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.