How Grammar & Literature Work Together

by Amber Hathaway

Although sometimes grammar and literature may seem like distinct subjects, each area supports the other. Grammar, the way words are put together to express ideas, is how we create order out of chaos in language. Literature, the sharing of thoughts and stories in writing, is how we communicate with language. Without grammar, literature would make no sense; without literature, grammar would have limited use.

Using Literature to Teach Grammar

If students are engaged with a text, such as a novel, they are intrinsically motivated to understand that text to the best of their abilities. One level of understanding is the mechanical nature of the text: in other words, the technical composition of the text itself. By using a novel or other reading to provide students with direct grammar instruction, a teacher can help students see the value in grammar work. For instance, pointing out a passively constructed sentence in "The Great Gatsby" feels more relevant than doing a completely detached and isolated lesson on passive voice.

Using Grammar to Teach Literature

The inverse relationship between grammar and literature helps students learn both areas as well. In studying the passive voice, students can identify a passively constructed sentence in a text and question the author’s intent based on the grammar: Why does it matter that the author gives the character in this sentence no agency with this verb? Teachers can incorporate grammatical analysis of texts into lessons as a brief component or as a major focus.

Close Readings

One particularly useful way to pair grammar and literature in the classroom is during a close reading. A close reading is any in-depth analysis of a short text or excerpt of a larger text; for example, the first few paragraphs of "Beloved" can be examined in minute detail. Because close readings are, by their nature, entirely concerned with details, the concepts of word choice, sentence construction and punctuation are often areas of focus therein. Students must be familiar with grammatical concepts in order to analyze short texts competently, which in turn helps them understand those texts more fully.

Reinforcing Grammar

In order for grammatical concepts to “stick” with students, they must be revisited frequently and in contexts in which it makes sense to review them. This can be as simple as a teacher asking, “What does Hemingway’s use of subordinate clauses here suggest about his intent?” In order to begin to answer the question, students must know what a subordinate clause is, be able to identify them in the passage, and then extrapolate meaning from their use. This call-back to grammatical concepts reinforces both their functions in language and their value in analyzing texts.

Photo Credits

  • David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images