Finding Pieces of the Puzzle: Connecting Concepts for Grammar Mastery

by Stewart Ebersole

Language: it’s a wonderful, rich, and complex system for communication. But some of the principles of language don’t make much sense until students have learned to understand the system as a whole. How can you help your students remember the apparently disconnected principles? Stewart encourages us to connect the elements of grammar so students gradually build up an interlocking picture of how the language works. As each grammatical concept is added to what they already know, students are empowered to enjoy and use the power of language.

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So there’s this great analogy with teaching English that I’ve heard a number of places. Teaching English is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle, where you teach this concept and that concept. In each concept, you’re giving the students a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. The active voice, passive voice, transitive, intransitive, linking: they can’t necessarily tie it in because they don’t have all the pieces yet. That’s especially in younger grades. Now, as we get to older grades, they have more pieces, and one of the things that we need to be doing is helping them fit these pieces together. That way, by the time they’re out, they hopefully have a full picture, the whole jigsaw puzzle put together or at least most of it.

Now the problem is, if you have pieces that don’t fit in yet, it’s going to be very easy to lose them. That’s where the challenge comes, helping them to fit these pieces together before they get lost. What I try do as much as possible is fit the pieces in right away as much as I can. I start off with simply dividing between linking and action because that’s something they’ve learned since third or fourth grade, are already very familiar with that concept and so, we can build off of that and split it down from there. Hopefully, they can make much more sense of it, tie it in, and they can already have that piece fit into the picture instead of just having a bunch more loose pieces.

In Class

We have verbs. Verbs are what or what? Two kinds of verbs. Yes. Action or being and being of course can be linking verbs. If it is an action verb though, it can be what or what? It can be transitive or intransitive.

A transitive verb passes the action on to something else. An intransitive verb doesn’t. It shows action that’s not passed on to anything else. Intransitive verbs can be either what or what? Yes? Active or passive.

Okay, so active voice passes it on to a direct object, which means it will have a direct object. Passive voice passes it back to the subject.

What is different about a passive voice? So, it always has a form of be as a helping verb. “The ball was kicked.” “The window was broken.” We always have a form of be before the verb whenever we have passive voice. And it, of course, passes it back to the subject. Let’s look at a couple of example sentences.

So, for example: “I played the tuba.” What type of verb? Action or being? Action verb. Now is it transitive or intransitive? Transitive. Is it active or passive? Active. What receives the action? “Tuba” which is a… direct object. Good.

Another sentence. That one is pretty simple. “The tuba was played poorly.” What kind of verb? Action or being? Still action. Is it transitive or intransitive? It’s transitive. What receives the action? The subject receives the action. “Tuba” was played. “Poorly” tells simply how it was played which makes it what, active or passive? Passive. We have the form of be here with the verb.

“The tuba played poorly.” It simply sounded bad. “The tuba played poorly.” So, same verb; is it action or being? Action. Transitive or intransitive? So it’s intransitive complete. We don’t have anything to finish the sentence. The other thing we’re missing is this form of be, which means we no longer have our passive verb form. That means instead of being transitive, it is now simply intransitive complete.

“The tuba”—two more sentences yet—“The tuba sounded loud.” What kind of verb? Action or being. This one is being which makes it a linking verb. And what is “loud?” Predicate adjective, describes the subject.

And this one yet. “The tuba sounded loudly from the basement.” This might be a little tricky. What kind of verb? This one is action. Why isn’t it being? Okay, so what we have following the verb is “loudly,” which is an adverb, and “from the basement” is an adverb phrase. There’s no predicate adjective or predicate nominative. So “The tuba is sounding” is active—it’s doing the action. So it’s simply what, transitive or intransitive? Intransitive. Often this is where these get tricky where we have a bunch of phrases or adverbs after the verb. It’s easy to think that they’re adjectives or to pick out a noun, think of a predicate nominative… receiving the action. You have to watch out for this. But simply to walk through the steps can help whether you’re trying to pick out intransitive, active, passive, linking, et cetera. Identifying the verb, walking through those steps can help you figure out what it is supposed to be.

So that’s a whole bunch of different jigsaw pieces that if we can help tie them together and tie them in to what they already know, it can help it make more sense for the students.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Stewart Ebersole

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