The right tools help get a job done well.
A toolbox is a well-used metaphor because it denotes a set of tools or skills that help get a task done well. Helping students become better writers is an everyday responsibility for each member of the team, and a shared set of effective strategies benefits both the teachers and their students.
Tool # 1: Knowledge of the grammatical errors most likely to doom speakers and writers to be viewed unfavorably.
There are specific grammatical mistakes that grate on people’s nerves and often lead to a diminished respect for the person committing the error. When a team collaborates to help their students eliminate these blunders from their conversations and writing, they move their students toward meeting standards and being able to present themselves in a favorable light in any situation.
The image below lists the most egregious grammar errors.
Most egregious grammar errors
This image lists grammar mistakes that many people consider very serious.
Grammar mistakes to avoid.
Here are three ideas of how a team might make use of this knowledge:
- Identify which of these serious grammar mistakes are most prevalent in your students’ speaking and writing. Then, create a plan for helping students eliminate these errors. Helping kids with their grammar can be very delicate work because they may interpret any corrections as an insult to themselves or their families. It is important, I think, to set a context by talking about audience and purpose. For example, the way any of us speaks in a job interview is different from the way we chat with our friends. Taking the time to have conversations about the different ways we communicate with family and friends, in the neighborhood, at a religious service, for an assignment in school, or applying for a job is important. The topic of informal and formal speaking would make a great advisory unit. Students could role play, make posters, create public service announcements for younger children, or draw cartoons that illustrate proper grammar usage.
- As a team focus on one particular error for a week or two — The week of eradicating the double negative or Stamp out sentence fragments month.
- Use common rubrics that include specific grammar usage issues. If the team agrees that they are going to look for three specific errors in all of its students’ writing, students will have proper usage reinforced in multiple contexts. They will also see that all of their teachers value correct grammar. And… for non-language arts teachers it may relieve some stress related to correcting for proper grammar in their assignments. As students’ work improves, add additional grammar usage issues to the mix. It is critical to continue talking about student writing in team meetings and building everyone’s expertise and confidence in addressing writing in their curriculum area.
***Of course, correct grammar is just one aspect of teaching writing across the curriculum. We’ll look at some additional ideas in later posts.
Being able to communicate well is important. Fair or not, we all are judged by our command of language whether it be spoken or written — print or digital. When you read comments on blogs and they are full of spelling and/or grammatical errors, do you take them less seriously? If you see a glaring error splashed across a ten foot screen in a PowerPoint presentation, do you get a bit judgmental? Someone says, “Him and me brung it the store.” Do you cringe?
Many of our students do not come to school speaking and writing well. We must help them develop that internal ear for proper usage. Teams can work together on this process. “Whoa!” some of you are saying. “I’m a math teacher, not a grammar teacher.” Fair enough. However, what if there were a short list of usage errors that really labeled a person as stupid or uneducated or ignorant? Wouldn’t everyone on the team be willing to look for ways to help their students learn to correct these errors?
There is such a list. Constance Weaver in her book Teaching Grammar in Context sites a study that identified the 30 most grating usage errors. That’s too many for a team to take on, but 4 of them are labeled as “status marking”. Here they are:
- Nonstandard verb forms in the past tense or past participle brung instead of brought or had went instead of had gone
- Lack of subject-verb agreement: We was instead of we were or Freddy don’t live there instead of Freddy doesn’t…
- Double negatives: I don’t have no… There never has been no reason to…
- Objective pronoun (me, him, her, them) as the subject of the sentence. Him and I are going to camp.
Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.p. 112.
A team could take on one type of error per month. The Month of Duplicitous Double Negatives! Make that Subject and Verb Agree! The Case Against Bad Verb Form! Will the Correct Pronoun Please Stand Up! Have some fun with this exercise. However, it’s very important to be up front with the kids and explain what the purpose of the various activities are and invite them to be active participants. Make it clear that there is a specific goal of stamping out a particular grammatical error over the next month. Things you might do as a team…
- Put posters up in every room. Remind students to refer to them when speaking and writing.
- Have contests:
- Catch the teacher in a grammar error! (Teachers purposefully misspeak and students win points for their homeroom when they catch the teacher making a mistake; homerooms receive recognition for having the best grammar detectives.)
- Write raps or poems or song lyrics that explain the right and wrong way to say something. Have a whole team meeting and let the students perform for one another.
- Have student make podcasts on the proper usage and post to the school webpage. Check out the Princeton Review Vocab Minute for samples of quick podcasts. These are not grammar related, but they are a great model for a very focused podcast.
- Declare a “No Double Negatives Zone” in the team area. Have the students create big, bold images to delineate the area. A strong, visual message will be seen by one and all.
- Remind students when they are writing journal entries or open-ended responses in every class of the usage rule(s) the team is focused on that month and all previous months.
- Celebrate growth in proper usage among your students. Show them you are noticing small improvement. Today we’re celebrating that I didn’t hear one double negative all week! High fives everyone!
Make sure that you don’t inadvertently embarrass a child when s/he makes an error, especially if it’s in front of the class. Find ways to gently correct, perhaps by asking them to restate what they just said as you stand under the poster with the grammar rule on it. Some standard English usage errors are deeply ingrained in communities, and any public correction may cause problems. Knowing your students well will help deflect any possible negative reactions. These types of situations are good opportunities to talk about the importance of audience and purpose when speaking and writing.
Fair is fair and after the team has taken on grammar usage for a couple of months, take on another skill from another subject area–Algebra is all around us! Applying the scientific method to all of our critical thinking! How are we making history here and now?