Conventions & Presentation: Solving Predictable Problems
One evening in September, my husband, kids, and I were eating dinner at my parents’ house. My father, who is an excellent cook, made a juicy and flavorful chicken for dinner. My daughter, Isabelle (1st grade) found herself faced with a dinner she didn’t want to eat. She wanted a grilled cheese. However, we reminded her:
(a) She has liked her Zayde’s chicken when she’s eaten it before.
(b) Chicken was what was for dinner.
She ate it, begrudgingly. At the end of the meal, I discovered a piece of paper behind on the table:
I laughed. While leaving behind an “I hate chicken” note was rude, I wasn’t sure if it was meant for anyone to see (or if she was just venting). Bad manners aside, I was pleased she expressed her frustration about dinner in writing. Therefore, I showed the note to my husband and parents. We all had a chuckle when we discussed what her purpose might have been for writing this on paper. No one said anything about the misspelled words or the missing ending punctuation.
Carl Anderson (2005, 58) says lifelong writers write well when they:
- Communicate meaning
- Use genre knowledge
- Structure their writing
- Write with detail
- Give their writing voice
- Use conventions
Northwest Education’s 6(+1) Traits of Writing in Grades 3-12 (2014) asks these key questions of each of the traits:
- Ideas: Does the writer engage the reader with fresh information or perspective on a focused topic?
- Organization: Does the organizational structure enhance the ideas and make them easier to understand?
- Voice: Does the reader clearly hear this writer speaking in the piece?
- Word Choice: Does the author’s choice of words convey precise and compelling meaning and/or create a vivid picture for the reader?
- Sentence Fluency: Does the author control sentences so the piece flows smoothly when read aloud?
- Conventions: How much editing is required before the piece can be shared as a final product?
- Presentation: Is the finished piece easy to read, polished in presentation, and pleasing to the eye?
You’ll notice that in both Anderson’s list and Northwest Education’s rubric that conventions are one piece of the writing pie. (And presentation is considered the +1 in the Northwest Education rubric.) Whatever the reason, I know many of us tend to see the errors in conventions first when we look at our students’ writing. It took me many years to see past misspelled words and missing punctuation when I looked at student work. By first approaching student writing and asking, “What is this student doing well as a writer?” it helps me to refrain from looking at student work from a deficit perspective.
A couple weeks ago, Lanny Ball wrote about “The Power of Language,” where he encouraged us to use language that invites, rather than assigns. Therefore, whenever we’re working with young writers, it’s important for us to invite kids to think of punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and presentation as ways to make the meaning of their writing clear to readers. If we help kids understand that all writers have strategies for tackling these things, then we’re providing them with avenues to be successful as writers, rather than by shaming them when returning papers filled with red markings.
I’ve thought of several problems you may encounter with your students around conventions and presentation. For each one, I will attempt to offer a solution. Many of the solutions will lead you to past TWT blog posts and/or professional literature that may further help you with each of these problems.
PROBLEM: One of my students has trouble identifying misspelled words in her writing.
SOLUTION: Use minimal markings (Vopat, 2007, 16) to signal students to incorrectly spelled words. Rather than circling every word on a line, just place a checkmark in the margin every time you notice a misspelled word.It is up to students to self-correct the errors you’ve marked, which research studies indicate students can do 60-70% of the time (Ibid.). If students have unresolved check marks, then they can schedule an editing conference with you for more assistance. Click here to read more about the minimal marking technique.
PROBLEM: Some of my students’ writing has errors in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. How do I get them to reread their writing without overwhelming them about all of the things they need to fix?
SOLUTION: Paula Bourque devotes a chapter to editing in Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2 – 6 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016). One of my favorite strategies in this chapter is Dry-Erase Editing (186-88). First, the teacher places a student’s writing into a transparent plastic sleeve and edits the child’s writing — without showing it to him — by writing on the plastic sleeve rather than altering their original copy. Then, the writing is slipped out of the teacher’s transparent plastic sleeve and placed into a new sleeve so the student can repeat the process editing for missing punctuation. (This technique can be repeated to find errors in spelling and capitalization. By repeating the readings of one piece, students are encouraged to read their writing closely using a different lens each time.)
PROBLEM: One of my students misspells the same words again and again and again.
SOLUTION: Rather than assigning the same spelling words to all of your students, create personalized spelling lists for your students based upon frequently misspelled words you notice in their writing. Click here for more information about how to find words for students’ personal spelling lists.
If creating personal spelling lists isn’t enough, try using one of these strategies to help any student who is struggling with spelling:
PROBLEM: Some of my students write much more than others. How can I increase volume and engagement for all of my writers?
SOLUTION: One paper size doesn’t meet the needs of all of the writers in your room. In the primary grades, some kids will draw more than write. Conversely, some kids need smaller spaces for pictures and more lines to write on. Ultimately, you can help your youngest writers find the paper that fits them best by providing them with choices. Beth Moore has written about paper choice in the primary grades and across the grades. Click here to view an infographic she created about paper choice for writers at any stage.
PROBLEM: One of my students has handwriting that is completely illegible.
SOLUTION: Some students have trouble with the physical act of writing. Many people think “have them type” is the solution. While that is one possible solution, it doesn’t help fix the underlying handwriting issue. A student may need an occupational therapy consult to help determine the root cause of the illegible handwriting. But before you call in your school’s occupational therapist, click here for some ideas to help kids who have trouble with the physical act of writing.
PROBLEM: I have a student who is mixing cases (i.e., using upper and lowercase letters in the same word) when she writes.
SOLUTION: While there are plenty of fonts on DaFont that artfully mix cases, mixing cases raises eyebrows once most children in your class have mastered their uppercase and lowercase letters. To help your student, start by providing visual models of what words should look like. Also, focus on self-correction. Finally, make sure there is consistency within the classroom and students when it comes to marking corrections. If the problem persists, consult your school’s occupational therapist for additional ideas.
PROBLEM: None of my students punctuate properly! It’s as if they haven’t learned anything before!
SOLUTION: There is no quick fix for this one! However, you can be part of a long-term solution if this is something you and your grade-level colleagues say every year. It’s important for every school to have a schoolwide approach for teaching grammar, punctuation, and spelling. When I taught fourth grade, I worked with the school’s literacy coaches and teachers from other grade levels to customize the End-of-Year Expectations presented in Dan Feigelson’s Practical Punctuation: Lessons on Rule Making and Rule Breaking in Elementary Writing (2008, 188-193). Since our school had a high ELL population, we altered our expectations for what students would master, in terms of writing mechanics, by the end of each grade.
I realize working with others on a school-wide committee like this is time-consuming. However, the fruits of your labor will be noticed a couple of years down the road since you will know exactly what kids have been introduced to and will have mastered, in terms of writing mechanics, when they come to you each fall.
PROBLEM: It’s been a long time since I diagrammed a sentence. I need to brush up on the nomenclature of grammar, but don’t know where to go for help. Any suggestions?
SOLUTION: It’s hard to teach grammar if middle school English class feels like it was an eternity ago. (I started middle school in the late 1980’s, so I’ll admit to not being able to explain the difference between things like independent and subordinate clauses.) If you have a copy of Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2014) by Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty, then check out Appendix D, which will provide a crash course in parts of speech, parts of a sentence, and common usage errors. Also, take advantage of online tutorials, like the series by Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl.
Any time we focus on conventions and presentation, I think it’s important to share our own struggles, as writers, with our students. For instance, there are a few words I often misspell so I have the habit of using spell check anytime I have written anything that is being published. Also, no matter how often I think I’m finished, I know I can always go back and revise/edit a piece of writing by looking at my writing through a different lens. I say these things to kids because I want them to understand that I am perfectly imperfect. In the end, we must make sure kids understand that we value the writing process and their growth as writers, rather than perfection.
Two More Quick Tips from Members of the TWT Co-Author Team:
- Invite kids to think of punctuation/conventions/spelling as tools to make their message clear and come to life. Say things like “As a writer myself, here is how I tackle words I don’t know when I am spelling.” –Kathleen Sokolowski
- Focus on conventions when you deliver your mid-workshop teaching point. –Betsy Hubbard
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