Posts Tagged ‘no excuse words’

There, Their, and They’re

The there, their, and they're Words

there, their, and they’re

Anything worth teaching is worth teaching wellStudents (and even presidents) have problems using the there, their, and they’re words appropriately and spelling them correctly. Indeed, linguists tend to classify the misuse of there, their, and they’re as high stake grammatical errors. The Copyblogger site includes these three words in the article, “Five Grammatical Errors That Make You Look Dumb.”

The reaction to President Trump’s mistake in his July 24, 2016 tweet was speedy and judgmental:

“Looks to me like the Bernie people will fight. If not, there blood, sweat and tears was a waist of time. Kaine stands for opposite!”

Now, to be fair… most of us have misused a there, their, and they’re word at one time or another. I have. When typing, we do make typos. However, we have no excuses for failing to proofread something that will be published (or tweeted, Mr. President).

So, how can we teach and help students remember the proper usage and spelling of  the troublesome there, their, and they’re words?

My take is that students fail to master proper usage and spelling of tricky word relationships because our instruction lacks conceptual depth. Additionally, we fail to help students place the learning into their long term memories. I suggest teaching word relationships in the context of meaning and usage, spelling rules, and writing application. Follow this lesson plan, and I guarantee that your students will make fewer there, their, and they’re errors.


Meaning and Usage

The online dictionary, Merriam-Webster, provides the following definitions (with my own formatting, revision, and additions):

  1. In or at that place (Adverb) Example: Stand over there.
  2. To or into that place (Adverb) Example: She went there after church.
  3. At that point or stage (Adverb) Example: Stop right there before you say something you’ll regret.
  4. In that matter, respect, or relation (Adverb) Example: There is where I disagree with you.
  5. Expressing satisfaction, approval, encouragement or sympathy, or defiance (Interjection) Examples: There, it’s finished. There, there, child; you’ll feel better soon.
  6. A state of being or existence used to complete a thought (Expletive) Example: There are three reasons why you should listen to me.


Teach students that one of the reasons that there is such a difficult spelling is because it is a sight word, often called an outlaw word. The word does not follow spelling rules. In fact, there makes Dr. Edward Fry’s top 100 list of high frequency sight words. Because there is a rule-breaker, it must be memorized as such. I suggest introducing the where spelling along with the there. The where is also a top 100 sight word and is often confused with were by poor spellers. The following memory trick works with both there and where.

Jerry Lebo, author of numerous phonics books, suggests a spelling memory trick to help students remember the there spelling. Jerry writes the word there on the board and underlines the here within the word (there). Doing so reminds students that the adverbial meaning and usage (definitions 1-4) of the word there refers to location, so here and there or here and where establish memorable connections and so assist spelling memory. Students have fewer problems with the here spelling, and so the memory trick works to connect the unknown there and where spellings to the known (and rule-conforming here spelling (a silent final e making the preceding vowel before a single consonant into a long sound). Conversely, these here and there or here and where relationships help students remember to spell here to indicate location and not hear.

Unfortunately, the adverbial usage and its spelling memory trick does not work with the interjection (definition 5) and expletive (definition 6) meanings. Example: There, there, darling. There are ways for us to fix this mess.

The best spelling practice is to create a spelling sort to compare and contrast the “ere” spellings. In my Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4-8, I provide the words for students to sort into the “ere” spelling categories and the spelling test focuses on this spelling pattern.

Writing Application

When teaching Jerry’s here and there memory trick, I teach students that even though the trick works only for there adverbs, good writers learn to avoid the other uses of there in their writing. I remind students that we shouldn’t use padded words or expressions because readers like concise writing. If the word or phrase does not contribute meaning, get rid of it!

Demonstrate the difference between padded and concise writing with this example:There, there, darling. There are ways for us to fix this mess.

Help students brainstorm deletions of the there interjections and expletive. Students (will a little of your prompting) will eventually revise as “Darling, we have ways to fix this mess.”

My Writing Openers Language Application Grades 4-8 programs provide this instruction in one of 56 lessons:

Our language application task is to delete the unnecessary “here” and “there” words. The unnecessary “here” and “there” words begin sentences or clauses and follow with “to be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been). The “here” and “there” + “to be” verb constructions are frequently followed by a noun or pronoun and a relative clause beginning with that, which, or who. To eliminate the unnecessary “here” and “there” words at the beginning of a sentence of clause, revise to place the subject of the sentence at the beginning. Example: There are many students who do their best. Revision: Many students do their best.

In my Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Grades 4-8 programs, my subject and predicate lessons focus on removing prepositional phrases, interjections, and expletives from the hunt for the sentence subject. Students learn to spot the “here are” and “there are” (as well as the is, was, and were) words rather quickly.


Meaning and Usage

Their is a plural possessive pronoun. Unfortunately, that definition assumes a considerable amount of grammatical knowledge. I begin the their lesson by listing the personal pronouns (Actually I just point to the poster on the wall… I use my own program resources :)).

I start instruction with the definition of a pronoun: “A pronoun is used to take their (nouns) place in the subject, possessive, or object case,” which is found in my Parts of Speech Song. Yes, that definition is comprehensive, and your students won’t understand all components at this point, but teaching the whole and scaffolding in the parts will build a conceptual framework much better than a piecemeal approach, such as limiting the definition to the simplified “a pronoun takes the place of a noun.”

Pointing to the poster, I review the third person singular pronouns, he, she, and it and match them with the third person plural pronoun their. Next, I tell students that when a pronoun is used to show ownership, we mean that it possesses something, so we call these pronouns possessives. I point to the singular possessives, his, her, and its and tell students that these possessives usually come before nouns, for example, his pencil, her pen, and its zipper. Finally, I point to the plural possessive their and show how this one word serves as the third person plural possessive. for example, their pencils, their pens, and their zippers.


Tell your students that, unlike the there spelling, the their spelling follows the conventional spelling rule. More specifically, it’s the famous “i before e Spelling Rule.” At this point, a brief digression is in order. The traditional “before e, except after or sounding like long /a/ as in neighbor or weigh” does apply, but it mis-teaches students that the “after c or sounding like long /a/” are exceptions to the rule. They aren’t exceptions; they are parts of the rule. Much better to teach my version of the rule with its catchy song. Play it!

i before Song

(to the tune of “Rig ‘a Jig Jig”)

Spell i before e ‘cause that’s the rule

Rig-a-jig-jig and away we go,

That we learned back in school.

Away we go, away we go!

But before comes after c,

Rig-a-jig-jig and away we go,

and when you hear long /a/. Hey!

Hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-ho.

After that happy song, I bring some sadness to the lesson. I tell students the sad news that some day their parents will die, and that as sons and daughters, they will likely possess what their parents owned (after taxes) and had rights to, such as houses and positions of authority. We say that children are the heirs to what their parents have owned. For example, in monarchies the prince and princess are heirs to the jewel-studded, golden crown and also to the position of king or queen.

I write the word heir on the board and ask how the word fits the “i before e Spelling Rule.” Then I draw a crown on top of the word and I underline that word. Finally, I add the “t” to the beginning of heir to spell their. I sum up the meaning, usage, and spelling memory trick by saying, “T-h-e-i-r is a plural possessive because it has an heir inside the word to shown possession. An an heir, you will one day possess your parent’s crown. It works! Thanks again to Jerry Lebo for that one.

Writing Application

I remind students that singular possessive pronouns must take the place of single nouns, but that this rule can create confusion when the pronoun antecedent (usually the noun to which the possessive pronoun refers) is not gender-specific. All-too-frequently, in our effort to treat men and women equally, we misuse the plural possessive pronoun, their, by referring to a singular subject. For example, this sentence is incorrect: The student ate their lunch. The plural possessive pronoun, their, cannot refer to the singular noun, student. Again from a lesson in my Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Grades 4-8 programs:

Avoid using gender-specific pronouns to refer to pronoun antecedents, which the writer does not intend to be gender-specific. The best way to fix this error is by making the antecedent noun or nouns plural. Revision Example: The student students ate their lunch lunches. Or revise the sentence without the pronouns. Revision Example: The student ate their lunch.


Meaning and Usage

They’re is a contraction, meaning they are. To start this lesson, I re-teach the four are contractions.

You are you’re Example: You’re funny.
We are we’re Example: We’re family.
They are they’re Example: They’re going to the store.
Who are who’re Example: Who’re you?

Source: Fry, E.B., Ph.D. & Kress, J.E., Ed.D. (2006). The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists 5th Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Teach your students that the apostrophe in a contraction is used to indicate a missing letter or letters. With the are contractions, the apostrophe takes the place of the letter “a.”

The they’re word is often mispronounced as three sounds (/th/, /ā/, /er/), rather than as two (/th/, /ār/). Thus, the there, their, and they’re homonyms are perfect homophones, though they are not homographs. Take time to teach these terms: Homonyms are words which sound or are spelled the same. One subset, homophones, are words which are pronounced the same; the other subset, homographs, are words which are spelled the same.

Have students say this sentence out loud, pronouncing the there, their, and they’re  exactly the same as two sounds:

They’re waiting for their friends over there.


Again, with they’re, we have a non-phonetic sight word, or outlaw word spelling. They’re is a common contraction, but does not make the Fry 300 High Frequency Sight Words List. In fact, only one contraction, it’s, does make the list at #300 in terms of frequency.

However, the pronoun in the word is they, which is #19. Because the word appears so often in text, students beyond second grade usually have mastered the spelling. The spelling trick for they’re, which is often misspelled, is to see the contraction as two separate words: they + ‘reOnce students make this visualization, they usually spell the they’re with consistency.

Writing Application

Eliminate To Be Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

Teach your students that contractions, such as they’re only belong in informal writing and speaking. The use of they’re is usually confined to story dialogue, because we tend to say “they’re” more often than “they are.”

Point out that good writers not only avoid using they’re in formal writing because it is a contraction, but the word also includes a “to be” verb: are. Good writers tend to reduce the number of their “to be” verbs in narrative and expository writing and replace these with more active, vivid, show me–don’t tell me verbs. Check out this article, “How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs” for strategies to help your students reduce “to be” verbs in their writing.


If more than one of the above curricular resources interests you, you may wish to check out the

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 BUNDLES. Each BUNDLE includes these full-year grade level programs: Teaching Grammar and MechanicsWriting Openers Language ApplicationDifferentiated Spelling Instruction, and the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit, plus many additional instructional resources. Each grade level BUNDLE was designed and classroom-tested as a seamless program to help your students master each of the Common Core Language Strand Standards and provides perfect instructional continuity among the grade levels.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Here’s what teachers are saying about the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary program…

“The most comprehensive and easy to teach grammar, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary program. I’m teaching all of the grade-level standards and remediating previous grade-level standards. The no-prep and minimal correction design of this program really respects a teacher’s time. At last, I’m teaching an integrated program–not a hodge-podge collection of DOL grammar, spelling and vocabulary lists, and assorted worksheets. I see measurable progress with both my grade-level and intervention students. BTW… I love the scripted lessons!”

─Julie Villenueve

Program Overview

  • 56 language conventions (grammar, usage, and mechanics) lessons with teacher display and student worksheets
  • 28 spelling patterns tests and spelling sorts with teacher display and student worksheets
  • 56 writing openers language application with teacher display and student worksheets
  • 56 vocabulary worksheets
  • 28 biweekly grammar, usage, mechanics, and vocabulary unit tests and summative spelling assessments
  • Diagnostic grammar, usage, and mechanics tests with corresponding remedial worksheets–each with a formative assessment
  • Diagnostic spelling patterns assessment with corresponding remedial worksheets–each with a formative assessment
  • Language application remedial worksheets–each with a formative assessment
  • Complete syllabication program
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Get the There, Their, They’re Poster FREE Resource!

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Sight Word Activities

Sight Words

Which sight words should we teach?

Most every reading teacher places some value on sight words instruction; however, just what teachers mean by sight words varies more than the flavors at the local ice cream parlor. Reading specialists describe two methods of “word attack”: word identification and word recognition. Sight words are the word recognition side of the coin. Some mean high frequency reading words and trot out Fry or Dolch word lists. These words consist of those most frequently found in basal reading series. “By the end of second grade, your child must have memorized the top 200 words.”

Other teachers see sight words as high utility spelling words. You can spot these teachers by their prominently displayed “No Excuse” spelling words on a colorful bulletin board. Thanks to Rebecca Sitton, these collections of words are the words that children most often use in their beginning writing. “By the end of second grade, your child must have mastered the spelling of these words in their writing–no excuses!”

Still other teachers understand and teach sight words as word family (rimes) words. A rime is a vowel and final consonants in one syllable, such as “ick.” The rime usually follows an initial consonant, e.g. “t,” or consonant blend, e.g. “tr,” to form words, e.g., “tick” or “trick.” Teachers using rimes have their students memorize what these chunks of words look and sound like and then apply these to other starting consonants (called onsets) to recognize or say new words. “By the end of second grade, your child must know every one of these 79 word families with automaticity.” Get a comprehensive list of rimes and terrific learning activities Word Families (Rimes) Activities.

The last group of teachers view sight words as Outlaw Words. That’s right… stick ’em up, cowboy! These words break the law, that is they break the rules of the alphabet code and are non-phonetic. Words such as the and love are Outlaw Words because readers can’t sound them out. Unfortunately, many of our high frequency and high utility words happen to be non-decodable. Linguists tell us that these are holdovers from our Old English roots.

So Which Sight Words Should We Teach?

Although reading  research clearly supports systematic explicit phonics as the most efficient instructional methodology, as a reading specialist I support a Heinz 57® approach to sight word practice.  Although not a substitute for explicit phonics instruction, memorizing key sight words does makes sense to promote reading automaticity. And, as a bonus, parents can be helpful partners in practicing sight words with their children. Although oftentimes well-intentioned parents frequently do more harm than good when they teach their children to blend improperly (think “buh-ay-nuh-kuh” sound-out for bank), practicing sight words is almost foolproof.

For older students, say second-graders or reading intervention students (think Response to Intervention Tiers I and II), these Outlaw Words and Rimes Assessments with recording matrix provides  teachers with the data they need to effectively differentiate instruction.

And here are some terrific Outlaw Words Activities and  Word Families (Rimes) Activities to make sight word practice fun in the classroom. Also check out the phonics materials and activities found in these articles: Phonics Games and in How to Teach Phonics. Finally,  check out these related Phonemic Awareness Activities.

Who says you can use diagnostic phonics assessments to inform guided reading instruction? Want to have the best of both worlds to pinpoint instruction? Check out the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books, Diagnostic Assessments, and Running Records. Get both vowel and consonant comprehensive whole-class phonics assessments with audio files AND 3 guided reading phonics books with focused phonics patterns, comprehension questions, 2 new sight words, 30-second word fluencies, and running records.

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The Teaching Reading Strategies (Reading Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight-adult. Ideal as both Tier II or III pull-out or push-in reading intervention for older struggling readers, special education students with auditory processing disorders, and ESL, ESOL, or ELL students. This full-year (or half-year intensive) program provides explicit and systematic whole-class instruction and assessment-based small group workshops to differentiate instruction. Both new and veteran reading teachers will appreciate the four training videos, minimal prep and correction, and user-friendly resources in this program, written by a teacher for teachers and their students.

The program provides 13 diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files). Teachers use assessment-based instruction to target the discrete concepts and skills each student needs to master according to the assessment data. Whole class and small group instruction includes the following: phonemic awareness activities, synthetic phonics blending and syllabication practice, phonics workshops with formative assessments, expository comprehension worksheets, 102 spelling pattern assessments, reading strategies worksheets, 123 multi-level fluency passage videos recorded at three different reading speeds, writing skills worksheets, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards (includes print-ready and digital display versions) to play entertaining learning games.

In addition to these resources, the program features the popular Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable books (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each 8-page book introduces two sight words and reinforces the sound-spellings practiced in that day’s sound-by-sound spelling blending. Plus, each book has two great guided reading activities: a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns and 5 higher-level comprehension questions. Additionally, each book includes an easy-to-use running record if you choose to assess. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug. These take-home books are great for independent homework practice.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

FREE DOWNLOADS TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.




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Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

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