caregivers · conventions · punctuation · spelling · writing workshop

Talking to Caregivers about Conventions and Spelling

More than other skills, most caregivers tend to worry about spelling and conventions when it comes to their child’s writing. I get it. Those skills are right there at the tip of the writing iceberg. Those skills are concrete and obvious. Those skills are the ones that they recognize and know how to fix when they sit with their child. So how do we talk to caregivers about spelling and punctuation? Here are three ideas that you may find helpful.

  1. Frank Smith, a Canadian psycholinguist, wrote Writing and the Writer in 1982. In it, he differentiates between composition and transcription when it comes to writing. Composition has to do with thinking of ideas, organizing them, planning, and drafting. Transcription involves basically anything a secretary or an editor can do for a writer. While both are important, I think it’s helpful to talk to parents about the differences. Many young writers, when not overly consumed with spelling and conventions, have fabulous ideas and are able to construct stories, informational texts, and well-developed opinions. We want to balance our instruction of spelling and punctuation with our instruction of idea generation, planning, and drafting. Here is a chart that could be a starting point for this sort of conversation:
    Compositional Skills Transcriptive Skills
    • Generating ideas
    • Organizing ideas and sections
    • Creating structure for any type of text
    • Using techniques and craft moves for development and elaboration
    • Using grammar and sentence structure for impact
    • Spelling
    • Conventions
    • Subject/verb agreement
    • Pronoun/antecedent agreement
    • Neatness and handwriting
  2. Like many activities, we can sometimes show mastery of skills in isolation, but the transfer of those skills to more authentic work may tend to lag. An effective analogy for many caregivers may relate to sports. Whether it’s soccer, tennis, basketball, or many other sports, it’s relatively easy for caregivers to envision practice and drills and how those skills transfer to matches and games. Lay-ups may seem easy in practice, but not so much when the opportunities happen on the court. One of the ways we as teachers can support the transfer of skills into authentic and independent writing is to provide students with opportunities for isolated practice. We can share the ideas of centers and direct instruction with caregivers. The picture of this center that I am sharing here can be revised and reconfigured to isolate any targeted skill within the progression of conventions.  IMG_0678
  3. Sometimes conventions make more sense to students if we talk about them in terms of tools, as opposed to rules. This differentiation sometimes makes sense to caregivers. Last month, I wrote a post about ideas to make conventions stick a bit more, and I shared the following teaching tool:screen shot 2019-01-19 at 8.38.00 amThese examples illustrate the choices writers have in terms of punctuation and the impact it can have on readers. Help caregivers use different language with their children along these lines:

    Instead of:


    Where does the period go? Where do you want readers to slow down and take a breath?
    Here’s how to spell a word… Get the sounds you hear and move on.
    Let’s work on fixing your spelling and punctuation. Let’s talk about the structure of your story/ what you’re teaching readers about/ the opinion you’re expressing to the world.

Writing is a complicated process. Sometimes, when we forget about all the plates we need to spin in order to write anything, we lose sight of how many skills are actually in place. Maybe more than anything else the conversations and communications we have with caregivers should celebrate the successes. Noticing and noting the successes leads to more and more of them, across all components of writing.

5 thoughts on “Talking to Caregivers about Conventions and Spelling

  1. Transcription skills are visible. Easy to see and easy to “pick apart” when errors abound (or rather when we consider the skills that a student has consistent control over.) Compositional skills are in the head and harder to identify and often are easier to talk about writer-to-writer. Writing is complicated by process vs. product concerns.

    Important topic. Great ideas for centers, teaching tools, AND language!!!

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  2. Writing is also a very personal experience. Skipping the meaning and immediately picking it apart for punctuation and spelling can be very discouraging to any writer, but especially to young ones.

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  3. So glad you wrote this. For many years, as a kindergarten teacher, it took some convincing that “best guess spelling” “invented spelling” (however ones uses the term) freed up the kinders to write what was on their mind. This post would have been in my tool box of examples.

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  4. This is an important post, Melanie. Caregivers need information from teachers that will help them understand what’s happening in the classroom so they can transfer it to homelife.

    I cannot tell you how many times I had parents point to their child’s writer’s notebook – in disgust – to tell me how terrible their child’s handwriting was or how many spelling errors they noticed. It wasn’t until I explained the true purpose of the notebook that they stepped back a little (and were hopefully less critical at home).

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