Putting "Language" into Language Arts

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SWBAT use correct grammar and conventions in their writing.

Big Idea

How to make language and conventions work in a CCS aligned classroom?

The Dilemma

10 minutes

I have always struggled with exactly how to teach grammar and conventions in my language arts class.  They are very skill based, so it makes sense to directly teach these concepts to students, however, their learning doesn't always transfer over to their writing.  

My dilemma has always been how to make that transfer if the skills are taught in isolation.  I don't know that I have the answer quite yet, but I am constantly experimenting with different techniques and adjusting my practice each year.  

In this lesson, I'll share with you what I have been doing this year.  I'm not sure if it is the best answer, but I think that it is a start!

Identifying Weaknesses

10 minutes

I like to begin with my students' writing.  Once I've read enough paragraphs or essays, I begin to notice trends.  Students seem to make the same mistakes with grammar and conventions over and over again.  

Often, I will use these writing samples as sort of a pretest.  For example, recently I've noticed that my students are using quite a few fragments, run-ons, and comma splices in their writing.  I could read through their work, and identify them.  I could then collect data on how many are being used per paragraph.  This could work, however, just because a run-on wasn't used in a particular writing assignment, doesn't mean it won't show up next time.  

I also like to give a short pretest as formative assessment.  I have access to Write Source and All Write through my district, and occasionally, I can find a worksheet in one of them to use as a pretest.  More often, I'll use those resources as practice, and I'll make up my own pretest.  I try to keep it really simple.  For example, I might use 5-10 sentences and have students identify and correct the problem.  This pretest would give me a better idea than the writing samples of the students' understanding of the concept.  It doesn't really show me if they can apply it, but that will come later!  Hopefully.  :)

Once I have the data, I can move forward.  I do sometimes have students who ace these pretests, and in that case, I will have them go straight to the application phase.  They'll practice writing, and I will monitor their sentences for anything I might have missed.  

I usually share pretest data with my students, and as a district, we are required to display charts of our learning cycles.  I never list student names, but instead I have a chart that would show how many 6th graders have mastered the standard.  In this case I had 1 out of my 87 students who had mastered the standard (scored 90% or above) on the pretest.  Showing the students the results, lets them know that we have work to do!  They also love to see their growth and celebrate their improvement.  



10 minutes

Now that I have collected data, I will begin teaching the concepts to my students.  Typically, I'll teach a "grammar" lesson one day, and then we will spend about 10 minutes practicing the concepts for the following days until I feel the students are ready to use the skill.  These days consist of me modeling the correct usage, the students doing some guided practice with me on whiteboards or a worksheet, and students practicing on their own.  I know there are many different theories about how to teach grammar, but over the years I've come to realize that a little practice before integrating it into writing can really help with misconceptions.   This daily practice usually becomes my bell work.  Students will come into the classroom and grab their language practice as soon as class begins.  

I often pull practice sheets out of my All Write or Write Source kits.  I also have this super old book called Easy Grammar by Wanda C. Phillips that contains straight grammar and convention drills that I have been known to use at times.  

I will start by practicing with the students and eventually lead them to independent practice.  During these practice days, I will monitor their work closely to find any gaps or misconceptions.  


10 minutes

Basically we are doing specific skill practice for 10 minutes each day, and simultaneously, I am sneaking the skill into my writing instruction.  Often one of the language issues ends affecting a trait of writing other than conventions.  For example, these run-ons, fragments, and comma splices are messing with writing fluently, so during this time period, I'll focus in on fluency.  I won't be able to do it everyday, but here and there, I'll teach strategies and design lessons around it.  

With this cycle, I taught students to vary the length in their sentences to increase fluency.  We also spent time on transitions and revising for fluency.  This included changing the beginning of sentences and avoiding repeated words.  Besides the formal lessons, I point out good fluency when I see it in the text we are reading and in student work.  When I assess their writing, besides whatever else I am looking for, I look for fluency.  In this way, they are integrating the skills they've learned into their daily writing.

Finishing the Cycle

10 minutes

Does it work? Well, sometimes! 

I like to give students a post test similar to the pretest at the end of our cycle to collect data and show them growth.  This is always very rewarding for the students.

The real indication of growth, however, occurs when the changes are made in the student's writing.  This can sometimes take more than one cycle of learning.  

Through the use of data and analyzing student work, I can target the students that still struggle, and work with them after the cycle is over.