How Developing Writing Conventions Can Empower Students by Kimberly Fox
In every meeting, with every grade, teachers ask: How do I help my students write with better grammar/spelling/punctuation? They want their students to follow spelling and grammar conventions because they know what I know. That when writers write well, they write with intention and POWER. Power to be read and understood. Whether you are writing about your opinion about the funniest Mercy Watson book you ever read, or you are writing a letter to your local politician, writing well lets readers understand and appreciate the ideas we hope to convey. But editing is hard for kids (and us too, let’s be real!). Fixing spelling and punctuation can often feel to our students as a drag, pure labor, even if we know how impactful they can be. We need to find ways to show students that conventions do matter, and make them feel accessible and even a little fun. Here are my 5 favorite ways to make writing conventions feel purposeful and engaging in our classrooms:
First, to instill in our students the importance of conventions, we need to create space within the structures we already have in our classroom. When I reflect on my own classroom experience, I often saved most of my instruction around editing for the end of a unit, as kids got ready to publish. In retrospect, I missed the opportunity to help my students work through spelling, grammar, punctuation ACROSS the writing process, with lots of little chunks of time to focus on this many, many times throughout a unit. Minilessons to get kids reflecting on their writing and setting goals are great, but just the beginning! We can use ALL the parts of the workshop to remind kids to reread their writing (outloud!) and make adjustments as needed.
Minilessons are great spaces for whole-class instruction focused on one part of rereading and editing. Generally, editing goes better when kids are asked to focus on ONE thing at a time - ending punctuation OR capitalization, spelling with long or short vowel sounds OR adding missing words. So we might choose an area that many of our kids need to focus on, give a quick demonstration or do some guided practice together, then ask kids to look at their writing on their own or with a partner. Kids might work to fix up part of their writing right there on the rug or make a plan for the work they’ll do when they get back to their seats. It’s always a good idea to restate what you just covered when kids get back to their tables to support transfer.
Beyond the minilesson, we can look at the structures of the Writing Workshop to reinforce conventions in lots of little ways. If one idea from this post stays with you, it’s this: Use your mid-workshop interruptions to teach or reinforce the importance of editing. Not just once a unit. Often, at least once a week! You might pause writers to tell them, “Hey writers, I just want to remind you that we know that every sentence ends with punctuation – sometimes a period, an exclamation point, or a question mark. For the next few minutes before we regroup for the share, take a look at your piece and read out loud, making sure you have end punctuation, the end punctuation you want, at the end of each sentence.” It seems simple enough, but consistently reminding kids of this work as well as the time to actually do it helps kids really use their knowledge of conventions!
Across our Workshop, partner work is the backbone of all things editing, from minilessons to mid-workshops, to small groups and beyond. All the writing I do (including this post) is shared with my own writing partner, my sister, who always manages to catch things I miss or helps me clarify my ideas by asking questions or making suggestions. Partners help students read aloud their writing in a way that feels authentic, with an audience right there. Often when reading aloud, they themselves will catch things they want to change! Partner work can be used at kids’ seats, during a minilesson, in a conference, as part of a teacher-led small group, or in the share! As I said before, give partners ONE thing to focus on, let them read their pieces out loud, and then fix things up! Sentence frames can often be helpful as kids learn to give feedback with intention and kindness. You might coach kids to say, “I noticed how you…” or “Now you’re ready to…” As with so much in our classroom, the more kids practice this work, the better kids will at doing this work in their own writing. Kids will be more intentional with the way they speak to each other and their writing will definitely improve!
Small group work allows you as the teacher to highlight specific convention work and allow kids to practice in their own writing with you there to coach as needed. You might bring kids together for the purpose of making their writing more readable with phonics strategies or add capitalization or punctuation. I love to bring kids together and help them move through the steps of editing by choosing one area to focus on first, read and edit, then choose another area. The tool below can be modified with different focus areas. Maybe you are focusing specifically on making sure there are vowels in every syllable or revising punctuation specifically in dialogue. This helps kids get through the expansive process of choosing a goal, rereading with that lens, and fixing up with more step-by-step support from us or their peers. Partners can really help in a small group like this!
Component work beyond the workshop helps kids practice this work all day. Interactive writing is one of my favorite methods because it allows kids to practice conventions together. Perhaps kids come together to write a class How-To about how to pack up at the end of the day. You know kids need specific help with vowel teams, so you plan to write all the rest of the parts of words while kids write only the word parts containing vowel teams. Keeping a phonics tool handy supports kids using this tool in their own writing. Your class could write, “First you hang up your coat on the hook. Be careful that your stuff stays on the hook!” with only the bolded parts written by kids. The goal of this method is to get kids practicing a specific skill, in this case phonics, but could also focus on punctuation, capitalization, or whatever your students need.
Read aloud is also perfect for helping kids see writing conventions in action. While reading, My Papi Has a Motorcycle, you might pause at various points to investigate how Isabel Quintero uses punctuation to share her story. Her writing is filled with bold words, exclamation points, ellipses, dashes, and a variety of punctuation around words written in English and Spanish. Her writing is a wonderful example of how conventions can be used to strengthen a narrative! I would definitely recommend that we take some time to look at our favorite read alouds. Many of these texts we have read again and again to kids over the years offer insights into conventions and can help our students see how these practices work to make writing fun and purposeful.
Teaching kids to write using all they know about conventions is hard work, but it doesn’t have to be boring. It takes many, many opportunities to practice across units and genres and even grades to help kids develop proficiency in skills like punctuation, capitalization, and oh my goodness, phonics. Our goal need not be perfection, but instead, we can instill in our students a sense of power and purpose. Writing using our phonics allows others to read our writing. Punctuation tells readers exactly what voice to use as they move through a piece. Capitalization allows our readers to see how our sentences work and which words are important. We can support our writers in this MASSIVE, lifelong work in little bits across the day every day! With minilessons, mid-workshops, small groups, interactive writing, and read aloud, we can show kids why this work is important and how they can make their own writing as powerful as their ideas.