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For generations, students have regarded lessons in grammar as a joyless activity. The release of a class-wide groan often accompanies a teacher’s announcement, “Let’s work on diagraming sentences.” As renowned writing authority Beth Olshavnsky contends, such exercises can take the vitality out of writing instruction.
The Art of Grammar: Painting with Adjectives
For generations, students have regarded lessons in grammar as a joyless activity. The release of a class-wide groan often accompanies a teacher’s announcement, “Let’s work on diagraming sentences.” As renowned writing authority Beth Olshavnsky contends, such exercises can take the vitality out of writing instruction. Rather than solely relying on repetitions of the linear and fragmented alignment of sentence diagraming, Olshavnsky reminds educators that the inspiration for writing evolved from the need to convey informative and persuasive images, painting meaning through words.
While sentence diagraming has an important place, an image-based approach can infuse writing curriculum with an expressive energy that should quell the groans that meet the announcement of sentence diagramming drills. Additionally, developing a grammar lesson by merging picture and word offers a host of techniques that cultivate aesthetic sophistication, visual literacy, and the skill to transport readers with vividly composed language.
To illustrate the potential of creating pathways to literacy through artful imagery, let’s begin with a foundational learning unit, the descriptive power of adjectives to breathe life into nouns.
A child’s language development begins with nouns, the ability to name things. Words that identify mother, father and family are typically followed by words for food items, toys and central figures and objects in a child’s immediate environment. In progressive stages comes the ability to add descriptive dimension, quality and scale to language.
A grammar lesson based on sentence diagraming has limited ability to unlock the expressive value and range of adjectives. In contrast, I will describe an approach that employs fine art imagery to drive developmental writing skills and a consequent love for language.
To illustrate, picture a 5th-grade teacher accessing the Internet to project van Gogh’s, “The Starry Night.” I reintroduce this dazzling work from an earlier blog because of its familiarity to a broad audience. I encourage you to access the image on the Internet to accompany the following exercise.
Part 1: The Adjective Exercise
Elementary school students learn that a noun names a person, place, or thing, like key, canyon, or doctor. However, a single noun often does not fully express one’s thoughts. Enter the adjective (e.g., a dry canyon, a rusty key and a skilful doctor). These words change or modify the meaning of associated nouns. A bicycle may be fast, new, or broken.
After projecting van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” have students work in groups to first cooperatively list nouns that they can identify in the painting. Among the nouns chosen may be sky, village, cypress tree, hills, heavens, light, stars, moon, crescents, church, etc. Next, have groups develop adjectives that describe or limit the chosen nouns.
There are two kinds of adjectives: descriptive and limiting adjectives. Descriptive adjectives illustrate a noun (e.g., soggy grass, a shallow river). Limiting adjectives set a numerical limit to a noun (e.g., several girls, few robins), or identify which one (e.g., this newspaper, both roads).
Provide groups with large poster paper and colored marking pens. Group members should develop sentences describing The Starry Night, first selecting at least ten nouns and then adding an adjective for each to add description. In Part 1, groups should focus just on descriptive adjectives. Using colored marking pens, groups should write chosen nouns in blue and the descriptive adjective in red—such as the following example:
A sleepy village lies beneath the nightscape.
Group members should next compose sentences with two or even three adjectives inspired by The Starry Night. One of the adjectives may be a limiting adjective. Again write nouns in blue and adjectives in red.
Several lighted homes display soft light.
A single, twisted Cypress stands in the foreground.
We store much of our information and memory in image form. Juxtaposing parts of speech with compelling artful images provides a form of reinforcement lacking in the more straightforward diagraming model. The art and image-based model cultivates a love of expressive language, sensitive observation of detail, and aesthetic sophistication.
About the Author –
The Magic Museum, The Isaacson Series in Youth Literature - An enchanting children's book that tells the story of a 12-year old skateboarder (Jack) and a ballerina (Jacqueline) who whispers to him from an Edgar Degas painting in a fine arts museum. A wonderful way for parents to introduce fine art and engage children (ages 8 to 12 years old) in the art of visual storytelling and imagination. For More Information on The Magic Museum Book, visit - http://www.isaacsonseries.com