Lil' Writers Series Part Three: Writing Basics - Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling
Now that your child is off on their writing journey, you will want to start to zero in on those key fundamentals of writing.
Think of these elements as the foundation of a writing piece. The pillars that "good writing" stands upon. Before you can work on the art of writing beautifully, you have to learn how to write functionally. This means spending time being nit-picky about the mechanics of writing such as grammar, spelling and punctuation.
There is nothing more frustrating than reading a piece of writing that is riddled with errors from a technical standpoint. It genuinely makes the text difficult to get through. It doesn't matter how creative or brilliant the ideas are - if the spelling, grammar and/or punctuation is a mess, the rest doesn't matter. So when I say be nit-picky - I mean it! Teach the skills, send them back, set the bar high and expect a standard of acceptable excellence. They don't need to write like a PhD candidate, but they do need to master basic literacy and written communication skills for their age/skill level.
Before we dive in - here is my most PRO TIP of them all. If you want your child to write better, get them reading more. Even better? READ ALOUD to them more! Even if they are more than capable of reading to themselves.
Huh? But I said I want them to write better, not read better. They read just fine!
It has been proven time and time again that children who read more frequently have a better grasp on writing conventions. Even more so, it has been proven that when a child is read to, they develop a better understanding of complex sentence structure and verbiage, proper punctuation usage and build stronger vocabulary. So beyond anything else you read here today, if you change one thing about your time spent at home, read aloud to your children more (it can be audio books, too!).
So now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's dive in!
Grammar and Punctuation
Grammar and Punctuation can be ANNOYING to teach. Why? Mainly because it's boring. It's dry. You can do your best to hype it up but underneath it all, is just rules and practice. That being said, it needs to be taught! At some point in the not-so-distant future, your child may want to apply for a job, publish a book or poem, develop a business plan, write a proposal, partake in intellectual discussions, give a speech, etc. The possibilities for our kids are endless as long as we help them develop the skills they need to be literate. As I mentioned above, they don't need to become worldly scholars! However, they should be able to put together a standard cover letter or at the very least, speak with appropriate tenses and verbiage. Without proper usage of grammar and punctuation, language falls apart. If our goal is to teach our kids to learn to share their unique and incredible ideas in a way that people can make sense of, whether that is orally or written, they need to have this foundational knowledge in order to do so effectively.
In case you need a refresher yourself...
Grammar focuses on syntactic structure, or structural organization of language such as parts of speech, tenses, words and phrases, etc.
Punctuation focuses on the signs and symbols used in text to help convey meaning in writing. You might recognize these commonly used symbols: . ! , ? " ;
I always like to use humor in the classroom to explain why we need to focus on grammar and punctuation. These cartoons are just a few examples of the many great works that are out there!
Here are some tips to make teaching grammar and punctuation suck a little less...
Focus on one element at a time. Throwing a ton of grammar rules at your kids will not only overwhelm them, it will confuse them! Introduce one new rule or element per week and spend the week coming back to that rule to practice it. Once it's been taught - the expectation is that it will be used properly or corrected in written work after that point. My rubrics for marking start out simple and as I teach more rules, become more complex to reflect the new skills learned. My expectations grow as we continue to introduce new rules.
Keep lessons short and sweet. I like to teach grammar as a series of mini-lessons. This means it ends up being about 15 total minutes of instruction. I start with a fun little video or song (YouTube is stacked with great videos for so many grammar rules!). I introduce the rule with examples, and do a few examples as a group. Then I let them complete a few examples on their own. I tend to do a follow up practice element for homework, whether it is an online or paper-based activity.
Gamify the learning where you can. Kids love when something is turned into a game. Sometimes I'll split the class into two teams and have a rep come up to the board to answer a flash-round style question, practicing the skill we are learning or ones we have recently focused on. Other times, we use digital resources such as Boom Cards, or Kahoot to engage the kids in a different way.
Learn, Practice, Apply, Review! Nothing can be more discouraging than having to re-learn something all over again because it was forgotten knowledge! Does this mean do more rote drills? NO! Apply the rules in the work you are already doing. Have you just covered proper comma usage? In your upcoming paragraph writing task, focus on comma usage as one of your point of assessment. Include the other elements that are key to your paragraph, but make the learning relevant. Apply the rules to your work beyond a practice worksheet. However, when you teach a new rule - think of it as a building block that you are adding on to the ones you've already spent time learning. Keep circling back to rules that have already been taught, re-review, practice and continue to come back time and time again.
Spelling challenges are a frequently asked question of mine. "My child is a terrible speller, what can I do?". Well, firstly, writing and reading go hand-in-hand. If your child struggles with spelling, get them reading more frequently. The more they see text, the more it becomes ingrained in their minds.
I get asked if spelling tests are best practice anymore, seeing as that is how so many of us "learned" to spell when we were in school. I don't believe that the nature of a spelling test achieves the goal, which is to build a better understanding of language structures and apply it to both frequently used and specialty vocabulary words when writing. What it does is promote memorization for a short moment in time and ultimately put pressure on a child to briefly demonstrate a skill with words out of context.
The thing I appreciate about spelling tests are the word lists and the focused practice that occurs weekly. For example, some spelling programs like to focus on words that have similar phonetic structures, such as long a words or words that end in -ing. Other times, teachers like to focus on words from a specific unit or lesson that week. For those doing a Daily 5 or Balanced Literacy program at home, choosing a list of words to focus on for the week can give direction to the programming, without the pressure of a culminating quiz at the end of the week.
Here are some tips for working on spelling at home:
Choose a word list for each week to practice on. It could be sight words, phonics-specific words, vocabulary words, or words that follow another theme such as animals, number words, colours, etc. Stick to a maximum of 10 words per week with an option for 2 additional bonus or challenge words. Unsure how to practice? Check out my blog on sight words for lots of fun ways to practice word lists!
Use word walls and personal dictionaries during writing tasks. Word walls are amazing visuals that are like living dictionaries on display! They are categorized alphabetically and have the most frequently used words displayed on the wall in big, easy-to-read letters. This helps children take ownership over their spelling and look to the resource independently when they need a reminder on how to spell a word. As students get a bit older (Grade 1-2 and up!) they can also have a personal dictionary. This typically has more than the words that they would find on the word wall as they often include commonly used words like family members, colours, numbers, months and days, etc. I always like to suggest one with extra lines so that they can add in new words as they come up.
Keep it pressure-free, but with clear expectations. Scrap the tests and remove an element of achievement that coincides with spelling. If spelling is seen as a continuously growing skill, it will be seen as something of value, versus something to be feared. That being said, provide clear expectations for spelling during work. Whenever any task involves writing, the personal dictionary should be out and edits should be made, especially for relevant vocabulary words that are specific to the task itself. Be clear and consistent!
Don't forget to check in next week for our last part of the Lil' Writers series where we will cover the traits of writing (Ideas, Organization, Word Choice, Voice, Sentence Fluency, Conventions and Presentation) and editing skills.
The series will conclude with a FREE Webinar! Click here to sign up.