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