conventions · grammar · Meet Writers Where They Are Blog Series · standards

Grammar and Conventions: Meet Writers Where They Are

Meet Writers Where They Are: A Blog Series by the Co-Authors of Two Writing Teachers - #TWTBlog

It doesn’t matter if I’m consulting in a rural school or an urban school… whether  it’s 30 minutes from my house or two plane rides away… I hear the same question again and again. 

What should I do if my students don’t know how to {insert grammatical skill here}?

In schools where there’s a grade-by-grade plan for teaching mechanics, I encourage teachers to look at the school-wide plan and see what students know how to do and then pick up from where they left off. Since many of the teachers I work with are newer to writing workshop, most of their schools don’t have a schoolwide approach for teaching grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Rather than creating a school-wide writing mechanics task force, you can look to the Common Core State Standards’ Language Standards (or your state’s equivalent) to figure out how to meet your students where they are as writers.

It’s helpful to be familiar with the language standards on the CCSS website, specifically “Conventions for Standard English” for your grade level. Keep in mind the standards represent what your students are expected to know by the end of the school year not now. They represent what you should be working towards on writing mechanics during your whole-class instruction if the majority of your class has mastered the previous grades end-of-year standards. 

It’s helpful to create a convention chart or checklist, which reminds students of their responsibilities for conventions from prior grade levels. Often lean reminders suffice as opposed to explicit instruction. For instance, you could create a chart or a checklist of what students should master by the end of the current year. You might choose to start with Melanie Meehan’s grade-level conventions charts for writers to help you as you create checklists for your own classroom. In addition, you might co-create checklists with individual or small groups of students so they’re more personalized.

I’ve created a few scenarios to help you think through the ways to meet students where they are as writers when thinking about the language standards. As you read the table below, it’s important to approach your teaching in a way that is asset-based. Provide positive praise and specific feedback for what students already know and help them understand that you’re building on what they know and helping them to write in a more advanced way. Make sure your teaching is attainable for the student in a short period (e.g., one to two weeks) of time so they feel as though they’re mastering what you’re teaching, thereby infusing what you’ve taught into their writing.

ScenarioWhat does the writer already know how to do — consistently — with this grammatical skill?What might you teach the writer to do next?
A sixth-grade writer doesn’t consistently use the correct verb tenses when they are writing. In addition, this writer does not edit their own work when they’ve used the incorrect verb tenses.This writer uses past tense irregular verbs correctly in their writing (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.2.1.D).Move the writer up to the third-grade verb tense skill by focusing on using the past and present tenses of verbs correctly in their writing (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.D), forming and using simple verb tenses (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.E), and correct and consistent subject-verb agreement (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.F) before moving onto fourth grade skills. Find examples of each of the ways writers correctly use verb tenses in the student writer’s favorite book to help them understand how their favorite writer uses verb tenses correctly.
A fifth-grade writer doesn’t use correct capitalization.This child capitalizes the names of dates and people (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.1.2.A) and places (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.2.2.A) consistently.Before moving onto the end-of-third grade standards, make sure the child continues to work on the end-of-second-grade standard (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.2.2.A), which also includes capitalizing the names of products and holidays. Once the child meets all of this standard, move onto the end-of-third-grade capitalization standard. Hopefully, you’ll be working towards the fourth grade skill of consistently using correct capitalization once you’ve solidified anything that the child hasn’t mastered. Utilize beloved mentor texts to show students how to use correct capitalization in their writing.
A fourth-grade writer places an apostrophe before every word that ends with s — even when that word doesn’t show possession.This child understands  a possessive noun shows that someone possesses something (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.1.1.B). The child shows some understanding of using an apostrophe to form a contraction and some frequently occurring possessives, such as the boy’s bike and Dr. Gold’s office (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.2.2.C).This student will need explicit instruction to determine the difference between plurals and possessives so they can form and use possessives correctly (i.e., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.2.D). Try using teacher-written demonstration texts to showcase the differences between plurals and possessives rather than using skill-and-drill worksheets.

It helps to set a conventions goal with every student, in addition to goals you set for things like focus and elaboration, so you can make sure you’re helping students develop the skills they need for crafting grammatically correct pieces. As you may have noticed in each of the scenarios above, it’s often necessary to go back a few grade levels to determine what a student already knows how to do so you can move the child up slowly towards the end-of-year expectation for the grade level you teach. By going back several grade levels, you meet the child where they are as a writer, which helps move kids  ahead thoughtfully so your teaching sticks.

For more thinking on this, listen to a recent conversation between me and Lynne Dorfman, who is the co-author of Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6.

Chatting with Lynne Dorfman about Grammar and Conventions

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15 thoughts on “Grammar and Conventions: Meet Writers Where They Are

  1. Using the “just right” mentor texts to teach grammar and conventions is key. When children notice (and share) conventions in their own reading the lessons are reinforced. Reminders to read like a writer reinforces the power of a mentor text .

    Thank you for reminding us that children should be responsible for editing their work with the help of a clear and simple checklist. Editing work is part of the writing process, especially if the expectations are manageable.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a timely post. My grade level team was just discussing writing conventions and how to increase student awareness/use of conventions. Thank you.


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