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How to Teach Writing Conventions

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

All students need to know the conventions of writing. While at one time grammar skills were taught in isolation, we now know that interweaving them with authentic instruction works best. Let's explore this in more detail below.

What Are Writing Conventions?

David is beginning his student teaching experience in a third grade classroom. The first task his cooperating teacher, Ms. Jasper, assigns him is to teach writing. David reviews the teacher's books to plan instruction but is immediately confused. When he was in third grade, the teachers taught grammar and spelling for 50 minutes a day. Ms. Jasper, however, seems to blend teaching writing conventions into an overall writing instruction time. What's going on?

Effective writing includes various skills. Teachers need to not only teach students the craft of writing, like how to keep an audience interested and entertained, but also how to use proper writing conventions. Writing conventions include methods that help the audience understand a student's writing and include the following:

  • Mechanics are things needed in written language that aren't necessary in speech. For example, we don't need to punctuate sentences, spell, or determine paragraph breaks when we talk.

  • Usage is the conventions of language, such as verb tense and word order. Proper usage skills are necessary for both written and oral language.

Teaching Writing Conventions

David's right. At one time, mechanics of writing and usage were taught in isolation. David talks to Ms. Jasper, and she tells him that we now know students learn writing conventions better when they're woven into writing instruction. In other words, most writing instruction now includes teaching conventions as part of the writing process. What does this look like?

The writing process, or the steps writers go through to publish a piece of writing, includes prewriting, writing, editing, revising, and publishing. Teachers take their students through this process several times throughout a school year. To teach writing conventions, teachers build them into instruction, typically during the editing phase. Why is this?

When do you learn and remember best -- when you're given an abstract concept or when you have a meaningful example? When taught conventions with their own writing pieces, students are more likely to learn and remember lessons about mechanics and usage because they are given context that has an impact on them, on their own writing. This process looks different depending on the age group. For instance, upper elementary students learn very different things than first graders. Let's see how that breaks down.

Writing Conventions: Early Elementary

Students in the early years are learning to read and write. When developing a piece of writing, the focus should be on getting ideas onto the page. Teachers often see students at this stage too focused on 'getting it right' to be creative. Because of this, teachers should allow early elementary students to write a first draft without worry of conventions. When they're comfortable with drafting, simple editing skills that focus on conventions can be introduced.

Children at this age should be taught to use a word wall, a place in the room to display high frequency words for students to reference. They should be showed how to apply the skills they're learning about sound-symbol relationships to get writing on the page. Teachers should lay the foundational knowledge concerning punctuation and capitalization by pointing these concepts out during shared reading, eventually having students apply them to writing they're ready.

Writing Conventions: Elementary Grades

By the time a student reaches David in third grade, the basic understanding of the writing process will likely be solid. David can begin instructing specific aspects of writing conventions.

  • Mechanics: By third grade, the ability to just sound out words may no longer work. As students encounter more complex language, they need to be able to properly spell words. Teaching language patterns and rules helps guide students toward predictable spelling guidelines. Students still rely on the word wall. Instruction should continue with punctuation rules, building on periods and capitals to include commas and ellipses, for example, as well as a new focus on run-on sentences or sentence fragments.

  • Usage: David can also teach students at this age how language is used. He can check for subject-verb agreement and teach pronoun usage. Students this age are also able to understand past, present, and future tense verbs.

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