Got Grammar? Conventions and Grammar in Real Writing Contexts (Extended Blog Post)

Hello!  A shorter version of this post appeared on Scholastic's Frizzle blog last week.  The extended version found here includes a few more details and an upper elementary student's writing sample.  As always, I welcome and invite your comments! 

     Cheryl’s eyes bugged out a bit as she perused her students’ writing.  “Why do their pieces look like this?  Where are the capitals, the punctuation?  I teach mechanics and grammar daily, but they don’t apply the lessons when they write.  And, when I ask them to edit, they seldom do.” 
     This is a common issue, one that is a source of frustration for many teachers.  Yes, we must help students produce loads of writing with joy and purpose every day.  But we also want our writers to master conventions and grammar.  (Refer to the Common Core Language Anchor Standards:  (1) Students will demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking; (2) Students will demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.) 
     Here are some practical tips that may work for you or the teachers you work with: 

     First consider, how are grammar and writing conventions taught?  Students are successful applying skills when they are taught in the actual context of writing.  One context I like to use is the “Morning Message.”  Each day (or class period), I write a message to my students in the form of a letter.  When they arrive, they look for it since it serves a real purpose: to communicate about our scheduled activities or other important matters.  We read it together, discuss the content, then take just a few minutes to observe how the author (me) correctly used language conventions.  Over the course of several messages, we’ll circle capitals, end marks, quotations, contractions, verbs, pronouns, homonyms, etc. and discuss their proper usage in the context.  It’s also effective to make intentional mistakes in the message, especially those that mirror errors you see in students’ writing (run-on sentences are a favorite).  Guide students to find errors, discuss how they affect the writing, and work out solutions.  For example, we might take a run-on and jot or talk about multiple ways to break the ideas into independent, punctuated sentences.   
     Once a skill or convention has appeared in the message numerous times, it is added to a running list on a poster titled “Skills Writers Use,” accompanied by an example of its proper usage (students help me pick a reference they’ll remember and understand).  Older students might keep the list in a language arts notebook.  Highlighted conventions can then be noted in reading contexts, too. 
     What types of conventions and grammatical issues should be addressed in your messages?  Grade level standards are a guide.  But, for even more relevance, browse your students’ writing and adjust your message to reflect the skills and conventions they struggle with most.  You’ll see patterns.  Don’t be discouraged if the same errors pop-up again and again.  Continue to review them in the “Morning Message,” note them while reading, and with time and opportunity for reflection in their own writing (explained below), students will improve dramatically.  Just be sure not to overload them with too many new issues before they’re showing real proof of understanding in their everyday writing of those already covered.  As we all know, it’s hard to make progress as learners when we’re overwhelmed.  Instead, focus on what’s most important, those errors that are most egregious in students’ writing, and address these first over time.   
     Now here’s a golden ticket.  After about six weeks of school have passed, as students complete drafts they’d like to (or are assigned to) publish in written form, ask them to go back and circle things they know, just like they do in the “Morning Message.”  Encourage them to refer to the list of “Skills Writers Use” as a scaffold.  This becomes a backdoor way into editing that truly works.  It’s motivating to writers to look for what they’ve done well rather than what they have done wrong.  Instead, students hum along, positively reinforcing themselves by circling what they did right and they often find mistakes and fix them.  Viola…editing without pain! 
Note how second grader C.J. crossed out the capital M in the middle of the third sentence, fixed it with a lower case m, and circled it.  Plus, notice how proficient he is in self-monitoring the many skills he’s used correctly!  True mastery has occurred when skills are shown automatically in everyday writing.

      Nurture your writers even more by celebrating their findings on the document camera.  This is another golden ticket that doesn’t take much time and really pays off!  By sharing student writing on a document camera, the child is able to briefly discuss his or her findings or problem solving (editing), while mechanics and usage are reviewed, once again in context, for all writers.  A sense of confidence and capability emerges in the classroom community, and students become helpful sources of support for one another.  
     How frequently might you ask students to circle things they know in their writing?  Anytime a draft is going through to written publication, editing is appropriate.  But remember, we don’t want to just wait and tack editing on at the end of formal writing.  It must be part of a routine focus for learning to really stick.  Students should be producing all kinds of writing informally across the curriculum throughout the day, along with all types of process writing, the majority of which won’t be taken through to formal publishing.  So, two or three times each week, cash in another golden ticket by asking students to grab any piece and spend three minutes circling things they know, then two minutes sharing with a partner.  Celebrate one example with the class.  Such techniques keep conventions and grammar in proper focus.  The issues are grappled with routinely, within real contexts; but the majority of time is safe-guarded for composing and growing writers’ craft (these will be topics of future posts!). 

Sixth grader Shandra found several conventions she used correctly and made some corrections along the way.  While sharing with a partner, she reworked fragments into complete sentences and fixed many (though not all) verb tenses!

1 comment

  1. Read more about couching our teaching of grammar within the drafting/revision stages of writing in this insightful article. Great background information and example. This stuff really works!


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