Book Review: Using Grammar to Improve Writing by Sarah Tantillo

ST grammar coverby Susan Chenelle

First off, the journalist in me requires that I state that this is not an unbiased review. I have had the benefit of Sarah Tantillo’s wisdom and guidance since the beginning of my teaching career, nearly ten years ago. That said, I would not have taken time out of the precious last days of my summer to write this review if I were not so genuinely excited about Sarah’s recently published third book, Using Grammar to Improve Writing: Recipes for Action.

Tantillo’s approach forefronts the critical why of grammar instruction, i.e., learning to write and express ideas well. As she emphasizes in her introduction, “How we frame grammar instruction matters. If you view it as ‘fixing incorrect sentences,’ you teach it that way. If you view it as ‘building strong, compelling sentences,’ you take a different approach.”

Tantillo’s first chapter, “What should we STOP doing?” goes after four dysfunctional yet common elements of grammar instruction, including having students copy down grammar definitions or rules, having students correct error-laden sentences, and over-editing students’ work. After clearing the decks, so to speak, Tantillo presents principles that will help teachers design lessons that engage students in developing their skills in noticing and wrestling with syntax and language choices and their effects, rather than memorizing rules by rote and trying to remember when and how to apply them. Instead Tantillo encourages teachers to use model sentences from the texts students are already reading to give students opportunities to imitate and/or expand upon them after acting as detectives to identify the grammatical moves each set of model sentences exemplifies and infer the writer’s intention in crafting them that way.

Tantillo grounds her clear, practical directives in research about grammar instruction and teaching best practices, synthesizing the ideas of educators like Constance Weaver (Teaching Grammar in Context), Doug Lemov (Teach Like a Champion), and Jeff Anderson (Mechanically Inclined). These references to such well-respected and well-known teaching texts make clear how Tantillo’s approach sits within the field. Her work, moreover, and her insights about opportunities to capitalize on, pitfalls to avoid, and ways to fit everything in also draw on Tantillo’s extensive experience in the classroom.

The book is structured in a straightforward, easy-to-use format; readers can absorb the fundamentals of Tantillo’s approach in part one and then dive into the specific section of part two relevant to the grade level(s) they teach. Tantillo also emphasizes the importance of teachers knowing the standards above and below the grade(s) we might teach so that we can meet our students’ diverse needs; this volume makes it easy to see the underlying skills or understandings to target when students are struggling with tasks specified for their grade level in the CCSS. Along with her breakdown of the standards for each grade, she gives concrete advice for how to teach each standard, complete with sample pitches for conveying the importance of each skill to students and “genre alerts” that highlight particularly effective opportunities to teach certain aspects of grammar with specific genres of writing (i.e., teaching interjections and verb tenses with narrative writing). The appendix offers a handy CCSS tracker and sample overviews of weekly grammar, reading, writing, and vocabulary routines based on the particular genre(s) being taught.

While I have already recommended this book to the English department at my school, I will be sharing two bits of Using Grammar with all of my teachers in September: 1) her reminder that “telling is not teaching” in chapter one, and 2) the strategies she shares at the end of chapter four for combatting learned helplessness in our students. As anyone who has attempted to teach grammar knows, persistence and effort are at the heart of revision in writing, but they are also at the heart of learning in general. Tantillo urges teachers to wage this battle by “encourag[ing] engagement and accountability,” “provid[ing] models for clarity, and “encourag[ing] risk-taking.”

These nuggets of wisdom exemplify the thorough, thoughtful support Tantillo offers teachers in this book. Teachers starting a new school year will find it a valuable resource that will help them begin with clarity and purpose.

Don’t forget to register for the NJCTE 2018 Fall Conference: Approaches to Writing, K-12! Featuring keynote speaker NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick, the conference will take place September 29 at Kenneth R. Olson Middle School in Tabernacle, NJ. Register today!

Book Review: Using Grammar to Improve Writing by Sarah Tantillo

Book Review: Personalized Reading by Michele Haiken

Personalized Reading coverby Audrey Fisch

As we enter into the final days of summer, I know I’m full of the usual feelings of aspiration and trepidation for the new school year. Weeks of course revision and planning are under my belt. Still, in these last few weeks, I’m still open to more inspiration and new ideas/tools to make my new school year more successful.

It was in this frame of mind that I turned to Personalized Reading: Digital Strategies and Tools to Support All Learners by Michele Haiken (with L. Robert Furman). I know Haiken and her excellent work on gamification (Gamify Literacy: Boost Comprehension, Collaboration, and Learning), so my expectations for Personalized Reading were high. Her newest work did not disappoint me.

Indeed, I must admit that I consumed (inhaled) her latest work nearly in one sitting. And indeed, I find the brevity, simplicity, and practicality of the volume to be its greatest achievement. Haiken has written a slim and eminently readable book on digital strategies and tools that combines references to a research base, a focus on different kinds of learners, and practical and easy-to-follow examples and suggestions. All of this is combined in Haiken’s refreshing, practical, authentic teacher voice. She is using these tools to help the young people in her world succeed and sometimes reflecting on her own journey as a reluctant reader whose own love of books and readings was not ignited until college. This book invites us to look over her shoulder, into her classroom, and learn from her. Who would turn down such an invitation?

The volume is usefully divided into chapters based on types of learners: struggling readers, reluctant readers, English language learners, and advanced readers. The final chapter, “Teaching All Our Readers at the Same Time,” reflects Haiken’s practicality and wisdom. As she notes, the “cacophony of students in our diverse classrooms benefits all student learners, because we learn from each other” (90). Classrooms are not made up of one narrowly defined group of readers, and the labels are useful only up to a point. As Haiken notes, “Bored students are at risk to become reluctant readers” (5). ELL readers can also be reluctant readers. You might select a particular idea in an attempt to support struggling readers in your classroom, for example, but Haiken reminds us that the other students may be just as intrigued and supported.

In each chapter, Haiken cites scholars in the field, but she doesn’t get bogged down in the research. She uses a choice quote or two from some of the major researchers to serve as a scholarly context for the strategies she discusses. For example, in her chapter on reluctant readers, Haiken focuses on the importance of visuals that can “serve as a bridge to print texts” (26). Here she discusses tips (from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey) for close reading and their application with visual texts, visual literacy resources like The Jacob Burns Film Center, practical tools for uploading videos and embedding questions and interactive activities, and more.

Among many ideas in this chapter, Haiken highlights her own use of Tara M. Martin’s #BookSnaps. #BookSnaps are created on Snapchat, with photos combined with annotations, reactions, decorations, which can then be shared on social media with classmates. Included is an example from a student, so we can see exactly what Haiken (following Martin) means.

And at the end of the chapter (and for every chapter), Haiken includes a simple, useful table, pairing the teaching strategy (here, using visual texts to teach reading strategies) with suggested technology tools (like #BookSnaps) and relevant links.

There’s so much information, but again, Haiken is both wonderfully inspiring and practical. Her discussion of her Twitter book clubs for her middle schoolers includes specific directions (designate a specific hashtag for students to follow) and critical templates (like a Twitter Permission Letter and Code of Conduct for parents and guardians). And again, there is a sample of the teaching tool in practice – here, a piece of a chat about Leland Melvin’s Chasing Space among Haiken’s students, herself, and her school’s Earth science teacher.

If I were a teacher educator hoping to get my pre-service teaches to think creatively about using technology to reach the widest range of readers, if I were a novice teacher looking for a few new tools to help me reach a few more students in my classes, or if I were a veteran teacher (I am!) looking for a new innovation to introduce in the new school year, I would find Personalized Reading everything I wanted and more. If you are enjoying a few more days of personal development, check out this wonderful text.

Don’t forget to register for the NJCTE 2018 Fall Conference: Approaches to Writing, K-12! Featuring keynote speaker NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick, the conference will take place September 29 at Kenneth R. Olson Middle School in Tabernacle, NJ. Register today!

Book Review: Personalized Reading by Michele Haiken