach. Differentiation is a tool that can be used when designing some assignments… I repeat, some assignments. That being said, the School District must take a stand and admit that teachers cannot and should not try to differentiate all instruction. One can note that differentiation is only being pushed in the schools that did not make AYP. It’s nothing more than smoke and mirrors for dumbing down education in Philadelphia and will not help schools to make adequate yearly progress in the (undifferentiated) PSSA.

  3. I enjoyed this article since it showed real “reflection” on standards, testing, and methodology. Many educational leaders TELL THE TEACHERS to differentiate or do this or do that. Very, very few actually show how it is done.
    In addition, memorization is still part of a good education–one can’t just remove it completely. Also, one size DOES NOT FIT ALL whether you are talking shirts, shoes, or educational policy.
    Sometimes intentions are good, but it does not fit with reality.

  4. Thank you all for the comments and support. It’s good to have a dialogue with other teachers so we can improve our teaching and stay sane.

    –Christopher Paslay

  5. Over the years I’ve noticed the Philadelphia School District’s fondness for “snap phrases”. I still remember one principal’s reliance on the phrase “flexable grouping” whenever we asked how were we suppose to teach several diffent grade levels with just one grade level text. This did zilch in terms of solving the problem, but it was a low cost solution to a district that was continually running short of materials. It is the district, not the teachers, that insists on socially promoting failing students or refusing to place students in classes according to their reading levels. Dump the problem onto the teachers (increasingly over the years this seems to be the district’s solution to any problems). Differentiation is the new snap phrase though up by some consultant for this year. Of course, no supplies are offered for doing this and no training is offered to show us how this magical solution occurs. Instead the district chooses to hide behind their “shove a piece of paper at ’em” instead of truly implementing differentiation. I’ve even asked if we could have a demonstration next in service. I was told “no” due to the whole day was already taken up with what the district thought was important. Does that mean the district doesn’t think differentiation is important enough to warrant training or is it just another way for Ackerman to set up teachers so she can find fault with them. Differentiation should have been implementined during inservices (which too often are a waste of time) along with the materials necessary to accomplish this latest “miracle solution”.

  6. I always loved making up answers to number 5. And I’m actually convinced that if the district did a study the answer you wrote might be the most common.

    I went to the turn around training about differentiate instruction earlier this year. Ironically, training about DIFFERENTIATED INSTURCTION consisted of reading the scripted PowerPoint to us so that we in turn could read the scripted PowerPoint to teachers back at our school on the half day. No differentiation there eh?

  7. You can absolutely differentiate grammar instruction. Write rules on cards and create a game, have students role play (You’re the verb and he’s the adjective, pantomime how you modify him etc.) You can’t “differentiate grammar” but you can always differentiate instruction by providing another modality. Have students write words on pieces of cardboard so that there is sensory stimulation (kinesthetic learning = differentiation) and then arrange in sentences in a group (group learning = differentiation.) Use a PowerPoint with rules written on it as you verbally explain the rules (visual and auditory = differentiation). Provide students with graphic organizers to complete as you explain. Once you get into the habit of trying to reach all the intelligences/learning styles with your instruction, it comes easily. A great Web site for help is

    It’s not a buzzword. It is the most effective form of instruction. And all it is is making sure you have visual, verbal, auditory, textual, kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal elements in your lessons.

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