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How and When to Teach Pronouns

“No part of speech causes more problems for my students than pronouns.” True. And no part of speech requires as much prior knowledge about our language. Adults misuse pronouns frequently and no wonder. Proper pronoun usage can be complicated and often our oral language filter misguides us.

We do need to know what we are talking about when we refer to pronouns. Some common language of instruction only makes sense. We do need to learn how to use pronouns correctly. Even the die-hard “only-teach-grammar-in-the-context-of-writing” folk, who too-often relegate direct grammar instruction to the garbage heap, would agree that teaching the definitions of the parts of speech is a must. Ask any English-language arts teacher what they wish their students knew about grammar. Parts of speech would be the response.

But why can’t students retain what they already have “learned” about pronouns? Is it bad teaching? Is it the nature of grammatical instruction? How can we change the forgetting cycle and ensure mastery? Read on and learn an effective and memorable instructional approach that will help your students master and remember pronoun rules and proper usage. At the end of this article, I share an instructional scope and sequence for pronouns with clear definitions and examples.

1. DIE AR

(Not the best mnemonic, but effective. Perhaps a comment on the popular Accelerated Reader® program?)

DEFINE Students should memorize the definitions of the key pronoun definitions and proper usage. Rote memory is key to higher order thinking. Use memory tricks, repetition, and even songs. Check out the Parts of Speech Rap. Your students will love it. Test and re-test to lead students to mastery.

IDENTIFY Students should identify pronouns in practice examples and real text. Using quality, un-canned and authentic mentor text, such as famous literary quotations and short passages/poetry provides model sentences and identification practice.

EDIT Students should practice error analysis for each pronoun definition by editing text that contains correct and incorrect usage. Finding out what is wrong does help us understand what is right. But don’t limit your instruction, as in Daily Oral Language, to this step. Students need the mentor texts and writing practice to master pronouns. Grammar taught in the context of reading and writing transfers to long-term memory and correct application.

APPLY Students should apply pronouns correctly in targeted practice sentences. Sentence frames are one solid instructional method to practice application. For example, for the he/him/his/himself pronouns…

________________ gave ________________ ________________ old fishing rod, but ________________ ________________ kept the new one.

Correct response: He gave him his old fishing rod, but he himself kept the new one.

REVISE Students should understand the importance and relevance of learning pronouns by revising their own authentic writing. Stress using what they have learned about pronouns to improve coherencesentence variety, author voice, word choice, clarity, and style. Make sure to share student revisions that reflect these improvements as your own mentor texts. Post them on your walls and refer to them often to reinforce definition, identification, and writing style.

The best direct instruction that I know of that integrates the components of the DIE AR instructional method is Sentence Lifting. This 15-20 minute, twice per week instruction covers essential grammar, mechanics, and spelling and integrates these skills in the context of reading and writing instruction. Also, learning grammar in the context of motivational text, such as Grammar Comics! just makes sense.

2. Assessment 

Diagnostic assessments of key grammatical features, including pronouns, serves two purposes: First, the results inform what to teach and how much time to allocate to direct instruction. It may be that one class tends to have mastery in subject case pronouns, but has weaknesses in object case pronouns. A different class may have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Diagnostic assessments inform instruction.  Second, diagnostic assessments provide an individual baseline upon which to build learning. Sharing this data with students is important. Students need to know what they know and what they don’t know to motivate their learning and see the personal relevance of the instructional task. Check out whole class diagnostic grammar assessment under Free ELA/Reading Assessments.

Formative assessments need to be designed to measure mastery of the grammatical concept. So, a useful formative assessment of noun components must be comprehensive, including all steps of the DIE AR process. The purpose of formative assessment is to identify relative strengths and weaknesses of both instruction and learning. Simply giving a unit test as a summative assessment only proves that the teacher has covered the subject, such as pronoun definitions, rules, and proper usage. Good teachers re-teach as needed and differentiate instruction according to formative test data.

3. Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction should focus on relative weaknesses and eliminate repetitive instruction on what students have already mastered. A good recording matrix for formative assessments will clearly inform the teacher as to who lacks mastery re: pronouns and how many students need remediation. Individual, paired, and small group instruction with targeted independent practice makes sense. A workshop design with targeted worksheets, monitored practice, and mini-conferences to assess mastery will ensure effective remediation. Differentiated instruction doesn’t have to involve impossible planning and impossible instructional implementation.

Pronouns Instructional Scope and Sequence

Primary Elementary School

  • A pronoun is a word used in place of a proper noun or common noun.
  • First person pronouns take the place of the one speaking. These pronouns include the singulars I and me and the plurals we and us.
  • Second person pronouns take the place of the one spoken to. The singular and plural pronouns use the same word: you.
  • Third person pronouns take the place of the one spoken about. These pronouns include the singulars he, she, it, him, and her and the plurals they and them.
  • Possessive pronouns placed before a noun show ownership. These pronouns include my, your, his, her, its, our, and their.
  • Possessive pronouns with no connection to nouns also show ownership. These include mine, yours, his, hers, ours, and theirs.

Pronoun Tip: Make sure the possessive pronouns his and their are not combined with self or selves.

Intermediate/Upper Elementary School

Subject Case Pronouns

Use the subject case pronouns, which include the singulars I, you, he, she, and it and the plurals we, you, and they in these grammatical forms:

  • when the pronoun is the sentence subject. The sentence subject is the “do-er” of the sentence.

Example: She and I attended the concert.

  • when the pronoun is a predicate nominative. A predicate nominative follows a “to be” verb (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been) and identifies or refers to the subject.

Example: The students who got into trouble are they.

  • when the pronoun is part of an appositive, such as after than or as. An appositive is a noun or pronoun placed next to another noun or pronoun to identify or explain it.

Example: Marty is smarter than I.

Pronoun Tip: When compound subjects are joined by or or nor, the pronoun that refers to the subjects agrees in number with the antecedent closer to the pronoun. Example: Neither water nor sodas did their jobs quenching my thirst.

Pronoun Tips: To test whether the pronoun is in the nominative case, try these tricks:

  • Rephrase to check if the pronoun sounds right.

Example: The last one to arrive was he. Rephrase—He was the last one to arrive.

  • Drop other nouns or pronouns when there is a compound subject and check if the remaining pronoun sounds right. Remember that English is a polite language; the first person pronouns (I, me, ours, mine) are always placed last when combined with other nouns or pronouns.

Example: John and I play video games. Drop and check—I play video games.

Object Case Pronouns

Use the object case pronouns, which include the singulars me, you, him, her, it and the plurals us, you, and them in these grammatical forms:

  • when the pronoun is the direct object. The direct object receives the action of the verb.

Example: The challenge excited him.

  • when the direct object is described by an appositive phrase (a phrase that identifies or explains another noun or pronoun placed next to it).

Example: The teacher yelled at two students, Rachel and me.

  • when the pronoun is an indirect object of a verb. The indirect object is placed between a verb and its direct object. It tells to what, to whom, for what, or for whom.

Example: Robert gave him a king-size candy bar.

  • when the pronoun is an object of a preposition. A preposition shows some relationship or position between a proper noun, a common noun, or a pronoun and its object. The preposition asks “What?” and the object provides the answer.

Example: The fly buzzed around her and past them by me.

  • when the pronoun is connected to an infinitive. An infinitive has a to + the base form of a verb.

Example: I want him to give the speech.

Pronoun Tips:

To test whether the pronoun is in the object case, try these tricks:

  • Rephrase to check if the pronoun sounds right.

Example: Joe smiled at all of them. Rephrase—At all of them Joe smiled.

  • Drop other nouns or pronouns when there is a compound subject and check if the remaining pronoun sounds right. Remember that English is a polite language; the first person pronouns (I, me, ours, mine) are always placed last when combined with other nouns or pronouns.

Example: She gave Kathy and me a gift. Drop and check—She gave me a gift.

The pronoun who is in the subject case. The who takes the role of the subject.

Example: Who is the best teacher?

Who and Whom

The pronoun who is in the subject case. In other words, it takes the place of a noun acting as the subject of a sentence.

Examples: Who did this?

Who is the best teacher?

Pronoun Tip: Try substituting he for who and rephrase, if necessary. If it sounds right, use who.

The pronoun whom is in the objective case. In other words, it is takes the place of the direct object, the indirect object of the verb, or the object of the preposition.

Examples: Whom did Joan love?

I like whom you gave the award.

To whom does this letter concern?

Pronoun Tip: Try substituting him for whom and rephrase, if necessary. If it sounds right, use whom.

Relative Pronouns

The pronoun that can refer to people or things; the pronoun which can only refer to things.

Use the pronoun that when the clause is needed to understand the rest of the sentence.

Example: The movie that we watched was entertaining.

Use the pronoun which in clauses that provide additional, but not necessary information.

Example: That dog, which is friendly, was easy to train.

Don’t restate the subject with a pronoun.

Example: That dog, which is friendly, he was easy to train. Problem—The he is unnecessary and grammatically incorrect.

Middle School

Indefinite Pronouns

An indefinite personal pronoun does not specifically reference a common noun or proper noun and so can act as a singular or plural to match the verb. These pronouns include: anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, neither, nobody, no one, nothing, one, someone, somebody, and something.

Pronoun Tip: Look at surrounding words for singular and plural clues.

An indefinite numerical pronoun does not indicate an exact amount and can act as a singular or plural depending upon the surrounding words. These indefinite numerical pronouns include all, any, half, more, most, none, other, and some.

Examples: in All of the food is wonderful, all is a singular pronoun. In All girls know best, all is a plural pronoun.

Pronoun Tip: When the object of the preposition is uncountable, use a singular pronoun to refer to the object. Example: All of the salt fell out of its bag. When it is countable, use a plural pronoun to refer to the object.

Example: All of the coffee beans fell out of their bag.

Pronoun Tip: The ending word parts body, one, and thing indicate a singular indefinite pronoun.

Reflexive and Intensive Pronouns

Reflexive pronouns refer to the subject, and intensive pronouns emphasize a noun or pronoun. Both are object case pronouns and include myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, and themselves.

A reflexive pronoun is essential to the sentence. You could not understand the sentence without the pronoun.

Example: He gave himself a pat on the back.

Intensive pronouns are not essential to the sentence. You could understand the sentence without the pronoun.

Example: I, myself, happen to love eating pizza.

Pronoun Tip: Notice that each has self or selves as the second syllable.

Pronoun Tips: A pronoun that refers to or replaces a previous common noun, proper noun, or pronoun is called an antecedent.

  • Make sure antecedents are specific. Otherwise, the pronoun reference may be confusing.

Example: When Bobby asked for help, they asked why.

Problem-Who is they? Get more specific. When Bobby asked for help from his teachers, they asked why.

  • Don’t have a pronoun refer to the object in a prepositional phrase.

Example: In Twain’s The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County, he uses political humor. Problem—Who, or what, is he?

  • Make sure that the singular pronouns this and that and the plural pronouns these and those specifically refer to what is intended. Keep these pronouns close to their references.

Example: He made an egg, put the dog food in its bowl, and put this on his toast to eat. Problem—What is this?

  • Don’t have a pronoun refer to a possessive antecedent. A possessive is a common noun, proper noun, or pronoun that shows ownership.

Example: In San Diego’s famous zoo, they treat their zoo-keepers well. Problem—Who are the they and their?

Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns refer to nouns close to or away from the speaker. These pronouns include this, that, these, and those. The words this (singular) and these (plural) refer to nouns and pronouns close to the writer (speaker). The words that (singular) and those (plural) refer to nouns and pronouns away from the writer (speaker).

High School

Possessive pronouns can connect to gerunds (verb forms ending in “ing” that serve as a sentence subject).

Examples: His cooking is not the best. Their cooking the dinner is not the best idea.

Pronouns and Writing Style

English is a polite language. Place others before yourself. For example, She and I enjoy a walk in the park, not I and she enjoy a walk in the park.

When use of a pronoun will create confusion, repeat the noun and omit the pronoun. For example, Eating their dessert caused the boys to lose their focus is more clear than Eating their dessert caused them to lose their focus.

Don’t use first and second person pronouns in essays. Focus on the subject, not the author or reader in essays.

Why not make sense of grammar instruction with a curriculum that will help you efficiently integrate grammar into writing instruction? Throw away your ineffective D.O.L. openers and last-minute grammar test-prep practice, and teach all the grammar, mechanics, and spelling that most students need in 75 minutes per week. Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, provides a coherent scope and sequence of 64 no-prep Sentence Lifting lessons withTeacher Tips and Hints for the grammatically-challenged. The mechanics and grammar skills complement those found in the 72 TGM Worksheets and target the diagnostic needs indicated by the multiple-choice TGM Grammar and Mechanics Diagnostic Assessments.

Grammar/Mechanics, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How and When to Teach Nouns

“A noun is a person, place, or thing.” Well… partially right, but there is much more. And knowing the definition of this basic part of speech only gets us so far. We do need to know what we are talking about when we refer to nouns. Some common language of instruction only makes sense. Even the die-hard writing process folk, who relegated direct grammar instruction to the pedagogical garbage heap in the 1980s, always agreed that teaching the definitions of the parts of speech is an essential. Ask English-language arts teachers what they wish their students knew about grammar coming into their classes in the fall. Parts of speech will be their first, and perhaps only, answer.

But why do teachers have to re-teach nouns every year? Is it the previous teacher’s fault? Is it the cyclical nature of instruction? Is it something in the water? Following is an instructional approach guaranteed to interrupt this forgetting cycle. At the end of this article, I will share an instructional scope and sequence for noun components with clear definitions and examples.

1. DIE AR

(Admittedly a depressing mnemonic. Perhaps a subconscious wish re: the Accelerated Reader® program?)

DEFINE Help students memorize the definitions of the key noun components. Rote memory is fundamental to higher order thinking. Use memory tricks, repetition, and even songs. Check out the Parts of Speech Rap. Test and re-test to ensure mastery.

IDENTIFY Help students identify noun components in practice examples and real text. Using quality, un-canned and authentic mentor text, such as famous literary quotations and short passages/poetry kills two birds with one stone: identification practice and sentence modeling.

EDIT Help students practice error analysis for each noun component by editing text that contains correct and incorrect usage. Finding out what is wrong does help clarify what is right. But don’t limit your instruction, as in Daily Oral Language, to this step. Students need the mentor texts and writing practice to master their noun components. Grammar taught in the context of reading and writing translates into long-term memory and application.

APPLY Help students the noun components correctly in targeted practice sentences. Sentence frames are one solid instructional method to practice application. For example, for common nouns…

It takes a lot of (idea) ________________ for a (person) ________________ to drive a (thing) ________________ to their (place) ________________.

Possible response: It takes a lot of SELF-CONTROL for a TEENAGER to drive a SPORTS CAR to their (place) to their HIGH SCHOOL.

REVISE Help students understand the importance and relevance of learning the noun components by revising their own authentic writing. Stress using what they have learned about noun components to improve coherencesentence variety, author voice, word choice, clarity, and style. Make sure to share brilliant revisions that reflect these improvements as your own mentor texts. Post them on your walls and refer to them often to reinforce definition, identification, and writing style.

My favorite approach to integrating the DIE AR instructional method is Sentence Lifting. This 15-20 minute, twice per week instruction covers essential grammar, mechanics, and spelling, using authentic writing to teach these skills. Also, learning grammar in the context of motivational text, such as Grammar Comics! makes sense.

2. Assessment

Diagnostic assessments of key grammatical features, such as noun components, serves two purposes: First, the results inform what to teach and how much time to allocate to direct instruction. It may be that one class tends to have mastery re: proper nouns, common nouns, and noun phrases but weaknesses in abstract nouns, concrete nouns, and noun clauses. A different class may have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Why so? One of the mysteries of life. Second, diagnostic assessments provide an individual baseline upon which to build learning. Sharing this data with students is vital. Students need to know what they know and what they don’t know to motivate their learning and see the personal relevance of the instructional task. Check out my favorite whole class diagnostic grammar assessment under Free ELA/Reading Assessments.

Formative assessments need to be designed to measure true mastery of the grammatical concept. So, a useful formative assessment of noun components must be comprehensive, including all steps of the DIE AR process. The purpose of formative assessment is to identify relative strengths and weaknesses of both instruction and learning. Simply giving a unit test as a summative assessment only satisfies the teacher (and colleagues) that the teacher has covered the subject, i.e. teaching the noun components. Far better to use the data to affect instruction. Good teachers re-teach judiciously and differentiate instruction according to test data.

3. Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction should focus on relative weaknesses. A good recording matrix for formative assessments will clearly inform the teacher as to who lacks mastery over which noun components and how many students need remediation. Individual, paired, and small group instruction with targeted independent practice makes sense. A workshop design in which the teacher distributes worksheets, monitors practice, and uses mini-conferences to assess mastery ensures effective remediation. Differentiated instruction doesn’t have to be a planning or management nightmare.

Noun Components Instructional Scope and Sequence

Primary Elementary School

  • Common Nouns, such as teenager, high school, sports car, freedom
  • Proper Nouns, such as Mary, Pinewood Elementary School, Microsoft Word®
  • Compound Nouns, such as baseball, playground, cartwheel
  • Single Nouns, such as desk, Ms. Brady, group
  • Plural Nouns (with spelling rules), such as books, churches, lives

Intermediate/Upper Elementary School

  • Abstract Nouns (nouns that cannot be sensed), such as freedom, patience, thoughts
  • Concrete Nouns (nouns that can be sensed), such as ice cream, velvet, movie
  • Nouns as Simple Subjects, such as George left town.
  • Nouns as Compound Subjects, such as George and Sam left town.
  • Nouns in Compound Sentences, such as George left town, and Sam left, too.
  • Complete Nouns/Noun Phrases, such as Crazy George and his best friend left town.
  • Nouns as Objects of Prepositional Phrases, such as George and Sam left town for the vacation of a lifetime.
  • Collective Nouns (nouns that refer to groups with members), such as That herd of sheep was in the pasture.
  • Nouns to Avoid (things, stuff, etc.), such as The thing is… I already have that stuff.
  • Nouns as Abbreviations, such as I love the U.S.A.
  • Nouns as Acronyms, such as We had a guest speaker from N.A.S.A.
  • Hyphenated Nouns, such as English-language arts is my favorite subject.
  • Irregular Plural Nouns, such as deer-deer, child-children, foot-feet

Middle School

  • Noun Clauses, such as Whenever I studied, I passed my tests.
  • Greek and Latin Noun Plural Formations, such as cactus-cacti, crisis-crises, appendix-appendices
  • Nouns as Direct Objects, such as I left my wallet.
  • Nouns as Indirect Objects, such as I gave John my wallet.
  • Nouns as Gerunds, such as Smoking is hazardous to one’s health.
  • Nouns as Appositives, such as That nice couple, Juan and Tasha, brought us cookies.
  • Mass (non-count) Nouns (These nouns don’t form plurals and are usually abstract), such as mud, insurance, music

High School

  • Nouns as Nominative Absolutes (a separate phrase or clause that modifies the main noun and verb), such as “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed (Second Amendment to the United States Constitution).”
  • Nouns as Predicate Nominatives (a noun or pronoun following a noun and a linking verb that defines or re-names the noun), such as Joe is a murder suspect.

Why not make sense of grammar instruction with a curriculum that will help you efficiently integrate grammar into writing instruction? Throw away your ineffective D.O.L. openers and last-minute grammar test-prep practice, and teach all the grammar, mechanics, and spelling that most students need in 75 minutes per week. Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, provides a coherent scope and sequence of 64 no-prep Sentence Lifting lessons withTeacher Tips and Hints for the grammatically-challenged. The mechanics and grammar skills complement those found in the 72 TGM Worksheets and target the diagnostic needs indicated by the multiple-choice TGM Grammar and Mechanics Diagnostic Assessments.

Grammar/Mechanics, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,