- Teaching students a grammar concept and having them try it out on a worksheet or sample paragraph that is not their own writing does not mean that students will apply that concept when writing independently. In fact, that link is almost non-existent.
- The act of writing should be fun and free. It's a creative process that gets completely stifled if students are worrying about everything else instead of actually the act of writing down the ideas that are freely flowing from their mind. As students are completing a first draft of writing, they should not be worrying about spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar, they should be thinking about getting their ideas out in a way that most accurately expresses what it is that they want to say.
- Students learn through inquiry that allows them to construct their understanding of the world around them. As a teacher, when we go through and circle and correct every error on their page, we are teaching students nothing except that their teacher is willing to waste countless hours of their own time to correct their paper. (And believe me, I have wasted countless hours of time in the past doing this for my students. Why would they worry about proper conventions when they have their own personal editor in their teacher who is always there for them?) Students will never internalize how to use the proper conventions in their writing if they do not construct that knowledge and learn how to apply that knowledge to their own writing.
So when is the "right" time and technique for teaching students to use correct grammar in their writing? Once again, this is only my opinion, and chances are my understanding will continue to evolve as I learn more and try out different things, but here are a few places this past year that I have found effective:
Writing Conferences: During independent writing time, when working one-on-one with students, read over the piece of writing they're working on that day by either having the student read it out loud or scanning it quickly. Make a decision about where you'd like to take that student. During some writing conferences, you'll want to focus on ideas, sentence fluency, organization of the piece of writing, etc., but there are other times where you may notice that a student consistently is using the wrong homophone or has several run-on sentences. You may take the opportunity during a writing conference where you notice something like this to teach a specific grammar concept to a student in relation to their writing. Remember though, that you're not trying to fix the entire piece of writing. You're trying to teach the student one thing that they can learn, apply to his or her current piece of writing, and apply to his or her writing in the future.
Guided Writing Groups: Once students are going through the writing process, (have explored many topics in their writer's notebooks, had minilessons on the genre of writing, written a discovery draft or draft #1) take their drafts and skim through the students' writing as a class. If you see common things going wrong in some of the students' papers, keep track of the students who need help with specific things. Maybe there are five students who need help with paragraphing, three students who need a lesson on apostrophes, and another group of three who could benefit from looking at the use of capitalization in their papers. The point being, taking a look at a class set of writing to decide if there are groups of students that could benefit from taking a close look at a specific grammar concept within their writing can make a huge impact on several groups of students.
Whole Group Minilessons: Once students have gone through the writing process of exploring in their writer's notebooks, having minilessons on the genre of writing, writing a first draft, revising, and writing a second draft, the next step would be editing. The editing part of the writing process is the part where I would teach specific grammar minilessons that students can apply to editing a piece of writing. By taking specific minilessons instead of giving students a checklist of what to edit for, you are asking students to look through their papers with a specific lense. You can't edit for everything either, so I would recommend selecting 2-3 items that you'd like to specifically have students edit for, knowing that during the next piece of writing, you can select 2-3 different lessons to build up students' knowledge about grammar and conventions throughout the year. In the classroom that I team teach in this year, we recently did editing minilessons. They were:
"Writers edit for correct spelling, homophone usage, and capitalization to show respect to the reader."
I modeled by showing a sample paragraph from my writing and doing a think aloud for how I would go about editing. These are the rules that came out of that for students to apply to their writing:
"Writers edit for correct comma usage with coordinating conjunctions so that their sentences are punctuated correctly."
I modeled using inquiry by putting sentences with FANBOYS that did and did not require a comma. Students developed the rule that if the clause after the coordinating conjunction was an independent clause, a comma was required. I was very impressed that the students were able to construct the rule and even more impressed when they were able to identify coordinating conjunctions and decide whether or not a comma should be placed before the coordinating conjunction. It also spurred discussion about combining simple sentences together using FANBOYS, not beginning sentences with FANBOYS, and looking for complete sentences in general. Students were really examining their papers for these things, and I was amazed at the improvements THEY were able to make independently, knowing that they will take this tool with them as writers into their future writing. These are a few anchor charts that are now posted in our classroom to remind students about this comma rule:
My main point in writing this post is that our number one goal as teachers of writing is to get students to become writers who enjoy writing for a variety of purposes. If we can get students to construct understandings of grammar and convention rules to apply to their writing, that is another layer that we strive to reach as teachers. Look for opportunities where it makes sense to teach students about grammar and conventions without drilling it or discouraging the act of writing all together.