Stop Doing Grammar Drills - Do This Instead

October 08, 2020

How many grammar drill books have you purchased (and used) without noticing a significant improvement in your writing?


Maybe you were thinking of increasing the amount of time you spend studying grammar. After all, if you knew the grammar rules better, then your writing would be better, right?


What if I told you that instead of doing more grammar drills, deliberately applying your grammar knowledge to your writing would help you improve faster?


Would you put away your grammar drills?


According to David West Brown, who has a PhDs in English and education, and linguistics,"...the reason for the [grammar] drills is that it's harder to teach grammar in context because the instructor needs to recognize the grammatical function and then point it out to the student, who then looks for recurring episodes of that grammatical function in their writing. Thus, incorporating it into their grammar repertoire."


Let's step back and look at examples of this principle at play in two other domains.


Deliberate Practice - A Musical Analogy


Do you play an instrument? If so, you know the value of learning scales. In essence, they are the grammar of music.


Scales are great for building finger dexterity and understanding patterns, but will not help you learn to play songs.


However, because you understand scales, you'll find their patterns in the songs you are learning. You'll be able to make connections that will improve your musicality, and you'll be able to learn songs in less time.


Your brain will remember the connections you made in the song you learned, and because you learned to recognize the patterns, you'll be able to transfer that knowledge to new songs. You'll recognize the patterns faster because they were meaningful for you.


On the flip side, when you mindlessly practice scales, it's harder to apply the pattern knowledge and musical connections because your brain didn't process the musical value of those scales.


Unfortunately, I know this first hand. I used to read while I practiced scales. (Not recommended!) I had to practice scales, and I did - I got good at them, but when it came time to apply that knowledge in a song, it was harder.


Now, I find the passages that use scales and practice the scales included in the songs. They have musical meaning, and I'm able to make connections within the music.


If you do an internet search for grammar drills, you'll find enough to keep you busy for thousands of lifetimes. Obviously, grammar is a big issue for a lot of people. And it is important. Using correct grammar makes it easier for people to understand the message you're presenting. It clarifies the message.


What's Wrong With Grammar Drills?


Doing grammar drills will improve your grammar knowledge. Unfortunately, it won't necessarily help you become a better writer unless you learn to recognize where to use the rules in your writing.



Learn the Basics


Now, to be clear, I'm not saying to stop learning grammar. Practice the rules within your writing, so you internalize it. It may be slow going at first. Start with the basics. This will allow you to get a reasonably cohesive first draft on the page.


Once you've got your first draft done, you have something to work with. As Ernest Hemmingway said, "The only kind of writing is rewriting."


Writing is Rewriting


Celebrate the completion of your first draft. It's your starting point. It's your opportunity to apply some of your grammar knowledge deliberately. During the revision process, you'll be playing with words to create sentences that slip off the tongue with ease and delight your reader.



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Create a Tasty Combination


Maybe you're not a musician, and the practicing scales example didn't hit home for you.


What about baking?


Have you ever scrolled through social media looking for ideas for tasty treats to make?


I have a daughter who enjoys baking. If she studied recipes but never baked anything, her baking would not improve.


Instead, she's learned the basics of food science (grammar) and applied that to her baking. She sees the results and then can make hypotheses based on what she's learned. When she sees another recipe, she knows how it might turn out based on her experiential knowledge.


The same is true for grammar. You need to know the basics (the language of grammar), so you understand what you're looking at (the ingredients of writing.) But drilling those mindlessly out of context is like continuing to whip together eggs and butter without seeing how the other ingredients interact with them in a specific recipe. Not useful.


What if you whipped the eggs and butter and used that in cookies? Do you do the same for cakes? What happens? Why does it work in one place and not another? Why are egg whites sometimes whipped separately? Why is butter sometimes browned? All the same ingredients but used differently in different contexts for a different result.


With grammar - you have the basic ingredients - your parts of speech, your sentence structure, and then you need to play with it in the context of your writing. You need to recognize the pattern in other writing and try those patterns in your writing.


You'll string sentences together in new ways. You'll experiment by saying the same thing but with different sentence structures to change the rhythm and tone of a paragraph.


Rather than extracting grammar and learning it out of context, apply the grammatical ingredients to your writing. You'll improve faster - because you internalize it. You'll start to know exactly what type of sentence will give you the result you're looking for because you tried it out with your ideas.


How to Practice Grammar in Context

In your next composition, as you're revising your writing, take three sentences that seem awkward. 

For each sentence, ask yourself the following questions.

  1. What is the purpose of the sentence?
  2. Is it written correctly for its purpose?
  3. What is the structure of the sentence?
  4. Does the sentence contain all functional parts required for that sentence structure?
  5. Does each part of the sentence use the best word class, phrase, or clause?

This is the equivalent of learning scales in the context of a song or combining ingredients into a tasty treat instead of just reading the recipe.


Which sentences will you revise today?



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