Teaching Grammar in Context with Mentor Sentences

Grammar matters! As students are tasked to read more informational text, they must decode and comprehend difficult academic language.  I've noticed that many of my upper elementary students can decode and comprehend new vocabulary words, but struggle to use them accurately in oral or written sentences.  So, in addition to teaching words and their meanings, this year I focused on identifying and using grammar in context, via mentor sentences.



After researching mentor sentences, I decided to use primarily non and historical fiction books as mentor texts.  That way, I would be able to focus on content-area vocabulary while developing grammatical skills.  When choosing a mentor sentence, I looked for sentences that specifically contained parts of speech my students needed to work on, specifically nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.  We also covered conjunctions, subject/predicate, and independent/dependent clauses.  Some of my favorite mentor texts from this school year are below, as well as how we used them: 

While working on visualizing, we learned about Jacques Cousteau and practiced past-tense verbs.
During our "Read Around the World" unit, we learned about world cultures, geography, and practiced noun types.
After reading Dragons Love Tacos, we learned and practiced adjectives.  We also worked on how-to writing, and wrote a recipe for a taco.
This was a great book to practice verbs! We also classified animals by mammal, reptile, amphibian, etc. 
During Black History Month, we learned about George Washington Carver and practiced dependent and independent clauses. 
Another class favorite was this book about Jackie Robinson, which we used to practice adverbs and possessive nouns.  
 The "typical" mentor sentence structure would be to spend one day noticing the sentence, one day identifying parts of speech, one day revising the sentence, and one day crafting a new one.  That schedule didn't work for my students, so we created our own.  

Day 1:  content vocabulary: we found images or made connections to academic words in each sentence, or throughout the book. 
Day 2: identifying parts of speech, with a mini-lesson on our weekly skill, or a spiral review.  
Day 3: finding examples of our weekly grammar skill throughout the book, grammar game (like Kahoot, SCOOT, or trashketball).
Day 4: comprehension and vocabulary mini-lesson or review.  
Day 5: writing, applying the vocabulary and grammar skill we'd learned. 

We also used non-fiction articles as mentor texts.  Readworks.org and ReadingA-Z.com are my go-to places to find appropriately leveled non-fiction passages. 

After reading about hot air balloons, we created a class chart of all the words we could think of about the subject.  While they were thinking, they had to sort them into the correct parts of speech categories. 

This was a great collaborative activity that really got them thinking! 
The students used the collaborative chart they had made about our mentor text as a word bank to help them write poems. 

Intentional, direct, explicit grammar instruction has changed my students' fluency, comprehension and writing skills so much! Because they know about plural nouns, they're more likely to notice and pronounce the /s/ sound at the ends of words.  Because they know about adverbs, their sentences are more descriptive.  Because they know about nouns and adjectives, their syntax has improved.  

As a review activity before the benchmark, we used a study guide to help us find parts of speech in a book about pirates, and they rocked it!  
Using mentor texts to teach grammar and vocabulary took a lot of prep work, but it was all worth it.  Even though we rarely did any drill style activities or grammar worksheets, my students learned to identify parts of speech in context and use them correctly in speaking and in writing.  Grammar matters! 





Jigsaw Strategy for English Language Learners

English Language Learners need lots of authentic opportunities to practice and improve their academic language, and the jigsaw method is a fun and collaborative way to do that.  

jigsaw cover image

I use the 5W's and How to teach social studies and science units.  In the pictures below, students are learning about Paleolithic, Neolothic, and Ancient Sumerians.   I start each jigsaw activity in a whole group manner, front-loading the content area vocabulary that students will be expected to know.  Each vocabulary word is assigned a color, which is continued throughout the reading.  Front-loading the vocabulary gives me a chance to review any language objectives we'll be practicing, such as past-tense verbs or common and proper nouns.

jigsaw activities for english language learners

 After pre-teaching the vocabulary, I assign students reading based on proficiency levels.  Higher proficient students may get the What or How pages, and lower proficient students may get the When and Where pages for even more visual support. 

jigsaw: assign notes

Students use a graphic organizer to summarize two or three main points from the reading. 

jigsaw: take notes

Some students write in complete sentences, others write in fragments.  Here, using perfect grammar isn't as important as comprehending the content.  I conference with each student while they are reading to make sure they're understanding the content at their proficiency level.

jigsaw: review and edit notes

The following day, students work on editing the notes they took, editing for grammar or content, depending on the need of the student. 

jigsaw: everyone shares their notes

Finally, we rejoin as a whole group and share the information we learned.  Students dictate their notes aloud one by one.  This often takes more than one class period, and is difficult at first, but with more practice it gets faster and easier! The struggle is worth it: dictating the notes they've taken gives them practice in speaking, listening, reading, and writing in the content area.  

After completing the jigsaw, my ELL students have notes about the 5W's and How written in language they can read and understand, and have had authentic experience speaking about the topic.  It's a true academic language trifecta!  

Student Centered Learning Tasks for English Language Learners


One of our district goals is to create more Student Centered Learning opportunities for all students. Truthfully, I struggled with the concept for most of our first semester. My concern was that my low and mid proficient ELL's would not know the necessary academic vocabulary needed in order to research, learn, and present on a topic.  To try it, I gave my middle school ELL’s an independent student centered learning task loosely based around our area of study, and they blew me away! If you're interested in incorporating student centered learning tasks for your English Language students, definitely give it a try!

student centered learning tasks main image

After researching various strategies such as Reggio, Montessori and Project Based Learning, I decided to create a project that would allow my students to produce content at their individual proficiency levels.  I chose two provocations that complemented our a unit of study on Early Humans, and chose them based on memorable inquiries students had made during various class discussions.  You can see the parameters for the project in the image below.

project based learning task instructions


I shared a sample project with my students to model the desired outcome.  This allowed my ELL's to see the general shape and scope, without giving away any of the content.  Creating this sample was a necessary step for my students to visually process my expectations, which were also shared via rubric.
student centered learning project sample


Although students worked mostly independently, I made sure to schedule one-on-one time during class for "status" meetings.  These quick discussions allowed me to check in on each student's progress without influencing their work.  Some of our discussions included brainstorming a list of potential research key words, certifying the validity of some images and websites, reviewing the concept of BC/AD, and helping choose a medium for delivery.

Below are three projects from my class.  The first is from a newcomer who has been in the US less than two years, the second a long-term mid-proficiency ELL, and the third a long-term high-proficient ELL.  (I should note that these three students chose to use Microsoft OneNote, while others chose to make posters.) While each project is unique and reflects the style and proficiency level of its owner, all the students achieved the desired outcome, and were able to present their learning.

visual of student work
student work 2

student work 3




All of this work was done independently, and truly reflects each student's proficiency level.  A task like this allowed my students to practice their research skills, graphic design skills, and public speaking skills.  My original concerns about scaffolding their vocabulary were addressed during our one-on-one conferences, and since they had a choice of topics and mediums, students were 100% invested and engaged in the project.  They took ownership and were proud of themselves, and immediately asked me what the next project would be.  Have you tried student centered learning with your ELL's? Leave a comment or send me an email- I'd love to hear about it!




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