A grammar class can be a real writing class: it’s just that the writing there is done on a micro level. We labor in the territory of the sentence rather than the essay.
One best practice for teaching writing is that students should write about subjects they choose rather than subjects assigned by the instructor. This tenet, applied to teaching grammar or rhetorical figures, means that students write examples of the structures they are learning about any subject they choose. The challenge is to structure the sentence according to the instructor’s requirements. So students write what they want as they rehearse the grammatical structure they are studying. Grammar students need to write sentences with the structures so that the structures become part of their linguistic repertoires.
Here’s how writing in the grammar class works when I am teaching, for example, the topic of the direct object. After I have duly explored the concept inductively in class and the class has examined some sample sentences with direct objects, I assign students to write their own sentences with direct objects as homework.
Students choose the topics entirely; the only condition is that each sentence needs to be in the form of an S-V-O sentence—one with a transitive verb and direct object. So students may write a series of unrelated sentences that reflect their reading, interests, environments, studies. To cement their understanding of the structure they’re writing, I ask them to write thirty example sentences.
Why thirty? My experience has shown me, through years of teaching these structures, that this is the optimal number. A student with a shaky understanding of the concept can write ten S-V-O sentences correctly simply by varying the examples in the text. Students wobbly about the concepts who write twenty S-V-O sentences can get most of them right. But if I assign thirty sentences, students who understand the concept even the slightest bit imperfectly will begin to miss sentences because they don’t have confidence in their comprehension or because they become careless or bored. Asking for more than thirty sentences per new structure is superfluous and boring, though, so I top off the assignments at thirty examples of whatever we are studying.
In the subsequent class meeting, I ask students to choose one of their sentences (either one they really like or one about which they have a question) and write that sentence on the board. (You’ll have a board covered with sentences to explore.) Then I ask each student to read and explain his or her sentence; that is, to point out the subject, verb, and direct object and any other items they wish to discuss. As we work through the students’ sentences, errors emerge—and that’s exactly what I want. It is in this space where the class and I find out how well the students understand the concept. This is where the teaching becomes really interesting.
I have learned, for example, that the most frequent error students make in an assignment to write thirty S-V-O sentences is substituting a predicate noun for a direct object: they will ask if My brother loves nurses is an S-V-O sentence, then why isn’t My brother is a nurse an S-V-O sentence? Another frequent error is substituting the object of a preposition for a direct object as in the sentence Frances skipped to the store. These errors tell me that the student writer does not fully understand the concept of a transitive verb and is merely considering any noun in the predicate a direct object.