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Writer’s Workshop Mini-Conferences

With Writer’s Workshop, teachers typically organize a one-hour workshop so that at least half of the time is devoted to writing, peer conferences, and writer-teacher mini-conferences. Properly managed, the writer-teacher mini-conference can be a key ingredient to the success of developing writers.

Here are some tips to make the most out of Writer’s Workshop Mini-Conferences and some great attachments, links, and free downloads as well. Make sure to pass along this article to one of your favorite colleagues or your department.

Writer-Teacher Mini-Conference Procedures

  • Not every student needs to be seen every day. Use a Status of the Class chart to plan conferences in advance.
  • Walk the room to complete your planned mini-conferences and supervise student behavior. Briefly eavesdrop on any peer conferences as you circulate.
  • Make students responsible for completing the Status of the Class. Students can certainly x-off the box below their names on the Status of the Class chart after they complete their mini-conference. Some teachers use pocket charts labeled with the stages of the writing process (brainstorming, pre-writing, drafting, peer response, revision, editing, publishing) and students are responsible for placing name cards in the pocket that matches the stage where they are working that day.
  • Keep mini-conferences brief. More frequent conferences tend to work better than less frequent conferences, so shorter conference times mean that the teacher will be able to meet with students more often.
  • Establish a focus for your mini-conferences. Traditional Writer’s Workshop devotees favor a student-centered inquiry approach, asking thought-provoking questions such as What are you working on? Can you read me some of what you’ve got? How do you think your writing is going? Can you read me some of what you’ve got? How can I help? These are all fine, but I tend to be more directive, so I announce to the class at the beginning of Writer’s Workshop “I will be focusing my conferences on _________ today, so be prepared to discuss this focus and share a writing sample that reflects this focus in our conference.” The daily focus could be any step of the writing process or any of the 6 Traits of Writing. Often, I tie the focus of the mini-conference into the focus of a recent mini-lesson to get more bang for my teaching and coaching bucks.
  • Establish a system of accountability for your conferences. Let students know that you have high expectations of them. I award participation points for my mini-conferences.
  • Allot some of your mini-conference time each day for students to ask you questions and get your coaching feedback on issues of their own writing. During this time, I sit at my desk and students line up with their writing in hand. Tell your students that only three students can be in line at one time for a student-teacher writing conference. You want students to spend most of their time writing, not waiting in line. Sometimes having writing down the students’ names on the board or a “take a number” system is a good way to manage a conference order and keep the students on-task.
  • Some Writer’s Workshop teachers do not write on student papers; I do. To be efficient (and train students for higher education), I teach students the common editing marks. Download my set of Writing Posters (which include these editing marks), if you wish. I do suggest marking only a few mechanics (punctuation and capitalization) and spelling issues per visit.
  • Verbally explain any content, structure, or grammatical problems. If there are such errors, mark a ain front of the sentence and send the student back to revise.
  • Differentiate instruction. If the focus of your mini-conferences is using speaker tags and quotation marks in dialogue, and a dozen of your students need help, invite the group up to your whiteboard to teach these skills or assign targeted worksheets to be completed individually. Oftentimes, a class mini-lesson will not do the trick for every student, so group or individualized instruction certainly makes sense.
  • Use your school’s computer lab to complete mini-conferences. Computers are ideal for the social context of writing and work well with Writer’s Workshop mini-conferences. Have students submit their online for you and their peers to discuss. Submission options are numerous: Google Docs®, Turnitin®, Moodle Docs®, Viper®, Screencast®, a school network dropbox, or e-mail.
  1. Teachers can respond to their students’ writing during mini-conferences with text, hyperlinks, or audio files by using the comment bubbles feature of Microsoft Word®. For accountability, teachers can require their students to address each comment by using Microsoft Word® “Track Changes.” Students then re-submit revisions and edits for peer and/or teacher review. Just like real professional writers do with their editors!
  2. For those teachers interested in saving time and doing a more thorough job of essay response and grading, check out the The Pennington Manual of StyleThis style manual serves as a wonderful writer’s reference guide with all of the writing tips from the author’s comprehensive essay writing curriculum:  Teaching Essay Strategies. The style manual also includes a download of the 438 writing, grammar, mechanics, and spelling comments teachers use most often in essay response and grading. Placed in the Autocorrects function of Microsoft Word® 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013 (XP, Vista,  Windows 7, 8, and 10), teachers can access each comment with a simple mouse click to insert into online student essays or print/e-mail for paper submissions. Each comment identifies the error or writing issue, defines terms, and gives examples so that student writers are empowered to correct/revise on their own. This approach to essay comments produces significantly more accountability and transfer to subsequent writing. Inserting a comment on the student’s word document like the one in the example is simple. Just type an alphanumeric code, such as M1, and the comment magically appears!

The author of this article provides two curricular writing resources aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Both are appropriate to help teachers differentiate writing instruction for upper elementary, middle school, and high school students.

The first, Teaching Essay Strategies, includes 42 essay strategy worksheets (perfect for mini-lessons) corresponding to the Common Core Writing Standards, the e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 Common Core Standard informative/explanatory and 4 Common Core Standard persuasive), 64 sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

The second, Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs, help students learn the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and 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 the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

 

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Differentiating Instruction in Writer’s Workshop

In Writer’s Workshop, students are provided a structured time to write in the social context of the classroom, with the expertise of their teacher as a “guide on the side.” In most Writer’s Workshops, students select their own writing projects and work at their own pace. Typically, a one-hour workshop would include some of these components: a mini-lesson on a writing skill, a brief “status of the class” check-in and goal-setting time, writing time with peer conferences and/or mini-conferences with the teacher, and time for published work or work in progress to be publically presented to the whole class.

Critics of Writer’s Workshop often complain that Writer’s Workshop can be inefficient and/or a class management nightmare. Some teachers have tried Writer’s Workshop, but have given up because the workshop is interest-based, not standards-based or because it is student-centered, not teacher-centered.

Neither of those criticisms concerns me greatly. However, I do feel that the traditional model of Writer’s Workshop is not as conducive to differentiated instruction as it could be. Tweaking one of the above four components does makes sense to me.

The Mini-Lesson

The traditional approach to the Writer’s Workshop mini-lesson is summarized as follows:

The secret to giving effective mini-lessons is asking yourself this question: “What single problem am I trying to help these writers solve?” The best way to do this is simply to take note of the specific problems your students are having, and to ask them from time to time what they would like help with. You don’t have to turn your whole class over to the students, but from time to time, maybe every few weeks or so, ask your students to give some thought to the difficulties they’ve been having, and what kind of help they want next. Then base your lessons on that information. A good rule of thumb for deciding on when to give a particular lesson is this: if more than a third of your class really needs to know about something in order to make progress, it’s time for a mini-lesson.

from “Welcome to Writer’s Workshop” by Steve Peha

The problem with this approach is that it begs a few questions:

Is there a single problem that all of the writers need to solve? Apparently not, if the “more than a third” criteria is followed. By this standard, the mini-lesson would be given to one-half to one-third of the students from whom the problem is not an issue.

Do the student writers really know “what they would like help with” and “what kind of help they want next”? Isn’t this more like the blind leading the blind? Students truly don’t know what they don’t know.

My suggestion is that mini-lessons should be differentiated according to the needs of all students and that the teacher has the expertise to best determine those needs. But, what data should teachers depend upon to plan differentiated instruction?

Advocates of the traditional approach to Writer’s Workshop favor this implicit approach:

In Writer’s Workshop, teachers don’t test their students on every new concept presented. They don’t have to. If the mini-lessons are delivered in a thoughtful and entertaining way that addresses legitimate student needs, and students are given encouragement and ample writing time to try out the new things they’ve learned, the concepts will begin to show up in their writing, which is exactly where we should be looking for them.

from “Welcome to Writer’s Workshop” by Steve Peha

Several problems arise when teachers rely too heavily on implicit formative writing assessments. First of all, this approach is highly inefficient. It may take many writing samples before a teacher can accurately deduce the discreet writing issues a student writer may have. Secondly, writers use their strengths, not weaknesses, so writing samples may not even present the information that a teacher needs to address relative weaknesses. Thirdly, even with “encouragement and ample writing time to try out the new things they’ve learned” the concepts may not ever show up in a student’s writing, if the student never learned the skill from the mini-lesson. Wouldn’t it make more sense to assess students on the discreet writing skills, design mini-lessons or assign targeted worksheets, then determine whether a particular skill has been mastered or requires re-teaching?

On a personal note, I use Writer’s Workshop three days a week with my seventh-graders. Over time, I learned to adjust my writing instruction to what students were and were not learning. Many mini-lessons turned into multiple-day lessons as I re-taught and struggled to find ways to get my students to learn what seemed so easy for me to teach. I learned the value of quick, informal formative writing assessments. Writer’s Workshop and differentiated instruction need not be mutually exclusive teaching designs.

The author of this article provides two curricular writing resources aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Both are appropriate to help teachers differentiate writing instruction for upper elementary, middle school, and high school students.

The first, Teaching Essay Strategies, includes 42 essay strategy worksheets (perfect for mini-lessons) corresponding to the Common Core Writing Standards, the e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 Common Core Standard informative/explanatory and 4 Common Core Standard persuasive), 64 sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

The second, Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs provide 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and 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 the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

 

 

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Free Resources to Teach the Writing Process and Writer’s Workshop

The Writing Process and Writers Workshop are not simply processes by which students explore and refine their writing on their own. The teacher plays an active role in teaching and modeling the writing strategies that students need to acquire to become coherent writers. Both explicit and implicit instruction have their appropriate roles within writing instruction. Creating  and maintaining an experimental community of writers is no easy task for the writing instructor. However, the pay-offs are certainly worth the effort.

The diverse classroom provides unique challenges for both students and writing instructor. By its very nature, much of writing instruction is differentiated instruction. Classroom management and creation of a workable writing climate are essentials to successful learning.

Following are articles, free resources, and teaching tips regarding how to facilitate the Writing Process and Writers Workshop from the Pennington Publishing Blog. Also, check out the quality instructional programs and resources offered by Pennington Publishing.

How Much and What to Mark on Essays

http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/grammar_mechanics/how-much-and-what-to-mark-on-essays/

Many teachers take pride in red-inking student essays: the more ink the better. Some “grade” essays without comments by using holistic or analytical rubrics, but do not mark papers. For those who still assign writing process essays and/or essay exams and believe that students can and do benefit from comments, the question of How Much and What to Mark on Essays is relevant. Work smarter, not harder, while focusing on efficiency and outcomes.

How to Write Effective Essay Comments

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/how-to-write-effective-essay-comments/

Conscientious teachers know that merely completing a holistic rubric and totaling the score for a grade is not effective essay response or writing assessment. Teachers may choose to grade and/or respond with essay comments after the rough draft and/or after the final draft. Using the types of comments that match the teacher’s instructional objectives is essential. Additionally, keeping in mind the key components of written discourse can balance responses between form and content. Finally, most writing instructors include closing comments to emphasize and summarize their responses. Here’s how to write truly effective essay comments.

Why Using Essay e-C0mments Makes Sense

http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/grammar_mechanics/why-using-essay-e-comments-makes-sense/

Good teachers know that students need detailed, prescriptive, and personal comments on their essays throughout the writing process to make significant improvement. However, the process can be time-consuming and frustrating. Check out a common sense approach to save you grading time and do a better job of writer response.

How to Save Time Grading Essays

http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/grammar_mechanics/how-to-save-time-grading-essays/

Good teachers learn to work smarter not harder. We also learn how to prioritize our time, especially in terms of managing the paper load. Most of us would agree that we need to focus more of our time on planning and teaching, rather than on correcting. Here’s one resource to help you save time grading essays, while doing a better job providing essay response.

The Difference between Facts and Claims

http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/spelling_vocabulary/the-difference-between-claims-and-facts/

This article discusses the important differences between a fact and a claim. Plus, learn how knowing the differences should affect your teaching the argumentative essay.

Using Evidence in Writing

http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/writing/using-evidence-in-writing/

Teaching students to use appropriate evidence in argumentative essays is a difficult task. Students generally understand how to use textual evidence in direct and indirect quotations, but are less adept at creating reasons apart from the text itself. Teach your students the eight types of essay evidence with the memorable FE SCALE CC strategies.

438 Essay e-Comments

http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/grammar_mechanics/438-essay-e-comments/

The Pennington Manual of Style, sold as a separate product and also as part of the comprehensive Teaching Essay Strategies program, enables teachers to download the entire comment bank of 438 Essay e-Comments into the Autocorrect function of Microsoft Word®. Then, teachers type in the assigned alphanumeric code and the entire formatted writing comment appears in a comment bubble where desired on the student’s essay. Teachers can save time, yet do a more thorough job of essay response. It’s simple to add in personalized comments. Here are the 438 Essay e-Comments.

How Much and What to Mark on Essays

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-much-and-what-to-mark-on-essays/

For those who still assign writing process essays and/or essay exams and believe that students can and do benefit from comments, the question of How Much and What to Mark on Essays is relevant. Working smarter, not harder and focusing on efficiency and outcomes over pedagogical purity are worthy mantras for effective writing instruction.

How to Dissect a Writing Prompt

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/how-to-dissect-a-writing-prompt/

Knowing exactly what the writing assignment requires in terms of the audience, role of the writer, topic and its context, purpose of the essay, essay format, resource text, and key writing direction words are all necessary components of this task. Following is a step-by-step procedure for dissecting a writing prompt.

How Many Essay Comments and What Kind

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/how-many-essay-comments-and-what-kind/

So, to summarize how many essay comments and what kind, writing research would suggest the following: Comment on rough drafts, not final drafts. Limit the amount of comments and individualize those to the needs of the student writer. Balance the types of comments between writing errors and issues of style, argument, structure, and evidence. Hold students accountable for each mark or comment. Comments are better than diacritical marks alone. Comments should explain what is wrong or explain the writing issue.

Computer-Scored Essays

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/computer-scored-essays/

Teachers recognize the value of essay compositions as vital tools for learning, self-expression, and assessment. However, essays just take too much time to read, respond to, and evaluate. As a result, computer-scoring of student writing is being actively marketed to K-12 schools and universities. But teacher organizations, such as the NCTE and CCCC adamantly oppose machine-scored writing. Is there a middle ground that uses technological efficiency and maintains teacher judgment?

Writer’s Workshop Mini-Conferences

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/writers-workshop-mini-conferences/

With Writer’s Workshop, teachers typically organize a one-hour workshop so that at least half of the time is devoted to writing, peer conferences, and writer-teacher mini-conferences. Properly managed, the writer-teacher mini-conference can be a key ingredient to the success of developing writers. Here are some tips to make the most out of Writer’s Workshop Mini-Conferences and some great attachments, links, and free downloads as well.

Differentiating Instruction in Writer’s Workshop

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/differentiating-instruction-in-writer%E2%80%99s-workshop/

Critics of Writer’s Workshop often complain that Writer’s Workshop can be inefficient and/or a class management nightmare. Some teachers have tried Writer’s Workshop, but have given up because the workshop is interest-based, not standards-based or because it is student-centered, not teacher-centered. Neither of those criticisms concerns me greatly. However, I do feel that the traditional model of Writer’s Workshop is not as conducive to differentiated instruction as it could be. Specifically, tweaking the mini-lesson will allow teachers to better differentiate instruction within Writer’s Workshop.

Essay Comment Excuses

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/essay-comment-excuses/

Teachers know that detailed essay comments are keys to effective writing instruction but are adept at creating essay comment excuses to avoid the time and energy it takes to do the job. But, how can we do a great job with essay response and still maintain some semblance of a life outside of work? Canned comments. Ones to cut and paste from your computer. But… really good ones.

Analytical Rubrics

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/analytical-rubrics/

Teachers use two types of rubrics to assess student writing: holistic and analytic. Of the two rubrics, the analytical rubric offers both teachers and students much more to work with to improve student writing. Here are five reasons why using analytical rubrics makes sense.

What’s Wrong with Holistic Rubrics?

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/whats-wrong-with-holistic-rubrics/

It’s a relatively easy task to criticize any measure of writing assessment. This is my chore in What’s Wrong with Holistic Rubrics. We should use holistic rubrics for many writing assessments. However, we shouldn’t use holistic rubrics to teach writing. Holistic rubrics are, by design, summative assessments. Summative assessment is limited to evaluation, and evaluation is not instruction.

20 Tips to Teach Writing through Music

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/20-tips-to-teach-writing-through-music/

Students have internalized the structure, syntax, and rules of music far more than that of any writing genre. This prior knowledge is simply too valuable for the writing teacher to ignore. Analyzing the songwriting composition process will enable students to apply the relevant strategies to their own writing of narratives, poetry, essays, and reports (and maybe even songs).

How to Teach a Balanced Writing Program

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-teach-a-balanced-writing-program/

Teachers see more value today in an eclectic approach to teaching writing. We embrace both part-to-whole and whole-to-part instruction. No one wants to throw away explicit grammar, spelling, and writing strategies instruction or the writing process. In a previous article, I have made the case that a balanced writing program makes sense. Learn the six steps to take to develop a balanced and effective writing program.

Using Music to Develop a Productive Writing Climate

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/using-music-to-develop-a-productive-writing-climate/

Using the craft of songwriting as a guide, the writing teacher can develop a productive writing climate. Combining resources, collaboration, and competition with an atmosphere of social networking can improve student motivation, commitment, and end product.

Using Music to Develop a Creative Writing Culture

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/using-music-to-develop-a-creative-writing-culture/

Music, and songwriting in particular, can help teachers develop a creative writing culture. Learning the lessons of musical composition can improve student writing.

Ten Tips for Coaching Basketball and Writing

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/ten-tips-for-coaching-basketball-and-writing/

Learning to apply the coaching techniques of an effective basketball coach will significantly improve your ability as a writing coach for your students. Learn the ten tips to change from “the sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.”

How to Write an Effective Essay Prompt

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/how-to-write-an-effective-essay-prompt/

Writing effective writing prompts that will engage writers and produce the best written responses can be challenging. This article shares the best tips for writing good writing prompts that will allow room for creative interpretation and analysis. The article also defines the common writing direction words that inform and persuade.

How to Teach the Writing Domains (Genres)

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/how-to-teach-the-writing-domains-genres-and-rhetorical-stance/

Teaching the writing domains (genres) and rhetorical stance are two essential lessons for developing young writers.

Process vs. On Demand Writing

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/process-vs-on-demand-writing/

The advent of timed writings on high stakes tests, such as the new SAT 1, high school exit exams, and standards-based writing assessments, has placed teachers in the difficult position of choosing among three instructional approaches to help students learn to write and succeed on these tests: process writing, on demand writing, or a mix of the two. All three approaches share the same challenge: little time is allocated for writing instruction.

Ten Tips to Teach On-Demand Writing

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/ten-tips-to-teach-on-demand-writing/

On-demand writing assessments are here to stay. Teachers do a disservice to their students by not preparing them for the on-demand writing tasks that they will face throughout their academic and vocational careers. Here are ten practical tips to teach timed, on-demand writing to ensure success for your students.

Eight Great Tips for Teaching Writing Fluency

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/writing/eight-great-tips-for-teaching-writing-fluency/

Similar to reading fluency, writing fluency is the ability to write effortlessly without interruption. Writing fluency is developed through concentrated practice; however, some practices are more effective than others. This article shares the best writing fluency strategies.

How to Teach a Write Aloud

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-teach-a-write-aloud/

Research shows that the best writers have learned how to creatively multi-task, problem-solve, and interact with the anticipated reader. This is a skill that can be effectively taught by using the Write Aloud strategy.

Twelve Tips to Teach the Reading-Writing Connection

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/twelve-tips-to-teach-the-reading-writing-connection/

Educators often talk about the reading-writing connection. Teaching reading and writing strategies concurrently allows teachers to “kill two birds with one stone.” The following twelve techniques to teach the reading-writing connection will enhance students’ facility in both disciplines.

More Articles, Free Resources, and Teaching Tips from the Pennington Publishing Blog

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Teaching Essay Strategies is the comprehensive writing curriculum, designed to teach your students how to write coherent multi-paragraph essays. Students progress at their own pace through 42 sequential essay strategy worksheets and  skill lessons (including writing style, parallelism, coherency, unity, and writing evidence) to compose 8 complete essays in the different essay genres. Also get 64 sentence revision (sentence combining and grammatical sentence patterns) and 64 rhetorical stance “opener” lessons, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, remedial writing worksheets, writing posters, holistic and analytical rubrics, graphic organizers, The Pennington Manual of Style with insertable e-comments, and extensive editing resources. No other writing program matches the comprehensive resources of this curriculum. Truly individualize  instruction with the resources found in this large three-ring binder. 359 pages

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Using Music to Develop Authentic Voice

A few years back, I sat down at my kitchen table on an early Saturday morning to begin the arduous process of grading a set of seventh-grade persuasive essays. I had postponed the task for too long and grades were due on Monday. Why did I dread the grading so much?

I knew what to expect. I would see the results of my instruction and significant improvement. I would feel self-validated and be able to give myself a well-earned pat on the back. The essays would sound like miniature versions of me. No doubt my essays would make me look good that week during our department read-around. However, I knew what would be missing in my students’ writing: Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection. No… it was not the fault of the writing prompt. There were several to choose among, and they were intrinsically motivating for my students. There was something else.

As many teachers naturally do, I reflected back to my own successes as a writer. I drifted back to my own junior high experience. Mr. Devlin was an odd teacher with horribly worn black shoes. He was odd, even by English-language arts teacher standards. However, his writing assignment is the only one I’ve saved from my entire K-12 experience.

Mr. Devlin gave us a journal assignment with no rules. No, I’m not advocating this kind of unstructured experience, per se. After all, I’m still assigning those argumentative essays, right? In fact, it was not the assignment that was meaningful at all; it was what I did with it.

My room was my personal sanctuary. I’m dating myself at this point. My room was covered with psychedelic rock-art posters-each painted/printed in luminescent color. Yes, I had a black light. Yes, I had a strobe light. I begged my parents for black-out drapes, but olive-green was their choice. My stereo was bitchin’. I burned incense, even though I hated the smell. It was 1968.

I played the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour albums non-stop. One of the most irritating memories I have is that of my father, a professional musician, saying that the flutes sounded like cheap recorders on Paul’s “The Fool on the Hill.” He said the song was garbage.

I listened-no… I felt the music and I wrote. As I read the journals today, much of the writing is juvenile and prurient—a budding Steinbeck I was not. However, my analysis of lyrics, wanna-be girlfriends, my parents, comments and warnings to Mr. Devlin to hold true to his promise that he wouldn’t read the journals rings true to my age and experience. The journal had what my students’ persuasive essays lacked-an authentic voice. With all of the Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection.

I graded the argumentative essays, and as I expected, most were technically very good. But, I vowed to do things much differently with their next persuasive essay. I was going to Mr. Devlin their writing by allowing my students’ cultures to create their own voices. Music would be the transformative medium. Connecting to student experience with their own music can transform the way they write essays, reports, narratives, poetry, and letters. Music was just as influential, just as pervasive, for my students as it was for me. I knew what I was getting into. I hate their hip hop, new R&B, metal, and rap. It really is garbage.

Music, and songwriting in particular, can help teachers develop a creative writing culture. Learning the lessons of musical composition can improve student writing writing. Read how teachers can develop a productive writing climate by learning a bit about how the music business operates.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

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Using Music to Develop a Productive Writing Climate

In my last article, “Using Music to Develop a Creative Writing Culture,” I suggested that music remains the singularly most influential motivator and reflection of youth culture. Ask students how much they listen to music today. It’s certainly more than they spend reading or writing. And they listen to music while they are on Facebook®. That’s a powerful combination. It seems to me that we can apply a few lessons from how our students combine music and social networking to how we should teach them to write.

As music has always been a social medium, in makes sense to analyze the music business, and songwriting in particular, to see how we might apply some of their lessons to improve student writing.

At the height of the Great Depression in 1931, the recently completed Brill Building at Street in Manhattan opened its doors. The owners were forced “by the deepening Depression to rent space to music publishers, since there were few other takers. The first three, Southern Music, Mills Music and Famous Music were soon joined by others. By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).”

“A musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record, and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building. The creative culture of the independent music companies of Brill Building and the nearby 1650 Broadway came to define the influential “Brill Building Sound” and the style of popular music songwriting and recording created by its writers and producers (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).”

While songwriters such as Carole King, Neil Diamond, Boyce and Hart (writers of The Monkees hits), and Neil Sedaka were cranking out the hits out of the Brill Building community that defined American music in the 1960s, their British counterparts were doing the same thing on Denmark Street in London. On this short, narrow street The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix all recorded in basement studios. Publishing companies were headquartered on this street.

The Kinks’ Ray Davies writes the following in their 1970 hit, “Denmark Street.”

Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road

Just round the corner from old Soho

There’s a place where the publishers go.

If you don’t know which way to go

Just open your ears and follow your nose

“cos the street is shakin’ from the tapping of toes

You can hear that music play anytime on any day

Every rhythm, every way

In 1972 “Elton John wrote his classic early song Your Song, here. Later, the Sex Pistols lived above number 6 and recorded their first demos there. The street contains London’s largest cluster of music shops. It was also the original home of London’s biggest science fiction and comic store, Forbidden Planet.

Writing Lesson #1

Although writing can be done most anywhere, it certainly makes sense to do so where resources are available and accessible. Both the Brill Building and Denmark Street provided all of the resources necessary to write, record, market, and sell music. A teacher’s classroom can provide the necessary resources for academic writing. Not just dictionaries, thesauruses, and computers… but the human resources as well. The writing expertise of the teacher and the listening ears of fellow student writers make the entire process of composition efficient within the classroom community. In my experience, rarely does the quality of at-home or at-library student writing match the level of in-class composition.

There’s just something about the social nature of composition that motivates creativity. Don Kirshner, 1960s publisher, record producer, and radio/television mogul recognized the fact that massing talent would be beneficial. Kirchner subdivided his Brill Building office space into cubicles and hired eighteen songwriters to crowd into these spaces. He then directed his songwriters to churn out love songs, and occasionally dance and novelty hits, for the teen masses (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).

“Describing conditions in the Brill Building, (Barry) Mann said, Cynthia ( ) and I work in a tiny cubicle, with just a piano and a chair, no window. We’d go in every morning and write songs all day. In the next room Carole (King) and Gerry (Goffin) are doing the same thing, with Neil (Diamond) in the room after that. Sometime when we all get to banging pianos, you can’t tell who’s playing what.’ (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).”

Writing Lesson #2

A productive writing climate can be promoted by establishing a collaborative community of student writers. Allowing students to help each other by “borrowing” ideas, providing immediate feedback (including criticism), and thinking out loud can motivate effort and improve the quality of the product. A community that feels that they are all in the same boat remains task-oriented and maintains motivation. There is a reason that Don Kirshner did not let his songwriters work from their apartments.

The teacher can facilitate this kind of intense writing community, ala Don Kirshner, by establishing a business-like, no-nonsense, and product-driven set of high expectations within the tightly confined community. Kirchner, and good teachers, can choreograph the activities, but the writers are the ones who have to write the hits.

Beyond massing writing resources and developing a collaborative community of writers, there is something to be said for the value of competition and the pressure/adrenaline that it produces. “Carole King described the atmosphere at the Brill Building publishing houses of the period:

“Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific-because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: ‘We need a new smash hit’-and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition of Bobby Vee’s producer (The Sociology of Rock 1978).”

Writing Lesson #3

One of the positive outcomes of developing a productive writing climate is that success breeds success. A healthy competition among student writers can be enormously motivating. Students care about what other students think, no matter what they say. Public sharing of student writing in class, online, in book stores, coffee houses, etc. can inspire quality writing. More gifted students can inhibit some student writers, but the wise teacher can even use these inhibitions to improve writing.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

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Using Music to Develop a Creative Writing Culture

I am a dinosaur. I have to face the fact that I am culturally irrelevant to my students. My English-language arts colleagues are all young twenty-somethings. They do all of the student clubs, sports, and activities such as the overnight bus trip to Disneyland. They even do yard duty/campus supervision when they don’t have to. But, I’ve got one thing that they don’t have yet-reflective experience.

As I reflect back on my experience as a junior high and high school student, one creative medium was singularly influential and remains so for my students today-music. Music inspired me. Music made me dream big dreams. Music made me want to write.

Now, music didn’t make me want to write the way that Mr. Devlin, my junior high English teacher, wanted me to write. And music didn’t inspire me to write the stupid five-paragraph essays that Ms. Carruthers, my senior Advanced English teacher, assigned each week. Music made me want to write like John and Paul, Mick and Keith, and Bob Dylan. Somehow, my English-language arts teachers just did not tap into that motivating influence.

Now we did analyze a few songs in class. I remember Mr. Devlin helping us to interpret the Beatles’ “Revolution.” I ate it up, but there was no follow-through. It was a one-time experience, and then back to the literary anthology. No connection to our own writing as students. Our art teacher was very cool. She played our records while we worked with paint and clay. I discovered The Doors in her class. But, the music was background and its creative potential was not instructionally connected to our paper mache Christmas angels.

Music is just as influential on today’s students as it was for me. Ask students how much they listen to music today. It’s certainly more than they spend reading or writing. And they listen to music while they are on Facebook®. That’s a powerful combination. It seems to me that we can apply a few lessons from how our students combine music and social networking to how we should teach them to write.

Music has always been a social medium. Let’s do a bit of reflective thinking about the music business, and songwriting in particular, to see how we might apply some of this to improve student writing.

Toward the end of the Nineteenth Century musical tastes were changing from minstrel shows to vaudeville. The economic up-tick following the terrible recession of 1873 put more money in the hands of more Americans. Recently freed slaves migrated north into already-crowed cities. Increasing immigration added wealth to the expanding economy and consumers enjoyed some of the trickle-down benefits of the Gilded Age, including more leisure time and a bit more discretionary money.

A number of music publishers set up shop in the same district of Manhattan along 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway to take advantage of the economic boom and sell music to the popular vaudeville shows and sheet music to consumers to play on their parlor pianos. This neighborhood became known as “Tin Pan Alley,” probably due to “the cacophony of the many pianos being pounded in publisher’s demo rooms… characterized as sounding as though hundreds of people were pounding on tin pans (Wikipedia).”

“Song composers were hire under contract giving the publisher exclusive rights to popular composer’s works. The market was surveyed to determine what style of song was selling best and then the composers were directed to compose in that style. Once written, a song was actually tested with both performers and listeners to determine which would be published and which would go to the trash bin. All of a sudden t seemed that music was becoming an industry more than an art. Once a song was published, song pluggers (performers who worked in music shops playing the latest releases, akin to playing new CD releases in a record store today) were hired and performers were persuaded to play the new songs in their acts to give the music exposure to the public (Wikipedia).”

Writing Lesson #1

Publishing was the motivator for songwriting in Tin Pan Alley. This was, indeed, writing for a purpose. The profit-motive and pay-off were paramount; art was a by-product of that end. In contrast, our students are frequently only required to write to please an audience of one, that is their teacher, and the resulting pay-off is simply a grade. Hardly motivating and largely perceived as being irrelevant to their lives. No wonder there is little authentic voice, creativity, or passionate commitment in our students’ writing. The solution is to make the pay-off a motivator for student effort. Survey students to find what publishing ends would motivate their best efforts. Online postings, video reads, peer reviews to name a few.

Writing Lesson #2

Encourage mimicry of author’s styles. Just as vaudevillian composers were directed to compose in popular styles, help students to do the same. Help students identify components of popular author’s styles, including those of musical composers. Yes, hip hop is music. Don’t fret about lack of originality. One’s writing voice is an amalgam of one’s reading experiences and other voices.

Writing Lesson #3

Have students serve as song pluggers and performers for each other. We create a writing culture when peers begin responding to each other’s work. Students care more about their peers’ responses than those of their teacher. Teach constructive criticism: the “I like way you did ______, but you might try ______” needs both modeling and practice. Trust-building activities are a must. Allow students some degree of choice with whom they will work. After all, students don’t “friend” everyone on Facebook®. Try directed and undirected response groups, but don’t relegate these to the end of the writing process. Response groups work well after both prewriting and drafting. Don’t use student response solely as editing assistance. The more students perceive writing as a collaborative and social art, the more commitment and investment in their own writing will result.

Read a related article on Using Music to Develop a Productive Writing Climate.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies

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How to Teach a Balanced Writing Program

The “Reading Wars” and “Writing Wars” have preoccupied educational researchers and teacher-practitioners for nearly five decades. Much like the soldiers along the Western Front in World War I, we have settled down into our fixed positions and rarely leave our trenches to skirmish anymore. An occasional Krashen or Adams volley may occasionally wake us up, but no one really wants to go back into “No Man’s Land” for extending fighting. In fact, much of where we are today reminds me of the scene from All Quiet on the Western Front, in which the opposing German and British soldiers join in the singing of Christmas carols and crawl out of their trenches to exchange gifts and greetings.

Now I may be over-extending my metaphor a bit, but teachers see more value today in an eclectic approach to teaching reading and writing. We embrace both part-to-whole and whole-to-part instruction. No one wants to throw away the explicit teaching of phonemic awareness/phonics or reading to learn; no one wants to throw away explicit grammar, spelling, and writing strategies instruction or the writing process with Writers Workshop. In a previous article, I have made the case that a balanced reading program makes sense. In this article, I will attempt to make the case that a balanced writing program also makes sense. First, I will list 21 Curricular Assumptions that most of us would accept about writing instruction to build a consensus. Then, I will detail six steps to take to ensure a balanced and effective writing program in any classroom.

Most of us would agree with these… 21 Curricular Assumptions about a Balanced Writing Program

1. Teaching and practicing the stages of the writing process through writing process papers in various genre is important. The writing process is not rigid, however. Writers compose differently. Word processing has certainly reinforced these differences. For example, some revise and edit after drafting; some do so during drafting.

2. Teaching and practicing specific writing strategies/skills in short writing pieces, such as “Quick Writes,” is also valuable.

3. Students vary in their writing abilities and have different writing skill-sets. Simply teaching grade-level standards in writing strategies and applications (process pieces) is not enough. Certainly, we teach content, but we also teach students. We need to both “keep them up” with grade-level expectations and new instruction and also “catch them up” with additional targeted practice in their writing deficiencies. Teachers see the value in diagnostic assessments to determine who does and does not need extra instruction and in which writing skills. Yes, we need to differentiate our writing instruction.

4. The reading-writing connection much be taught explicitly. We learn reading from writing, but we also learn writing from reading. For example, teaching expository text structure is both reading comprehension and an essay strategy. Analyzing both good and bad writing is instructive.

5. Good writing instruction is necessarily “recursive.” Students need to review, but also do new. As teachers review, writing foundations are solidified and depth of understanding increases. For example, first graders work on sentence construction, but so should high school seniors.

6. Teaching content is an essential ingredient to teaching writing. Writing is a constructive thinking process, built on prior knowledge. Time spent teaching critical thinking skills, such as errors in reasoning, is time spent teaching writing.

7. Vocabulary development is an important component of writing instruction. Knowing the meanings of words and how to properly use them cannot be confined to a revision task such as substituting boring or over-used words with “cool words” found in a thesaurus. Teaching Greek and Latinates, semantic shades of meaning, idiomatic expressions, etc. are all components of solid writing instruction.

8. Explicit grammatical instruction (sentence components, word choice, usage, word order) should be more than just error analysis or correction. Daily Oral Language is certainly not the answer. Teaching grammar and mechanics rules/proper usage in the context of targeted lessons that integrate this instruction with student writing is appropriate. For example, teaching a prepositional phrase and then following instruction with writing practice in which students use prepositional phrases as grammatical sentence openers makes sense. Grammar and mechanics cannot exclusively be relegated to end of writing process as mere editing skills.

9. Spelling matters and requires direct instruction, even throughout high school. The spelling-vocabulary connection is well-established and needs to be taught in the context of word study (including derivatives and etymological influences), syllabication, and conventional spelling rules. Spell check did not suddenly make orthographical study passé.

10. Revision is the key to writing improvement. Revision requires direct instruction to teach sentence manipulation, sentence combining, sentence variety, and precision of word choice. Revision requires focused tasks in the writing process to add, delete, substitute, and rearrange ideas to afford writers alternative means of expression. Hemingway completely re-wrote the last chapter in For Whom the Bell Tolls in 39 different ways. There must be something to this revision stuff.

11. Authentic writing tasks that are relevant and meaningful to students motivate quality writing, especially when the writing will be published in a venue that students care about.

12. Teaching rhetorical stance: voice, audience, purpose, and form produces significant writing pay-offs. Writing style can be modeled, mimicked, and developed over time.

13. Degree of oral proficiency in vocabulary and grammar impacts writing ability. ESL students need differentiated instruction to bridge language barriers.

14. Direct instruction is not enough—coaching is necessary to teach students how to write. The “sage on the stage” has to be matched with the “guide on the side.”

15. Teaching structured writing makes sense to focus on writing organization and unity. However, form and purpose dictate structure, so structural straight-jackets can be counter-productive, if pressed into service for every writing task.

16.  There are certain writing rules that are worth teaching.  Of course, rules are specific to each writing form. Indenting paragraphs, writing in complete sentences, and the like add to writing coherency.

17.  Writing coherency should be the ultimate goal of any writing task.

18. Teaching grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and writing strategies are more than just test prep. These skills require teaching and practice, not testing. Fortunately, quality instruction and practice in these writing components will result in higher test scores.

19. What we say shouldn’t always be the way that we write. Good writing instruction helps students learn to distrust their oral language as a grammatical filter. Authentic writing voice is not the same as playground banter.

20. Writing fluency is a worthy goal; however, contrived on-demand writing for the purpose of writing lots of words in a given time does not achieve that end.

21. Teaching writing shouldn’t take up an entire English-language arts course. We have other fish to fry as well.

How to Teach a Balanced Writing Program in Six Steps

1. Develop a Writing Plan

Establish a comprehensive writing scope and sequence of instruction with your colleagues, including those who precede and those who follow you. Base your plan on your more general grade-level state standards, but get as specific as possible. I suggest integrating grammar, mechanics, spelling instruction, specific writing strategies, writing genre, and writing process pieces into a multi-year plan. An specific writing scope and sequence makes more sense than a “shotgun” approach.

2. Direct Grammar/Mechanics/Spelling Instruction

Allocate 15 minutes, 2 days per week, to direct instruction of the grammar, mechanics, and spelling skills dictated by your scope and sequence, say on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Find resources that will teach both sentence modeling and error analysis. Require students to practice what has been learned and formatively assess their skill acquisition.

3. Differentiated Grammar/Mechanics/Spelling Instruction

Use an effective diagnostic assessment to identify grammatical and mechanical skills that your students should already know. Also, assess students on their spelling skills. Chart their deficits and find brief, targeted instruction that students can independently practice. Develop brief formative assessments for each skill. Allocate 15 minutes, 2 days per week, of teacher-student mini-conferences to review their practice and grade their formative assessments, say on Wednesdays and Fridays. Have students keep track of their own mastery of these skills on progress monitoring charts. Re-teach and re-assess skills not-yet-mastered.

4. Do Direct Writing Instruction

Allocate 10 minutes, 3 days per week, to direct instruction, sentence models, and guided writing practice in vocabulary development and sentence revision (sentence manipulation, sentence combining, and sentence variety) say on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Require students to practice what has been learned and formatively assess their skill acquisition.

5. Do Differentiated Writing Instruction

Allocate 15 minutes, 2 days per week, to direct instruction of the writing strategies/skills dictated by your scope and sequence, say on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Design paragraph assignments to keep writing and review time manageable. Develop brief formative assessments for each skill. Allocate 15 minutes, 3 days per week, of teacher-student mini-conferences to review their practice and grade their formative assessments, say on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Have students keep track of their own mastery of these skills on progress monitoring charts. Re-teach and re-assess skills not-yet-mastered.

6. Teach Process Papers

Teach and require students to compose at least one process paper per quarter, as dictated by your scope and sequence and grade-level standards. Not every process paper must include all steps of the Writing Process.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

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How to Integrate Grammar and Writing Instruction

In my last article, I classified the chief divisions in grammatical instruction* as follows: 1. those who favor part to whole instruction and 2. those who prefer whole to part instruction. I argued that teachers need not accept an “either-or” philosophy of instruction, but can certainly be eclectic in their instructional strategies. Of course, kind and persistent readers of the Pennington Publishing Blog are naturally putting me to the test to flesh out how I balance instruction, using both forms of  those inductive and deductive instructional strategies.

Diagnostic Assessment and Differentiated Instruction

Teachers too often teach what some students do not know at the expense of some students who already know what is being taught. For example, students learn the definition and identification of a sentence subject over and over again from third through twelfth grade. Teachers legitimize this repeated instruction by arguing that learning is recursive and, thus, reviewing is necessary.

Instead of making excuses, teachers should address the problems inherent in a diverse classroom. Why not administer diagnostic assessments to determine who does and does not need extra instruction in sentence subjects? Then, use the data to inform and differentiate instruction. Targeted worksheets that correspond to the diagnostic assessment, as in my Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, with individual one-on-one follow-up conferences or in small group review just makes sense. How often and how much class time do I devote to grammar differentiation? Twice per week, 15 minutes per day.

Direct Instruction

Front-loading grammar and mechanics instruction is efficient and transfers to student writing when a teacher follows a coherent scope and sequence of instruction that builds upon previous instruction and writing practice. For example, here is a scope and sequence for teaching adverbs that builds in year-to-year review, and also helps students deepen their understanding of this part of speech to improve their writing:

  • Primary students should learn that an _ly word “talks about” a physical action verb and practice recognizing these words in their reading and adding _ly words to sentences.
  • Intermediate students should learn that an _ly word “talks about” a mental action (e.g. knows) or state of being (e.g. was) verb. They should also practice recognizing these words in their reading and adding _ly words to various places within sentences.
  • Upper elementary students should learn that adverbs ask How? When? and Where? to describe verbs and practice recognizing all forms of adverbs, including adverbial phrases, in their reading. They should also practice adding adverbs to various places within sentences and as transitions within paragraphs.
  • Middle school students should learn that adverbs ask How? When? Where? and What Degree? to modify verbs and adverbs and practice recognizing all forms of adverbs in their reading. They should also practice adding adverbial phrases and clauses to various places within sentences and as transitions within and between paragraphs.
  • High school students should learn that adverbs ask How? When? Where? and What Degree? to modify verbs, adverbs, and adjectives and practice recognizing all forms of adverbs in their reading. They should also practice adding adverbial phrases and clauses to provide sentence variety to various places within sentences and as transitions within and between paragraphs. Students should also practice elements of style, such as placing shorter adverbs before longer adverbs and placing general adverbs before specific adverbs within sentences. Students should also contrast comparative adjectives and adverbial phrases, identify dangling modifiers, and practice recognition and revision of these errors for SAT/ACT test preparation practice.

Sentence modeling from exemplary student writing and literature should be examined and emulated in brief student writing exercises with direct instructional feedback. Alongside of sentence models, contrasting sentences with writing errors should also be analyzed, but not in the context of an incoherent, scatter-gun D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) “program.” Download an example of my Sentence Lifting exercise at  Grammar Openers Toolkit Sampler to see how this direct instruction approach integrates grammar and mechanics instruction within the context of real writing. My Teaching Grammar and Mechanics curriculum has 64 Sentence Lifting lessons with multiple instruction layers of instruction (as in the adverb example above) to provide the teacher with resources that reflect leveled degrees of difficulty. How often and how much class time do I devote to direct grammar and mechanics instruction? Three times per week, 15-20 minutes per day.

Writing Strategies

Teachers should practice sentence manipulation and sentence combining. For example, re-writing subject-verb-complement sentence construction to begin with complex sentences, such as with adverbial clause sentence openers is excellent practice. I use Sentence Revision exercises such as in the Writing Openers Toolkit Sampler from my Teaching Essay Strategies curriculum to help students practice sentence construction and revision. Sentence Revision also provides exercises in writing style. How often and how much class time do I devote to Sentence Revision? Three times per week, 10 minutes per day.

Writing Process

I require students to include specific sentence openers that we have practiced within their writing process pieces. Students re-write sentences to reflect their practice within the revision stage of the writing process. Peer editing focuses on the specific grammar and mechanics that we have been learning in our Sentence Lifting and Sentence Revision lessons.

Here are brief overviews of the two curricular sources described above: Find essay strategy worksheets, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in Teaching Essay Strategies. Find whole-class diagnostic grammar and mechanics assessments with 72 targeted worksheets to differentiate instruction based upon these assessments and a full year of 15-minute Sentence Llifting lessons with standards-based mechanics, spelling, and grammar skills in Teaching Grammar and Mechanics. Download free previews or purchase on my website.

*By grammatical instruction, I refer to usage, word choice, grammar, syntax, punctuation, capitalization, spelling rules, and the like, as most teachers tend to lump together these writing skills.

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The Great Grammar Debate

Although not as contentious as the debate on how to teach children to read, the debate on how to teach grammar* has its moments. In fact, elements of the reading and grammar debate do have similarities regarding how language is transmitted.

The lines of division within reading have been drawn between those who favor part to whole graphophonic (phonics-based) instruction and those who prefer whole to part (whole language) instruction. (Check out my blog on the Reading Wars to get up to speed on the current issues in this debate.) Similarly, the divisions within grammar have also been drawn between those who favor part to whole instruction and those who prefer whole to part instruction. By the way the writers of the Common Core State Standards certainly have made up their minds. Guess which side they favor.

Part to Whole

The essence of part to whole grammatical instruction is the inductive approach. Advocates believe that front-loading the discrete parts of language will best enable students to apply these parts to the whole process of writing. Following are the key components of this inductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar to provide a common language of instruction. If a teacher says, “Notice how the author’s use of the adverb at the start of the verse emphasizes how the old woman walks.” Some would carry the memorization further than others: “Notice how the author’s use of the past perfect progressive indicates a continuous action completed at some time in the past.”

2. Identification leads to application. If students can readily identify discrete elements of language, say prepositional phrases, they will more likely be able to replicate and manipulate these grammatical constructions in their own writing. A teacher might suggest, “Let’s add to our sentence variety in this essay by re-ordering one of the sentences to begin with a prepositional phrase like this one shown on the LCD projector.”

3. Focus on the rules of grammar leads to application. If students understand and practice the grammatical rules and their exceptions, they will more likely be able to write with fewer errors. Knowing the rule that a subject case pronoun follows a “to-be” verb will help a student avoid saying or writing “It is me,” instead of the correct construction “It is I.” Some advocate teaching to a planned grammatical scope and sequence; others favor a shotgun approach as with D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) instruction.

4. Distrust one’s own oral language as a grammatical filter. “Whoever John gives the ring to will complain” sounds correct, but “To whomever John gives the ring, he or she will complain” is correct. Knowing pronoun case and the proper use of prepositions will override the colloquialisms of oral language.

5. Teaching the components of sentence construction leads to application. If students know, can identify, and can apply key elements of a sentence: subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, and clauses they will better be able to write complete sentences which fit in with others to form unified and coherent paragraphs.

Whole to Part

The essence of whole to part grammatical instruction is the deductive approach. Advocates believe that back-loading the discrete parts of language as is determined by needs of the writing task will best enable students to write fluently and meaningfully. Following are the key components of this deductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar and identification of grammatical components, other than a few basics such as the parts of speech, subjects, and predicates, does not improve writing and speaking. In fact, teaching grammatical terms and indentifying these elements is reductive. The cost-benefit analysis indicates that more time spent on student writing and less time on direct grammatical instruction produces a better pay-off.

2. Connection to oral language is essential to fluent and effective writing. The students’ abilities to translate the voice of oral language to paper help writers to develop a natural and authentic voice that connects with the reader in an unstilted manner that is not perceived as contrived. A teacher might use mini-lessons to discuss how to code-switch from less formal oral language to more formal written language, say in an essay. For example, a teacher might suggest replacing the fragment slang “She always in his business” to “The couple frequently engages in a physical relationship” in an essay on teen dating.

3. Connection to reading and listening provides the models that students need to mimic and revise to develop their own writing style. Reading and listening to a wide variety of exemplary literature, poetry, and speeches will build a natural feel for the language that students place within their own “writing wells.” Students are able to draw from these wells to write effectively (and correctly) for a variety of writing tasks.

4. Minimizing error analysis. Teachers believe most grammatical errors will naturally decrease with  #2 and #3 in place. A teacher might say, “Don’t worry about your grammar, punctuation, or spelling on your rough draft. Focus now on saying what you want to say. We will worry about how you say it in the revision and editing stages.” Teachers are concerned that too much error analysis, such as practiced in D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) will actually rehearse errors.

5. Teaching the whole paragraph with a focus on coherence will best enable students to apply the discreet parts such as subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, and transitions to say something meaningful.

Of course, the Great Grammar Debate is not necessarily “either-or.” Most teachers apply bits and pieces of each approach to teaching grammar. Teachers who lean toward the inductive approach are usually identified by their “drill and kill” worksheets, their grammatical terms posters, and Grammar Girl listed and Purdue University’s OWL prominently in their Favorites. Teachers who lean toward the deductive approach are often pegged by their “ignore and write more” writers workshops, mini-lessons (if they ever get to these), and their writing process posters prominently display on the wall, next to their autographed picture of Donald Graves.

My take? I suggest an informed instructional balance of the two approaches is most effective. Using effective diagnostic assessments can narrow the focus and time commitment of the inductive crowd. Well-planned front-loading of key grammatical terms, with identification and application practice can transfer to better student writing without having to wait until the process of writing osmosis magically takes place.

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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 and 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 the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

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).

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

* For the purposes of this article, I use the term grammar as is colloquially used by most teachers, i.e. to mean syntax, grammar, word choice, usage, punctuation, and even spelling—a catch-all term that most English language-arts teachers use to describe the “stuff” that we “have to , but don’t want to” teach. For the “nuts and bolts” of instruction, knowledge of the above distinctions is useful; however, for the purposes of discussing the two philosophical approaches to teaching grammar, such fine-tuning of terms is not necessitated.

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Educational Fads: What Goes Around Comes Around

Teaching is, by its very nature, experimental. We teachers are just as susceptible to snake-oil sales pitches, fads, and cultural pressures as any professionals. And many of the teaching strategies, movements, and philosophies appear years later dressed up in different clothes. Talk to any veteran teacher of a dozen years or more and the teacher will eventually comment on the dynamic nature of education with statements such as “Been there, done that,” “There’s nothing new under the sun,” What Goes Around Comes Around,” “We tried that back in…”

Teachers are also victims of the bandwagon effect. What’s new is questioned, until certain key players buy in. At that point, many teachers become no-holds-barred converts. We teachers are especially vulnerable to new ideas labeled as “research-based,” “best practices,” or “standards-based.” We could all do with an occasional reminder that one of our primary duties as teachers should be to act as informed “crap detectors” (Postman, Neil, and Weingartner, Charles (1969), Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Dell, New York, NY.).

Following is a list of the educational fads that have come and gone (and sometimes come again) over the last thirty years of my teaching. I’ve bought into quite a few of them and still believe that some of them have merit. The list reminds me to hold on loosely to some things that I currently practice and to be open to change. Cringe, laugh, and be a bit offended as you read over the list. Oh, and please add on to the list, which is in no particular order.

1. Writing Across the Curriculum No one really ever believed that math, art, or music teachers should be spending oodles of time teaching writing.

2. Timers Timers used to keep students on task, pace themselves, track their reading speed.

3. Left-right Brain Strategies Some teachers used to have students place bracelets on their left or right wrists to cue brain hemispheres.

4. Self-esteem Teachers developed lessons to promote the self-esteem of students to increase their abilities to learn.

5. Cultural Literacy E. D. Hirsch, Jr. popularized this movement of shared content knowledge in his influential 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Teachers abandoned free-choice novels and chose core novels that inculcated American values.

6. Multi-culturalism This much maligned approach to education influenced many publishers and teachers to include multi-cultural literature.

7.  Relevance The practice of choosing curriculum and instructional strategies designed to  relate to the lives and interests of students.

8. Clickers Used to track student discussion responses, equitable teacher questioning, and even attendance.

9. Re-learning Early Childhood Behaviors One reading strategy for struggling readers in the 1970s involved re-teaching those remedial readers who never learned to crawl to crawl.

10. Learning Styles I can’t tell you how many learning styles assessments I designed over the years.

11. Experiential Learning Role play, simulations, mock trial.

12. Alternative or Authentic Assessments I once taught an entire year-long sophomore level World History class without giving one traditional paper and pencil test. Think museum exhibits, video productions, interviews, etc.

13. Cooperative Groups Touted as a primary means of heterogeneous instruction in the 1980s.

14. Values Clarification and Moral Dilemmas Two forms of values education that emphasized decision-making and informed moral choices.

15. Gongs Used to focus students’ attention and signal instructional transitions.

16. Critical Thinking Skills Bloom’s Taxonomy, Costa’s Levels of Questioning, et al.

17. Behavioral Objectives and the Madeline Hunter’s Lesson Design Teaching to measurable objectives with connection to prior instruction, guided practice, closure, and independent practice.

18. Standards-based Instruction A movement to identify content standards across grade levels and focus instruction on these expectations. Many state tests were aligned with these standards.

19. Language Experience A reading strategy which used oral language ability to help students read. Teachers copied down student stories and had students practice reading them.

20. Bilingual Education A movement to teach native literacy and celebrate bilingualism in the belief that literacy skills are easily transferred to English.

21. Learn by Doing John Dewey revisited. Gardening and keeping classroom pets were popular recreations of the theme.

22. Cornell Notes Popularized by the A.V.I.D. (Advancement Via Individual Determination), this columnar notetaking strategy originated in the 1950s at Cornell University.

23. Inventive Spelling The practice of guessing sound-spelling relationships to encourage writing fluency. Instruction followed from spelling analysis.

24. Achievement Gap The gap in reading and math achievement between racial subgroups. Later expanded to language and ethnic subgroups.

25. Thematic Instruction Teaching broad-based themes across the curriculum, such as teaching a unit on cooking in which recipes are composed and read, mathematic measurements involving recipe quantities are practiced, the final meal is sketched, using artistic perspective, and the meal is eaten.

26. Time on Task A movement that tried to minimize wasted time, class interruptions, and outside activities (such as assemblies) and maximize minutes of classroom instruction, such as with classroom openers.

27. Whole Language The movement popularized in the 1970s and 1980s that de-emphasized phonics, spelling, and grammar instruction and emphasized reading and writing for meaning.

28. Reading Across the Curriculum No one really ever believed that math, art, or music teachers should be spending oodles of time teaching reading or that “Every Teacher, a Teacher of Reading.”

29. Phonemic Awareness Better described as phonological awareness, teachers played patterns of sounds, emphasized rhythm, and used nursery rhymes to prepare students to match speech sounds to print.

30. ADD, ADHD, Epstein Bar, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Autism, and Others Difficult to diagnose, these conditions introduced educators to Parent Advocates and mandated classroom interventions.

31. Auditory Processing Deficit Disorders and Visual Processing Deficit Disorders New brain research has validated these learning disabilities, but instructional strategies to address these challenges have a questionable track record.

32. Dyslexia Reading difficulties have produced a plethora of remedial strategies, many such as colored transparencies have been dubious, at best.

33. Career Education Students were tracked according to career interests.

34. Community Service Students were required to perform hours of community service as part of course or graduation requirements.

35. Tracing Letters in the Sand Those who believe that spelling is a visual process had students memorize the shapes of letters within words by drawing the outline of the letters.

36. Inquiry Education Instruction based upon student questions and interests.

37. Sustained Silent Reading, Drop Everything and Read, et al In class or school-wide, this practice of silent reading is usually based upon student choice of reading materials without accountability and is designed to foster life-long reading.

38. TRIBES, et al Groups of students, mentored by adults, that build relational and supportive bonds within the school setting.

39. Peer Tutoring A practice in which a smarter student is paired with one less smart to teach the latter.

40. Writers Workshop and Six Traits Movements based upon the writing research of Donald Graves and others that emphasize the process of writing, revision, and publication.

41. Problem-Solving Strategies developed to solve difficult problems in collaborative groups.

42. Rubrics Here a rubric; there a rubric. Holistic and analytic scoring guides that purport to de-mystify and objectify the grading process of complicated tasks, such as essays.

43. Manipulatives Learning mathematical concepts through visual models that students manipulate to understand mathematical processes.

44. Metacognition Thinking about thinking. Strategies that teach reflection on the learning process.

45. Prior Knowledge Usually referred to as a pre-reading or pre-writing strategy in which the student “accesses” his or her background or personal experiences to connect to the reading or writing task.

46. Hands-on Learning Project-based instruction that emphasizes concrete learning making or doing.

47. Realia Using “real” objects to scaffold into abstract learning. For example, bringing in a silver necklace to teach what silver and a necklace mean.

48. Tracking and Ability Grouping Permanent or temporary grouped instruction based upon student grades, test scores, or skill levels.

49. Differentiated Instruction and Individualized Instruction Instruction designed according to the diagnostic needs of individual students, frequently involving group work.

50. Multiple Intelligences Popularized by Howard Gardner, this movement described intelligence aptitudes such as interpersonal intelligence.

51. Powerpoint®, Blackboard, Web 2.0, computer literacy skills, SmartBoards, Video Conferencing and more to come.

52. Color Mood Design Teachers draped soothing colored butcher paper (blue or green) over the teacher’s desk to reduce stress. Teachers stopped using red pens to correct papers.

53. Back to Basics A movement to focus more on the three R’s and less on electives.

54. The Five-Paragraph Essay The model essay, consisting of one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one conclusion paragraph.

55. Multi-sensory Education Using the five senses to teach a concept or skill.

56. Learning Centers Resources placed around the classroom that allowed students to explore learning on their own.

The writer of this blog, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula: Teaching Grammar and MechanicsTeaching Essay StrategiesTeaching Reading Strategies, and Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or training.

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Process vs. On Demand Writing

Writing research has shown that one key ingredient to writing success is time. Developing writers need time to learn the writing craft, time to research/brainstorm, time to draft, and time to revise. However, ironically, time may in-it-of-itself be the greatest impediment standing in the way of writing profiency and fluency for many of our students.

Since the return of phonics-based reading instruction in the 1990s, elementary teachers have had to allocate more instructional time to direct instruction. With greater diversity in most states, more pressure to differentiate instruction in reading has compounded the problem of instructional minutes at all grade levels. Science, art, social studies, physical education, music, and writing have become the casualties of this time-theft.

The advent of timed writings on high stakes tests, such as the new SAT 1, high school exit exams, and standards-based writing assessments, has placed teachers in the difficult position of choosing among three instructional approaches to help students both learn to write and succeed on these tests with no additional time allocated for writing instruction. The three approaches are 1. process writing 2. on demand writing and 3. a mix of the two.

Advocates of the process writing approach (Six Traits, National Writing Project, Writers Workshop, etc.) argue that frequent practice in all phases of the writing process i.e., research/brainstorming, drafting, revision, editing, and publishing best helps writers develop writing fluency and proficiency. Advocates of the on demand approach argue that the above components can be streamlined into an integrated process, which teaches the writer to concurrently multi-task the drafting, revision, and editing steps with the quick bookends of planning and proofreading. Those teachers trying to please both masters have limited their process pieces and upped the amount of on demand writing tasks when the standardized writing test looms on the horizon.

Process writing proponents tend to teach grammar and mechanics (punctuation, capitalization, and spelling) incidentally throughout the writing process or via targeted mini-lessons. On demand proponents tend to teach grammar and mechanics explicitly through an established instructional scope and sequence. Those who try to combine process and on demand writing wind up relegating most grammatical and mechanics instruction to test preparation out of sheer time constraints.

A brief readers theater (tongue firmly planted in cheek) may help teachers of all writing approaches greater appreciate the challenge of teaching writing today.

Narrator: Here is a familiar scene in the teachers’ workroom. Two teachers kill time while waiting in line for the laminating machine. Their subject of discourse: an ongoing discussion of Process Writing versus On Demand Writing.

Teacher 1: I can’t believe that Mildred accidentally threw out my Writing Process charts when she rotated off-track. I’ve got to get new ones laminated and back on the wall. I’m lost without them!

Teacher 2: Are you still using those dumb charts? I thought that you must have dumped them by now. The Writing Process is “old school.” We dropped that with whole language years ago. Get with the program! It’s On Demand Writing, now. Oh by the way, I put back your Lucy McCormick Calkins book in your box; I have enough paperweights for my desk, thank you.

Teacher 1: You and your on demand writing tasks… You’re not teaching—all you are really doing is testing. Are you still passing out those grammar worksheets for homework? Remember, the research about writing says—

Teacher 2: Don’t give me that research stuff—I know what works for my kids. My language expression scores on the state test were much higher than yours. You’re lucky you’ve got tenure.

Teacher 1: Even when I didn’t, I never kissed the principal’s butt like you do. And I don’t teach to the test, like you do. My kids are learning how to think. They are writing to learn. Who cares if they know their subjects and predicates!

Teacher 2: Kids are going to have to spell, punctuate, capitalize, and use grammar correctly if they want to make it in today’s world. They’ve still got to be able to write in those blue books in college for a timed one-hour exam. They can’t just pick their own writing subject and do multiple drafts for a mid-term. You really need to get a Red Bull® and wake up to the real world.

Teacher 1: In the real world, students need to have the brains to say something. Outside of school, people have time to revise and edit. They have the time to be reflective. That’s what real authors do… They don’t have someone forcing them to write to a contrived prompt and then hovering over them with a stupid yellow timer.

Teacher 2: Now, you’re getting personal. My aunt gave me that yellow timer… Who writes your paycheck? Last I checked it was the school district. All our principal cares about is higher test scores. If you can’t show it, they don’t know it!

Teacher 1: That’s not why I got into teaching. I want to develop the whole child and nurture a love for learning. I just completed a trimester-long unit on the Haiku and its place in Japanese society…You should come in and see our published poems on the wall. We used real 24 carat gold to highlight—

Teacher 2: I bet I could find some punctuation mistakes—you with your peer editing groups. Talk about the “blind leading the blind.” I have students write one paragraph each day in indelible ink—no changes. I time them and have their desk partners count how many words the student has written in the 10 minutes. It sure saves a lot of teacher grading time. All I have to do is record the number of words in my grade book program. I can show you huge gains in words per minute.

Find essay strategy worksheets, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in Teaching Essay Strategies.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs in Writing

Every English teacher has a sure-fire revision tip that makes developing writers dig down deep and revise initial drafts. One of my favorites involves reducing the number of “to be verbs”: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been.

At this point, even before I begin to plead my case, I hear the grumbling of the contrarians. One of them mutters a snide, rhetorical question: Didn’t Shakespeare say “To be, or not to be: that is the question:”? He used three “to be” verbs right there! If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. True, but Will used only six more “to be” verbs in Hamlet’s next 34 lines. My goals are to convince teachers to help their students reduce, not eliminate the “to be” verbs, and so write with greater precision and purpose. There. I just used a “to be” verb. Feeling better?

Eliminate To Be Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

What’s So Wrong with “To Be” Verbs?

  1. The “to be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been are state of being verbs, which means that they unduly claim a degree of permanence. For example, “I am hungry.” For most Americans, hunger is only a temporary condition.
  2. The “to be” verbs claim absolute truth and exclude other views. “Classical music is very sophisticated.” Few would agree that all classical compositions are always sophisticated.
  3. The “to be” verbs are general and lack specificity. A mother may tell her child, “Be good at school today.” The more specific “Don’t talk when the teacher talks today” would probably work better.
  4. The “to be” verbs are vague. For example, “That school is great.” Clarify the sentence as “That school has wonderful teachers, terrific students, and supportive parents.”
  5. The “to be” verbs often confuse the reader about the subject of the sentence. For example, “It was nice of you to visit.” Who or what is the “It?”

Adapted from Ken Ward’s E-Prime article at http://www.trans4mind.com/personal_development/GeneralSemantics/KensEPrime.htm

When Can We Use “To Be” Verbs?

It’s not that “to be” verbs are always bad; sometimes writers must use “to be” verbs to communicate exactly what the writer wants to say. In fact, these verb forms can be difficult to replace. When the verb links to the subject (the do-er) of the sentence as a state of being, it performs one of these five functions:

  1. Exists−Is there any trouble? Yes, I am he (predicate nominative).
  2. Happens−The meetings are over.
  3. Locates−He was at the birthday party.
  4. Identifies−Those children were friendly (predicate adjective).
  5. Describes−That could be scary (helping verb)! He is being helpful (progressive tense). Those girls have been so mean (perfect tense).

Generally, writers should avoid using “to be” verbs in essays. “To be” verbs can appear more frequently in narrative writing. However, when writers can replace a “to be” verb with a vivid, “show me” verb in any writing genre, it certainly makes sense to do so. With a good “show me” verb, the reader (or listener) can picture the physical or mental action of the verb. The verb engages the interest of the reader and specifically communicates the nature of the action. But, not all non-“to be” verbs are vivid, “show me” verbs. For example, the physical and mental action verbs in this sentence do not use vivid, “show me” verbs: The boy sits down on the bench and thinks what to do next. In contrast, the physical and mental action verbs in this sentence do use vivid, “show me” verbs: The boy slouches down on the bench and studies what to do next.

So, how can we get our students to reduce or eliminate “to be” verbs in their essays to create precision of meaning, specificity, clarity, and just good old sentence variety? How do we get our students to use these vivid “show me” verbs instead? Try these five strategies:

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

  1. IdentifyStudents need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Teach students to self-edit by circling “to be” verbs in the revision stage of writing. Teach students how to problem-solve whether a “to be” verb is necessary or not. Teach students to identify and revise Non-standard English forms of the “to be” verb (Common Core State Standards L.2,3). For example, “They be watching cartoons” or “She been taking her time” 
  2. SubstituteSometimes a good replacement of a “to be” verb just pops into the brain. For example, instead of “That cherry pie is delicious,” substitute the “to be” verb is with tastes as in “That cherry pie tastes delicious.” If a strong, vivid verb does not pop into the brain, HERE is a great list of action verbs, specifically designed for persuasive/argumentative essays, informational/explanatory essays, literary analysis, and narratives (W1.0, 2.0, 3.0 of the Common Core Writing Standards) with useful categories for your students. Thanks to Mary Beth Foster, University of Arizona Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center for compiling this list. Also, substitute the “there,” “here,” and “it” + “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “There is the cake, and here are the pies for dessert, and it is served by Mom,” replace with “Mom serves the cake and pies for dessert.” Let’s also add on the “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” + “to be” verbs. Finally, strong linking verbs can replace “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “That was still the best choice,” substitute the “to be” verb was with the linking verb remained as in “That remained the best choice.”
  3. ConvertStudents can start  the sentence differently to see if this helps eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “Charles Schulz was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip,” convert the common noun creator to the verb created as in “Charles Schulz created the Peanuts cartoon strip.” 
  4. Change−To eliminate a”to be” verb, students can change the subject of the sentence to another noun or pronoun in the sentence and rearrange the order of the sentence. For example, instead of “The car was stopped by a police officer,” change the complete subject, the car, to a police officer to write “A police officer stopped the car.” Also, students can add in a different sentence subject to eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The books were written in Latin,” add in a different sentence subject, such as “authors” to change the passive voice to the active voice and write “Authors wrote the books in Latin. Lastly, starting the sentence with a different word or part of speech will help eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” rearrange as “Down the dark tunnel crept the monster.”
  5. CombineLook at the sentences before and after the one with the “to be” verb to see if combining the sentences will eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The child was sad. The sensitive child was feeling that way because of the news story,” combine as “The news story saddened the sensitive child.”

A Teaching Plan to Eliminate the “To Be” Verb

  1. Post a list of the “to be” verbs and the problem-solving strategies listed above for student reference. Why not create a Dead Verbs Cemetery bulletin board? (What a great idea for Halloween!) and/or print and reference the free “To be or not to be…” poster.
  2. Share the five strategies one at a time, so as not to overwhelm students. Teach, practice, and master only one strategy  before moving on to another strategy.
  3. Use teacher think-alouds to model the “to be” verb revision process.
  4. Then, turn the revision chore on over to the whole class with one student writing sample. Correct whole class and commend the variety of effective revisions. Compare sentence revisions and discuss which strategies worked and did not work to eliminate the “to be” verbs.
  5. Next, collect student writing samples from the whole class and have students individually revise their peers’ “to be” verbs. Peer editing focused on one target issue makes sense.
  6. Next, have students revise their own sentences from their own writing samples, using the five strategies.

After teaching and practicing all five strategies, set the “rule” that from now on only one “to-be” verb is allowed in any paragraph (excluding direct quotes). Use peer editing to help identify the “to-be” verbs and peer tutors to help struggling students.

Teaching the strategies and practicing them in the context of student writing samples will help students recognize and avoid these “writing crutches” in their own writing. The end result? More precise and purposeful student writing with vivid, “show me” verbs.

Check out the quality program materials found in these teacher-created and classroom-tested resources:

Teaching Essay Strategies provides the step-by-step resources teachers need to teach the argumentative and informational-explanatory essays. The program includes 8 complete writing process essays with accompanying readings (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory), 42 sequenced essay strategy worksheets, 64 writing opener lessons, dozens of writing skill worksheets (like the “to be” worksheet above), plus writing fluency quick writes Also save time grading essays with the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

Also, check out the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons and includes 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 the YouTube introductory video for a concise overview of the program.

Grammar/Mechanics, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,