Teaching Students to Master Conventions in a Modern Way

I read through the comments on Ruth’s latest post this morning.  It seems like many folks are feeling a little angst when it comes to grammar instruction.  You’re pulled between teaching kids grammar authentically and preparing them traditionally for tests, aren’t you?  I feel your pain.  We know that mastering conventions is crucial if we want kids to write well, but how do we do it in a meaningful, modern way?

I did some thinking about this after attending a workshop in 2006 with Mary Ehrenworth at Teachers College.  Ehrenworth’s session was entitled, “Teaching Strong Student Writers to Master Conventions: Words and Punctuation, Tone and Texture.”  Here’s some information about the most useful information that I learned, infused into my own practice, and some ideas for full-school implementation (might be useful if you’re a coach):  

The most useful information received in the workshop:

I need to make sure my writing lessons are embedded with opportunities for my students to empower themselves, work independently and have changes to elaborate. To that end, I need to continue to model my own writing and plan it as a vehicle for my lessons that deal with conventions.

Also, I do not use a serial comma in lists (e.g., I would write: I like to eat apples, oranges and bananas.), but I learned that the SAT’s demand the usage of a serial comma in lists. (e.g., Kids need to write that same sentence like this: I like to eat apples, oranges, and bananas.) Hence, I need to begin to write in lists using serial commas with my kids so that I can be sure they’re prepared for the SAT’s now.

Little fact: The New Yorker does not use the serial comma, but The New York Times does use serial commas.

I’d like to work towards mentoring kids to texts for the purpose of lifting the level of their writing (with regard to using conventions). I learned that I can do this either at the sentence level or the excerpt level. (The sentence level is easier since you’re dealing with a smaller amount of text and therefore kids will hopefully mentor themselves to it since it’s a smaller amount.)

  • I learned that you really need to have kids name what’s happening, with regard to conventions, in sentences.

  • Allow kids to play with mentorship in their writer’s notebooks.

Infusion of information into my teaching practice:

  • Bulletin Board/Word Wall for November: Showing transition words with time changes. (Also include this for November’s word study.)

  • Possible minilessons/mid-workshop interruption teaching points:

    • Writers can circle all of the I’s and all of the names of people in their pieces so they can go back and check the capitalization.

    • Writers run their finger over their sentences to make sure they used effective ending punctuation. Then, they can try revising their sentences in a few different ways to determine if they used the most effective ending punctuation.

    • Writers use commas in lists.

  • Mini Units of Study on Conventions during WW Time

    • I can do one of these in December/January prior to the ELA Test and at one other point I the year.

    • Based off of the work of Janet Angellilo’s book A Fresh Approach to Punctuation.

      • Kids will publish their work on-demand and then their work will grows out of that on-demand piece.

Pertinent and applicable information for grade level colleagues, other school levels and/or entire school:

A few goals to work on with regard to conventions:

  1. Develop a school-wide plan of when we conventions we’ll teach each year. Hence, teachers from each grade need to implement a plan about the conventions we will teach so that we don’t spend time reteaching our students what they should already know and have mastered.

    1. For instance, if we decide students will learn how to meaningfully use paragraphs in third grade, then we can expect students to be writing in paragraphs in fourth grade and beyond.

  2. Work towards deep revision about the structure of language.

  3. Study mentor texts with our students to teach all of us more about language.

  4. Help our students shape language for meaning. Remember that conventions aren’t just for the editing stage of the writing process.

Take time to do mini-units of study on conventions, especially prior to the ELA Test. Don’t use worksheets… have the mini-unit be more of an inquiry. Have students publish something to hang on the bulletin board at the end of the unit.

The above reflection was written by me, for my former principal, in October 2006.