Teach Grammar Within the Writer's Workshop


Teach Grammar Within the Writer's Workshop

Posted on September 03, 2009

Teach Grammar Within the Writer's Workshop

Attempting to fit grammar and convention mini-lessons into the writing time can prove troublesome for many teachers. In order to ensure they are "getting their grammar in," many resort to a separate time of the day/class period. While this does provide for regular grammar study, it is done in isolation. There is little to no skill transfer for students into their own authentic writing. So, how do you combat this dilemma?

Identify 1-2 convention skills to teach within each writing unit/genre. When planning a writing unit (e.g. expository / animal report; Dear Santa letter / persuasive letter writing; fun time at recess/narrative writing; etc.), first consider what grammar/convention skills are dominant within that type of writing. Remember that conventions is one of the 6 Traits and can be woven within writing mini-lesson instruction. Don't simply teach the grammar skills in the order they appear in the language book or grammar workbook. This only takes the grammar further OUT OF context. Consider a skill or two that students will get a lot of experience with because it's such an integral part of the type of writing you are doing.

For example, in narrative writing, depending on the grade you teach, these may be some conventions to consider:

  • (K-2) Proper noun capitals; End marks that match types of sentences (.!?)
  • (3-5) Punctuating dialogue with quotation marks; Possessives and apostrophes
  • (6-12) Pronoun/noun agreement; Consistent verb tense

In expository writing, the dominant skills often include:

  • (K-2) Commas in a series
  • (3-5) Types of sentences, including simple, compound, and complex
  • (6-12) Prepositional phrases; Dependent clauses

When selecting 1-2 conventions to target in a new writing unit, study your anchor papers and mentor text. Look at the conventions that are used over and over. These should become the convention/grammar skills you point out when teaching the unit.

Teach convention skills in a 3-day mini-lesson series. So now that you've identified which skills to teach when, let's consider how we teach grammar in context. When you're in the middle of a writing unit and ready to introduce a new convention/grammar skill, consider that you can't just reveal the skill, do a couple examples, and then expect that students understand it. There has to be a slow layering of understanding over time, including a gradual release of responsibility. Consider embracing the progression of 1) Notice it & Name it, 2) Try it, and 3) Apply it.

Here is a typical 3-day mini-lesson series on possessives:

Day One: Introduce the skill by first showing students an example or two from a familiar anchor paper or picture book (Notice it). Open up the formal language book/workbook to learn the rule behind the skill and its formal name (Name it). Study some of the examples within the language book. During the students' independent writing time, have them work in pairs or small groups to find additional examples of this skill in action. NOTE: If you can't find an apostrophe used as a possessive, you can't write one on purpose.

Day Two: Review the convention skill from yesterday. Within the language book/workbook, do a couple examples from the text/worksheet as a whole class. However, don't necessarily do the entire worksheet. Get the skill integrated into their own writing. During independent writing time, have students go back to an old piece of writing to find where they used the skill correctly and/or correct where they used it incorrectly and/or insert an example of the skill done right (Try it). Rather than starting a new piece of writing that requires the writer to have a topic, narrow the topic, pre-write the details, start writing, to finally get to some sentences that allow for possessives. . . students just dive right into a previously written writing. They can try the skill immediately on an old, abandoned piece of writing. If they can find and/or fix three possessives in one old piece, then have them do it again in another old piece. They'll get lots of experience with the skill.

NOTE: This Day Two lesson application is about students dabbling and experimenting with the skill in real writing, not trite worksheet pages. Anyone can add an apostrophe to a word on a worksheet page of sentences; all those sentences are set up to need an apostrophe. However, when they write individually, no one writes with that many possessives. Now students have to differentiate between a plural /s/ and a possessive /s/ in their own writing. That's grammar in context! This is what brings about transfer into their real-world writing.

Day Three: Review the skill and its rules and functions for a third time. Today have students look to weave in apostrophes into their own, current writing (Apply it). Now the idea is that students begin to transfer the skill into new first drafts.

Long term application and accountability. For every mini-lesson you teach, 3-5 students will learn the skill. So after three days with the same convention skill (e.g. possessives), you can anticipate about 9-15 students in the class have grasped the skill. However, you may have several who still haven't. You may also have some who can apply the skill when they are thinking about it, but it's not yet a habit.

That said, you need to plan on reviewing the skill throughout the year, as needed. You may also want to hold students accountable for the convention skill in their own everyday writing. This would mean adding it to your editing checklist at this point. Your editing checklists should grow over time. After you introduce skills (notice and name), and give time for students to experiment with them (try and apply), then you add them to your self- and peer-editing checklists.

Final thoughts

As you prepare to teach grammar and conventions this year, consider that there is little to no transfer of skills when students do them on isolated worksheets and workbooks. For there to be a true understanding and application, students need to play with skills within their own writings. This is the notion of teaching grammar in the context of their own writings.