How does grammar make for better writing?

Implementing a new set of materials by ETC Montessori.

Earlier this year, ETC Montessori (#etcmontessori) announced that it would be releasing the printed version of a new set of task cards under the title of "Developing Writing Through Grammar, Level 3". The digital version is currently available through the Apple iBook Store. Following is the interview that was given by Erika Ohlhaver, Director of Curriculum Development at ETC Montessori. The article begins by exploring the reasons behind the creation of this curriculum along with an exploration of why it is needed in the Montessori classroom. It concludes by taking a look at how teachers can implement it and how it helps develop writing skills.

MontessoriView: Why did ETC Montessori develop this curriculum?

Erika Ohlhaver: We developed the “Writing Through Grammar” curriculum for three reasons. First, in training, we are told that we need to teach sentence analysis because it will improve children’s writing, yet, rarely do I see a correlation between the two of those. Very rarely do I see adult learners, or teacher trainers, being able to understand that if children can identify the parts of speech and recognize different elements in the sentence, they can then implement those elements to their own writing and  making it better. The second reason, is that writing in the educational arena has become a very important skill, and while Montessorians have always taught expository writing, I don’t know that they have a prescribed methodology of improving children’s writing. Not that these cards will do that, but it is a beginning step to help teachers start thinking about how do they go about teaching writing. The third reason, is that ETC rarely puts one curriculum on top of another; we try to integrate. The truth is that there are not a lot of extensions in lower elementary once you get past the grammar boxes. This curriculum provides an additional set of activities that children can do to continue their study of grammar.

MV: So the question that immediately pops into my mind is “If I use this material how will it help my children or students?” And, I want you to understand that when I am talking about how it will help the student, I am not talking about how it will help improve the way they relate in the full classroom environment, rather our readers will be interested in finding out how is this material going to be applicable to the student in relation to other curricula that exist in that environment?

EO: First of all “Developing Writing Through Grammar” is written with the understanding that the children will have done the Function of Words, and the Grammar Boxes, and some Sentence Analysis work in 1st and 2nd levels. The cards allow the children to be relatively independent. We have done this by placing the definitions on the front of each card and while the activities to reinforce and practice the concept are on the back. Therefore, we are adhering to the Montessori pedagogy of allowing children to be independent problem solvers. I am aware that not every child will be attracted or will want to complete all of the activities, so there is some flexibility that is built into this. If children don’t want to do certain parts of the follow up activities they don’t have to. I do think one of the important benefits is that it provides the teacher with opportunity to extend work in grammar, allowing children to follow their own path.

MV: Is this set of materials just for 3rd level or can they be used in 1st or 4th level? Are they buying just one level of work? Traditionally ETC Montessori materials are written to encompass all three levels.

EO: That is correct! By and large, these task cards can be used by 2nd levels or even 4th levels. However, it is predicated on the idea that children already know how to identify parts of speech. Therefore, it’s not appropriate for 1st level students. Remember, the task cards are written so that children will enhance their writing skills and that in turn is predicated on the idea that they have some writing skills to start with.

MV: What's the benefit the teacher will see in the classroom after using this curriculum? This question becomes especially important now that we have standards that are tied to teacher performance. So if  a teacher was to simply ask what benefit am I going to receive if I implement “Developing Writing Through Grammar”?

EO: The direct benefit is to the children. They now have an additional source to practice their writing skills. Specifically, in the narrative style, but not exclusionary. They are now reinforcing punctuation rules related to grammar, they understand types of sentences, paragraph formats, being able to elaborate on what are elaborative details, and all this in the big frame of how things are related to different parts of speech. The benefit will inherently show up in their understanding of the concepts and it will show up in their test results.

MV: So what are the features in this set of materials that make it different than what’s already out there?

EO: Well, currently there is nothing out there that correlates Montessori grammar with writing skills. I could be wrong, but I don't think anything exists in this format. We are told that it should happen, but to my knowledge there is nothing out there.

MV: How does the teacher go about implementing this material? Obviously “Developing Writing Through Grammar” is not something that exists as a subject or a teacher receives in training. So how does a teacher go about implementing this materials?

EO: There are nine parts of speech that are traditionally addressed in lower elementary. Therefore, it makes it easy for the teacher, and the students, to focus on one part of speech each month. So while your 1st levels might be working on Function of Words in say adjectives during the month of October, your second levels could be working on your grammar boxes, then your third levels would be doing the “Writing Through Grammar” cards. That’s my suggestion; however, if the teacher is pulling out a writing group in isolation and wants to use these cards as an additional way to entice children in their writing, in a structured way, these cards would prove beneficial. In other words, when some children need a direct task, these cards could be readily available for those children, assuming that they have basic writing skills.

MV: What possible difficulties do you foresee that a teacher might have in implementing and using this set of materials?

EO: Nothing in using this set of materials. The cards are pretty straight forward. I think any difficulties that arise will stem from the fact that some teachers are hesitant to teach grammar because they may not have a strong enough background. Although some of the task cards are set up so that children are able to look up basic answers in an answer key, a large number of them require the children to write a paragraph, whether that is an expository or a narrative paragraph. When they do that, it means that the teacher now has to assess that paragraph and use the basic work that the child has given them to augment the child’s own understanding of their own writing abilities. So, as a teacher you have to look at it with a critical eye, and you have to be able to understand what the concept is that the child is being asked to write about, and ultimately how to further that child’s writing ability.