Archive for the ‘Grammar/Mechanics’ Category

Assessment-based Re-teaching

Re-teach with Assessment-based Curriculum

There’s Still Time to Re-teach

Sometimes the simplest things stop teachers in their tracks. A number of years ago a conference speaker (can’t remember whom) said,

Good teachers care more about learning than teaching.

I heard more than one audible gulp from the audience and, although mine was silent, it was just as loud for me. It just hit me. I cared more about the quality of what I taught and how I taught it, than what the students needed to learn and if the students learned it. The focus isn’t a distinction without a difference. It’s a game-changer.

I was in the middle of a reading specialist masters degree program, and the conference insight really changed my perspective as an educator.

At the time, I was teaching high school ELA for three periods and two periods of freshman reading intervention classes. I started thinking about my unit tests in both classes and my pride at achieving perfect bell curve scores from these summative assessments. Maybe 20% failing to achieve my objectives and 60% achieving at a below mastery rate of 80% was not as good as I thought.

I decided to experiment (probably to complete a project for one of my masters classes) and I re-taught the unit. Not to the students who had achieved mastery (80% or better); they did independent projects over the next two weeks. I analyzed my test data and found I didn’t need to re-teach everything… just some things. So I re-taught the some things, trying different instructional methodologies and did quick formative assessments to see if they were achieving mastery. That worked… for the mid 60%, but not for the bottom scoring 20%. I pulled this group aside in class and even worked out deals with them (full credit on the test re-take) if they would come in at a few lunches for extra remediation. Finally, that worked… I’d like to say all 80% achieved 80% mastery on the test re-take, but I would be lying. The results were, however, impressive.

I learned that if I really cared more about student learning than my own teaching, I would have to commit to assessment-based re-teaching. Over the years I got more efficient, pre-testing with diagnostic assessments, and using embedded formative assessments as I taught the first time around. However, I will have to admit that I’ve never covered the same amount of Common Core content standards as my colleagues. I don’t feel too bad about that by now.

If you are willing to re-teach what you’ve already taught (and not yet taught) this year, check out my 14 FREE diagnostic ELA and reading assessments with recording matrices. These quick, comprehensive, whole-class tests will give you teachable data to re-teach students what they need.

If they know it, they will show it; if they don’t, they won’t.

Why do I provide these assessments free of charge? First of all, I care about teachers focusing on student learning. Secondly, my Pennington Publishing products just so happen to provide the assessment-based resources to help teachers help their students catch up while they keep up with grade-level standards.

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Grammar in Literacy Centers

Teach Grammar in Literacy Centers

How to Teach Grammar in Literacy Centers

Literacy centers, (also referred to as stations), can serve as the wonderful venues for collaborative discussion of how our culture uses written and spoken language. In other words, our grammar. Now, the way we colloquially use the term grammar in teaching circles is not solely in terms of the function of words and syntax (order) within the context of our culture. Teachers use grammar to refer to sentence structure, parts of speech, parts of a sentence (subjects, objects, predicates, phrases, clauses, etc.), usage (including non-standard forms), capitalization, punctuation, and more. In sum, grammar is a catch-all term for the rules and style of our language. The study of grammar provides teachers and their students with a common language of instruction.

Over the years, as an author of numerous grammar programs and a grammar handbook/style manual, I’ve often been rhetorically questioned along the lines of “Hasn’t research constantly proven that direct instruction of grammar yields no measurable improvement in students’ writing or speaking?”

Depending upon my mood, I usually respond by asking what the questioner means by grammar. The responses vary, but the questioner always moves the discussion to how grammar is taught: a completely separate issue in my view. In my article titled “The Great Grammar Debate,” I summarize the how positions as those favoring a part to whole inductive approach (grammar is taught) and a whole to part deductive approach (grammar is caught).

Even the most ardent critics of teaching grammar deductively agree that oral language acquisition is the greatest contributor to our knowledge of grammar, and even our correct usage. Even the most ardent critics of teaching grammar inductively agree that some knowledge of how our language is put together and used within our culture should inform writing and speaking. Indeed, my view is that grammar should be both caught and taught. I tend to be a both-and teacher.

However, to respond to the how grammar should be taught question, I would argue that the best instructional format for learning and exploring the application of grammar in the context of writing, speaking, and reading is in literacy centers. In literacy centers, students use language to learn language. In a didactic approach to grammar instruction, such as Daily Oral Language, students don’t have the social context to provide immediate feedback to learning, ask questions, or discuss.


If learning about adverbs, students will need to know their definition, be able to identify adverbs, apply adverbs properly in writing and speaking, and analyze the author’s use of adverbs in the assigned reading. Notice that the first two tasks follow the inductive approach to grammar acquisition, while the last two tasks follow the deductive approach.

A literacy center grammar lesson could include the following:

Remember that an adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, or an adverb and answers What degree? How? Where? or When? Any part of speech can serve as an adverb. Let’s identify these four types of adverbs and categorize them from this short reading selection.

Did you know that we always almost use adverbs in a certain adverb order? Sounds funny, doesn’t it? This sounds better: Did you know that we almost always use adverbs in a certain adverb order? The adverb, almost, is a What Degree? adverb; the adverb, always, is a When? adverb. When we write or say a sentence with multiple adverbs, we tend to use them in this order: What degree? How? Where? or When?

Let’s practice together revising these sentences according to the What degree? How? Where? or When? adverb order. Check out the writer’s use of multiple adverbs in this article. Help each other circle the adverbs. Discussion: When does she follow the rule and when does she break the rule regarding adverb order? Why did she choose to break the rule?

The next lesson could involve adverb order in terms of placing shorter adverbial phrases in front of longer ones. Example: We ran more slowly, yet more purposefully.

The following lesson could involve adverb order in terms of placing specific adverbs before general ones. Example: We ran to the corner, then everywhere.

See how the collaborative nature of literacy centers is an effective means of learning and applying grammar? Want to try this approach to grammar instruction?

The author’s Academic Language Conventions Literacy Center provides 56 Common Core-aligned grammar and mechanics lessons designed for literacy centers. Plus, the author has a separate remedial grammar, usage, and mechanics literacy center to help your students catch up while they keep up with grade-level instruction. Check out these programs HERE.

But wait. I’m so confident that teachers will recognize the quality of design and content when they see these grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 grammar centers that I’m offering the entire first month-long unit of the Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLE (all six centers) free of charge for you to test-drive. If you love them all (you just might), buy the full-year Academic Literacy Center BUNDLE or mix and match by buying the full-year individual centers. I’ve also attached an extensive preview of the Remedial Literacy Centers at the end of the unit for you to check out. Note: Please don’t post this free unit online or share with other teachers.

The individual centers and BUNDLES are available for sale on my Teachers Pay Teachers store and on (use discount code 3716 for 10% off at check-out).

Here’s what you will get in this free, one-month six-center Academic Literacy Center BUNDLE unit (255 pages plus the Remedial Literacy Center preview) sent as a download via email:

Academic Literacy Centers FREE Unit

Reading: Eight leveled expository reading fluency articles with word counts and timing chart. Eight corresponding comprehension worksheets with vocabulary in context. (The only components I can’t give you for this free sample are the modeled YouTube readings at three different reading speeds. You get access to these 129 readings with the paid version of the individual center or the BUNDLE.)

Writing: Eight sentence revisions lessons, which include revising sentence structure, grammar application, and writing style and eight literary response activities, which include literary quotation mentor texts and writer response tasks with different rhetorical stance (voice, audience, purpose, and form)

Language Conventions: Eight grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons including online links for both grammar and mechanics content and/or skills

Vocabulary: Eight vocabulary worksheets including multiple meaning words and context clues; Greek and Latin word parts; dictionary and thesaurus practice; figures of speech; word relationships; connotations; and grade-level Academic language words in the Frayer four-square model

Spelling and Syllabication: Four spelling sorts based upon grade-level conventional spelling rules and four syllable worksheets

Study Skills: Eight self-assessment, study skills, reflection lessons: How to Get Motivated, How to Prevent Procrastination, How to Set Goals, How to Develop a Positive Mental Attitude, How to Create a Home Study Environment, How to Get Organized for Homework, How to Complete a Daily Review, How to Manage Time for Homework

Prefer to see the extensive previews of each books before you download? Click HERE.

Prefer to watch the video overview before you download? Click HERE.

Check out Pennington Publishing articles on using literacy centers HERE.

You and your students will love these centers! Pick your grade level and get started with your month-long test-drive. You will love these six-center BUNDLES!

Get the FREE UNIT: Grade 4 Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLE FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Multiple Meaning Words Vocabulary

Multiple Meaning Words

How to Teach Multiple Meaning Words

From an old vaudeville act:

“You drove me to drink!” her husband shouted.

“No, you walked there yourself every night,” his wife responded.

This mildly humorous exchange is built upon word play. Word play is a basic tool for many writing and speaking genre. The word play in the short vaudevillian dialog involves the double-meaning of the verb, drove. It also involves different uses of the parts of speech: The husband uses to drink as an infinitive (an unconjugated verb). The wife interprets her husband’s word, drink, as a common noun place (say a bar) and the object of the prepositional phrase to drink (where). Finally, the husband uses the verb phrase, drove me toas an idiom, meaning forced me or caused me, whereas the wife uses drove me as a colloquialism meaning he used the car to drive (no one drives a person).

Enough already! English-language arts teachers certainly can take the fun out of anything. My point is that multiple meaning words are important components of any language. English has plenty of them.

The Common Core authors include multiple meaning words in the Language Strand as Standard L.4.a., but word play is also included in word relationships Standard L.5.b. and figures of speech Standard L.5.a. By the way, I love the fact that the Standards include puns (my boldface):

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
Interpret figures of speech (e.g. verbal irony, puns) in context.

See how multiple meaning words fit into the breadth of the Common Core Vocabulary Standards in the Language Strand:

  • Multiple Meaning Words and Context Clues (L.4.a.)
  • Greek and Latin Word Parts (L.4.a.)
  • Language Resources (L.4.c.d.)
  • Figures of Speech (L.5.a.)
  • Word Relationships (L.5.b.)
  • Connotations (L.5.c.)
  • Academic Language Words (L.6.0)

What is the instructional focus of multiple meaning words?

Our instructional focus with multiple meaning words is centered on homonyms. A brief reminder: Homonyms represents a general category, literally meaning same names, that is used to indicate similar words which have different meanings. Homographs (words spelled the same, but pronounced differently, such as bass (a deep tone or voice) and bass (a type of fish), and homophones (words pronounced the same but spelled differently, such as reed and read) are subsets of homonyms. So, yes, bass, reed, and read are all examples of homonyms.

How do context clues fit in… the Standard does not mention these.

True, however words are always used in context. Without context clues, we wouldn’t understand homonyms. For example, saying “I like a lot of bass” is meaningless unless we surround the homograph with context clues, such as “I like a lot of bass on my speakers” or “I like a lot of bass, but not a lot of trout.”

As an aside, the Common Core Standards are quite explicit in some sections as exemplars for instruction; however, they are not a detailed instructional scope and sequence (see below for a helpful example). The Common Core authors expect teachers to use their brains to fill in the blanks. As an educational author, I always list applicable Standards; however, I also include a good measure of common sense. For example, the Language Strand Language Conventions Standards (L.2) include plenty of specific Standards regarding the use of different verb forms; however, the Standards nowhere mention “Thou shalt teach thine students what a verb is.”

Which Multiple Meaning Words to Use and How to Team Them

Students should practice grade-level homonyms (same spelling homographs and sound homophones) in context clue sentences which show the different meanings and function (part of speech) for each word.


In my three vocabulary programs (see below), I use vocabulary worksheets to help students learn grade-level multiple meaning words and context clue strategies to explain their use. Check out my S.A.L.E. Context Clue Strategies with free lessons HERE.


Multiple Meaning Words

The author provides three CCSS standards-based vocabulary program options for grades 4-8 teachers. Each includes 56 grade-level vocabulary worksheets, study cards, and biweekly unit tests. Answers provided, of course. Available on both Teachers pay Teachers and Pennington Publishing. Enter discount code 3716 on the latter to receive a 10% discount on all purchases. Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits | Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary BUNDLES.

Interested in convincing your colleagues to purchase multiple standards-based grade-level vocabulary programs with a coherent instructional scope and sequence? Print off this comprehensive grades 4-8 Vocabulary Scope and Sequence to plan your instruction: CCSS L.4,5,6 Grades 4-8 Vocabulary Scope and Sequence

Check out the following sample lessons (also available on the links above in the book previews). Each grade-level resource (available in all three programs) includes four vocabulary worksheets, plus the corresponding vocabulary study guide and unit test.

Get the Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

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Grammar | Teaching in the Social Context

Language Conventions Literacy Centers

Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers

If we consider the traditional four communicative contexts of English-language arts (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and add on a fifth, the visual context, thanks to the interesting research of Kress and van Leeuwen, we find that language never takes place in isolation. Even when my wife talks to herself, she does have an audience (and I’m rarely included).

A few examples (with good instructional links and the related Common Core Standards) will remind us of how we teach the language interactively:

We teach students to actively listen to a speaker by asking relevant questions.

“Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.”

We teach students to speak to their audience, using specific techniques to interest our listeners.

“Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience in an organized manner, using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.”

We teach students to engage their audience in writing assignments.

Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.

We teach students to maintain a dialog with the author when reading.

Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.

We teach students to analyze media and consider the choices in terms of content, editing, and production made by, say, a filmmaker, videographer, or graphic artist.

Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium’s portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).

So, why are teachers so reticent to abandon teaching grammar in isolation?

Now, most of you are thinking that I’m referring to teaching grammar in isolation via drill and kill worksheets, divorced from listening, speaking, writing, and reading. I’m not. As an aside, while I certainly try to apply my grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction to the instructional subject, I (like all teachers I work with at my school) find that some grammatical instruction is most efficiently accomplished in isolation. For example, when I teach sentence variety through modeled grammatical sentence openers in the context of revising process paper drafts, I always find that some re-teaching is necessary for some students. If half of my students still don’t know the definition of an adverb, its function, proper adverbial order, and some examples, they won’t be able to use a few of my grammatical sentence openers revisions to improve their process papers.  I see no reason not to bust out a down and dirty adverbs worksheet for those seventh grade students who need it.

What I mean by teaching grammar in isolation is didactic direct instruction (teacher talks to the class) or individual students complete a grammar worksheet and turn it in to the teacher to grade instruction.

Instead of those types of isolated learning experiences, I contend that grammar is best learned, interactively, in a social context.

Not to get to hung up on definitions, but let’s cite one:

“A grammar is the rules and constraints on what can be represented. A grammar is a social resource of a particular group” (Kress and van Leeuwen).

If grammar provides the tools (“the rules and constraints”) for communication, it makes sense that these tools would best be defined, identified, practiced, and applied in the context of collaborative communication (the “social resource of a particular group”). The classroom teacher certainly provides one important source of communication, but students themselves are often an untapped source of learning. Students can learn grammar from each other.

Academic Literacy Centers for Grammar and Mechanics

Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers

Literacy centers provide an ideal social context for cooperative learning about grammar: parts of speech, syntax and sentence structure, standard and non-standard usage, word choice, dialect, punctuation, capitalization, etc. Now, of course your students need the right tools. We can’t have the blind leading the blind.

How about a few interactive grammar lessons to test-drive with your students in a cooperative group or literacy center? Your download includes four grammar and mechanics lessons, the unit test (with answers), directions, and literacy center leadership roles.

Get the Four Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center Lessons and Test FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Interactive Grammar

If I’m going to entice you to read this article by offering some how-to’s and free resources to teach grammar interactively, we had best get on the same page about what we both mean by grammar.

I like to think of grammar as a community’s language tools.

The tools of grammar are usually known as language conventions. A convention means “a general agreement about basic principles or procedures; also : a principle or procedure accepted as true or correct by convention the conventions of grammar” (Merriam-Webster). The Common Core authors use “Conventions of Language” for the first two Language Strand Standards:

L.1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

L.2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Two other points will keep us on that same page:

  1. Teachers usually separate usage from grammar as in standard and non-standard usage, or word choice, or figures of speech, etc.
  2. Teachers usually separate mechanics from grammar and usage. By mechanics, teachers mean punctuation and capitalization. Some would also throw in spelling under this category.

Since our language conventions tools are always applied in a social context, it makes sense to teach and learn grammar how we use grammar: in the social context. Specifically, I find literacy centers to be ideal collaborative settings in which students will actually use their language skills to learn what the tool is and its purpose, be able to identify it, know how to use it, and use it a bit to see its value and, hopefully, remember it.

Academic Literacy Centers for Grammar and Mechanics

Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers

For grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, I’ve developed twice-per-week, twenty-minute Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers to teach the Common Core language conventions standards

Instructional Format for Interactive Learning: The How To’s

The Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center provides 56 lessons. Grades 4–8 alignment documents follow the lessons. Each Language Conventions lesson consists of four pages and takes 20 minutes to complete. Students work collaboratively to learn two tools per twenty-minute lesson: a mechanics skill and a grammar or usage concept, rule, or skill.

The first page is in Cornell Notes format and provides the content and skills in the Mechanics Notes and Grammar and Usage Notes sections. The Links and Response sections provide online resources for additional grade-level practice. Space is provided in this section for students to list key ideas, comment, make connections, and write questions. Additional space is provided at the bottom of the lesson for students to summarize the key mechanics and grammar content or skills.

The second page duplicates the lesson text of the first page, but adds examples for the students to copy in the spaces provided on the first page. The Links and Resources sections provide online resources for extended learning (acceleration) and additional practice (remediation).

The third page provides students with practice for both the mechanics and grammar content and skills. Students individually apply the lessons with identification, error analysis, sentence revisions, and sentence combining in the writing context.

The fourth page consists of the practice answers. Students self-correct as a group to learn from their mistakes.

The program provides biweekly unit tests in which students must define, identify, and apply the tools they have learned. Students use their lessons on the test. Teachers may elect to have students take the test individually or as a group.

The FREE Resources

How about a few interactive grammar lessons to test-drive with your students? Your download includes four grammar and mechanics lessons, the unit test (with answers), directions, and literacy center leadership roles.

Get the Four Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center Lessons and Test FREE Resource:

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W Vowels and Y, L, H, M, R, and N While We’re At It

The W is a Vowel Sometimes

Save the W!

Save the w! (As a vowel, that is)

Wow, it’s rare for me to disagree with Grammar Girl… As a reading specialist, we love rules. If a word doesn’t fit, we figure a way to make it do so:) My speech therapist colleagues will back me up on this generalization.
In a related article, Grammar Girl reminds us that a vowel is a sound, not a letter. Nicely done! We form these sounds into two ways. 1. Some vowel sounds are made with the mouth in one position and with one sound. These vowel sounds are called monophthongs. Examples: got, go, know 2. Other vowel sounds start with the mouth in one formation as one vowel sound and slide into another formation as two vowel sounds. These vowel sounds are called diphthongs. Examples: coin, joy, out, and cow.
Grammar Girl states that “you could argue that W does indeed represent a vowel.” She cites the diphthong /ow/ as her example. But then she continues, “maybe to you the word ‘cow’ sounds like it ends with the consonant ‘wuh’ instead of the vowel ‘oo.’” Just as with the diphthong ‘oy,’ phoneticians disagree.”
Yikes! Houston, we’ve got a problem. In fact, we have a few. To be picky, it’s not the consonant, “wuh.” All consonants have clipped sounds. When we teach students, we blend /w/ /e/ /s/ /t/ (four sounds), not “wuh” est. Also, the vowel “oo” does not have the /ow/ sound, it has the /oo/ as in rooster or /oo/ as in foot sound.
Now the to meat of the matter regarding the w vowel sound. Okay, vegetables for my vegan friends.
To say that “…phoneticians disagree that the w is not a vowel, but may indeed be a consonant” is news to me. If so, these phoneticians are certainly making exceptions to our cherished rules. In fact, they have now added a new sound-spelling for the /ow/ sound: the _o or o_ as in /c/ /o/ /w/. They also have violated our CVC syllable rule, because their new /o/ is certainly not a short vowel sound.
Furthermore, Grammar Girls offers this solution to the problem of identifying a w as a vowel at the end of the diphthong: “So my recommendation is just to say that the combination O-W represents the diphthong “ow,” and stop there, just like we did for the O-Y and the diphthong ‘oy.’”
This solution seems an “easy out” to the argument as to whether or not the w can serve as a vowel, but in the real world of teaching students to read, this solution is counterproductive.
Somehow, Grammar Girl took us back to letters, not sounds, for vowels. Grammar Girl recommends saying, “The O-W represents the dipthong ‘ow’ …the O-Y… the diphthong ‘oy.'” No. We’ve already established that vowels are sounds and that the diphthong /ow/ has two distinct sounds. It really does matter that the w is a vowel.
Practically speaking, beginning readers, remedial readers, students with auditory processing challenges, and ESL, EL, and ELD students need to learn not only the a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y monophthongs, but also the diphthongs as well. Again, a vowel sound may actually have two sounds and students have to practice their mouth formations, sounds, and the sound-spelling options.
When students read cow, we want to hear three separate sounds: one consonant /c/ and two vowel sounds distinctly pronounced as /ow/. Without all the mumbo-jumbo, we teach students that cow has two vowel sounds spelled as a vowel team.
Now that we’ve saved the w as a vowel sound, let’s stir stir up the pot a bit more. Other letters (in addition to our cherished w) may also serve as vowels. Examples: h and y as in rhy/thm, l as in bu/gle, r as in mur/der, ar/mor, mir/ror, m as in bottom, and n as in mutton.
Linda Farrell has a nice article on the difference between digraphs and diphthongs with plenty of examples HERE.

I’m Mark Pennington, author of the Teaching Reading Strategies intervention program and the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books.

Get the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books, Diagnostic Assessments, and Running Records FREE Resource:

Guided Reading Phonics Books Literacy Center

Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies





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The Serial (Oxford) Comma | For the Want of a Nail

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For the want of a horse the rider was lost,

For the want of a rider the battle was lost,

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

–Benjamin Franklin

Okay, let’s keep things in perspective, shall we? Comma rules are not the most important components of human communication, right? However, the simple comma does impact the specific meaning of a sentence, as well as how the sentence is interpreted.

For the want of a comma…

Comma Rules

22 Comma Rules

–A man’s civil rights were lost. The Louisiana Supreme ruled that accused and self-confessed rapist, Warren Demesme, was not asserting his right to counsel when he stated, “This is how I feel, if y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog ’cause this is not what’s up.”

The Orleans Parish district attorneys argued that the lack of the comma between “lawyer” and “dog” meant that the accused was asking for a “lawyer dog,” not a “lawyer, dawg.” Now, no one would defend the self-confessed actions of the accused, but Americans do uphold the Constitutional right of the accused to an attorney and the right “to remain silent.” The comma (or lack thereof) certainly has significance in this case.

For the want of a comma…

–Your grandfather was cannibalized. “Let’s eat Grandpa.” The comma (or lack thereof) would certainly matter to your grandfather.

Now to be clear, the above examples are issues of commas placed before nouns of direct address. No one argues that this comma rule is superfluous. However, Americans are divided in their views on the serial comma rule (also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma rule). For a refresher, the serial comma is a comma placed before the coordinating conjunctions and or or when listing three or more items. The use, misuse, or non-use of the serial comma has its own consequences:

For the want of a serial comma…

–$10,000,000 was lost in a Maine court judgment. In a class action lawsuit against a dairy company regarding overtime pay for its truck drivers, the workers prevailed because the state laws on overtime regulations did not include a serial comma. (See Daniel Victor’s March 16, 2017 article in the Washington Post for the details.)

In sum, punctuation, including the serial comma, does affect meaning. 

To include or not include the serial comma…

Now, I’m sure that most of you already have made up your minds regarding whether we should or should not use the serial comma. Those who don’t care have stopped reading by now or never looked at this article.

My take is that your views have been chiefly influenced by one or both of two factors: 1. What you read 2. Your most influential English teacher

  1. If you read online news, blogs, posts, texts, and emails as your primary daily reading, you are exposed to a high percentage of text without the serial comma. If you read novels or technical materials, manuals, and reports as your primary daily reading, you are exposed to a high percentage of text with the serial comma. English teachers used to characterize these distinctions as informal and formal reading, but these lines have become blurred in the digital age.
  2. We tend to dig in and defend what we have been taught. Our English teachers taught us one way and marked us wrong if we used the other way. As an English teacher at the middle school, high school, and college levels and author of numerous grammar books and a writing style manual, I’ll let you in on a little secret: We English teachers don’t know the comma rules better than the average educated American. We never had a graduate level class on writing mechanics. 

My take? I value the use of the serial comma for three reasons: clarity, consistency, and conformity. However, its usage should be dictated by the writing genre.

How to Use Serial Commas

Serial Commas


Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford, 2009) nicely clarifies the issue of clarity with or without the serial comma:

“Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities whereas including it never will” (Garner 676).

A few specific examples demonstrate why the serial comma provides clarity and avoids ambiguity.

The serial comma permits the use of compound subjects or objects in lists. (Remember, compound means two or more.)

Example without the Serial Comma: For lunch I enjoy hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly and fish. In this example, “peanut butter and jelly” is a compound object. A serial comma following would add clarity and prevent a truly gross sandwich.

Additionally, I’m not comma crazy, but I would also use a comma when listing only two items in a list if the and or or coordinating conjunction joins a compound subject or object. Example without the Serial Comma: On our summer trip to Britain, we want to visit the Fox and Hound and Stratford upon Avon. Most would agree that a comma following “Hound” would clear things up quite a bit for the reader.

Failing to use the serial comma can produce problems with appositives. Remember that an appositive identifies, describes, defines, or explains what comes before or after a part of speech (usually a noun or a pronoun). Most of the funny examples that you see posted to argue in favor of the serial comma involve confusing appositives.

Example without the Serial Comma: I just finished mailing letters to my children, Santa Claus and Jimmy Fallon; At the banquet we dined with good old friends, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; At the Halloween party I danced with Mrs. Peabody’s two ex-husbands, Wonder Woman and Cleopatra.

Notice that in the above examples, appositives become confusing when the first item listed in a series is a common noun (an uncapitalized idea, person, place, or thing), followed by two or more proper nouns (a capitalized person, place, or thing).

Now, articles which purport to be objective regarding the serial comma usually trot out confusing appositives to argue why serial commas can be just as ambiguous as the lack thereof.

Example with the Serial Comma: We ate dinner with Kim Kardashian, the reality television star, and the delightful Taylor Swift.

Those using this sentence example (serial killers? No, too harsh) suggest that three women may be inferred here. However, their argument sets up a straw dog to prove their point. The sentence is not an example of an ambiguous serial comma at all; it is a mistake in syntax (the order of words in a sentence). A good English teacher would suggest either of these two revisions: 1. We ate dinner with Kim Kardashian (the reality television star) and the delightful Taylor Swift. 2. We ate dinner with Kim Kardashian, who is a reality television star, and the delightful Taylor Swift. The first sentence uses a parenthetical insertion and the second uses a non-restrictive relative clause.


In addition to providing clarity, the serial comma rule is also consistent with other Standard American English punctuation. Specifically, the serial comma rule is consistent with other punctuation rules regarding the separation of items in a list.

For example, semicolons may be used to separate long phrases or clauses in a list. No anti-serial comma journalist would ever abandon the last semicolon in the following list:

Semicolon Example: The Martin landed on Earth; the Venetian attempted to communicate; and the Air Force Captain asserted her belief that extraterrestrials did, indeed, exist.

Moreover, the use of the serial comma appeals to our sense of parallelism. Parallel ideas, grammatical structures, and punctuation are characteristics of consistent, predictable, memorable, reader-friendly writing. As Mary Norris, writing in The New Yorker, states, “If a sentence were a picket fence, the serial commas would be posts at regular intervals.”

Example: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Lincoln’s example shows the impact of parallel ideas, grammatical structures, and punctuation. Without the serial comma in the sentence above, the cadence of the writing and speech would be altered and inconsistent with the other parallel forms in The Gettysburg Address.

Those proposing the elimination of the serial comma always seem to add the following caveat to their position: Drop the serial comma unless its elimination would be confusing to the reader. Inconsistency is built into their rule; such is not the case for the serial comma rule. Such is the stated position of the only major style guide which supports the elimination of the serial comma.


Only the Associated Press (AP) stylebook supports dropping the serial comma “unless deemed absolutely necessary.” Admittedly, the AP position has wielded tremendous influence. Following AP style, newspapers uniformly omit the serial comma. Both prestigious papers, such as The New York Times and tabloids, such as The National Enquirer, avoid the comma. Some magazines, such as People and Variety, do so as well. Furthermore, the lack of the serial comma is also firmly entrenched in digital media, largely due to the AP influence. Because of the pervasiveness of such digital news, the serial comma’s days may be numbered.

However, the use of the serial comma is supported in the overwhelming majority of academic style guides: Chicago, Turabian, Modern Language Association, American Psychological Association, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the U.S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual 8.27, 8.28. Also, contrary to much of what you may have heard, the serial comma has not been abandoned in all periodicals. For example,  The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Magazine adhere to its usage.

Additionally, the respected Online Writing Lab of Purdue University (a favorite go-to guide for teachers and students) supports the serial comma rule.

Clearly we have a divergence of authoritative opinion and common usage regarding the serial comma. Despite the clear advantages of the serial comma in terms of clarity and consistency, conformity to the dictates of the writing genre (and the editor or teacher’s demands) makes the most practical sense. I’ll close with a few pragmatic applications:

  1. When writing a newspaper article, omit the serial comma.
  2. When writing an article for a blog or magazine, ask the editor whether or not to use the serial comma. Conform to whomever is paying the bills.
  3. When writing informally on the web, in letters, cards, emails, texts, posts,flyers, bulletins, etc., pick your poison, but be consistent as possible. Try not to judge others’ usage too harshly in this transitional “no-man’s land.”
  4. When writing reports, essays, narratives, novels, and documents, use the serial comma.
  5. Teachers should teach the serial comma and expect its usage in formal academic writing. However, the discussion of its use in different writing genre and in the evolution of our language is also productive. Using the serial comma to explain the purpose of punctuation and how it affects meaning is valuable.

I’m Mark Pennington, English-language arts teacher and reading specialist. More to the point, I am the author of the comprehensive grades 4–high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics programs and the Pennington Manual of Style, a useful reference and teaching tool. Click HERE for a complete list of the 22 comma rules with clear examples.

The Pennington Manual of Style

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

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Literacy Center Resources Grades 4-8

Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLES

Academic Literacy Centers Grades 4-8 BUNDLES

Upper elementary and middle school literacy centers are qualitatively different than primary literacy centers. Recognizing this fact can mean the difference between

Using Remedial Literacy Centers

Remedial Literacy Centers

success and failure of your literacy centers. Since literacy centers have long been the staples of self-contained primary classrooms, much of the available curriculum, articles, videos, and pins focuses on what works for a cute group of teacher-pleasing, eager-to-learn, well-behaved second graders. Those are not your kids, right? If you are a grades 4-8 teacher and you are interested in starting, adding to, or revising literacy centers in your classroom, this growing list of articles and resources is just for you.

Following are articles, free resources, and teaching tips regarding why to use and how to set up literacy centers from the Pennington Publishing Blog. Also, check out the quality instructional programs and resources offered by Pennington Publishing.

Literacy Center Rotations

Following are rotation limitations, rotation options, and rotation transitions to make your literacy center planning easier. Of course, these are not the only options, but others can certainly be modified from the ones I will provide. Plus, clink on each link to find colorful visuals for each rotation option.

How to Start Literacy Centers | Upper Elementary and Middle School

A quick overview of relevant definitions and research regarding literacy centers and  12 solid tips about setting up or revising your grades 4-8 literacy centers to make them achieve your instructional goals.

Literacy Center Teacher Roles  

To provide options and some flexibility to teacher roles during literacy centers, I’ve categorized these roles for the purposes of discussion. Broadly speaking, a teacher may serve as a supervisor, mini-conferencer, or a specific literacy center facilitator. Of course a combination of roles is certainly another option.

Literacy Center Groupings

Check out the advantages and disadvantages of homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings and learn how to form effective groups for literacy centers.

Literacy Center Research: 5 Reasons to Use Literacy Centers

5 Reasons to Use Literacy Centers: 1. Rigor 2. Assessment-based individualized instruction 3. Function over fun or cute 4. Coaching 5. Independence

10 Reasons Not to Use Literacy Centers

I do love literacy centers, but not the ill-conceived and poorly implemented literacy centers I see in so many elementary and middle school classrooms. Check out the legitimate reasons not to use literacy centers and some possible work-a-rounds to solve these problems.

Academic Literacy Centers

I’m Mark Pennington, the author of Academic Literacy Centers, a decidedly different approach to grades 4-8 literacy centers. Academic Literacy Centers are designed to teach the grade-level 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Common Core English Language Arts and Reading Standards with these six rigorous and well-planned 20-minute centers for grades : 1. Reading fluency and comprehension (includes YouTube modeled readings 2. Writing sentence revisions and literary response 3. Language Conventions grammar and mechanics lessons 4. Vocabulary 5. Spelling and syllabication 6. Study skills. This user-friendly program bundle includes lessons and activities designed for independent, collaborative centers with minimal prep and correction. Plus, biweekly unit tests and all literacy center signs and rotation options are provided.

Remedial |Differentiated Literacy Centers

Many teachers begin using literacy centers (stations) to give their students something meaningful to do while the teacher leads a guided reading group. For most teachers, their only differentiated or individualized instruction takes place in the guided reading group. While an excellent start to differentiating or individualizing instruction, reading isn’t the only subject area in which your students have a range of abilities and deficits.

While differentiated or individualized instruction is certainly a worthy goal, how that goal is accomplished does matter. My take is that a mixture of homogeneous ability-level groups and heterogeneous mixed-level groups makes the most sense, rather than the multiple-level lessons and activities in each literacy center approach. Check out Remedial Literacy Centers. Designed for grades 4-8 students with below grade-level literacy skills, these four literacy centers work nicely with my own grade-level Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLE or mix and match with your own. Get all the signs, answers, lessons, task cards, posters, rotation charts, and diagnostic assessments… everything you need to properly place students and run effective 20-minute remedial centers. Differentiate and individualize instruction with our assessment-based Phonics Literacy Center, Remedial Grammar and Mechanics Literacy Center, Remedial Spelling Literacy Center, and Guided Reading Literacy Center with 54 illustrated take-home phonics books, designed for older readers.

How to Teach Grammar in Literacy Centers

Literacy centers, (also referred to as stations), can serve as the wonderful venues for collaborative discussion of how our culture uses written and spoken language. In other words, our grammar. The Grammar Literacy Center for grades 4-8 is one of six Academic Literacy Centers. Pick your grade level and get started with a FREE month-long test-drive. You will love these six-center reading, writing, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and study skills BUNDLES!

How to Teach Writing in Literacy Centers

Literacy centers, (also referred to as stations), can serve as the perfect instructional setting for writing instruction. Writing is a social process and a dialogue between writer and audience. The Writing Literacy Center for grades 4-8 is one of six Academic Literacy Centers. Pick your grade level and get started with a FREE month-long test-drive. You will love these six-center reading, writing, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and study skills BUNDLES!

How to Teach Reading in Literacy Centers

Literacy centers, (also referred to as stations), can serve as an ideal instructional setting for Reading fluency and comprehension instruction and practice. Reading is a dialogue between reader and author. The Reading Literacy Center for grades 4-8 is one of six Academic Literacy Centers. Pick your grade level and get started with a FREE month-long test-drive. You will love these six-center reading, writing, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and study skills BUNDLES!

Writing Literacy Centers

Teachers have, understandably, focused on the first three Common Core Writing Standards: 1. The argumentative (essay) 2. The informational/explanatory (essay or report) 3. The narrative (story). Additionally, most teachers are now implementing Writing Standards W.6, 7, 8, and 9 by using technology for short or extended research writing projects.

However, teachers are less familiar with the other three writing standards and few are well-acquainted with the relevant language standard. Teachers usually refer to these standards as writing skills or strategies. Typically, teachers have taught these tools in isolation as writing openers/worksheets or in the writing context as mini-lessons/editing. These skills or strategies are ideally suited to literacy center (station) lessons. Check out these FREE Writing Academic Literacy Center Sample Lessons.

English-Language Arts and Reading Intervention Articles and Resources 

Bookmark and check back often for new articles and free ELA/reading resources from Pennington Publishing.


Pennington Publishing’s mission is to provide the finest in assessment-based ELA and reading intervention resources for grades 4‒high school teachers. Mark Pennington is the author of two Standards-aligned programs: Teaching Essay Strategies and Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)Mark’s comprehensive Teaching Reading Strategies and the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books help struggling readers significantly improve their reading skills in a full-year or half-year intensive reading intervention program. Make sure to check out Pennington Publishing’s free ELA and reading assessments to help you pinpoint grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and reading deficits.

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