March 7, 2013

Incorporating Grammar and Conventions into Writing Workshop

As a middle school language arts teacher, I have had the internal debate over and over again about how and when I should teacher my students "grammar".  In my first five years of teaching, I have tried a variety of things.  I've taught grammar rules followed by worksheets to reinforce what has been taught. I have corrected every single error on students' papers and had them fill out "grammar logs", logging each error they have made.  I have ignored it all together when I've realized that grammar worksheets simply, in my opinion, do not work, and "grammar logs" seem to get students extremely frustrated and put off to the idea of writing all together.  Through these first four years of trial, error, and ultimately, failure, of a few things I am certain:
  • 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.

Happy Teaching,
Kasey

12 comments :

  1. I love this post. I used to work in a district that felt very much that grammar and conventions should just be corrected in the writing process without much direct instruction. Now, I'm working at a school that's all about skill building and worksheets to prove your mastery. I feel like I'm fighting an uphill battle because, as you said, they still don't apply it to their own writing.

    Another suggestion I have is to edit only the first page or first paragraph for conventions, and then ask the student to look for those same errors in the rest of the text. It saves me from having to make the same corrections 100 times, and it teaches the students how to edit their own writing.

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  2. Hi Erin,

    I think that's a great suggestion as well to edit the first page. I work as a literacy coach now, and there are a few 8th grade teachers that I work with that use this technique and find it effective as well. I wish you luck as you continue to fight your uphill battle! I can imagine it's difficult to go along with something that your heart truly doesn't believe is best for students. Good luck to you. Your students are lucky to have you!

    Kasey

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  3. I like these ideas and I like the charts you made for your class. Even my High School seniors struggle with sentence combining and punctuation, believe it or not. It gets frustrating for all involved. I am also a firm believer in not just doing worksheets over and over again, but instead applying it to their own writing.

    And I, too, have spent HOURS editing student essays to no avail. Thanks for all the info!

    Jessica
    English With Mrs. L.

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  4. Hi Jessica,

    I'm glad I'm not the only one! :) I think the idea of incorporating grammar into English class and getting students to apply it to their writing is a constant experiment, and we've all tried it all. Now it's just a matter of finding little tweaks that work! Thanks for your comment and good luck with your high school students! :)

    Kasey

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  5. I am happy when reading your blog with updated information! thanks alot and hope that you will post more site that are related to this site.

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  6. Thank you! I have been a reading teacher for years and am now a language arts teacher teaching reading, writing, grammar (Everything!). This is something I am struggling with this year. How do I incorporate grammar into my classroom? I have workbooks that the previous teacher purchased, and I haven't touched them once. I hate using workbooks as much as the students. Luckily, my principal is supportive of that, so I have yet to use the grammar workbooks. I'm glad to see that others have also found that worksheets/workbooks don't work.

    I write for an ESL grammar website and have found that sharing these real-world examples of grammar rules with my students has been particularly helpful to them! For example, the other day (in my newspaper class actually), we discussed the differences between "capitol" and "capital." Kind of important to know when you are writing current events newspaper articles! (I had recently written an article about this online.) The students grasped onto the examples right away.

    Thanks for the information and tips! I'm so glad I found your blog and will be returning to read more!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Chelsey,

      I definitely agree with you on the workbooks! I just don't see how drill and kill will get students to apply what they're doing in the workbooks to their writing. I think they get good at doing workbook exercises, haha!

      Using real contexts and pointing out things like "capitol" and "capital" are awesome ways to make students more aware and connect these things to their writing. It would be awesome if teachers in every subject area at the middle school level would do this!

      Thanks so much for reading my blog and look forward to hearing from you again!

      Kasey

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  7. Thank you for a wealth of new ideas. I am a first year teacher; 6, 7, and 8th grade ELA/Writing. I am the only teacher on campus who teaches what I do. I'm finding that ELA is a learning process for students and teachers alike!

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    Replies
    1. Hey Erin,

      You're very welcome. I'm so excited that I can provide some support to teachers in their first couple years of teaching or new to teaching ELA. It would definitely be hard to teach that many grade levels and be the only teacher with no one to collaborate with. It's awesome that you look at it as a constant learning process because that's exactly what it is! You don't have to have all of the answers, just learn and model that learning for your students. Thanks so much for reading my blog! :)

      Kasey

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