Using Inquiry to Lift Language Conventions

The guitar player waved his hand wildly above his head.  “Stop! Hold on, guys!”  All of us in the band ceased playing our rendition of Journey’s “Separate Ways” at that point and stared at our guitarist, Rob.  The basement of the fraternity house grew quiet, as all eyes fixed upon our lead guitarist. Looking directly at me, Rob said,  “Lanny, that part progresses chromatically.” At this point, fixing his gaze downward toward the neck of his Fender Stratocaster guitar, Rob began playing the chords to the chorus of the song, voicing them over to me as he did so.  “It goes… D, D sharp, E minor,” he said.  Looking at my hands, I tried replicating the chords Rob suggested.  He’s right, I thought.  And I suddenly realized I had been playing this section of the song using what I “knew”– well, thought I knew– to be right.  But what I thought I’d been hearing was… not actually correct. And I’d been playing it this way for a long time.

In writing instruction, it is fairly easy to find ourselves frustrated with middle school students’ lack of command with or use of grammar and language convention skills.  We silently think to ourselves, “These kids should know how to ____ (fill in the blank with the appropriate skill)!  What were those teachers teaching last year, anyway?!”  It seems to be a natural complaint for some of us (it was for me back in the day, I’ll ashamedly admit).  Yet, as a coach and staff developer who enjoys the privilege of meeting with multiple grade levels within a school now, I have learned that, more often than not, those very skills were “taught” before.  So why didn’t they stick? we wonder.

The idea of “stickiness” was popularized years ago by author Malcolm Gladwell.  In his bestselling book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell teaches us that part of what helped to make such cultural phenomena as Sesame Street and the Columbia Record Club (remember that?) so successful was something he termed “a stickiness factor.”  Basically, this term describes some type of element that helps us humans recall something with relative ease, due to the fact that it “stuck with us.”

When it comes to teaching grammar and conventions, I find it helpful to keep a few things in mind:

  1. To be a kid is to be in a long state of approximation.  Kids learn at different rates that can look like fits and starts.  And, as the term “approximation” implies, mistakes are inevitable as writers work to grasp the many complex nuances and conventions that characterize formal academic and creative writing. Some studies have shown that mastering certain grammar and language conventions takes several years (take, for example, dialogue punctuation).
  2. The young brain is only able to notice what it’s ready to notice. Just like younger me attempting to play “Separate Ways” by Journey those many years ago, the brain is only able to notice and replicate what it is ready to notice, perceive, or “see.”  For whatever reason, even though I had heard that song dozens of times, I just wasn’t hearing the chord progression correctly; so… I approximated.  With some language conventions and some writers, I venture to guess a similar phenomenon occurs.  In her research for her book The Power of Grammar (Heinemann, 2009), Dr. Mary Ehrenworth discovered this first-hand.  “Young writers noticed what they were ready to notice,” she reported to me recently in a conversation. “We saw that higher writers were able to just see more.”
  3. Inquiry has a higher “stickiness factor” than rule-teaching.  Brain research teaches us that the brain is a much better pattern-maker than a rule-follower.  This is why relying on rote memorization of language rules can often lead to students just not hanging onto them over time.  In his article entitled, “12 Design Principles Based on Brain-based Learning Research,” Dr. Jeffery Lackney bolsters this point by saying :

Pattern making is pleasing to the brain. The brain takes great pleasure in taking [seemingly] random and chaotic information and ordering it. The implications for learning and instruction is that presenting a learner with random and unordered information provides the maximum opportunity for the brain to order this information and form meaningful patterns that will be remembered. The brain, when allowed to express its pattern-making behavior, creates coherency and meaning.

Teaching Grammar & Conventions Using Inquiry

By setting up classroom opportunities for the brain to engage physically with the world, it becomes possible to support a change in the process of perception.  It seems to follow then that when it comes to language conventions, we can thereby help students remake perceptions or correct misperceptions (if needed) by allowing for opportunities to physically engage with a process, a process of physical inquiry.  Let me explain:

In working with some students across a few cycles of narrative writing recently, I noticed that some conventions, such as capitalization and dialogue punctuation, seemed to be troublesome.  So, in an effort to help these writers become more powerful, I decided to try out some inquiry work; maybe this could be a way to lift their levels of command over some language conventions?  Since these writers were now in sixth grade, I imagined they’d likely received some instruction on capitalization and dialogue punctuation in years past. However, for whatever reason, previous instruction had not stuck in a way that made for effective or meaningful usage in these writers’ work.  For example, one student (who I will call “Richard” in this post) struggled to know what words to capitalize.  Consequently, capital letters were appearing rather haphazardly across his work.

Leaning on a protocol described in the aforementioned book The Power of Grammar, I set out to teach the following lesson as an inquiry:

  1. Study a mentor text. I began leading the inquiry by enlarging and photocopying a brief excerpt of our mentor text, “Soledad,” a short story by Francisco Jimenez (from The Circuit, 1997).  I explained that since writers are very purposeful in their use of capitalization, today we would spend a little time studying that convention, just to see what we notice.  “What do we notice?” I asked. “Let’s see if we can create some categories for ways or reasons writers capitalize.”
  2. Create categories.  In working to support observation, I created an organizer (a very simple one that I now realize could have been created independently in writer’s notebooks):  Screen Shot 2019-11-19 at 6.05.21 AM

What followed was an earnest study of the text, during which Richard “discovered” his own categories for the way writers capitalize.  Some of those included (in his own words):

  • beginnings of sentences
  • characters’ names
  • Pro Noun I (ah, the irony here…)
  • proper noun

Notice the somewhat unorthodox way these categories are worded! After jotting down his categories, Richard physically cut out sentences from the enlarged mentor text and pasted them in the boxes as examples.

3. Take a fresh look at your draft.  After spending some time with his punctuation inquiry, Richard pulled out his draft and began immediately applying what he had just learned or “discovered” to his own writing.

The Magic

Who knows if Richard will forever continue to apply all he discovered about capitalization that day.  After all, when looking at those categories, there truly is nothing too groundbreaking in his list.  But for him, this work made a difference.  I can report that as we have moved to a different bend of narrative writing, I have noticed a significant improvement in his command of capitalization.  The haphazard capitalization has become dramatically lessened.   Most recently, I’ve repeated the inquiry lesson, asking writers to study dialogue punctuation this time.  Here are the categories Richard discovered (again, in his own words):

  • when a character starts talking use a new paragraph
  • they use quotation marks before and after the dialog
  • punctuation mark before end quote

The magic of inquiry is not only a higher stickiness factor, but I daresay it also has to do with the fact that instead of being “told” the rules for capitalization and asked to memorize them, this writer was able to engage with a somewhat physical process of discovery.  And by studying patterns in a mentor text, “discovering” the categories of this convention all on his own, and doing a bit of physical work (e.g., cutting out sentences), I do feel some confidence in his ability to continue to transfer and use it independently.

Also, it is worth noting that when harnessing a process of inquiry, we end up with a level of differentiation naturally built into it.  When studying dialogue in this manner, for instance, higher level writers will notice more nuance and characteristics than less advanced writers.  Teachers can set these more advanced writers up with more challenge, perhaps asking them to create categories for “tricky dialogue,” while other writers notice what they are able to notice and apply that learning to their work.

Finally, when it comes to teaching grammar and conventions to middle school students, we often find ourselves unwittingly trying to force kids into a stage they’re just not ready for yet.  When using inquiry, we not only follow the path brain research has carved out  for us as educators, but we allow for improvement and growth that each student is ready to make.