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Teach Conventions in Context

September 24, 2019
Literacy experts agree that grammar and mechanics should be taught in context. And while this concept is not unfamiliar to teachers, the logistics to pulling it off in the everyday classroom might be.

Apply “context”

The words, phrases, and sentences that surround a particular grammar skill are considered its “context.” Whether the focus is on capitalization of proper nouns, punctuating possessives, or indenting new paragraphs, each skill needs to be presented and practiced within authentic sentences.

Rather than just matching definitions and examples or diagramming the parts of a sentence, students need to see the skill’s impact on the message.

I’m so thirsty!
I’m SO thirsty!!!
I’m…sooooooooooooo…thirsty…

These sentences have the same three words, but the decisions made on spelling, capitalization, and punctuation change the implied message for each of them. Remember, writers utilize the rules (i.e., grammar) and tools (i.e., mechanics) of conventions so that the reader gleans the intended message.

Utilize “authentic writing”

Since conventions support the writer’s message, students have to experience them within their own personal writing. This is what the college and career-ready standards mean when they stipulate that students should “use language to convey meaning.”

This means convention instruction cannot be saved for the editing stage of the writing process. Rather, convention conversations have to be part of the initial drafting stage, as they are essential in communicating the intended message. Students must learn the power that grammar and mechanics have in composition.

Adjust assignments

Simple worksheet directions often require students to Circle the 5 adverbs within the sentences below or Edit the sentences for noun-pronoun agreement. It’s important to acknowledge that such tasks have an undeniable advantage–they are easy to assign and quick to assess. In a world of ever-growing demands on the classroom teacher, this kind of efficiency can be priceless.

With one small adjustment, teachers can capture these same perks but with more authentic writing. Rather than using anonymous worksheet sentences, have students return to one of their own previous writings (e.g., journal entry, quick write, first draft, partial piece, etc.).

If the task is to demonstrate five adverbs used accurately, then students first reread their previous draft for overall context. What was the topic and message about? Along the way, they evaluate if they used any adverbs…accidentally. They mark them and count them toward the five required in today’s assignment. (If the adverb was spelled wrong or placed incorrectly within the sentence, then the student fixes it as he marks it.)

Imagining that the student-writer found/fixed three adverbs in the draft, he still has to meet the assignment requirement of five examples. Consequently, he must integrate two additional adverbs honoring the message and intended meaning of the piece. Now the student practices where to put an adverb, which adverb fits the message, and how to write it into the sentence. (Read more about strategies to make room for these revisions and edits.)

By returning to previous writings, you offer students the same immediate application of a worksheet, along with the best-practice approach of teaching grammar in context.

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.

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