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Why D.O.L. Does Not Transfer to Writing

“I greatly prefer D.O.L. over isolated study because it addresses all the issues at once, not just commas or just capitalization or just subject-verb agreement.  Kids have to consider all those, just as they do when they are writing.”

On the surface, this teacher response sounds reasonable and the practice seems authentic. Students do need to multi-task throughout the writing process. However, does the Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) instructional practice lead to transfer in student writing? After all, the chief reason why we teach grammar and mechanics is to improve writing.

The short answer is “No. D.O.L. does not transfer to writing.”

But first, for the uninitiated, here are the basic Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) Procedures:

  1. Teachers write or project two sentences on the board, each with four errors in mechanics and/or grammar. *
  2. Students come up to the board and correct the errors or identify the errors with proofreading marks, one sentence at a time.
  3. The teacher and students discuss the corrections. Some teachers require students to write out the corrected sentences on binder paper or in a composition notebook.

*A variation has the teacher pass out a D.O.L. worksheet with the error-filled sentences to each student. Each student writes the corrections and proofreading marks on the worksheet.

Learning Theories Explain Why D.O.L. Does Not Transfer to Writing

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Psychologists and educational theorists have developed learning theories to explain how new learning and skills are most efficiently mastered and best transfer to other academic activities. Teachers studied many of these in their post-graduate teacher-training coursework. Although many of these learning theories would suggest different pedagogical approaches, each would exclude D.O.L. as a viable instructional approach to teaching grammar and mechanics, if transfer to writing is the indeed the instructional goal. Let’s examine the most influential of these learning theories to explain why D.O.L. does not transfer to writing.

Behaviorism

Behaviorists stress practice and reinforcement of skills in a controlled environment. The conditioner is front and center in this theory. Behaviorism has fostered the direct instruction movement with its carefully crafted lesson design and measurable behavioral objectives. Teachers isolate learning variables and provide extensive guided and independent practice.

In contrast, the instructional design of D.O.L. does not isolate or control learning variables. A D.O.L. lesson may include a serial comma error, a subject-verb error, a usage error, and a quotation marks error. The focus is on review, not instruction.  Practice of the skill is minimal, just one per lesson. No wonder that D.O.L. produces minimal transfer of grammar and mechanics concepts and skills to writing, if the behaviorist theory has merit.

Cognitivism

Cognitivists stress the importance of learning through patterns and not isolated events. The content is front and center in this theory. The learner develops new skills within the context of previously learned patterns and the “rules” which define them. Cognitivism has largely shaped the standards-based movement with its carefully designed instructional scopes and sequences.

In contrast, D.O.L. does not teach from patterns or rules. Each skill is practiced in isolation with little generalization. For example, “Titles of movies are to be underlined (italicized), not placed with quotation marks” is taught on its own without connection to the rule: “Titles of whole things are underlined (italicized).” The D.O.L. approach is somewhat akin to teaching reading by learning isolated sight words (a generally discredited instructional practice), rather than through an explicit, systematic phonics program. No wonder that D.O.L. produces minimal transfer of grammar and mechanics concepts and skills to writing, if the cognitivist theory has merit.

Constructivism

Constructivists view learning as a process in which learners actively construct new ideas or concepts based upon their own prior knowledge or experience. The learner is front and center in this theory. Establishing the relevance of the learning to the individual’s intrinsic needs is emphasized to motivate learning.

In contrast, because D.O.L. is simply oral, error analysis, students do not practice the skills in context of their own writing. D.O.L. provides no personal connection to the student’s own expression of ideas. In essence, teachers using D.O.L. purport to teach writing without writing. No wonder that D.O.L. produces minimal transfer of grammar and mechanics concepts and skills to writing, if the constructivist theory has merit.

Informal Learning

Informal learning theorists, such as Robert Marzano, advocate building upon prior knowledge to help students refine and adjust their understanding of previously developed big ideas or concepts. The big idea or concept is front and center in this theory. New learning is only acquired and mastered in the meaningful context of the old and will frequently challenge the construct and understanding of the big idea or concept.

In contrast, D.O.L. does not build or refine the big idea of how grammar and mechanics affect writing. For example, how comma placement affects meaning, how sentence variety emphasizes words and their meanings and not others, how language derivations affect usage or spelling. No wonder that D.O.L. produces minimal transfer of grammar and mechanics concepts and skills to writing, if the informal learning theory has merit.

Connectivism

Connectivists place high importance on developing meaningful connections between ideas and concepts. Connections to other similar learning and skills are front and center in this theory. Much of the brain-based learning, pioneered by neuroscientific research emphasizes the importance of these analogous connections.

In contrast, D.O.L. does not emphasize these skill connections. For example, “Titles of movies are to be underlined (italicized), not placed within quotation marks” is taught on its own without connection to other similar examples, such as “Titles of television shows are to be underlined (italicized), not placed within quotation marks.” No wonder that D.O.L. produces minimal transfer of grammar and mechanics concepts and skills to writing, if the connectivist theory has merit.

Now, good teachers use discussion to make D.O.L. instruction more useful. Some even have added on a writing component to extend the practice, motivation, and personal connection. But, these band-aides simply hide the wounds inflicted by this instructional practice. Our students deserve better grammar and mechanics instruction that will meaningfully transfer to student writing.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons. (Check out a seventh grade teacher teaching the direct instruction and practice components of these lessons on YouTube.) The complete lessons also include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out PREVIEW THE TEACHER’S GUIDE AND STUDENT WORKBOOK  to see samples of these comprehensive instructional components.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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