We all know about Number Talks and how they provide students with a daily, routine safe-space to stretch their numeracy brains. Have you ever heard of a Grammar Talk?
I'm sure there have been various versions of what a "Grammar Talk" could look like. What I am sharing here is a low-prep, low-time-commitment, 5-Day routine that can be (and has been) adapted to any grade and instructional purpose. Above all, this process provides students with structured and stress-free repeated exposure to a mentor sentence. Read on, try it out, and let me know if it brought any interesting learning opportunities for your students!
Here's the basic overview, and then more detailed instructions follow:
Day 0 - Prepare. Select sentence(s) from meaningful text, considering target learning goals.
Day 1 - Notice. Display and read sentence(s), facilitate discourse around the components of the text.
Day 2 - Annotate. Distribute student hard copies of the sentence(s). Give time for them to annotate independently, and then as a class. Direct annotations towards target learning.
Day 3 - Revise. Give students the opportunity to make adjustments to the mentor sentence(s), independently at first and then collaboratively as a class.
Day 4 - Shadow Sentence. Students synthesize a sentence that mirrors (or shadows) the structure and components of the mentor sentence(s).
Day 5 - Error Correction. Provide students a copy of the mentor sentence(s) with various errors and omissions, considering target learning goals. Students find and correct the errors.
Before I give more specific instructions for these steps, I have to give a little personal testimonial. Last school year, I facilitated these Grammar Talks regularly with 3rd and 4th grade. The first time through was rough since it was a new activity and the students were not often asked to engage with sentences in this way. Every time after that, however, became increasingly fluid and productive. This activity provided HUGE opportunities for students to feel successful as they analyzed and manipulated mentor sentences.
Teacher Preparation - 20 Minutes
The best part about the 5-Day Grammar Talk is the connection with pre-existing curriculum. For these directions, I will make an example from Homer's The Odyssey, specifically from the illustrated, kid-friendly addition written by Gillian Cross. Let's say my 4th grade class is reading various episodes of The Odyssey, and on Monday we began with the classic Cyclops story.
There are only three simple things I need to prepare in order to facilitate my 5-Day Grammar Talk. Before I create them, I need to pick the one to three sentences that I feel will work well and align with my learning goals. These sentences need to be 'grammatically substantial' enough to merit a 5-Day Grammar Talk. Here is what I chose:
I chose these two sentences because of the word choice, the adjectives, and the action they portray. I also felt like the second sentence did not flow quite right, and wanted the opportunity to revise this in Day 3. You can imagine what good mentor sentences might look like in various grades, with various levels of complexity and length.
Things to look for when choosing mentor sentences would include: homophones, affixes, punctuation, quotations (dialogue), commonly misspelled words, common and proper nouns, irregular plural nouns, etc. When the mentor sentence includes these things, our discourse will meet the 'learning goals' that go along with the curriculum and broader ELA pacing we are following.
CREATE THE DISPLAY. After you select your sentence(s), type them on a document or presentation software so you can display on the board. I simply type mine into Pages and show it on the SMART board. However you choose to display, make sure you do so in a way that allows you to write on the board, because you will do so every day except Day 1.
CREATE THE STUDENT DOCUMENT. This is an amazingly simple document that will give you more mileage than you expect. This is what the student document looks like:
Simple, right? I have uploaded this document so that you can download to use as a template if you would like. Download the Apple .Pages version here, or download the Microsoft Word .Docx version here.
On top, you have Day 2, which is where students will annotate. Then comes Day 3, where the students will revise. Finally, the document has a space for Day 4, where the students come up with a shadow sentence.
Notice that I double space this document; this allows space to write in between the lines, which is very important!
CREATE THE ERROR VERSION. Finally, I have to create the version of the sentence(s) with errors. This can be as intense as you want it to be given your group and your goals. Here is what I did for my Odyssey errors:
I have also included this document for download, but honestly its probably easier to make for yourself! You just word the directions exactly how you want them, type the error sentence, and copy/paste it a few times! In my example, I get Day 5 slips for three students from each printed piece of paper. Eco-friendly!
Print and cut up however many you need for your class!
Notice that the instructions tell the students exactly how many errors there are. I found that this was an important detail. Without the error count, students were often unable to spot some of the trickier errors and would only find more obvious ones. You could, of course, remove the error count to provide an additional challenge.
That's it! You are prepped for your 5-Day Grammar Talk. All that's left is to facilitate!
Grammar Talk - 10 Minutes Daily
Day 1 - Notice. Display the mentor sentence(s) to the students. Students do not recieve their copy of the sentence(s) until Day 2.
Have the class read the sentence(s) aloud. Prompt students to share anything that they 'notice' about the sentence(s). Keep this very open and student-led. This might include parts of speech, word choice, action, tone, or even connection to the source of the sentence(s). Finally, remind students that tomorrow they will receive a copy of the sentence(s) and will annotate.
Day 2 - Annotate. Distribute student copies of the sentence(s) that include Day 2, 3, and 4. Remind them only to work on the Day 2 part of the paper today. Read the sentence(s) out loud as a class.
Prompt students to independently annotate according to your learning goals. Explicitly state what you want them to look for, such as parts of speech, spelling patterns, punctuation, clauses, subjects and predicates, etc.
Allow time for students to do this independently, and then allow students to share to the class what they annotated. As students share, annotate the sentence on the board. Ensure that all students have annotated everything that you have on the board before finishing the Grammar Talk. Remind students that tomorrow they will revise and make improvements to the mentor sentence(s). Either collect student papers, or ask students to store them in a safe place.
Day 3 - Revise. Remind students only to work on the Day 3 part of their papers. Read the sentence(s) out loud as a class. Ask students to write in any changes they think would improve the sentences. This can include word choice, word ordering, missing or additional details, etc.
Allow students time to think of revisions independently, and then allow them to share as a class. Document revisions on your displayed copy of the sentence, just as you did with annotation in Day 2. As a class, READ the new version of the sentence(s) as they are on the board after revision.
Remind students that tomorrow they will write their own shadow sentences that mirror the structure of the mentor sentence(s). Either collect student papers, or ask students to store them in a safe place.
Day 4 - Shadow Sentence. Remind students only to work in the Day 4 box on their papers. Read the sentence(s) out loud as a class.
Remind students that the shadow sentences need to follow the structure of the original mentor sentences, but that they should try to be creative and think of their own subjects, actions, dialogue, etc. Allow students time to write their shadow sentences, and provide individual support to anyone struggling to synthesize on their own. Before Grammar Talk time is over, if time permits, allow some students to share their shadow sentences. After each one, ask the class if the students' sentence accurately mirrored the mentor sentence.
Ask students to make sure their name is on their paper, and collect them.
Day 5 - Error Correction. Distribute the error version of the mentor sentence(s) to the students. They are to analyze the text for errors, highlight the location of each error, and write the correction above with a pencil. Tell them how many errors there are (if you have chosen to provide this information), and have them hold up their papers for collection when they are complete.
Once all students have finished or time is up, collect the remaining papers. Allow students to share the errors they found as you correct them on the display sentence on the board. You will have a lot of "Ooh yeah!!" and "How did I miss that??" moments here.
The Most Important Step - LATHER, RINSE, AND REPEAT
The most engaging and efficient part of this process is the comfort and effectiveness that comes from repeat application. Try your best to always include a few minutes for Grammar Talks. Your students, including your most reluctant to participate, will quickly latch on to the grammar-based challenges and opportunities that come up in this 5-day process.
Did I ever skip a day of Grammar Talks? Of course I did. Sometimes timing just doesn't work out the way we want it to. However, the daily sentence-level and word-level interaction that Grammar Talks provide to your students is invaluable and should be prioritized.
Plus, once you make a few of them, creating the necessary documents becomes like second nature. This is a highly effective activity that comes with very little prep time, especially once you have gotten your feet wet and know what you're creating! Just remember to always choose your sentences from meaningful and authentic texts that connect to the current position in the curriculum, and ensure that you have selected sentences that provide valuable learning opportunities.
That's it! Please let me know if you have questions about the 5-Day Grammar Talk after reading these instructions, if you have recommendations or suggestions, and if you experience challenges or successes implementing this into your classroom! Thanks for reading!