Posts filed under 'Exploring Words'

Lasting and meaningful grammar instruction

In their new PD video, Getting into Grammar, Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty bring you and your staff into two elementary classrooms to see how expert teachers weave grammar into literacy instruction using both nonfiction and fiction mentor texts.

Building on their bestselling book Grammar Matters, Lynne and Diane team with teachers in second- and fifth-grade classrooms to demonstrate lessons over two days. You’ll see examples of effective guided practice, roving conferences, shared writing, and other teaching strategies, and learn from the post-lesson debriefs and reflections shared by the teachers and authors. The streaming version includes a bonus segment from a kindergarten classroom.

Teaching grammar every day is important to developing readers and writers, and Getting into Grammar demonstrates how to do it with purpose and lasting impact. Watch the 8-minute segment “Exploring Prepositional Phrases” online!

Add comment November 18th, 2015

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Washington State

We continue our series on effective PD initiatives using Stenhouse books week with a visit to Washington State, where teachers working with the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss are using Word Nerds to help their students become more proficient readers and writers. 

Teaching Students the Language to Learn

As soon as Cathy Corrado finished reading Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary (Stenhouse, 2013), she knew it would be a great resource for teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing. Among other things, the book stresses the importance of using visual and physical cues for word practice and building students’ recognition of word relationships so they can confidently approach unfamiliar terms.

“It’s hard to say to a profoundly deaf kid, ‘What sounds do you hear?’ Everything has to be visual,” says Corrado, who provides literacy and academic support for teachers in Washington State through the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss (CDHL). “Things like reading mastery are really hard for struggling deaf kids. It has to be in-your-face obvious. Deaf kids have a phonetic system; it’s just not the same as ours. In building fluency, we have to show them the pattern of the rhyme but not make it entirely sound based.”

Similar to many students who have learning disabilities, children who are deaf or hard of hearing often don’t know the “language” of reading, Corrado says. They don’t have the same reference points as hearing students and may lack what’s known in special education as executive functioning, which includes the ability to select appropriate strategies for solving problems.

“We know that executive functioning skills depend on language ability. If they want to work on executive functioning, they need to work on language. And if they want to work on language, they have to work on vocabulary. That’s why the book is so good.”

Corrado says special education coordinators and teachers of the deaf in Washington State are spread out among nine geographically distant educational service districts and rarely get the opportunity to meet in person to engage in professional learning. So she decided to set up an online book study of Word Nerds, using videoconferencing.
“People volunteered to read a chapter and then we reported back at the next meeting two months later,” Corrado says. “Some people did a list of what they learned. Some people did a spreadsheet. Everybody’s notes were different, what they learned from the chapters. It was a good way to get attention to the book. It really summarized everything in a nice way.”

One participant created a graphic organizer to share key points, using the headings Information That Affirmed Current Practices, Information That Gives Us New Ideas, and Information That Needs More Follow-Up. Another participant linked the main ideas in Chapter 4 to literacy strands addressed in the Common Core State Standards.

Julia Fritz, a teacher of the deaf at Cascade Middle School in Vancouver, Washington, says she was struck by the importance of the authors’ message that the Common Core expects students, beginning in first grade, to use sentence-level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

“My thought was, ‘Teachers of the deaf know this is an ongoing need for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids, but now it is being forced on us to raise the bar even higher with more of those kids in the general education classrooms,’” Fritz says.
Vocabulary is probably the weakest area of literacy development for most deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Fritz says. They share many of the common learning gaps that cause children from high-poverty and language-deficient homes to struggle in school, because families of deaf students often cannot communicate fluently and directly in their children’s preferred mode of sign language. Fritz says she was glad that the Word Nerds authors shared successful strategies for addressing the needs of at-risk populations. The book’s emphasis on Tier Two words—high-frequency words students will likely encounter in their school reading yet probably don’t know well—was an important reminder to make language nuances clear to students and explicitly teach them word-attack strategies for subject-specific terms.

“I have a student right now, and I realized on his standardized test that he’s great at math and science, but he doesn’t have a lot of words for things,” Fritz says. She’s using Word Nerds to make sure she addresses his academic vocabulary when completing his Individual Education Plan.

Developing vocabulary knowledge can be especially challenging for students who use sign language, because one sign can represent multiple meanings and synonyms. For example, the same sign is used for discontented and its synonyms aggravated, dissatisfied, and disgusted. Likewise, some words may have multiple signs—there are at least eleven different ways to sign the word run.

“You have to have specially designed vocabulary, and it needs to be very intentional,” Fritz says. For multiple meanings of words, she uses graphic organizers to explain some of the variations so students will learn to look for context clues in reading to determine the precise use and signs for words.

Word Nerds includes examples of graphic organizers, such as the adapted Frayer Model and the Graphic Organizer for Crystal Ball Words , which the authors use with students to help them think through word choices when reading, writing, and speaking. The book also recommends giving students practice using cloze sentences to understand how context clues can uncover shades of meaning, as well as finding synonyms, antonyms, and analogies to further clarify the correct terms.

Fritz says she also took many notes on Chapter 7, which stresses the importance of teaching students about prefixes and suffixes and Greek and Latin roots to help them understand word relationships and decipher longer, unfamiliar words.
“I loved this idea,” she says. “I think it’s such a huge, missing gap. We’ve gotten rid of studying Greek and Latin parts as a requirement for schools.”

Spreading the Word About Vocabulary Instruction

At the time she set up the collaborative book study for her Washington State colleagues, Corrado says she did not know about the study guide that Word Nerds coauthors Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith had prepared to help educators implement the strategies discussed in the book. She later alerted her colleagues to the resource. Corrado also plans to continue discussing Word Nerds through a listserv for state teachers of the deaf.
“We all share the listserv as a common place where we can go and throw a question out and people can respond to it,” she says. “Or if they need something, I might say, ‘Try this.’ What I will do this coming year is share information about great strategies for teaching vocabulary from the book. Then you start generating a conversation about the recommendations: ‘What did you think? How did it work?’”

Corrado and Fritz say they learned a great deal from the online book study and recommend the approach to others. They also have some suggestions for maximizing the results:

  • Insist on a collegial dialogue, not just sharing notes or summaries of books under review. “The ‘cheat sheets’ are nice,” Fritz says, “but you don’t know what they mean until you have the conversation. The conversation solidifies it and makes it alive for you.”
  • Make sure all participants can access notes and important charts and visuals from the books, particularly if they are meeting at remote locations. In Washington State, not all of the educators participating in the videoconference about Word Nerds had seen the book prior to the discussion. When conversation turned to some of the useful forms included in the book’s appendix, for example, not everyone understood the references. In hindsight, organizers wished they had thought to capture some of the images on screen to refer to during key points in the conversation.
  • Do a test run before the videoconference to ensure that school or school district technology departments can troubleshoot potential problems. “Make sure everyone knows how to call back in should they get disconnected during the conference,” Fritz says. “Make sure you know how to mute your microphone because of interruptions. Make sure you’re not in a room where direct sunlight is shining on the screen, because you won’t be able to see the people or documents.”

Add comment March 4th, 2014

Now Online: Word Nerds

Vocabulary opens the door to improved reading comprehension, writing, and content-area learning, especially for kids from high- poverty families. Students need vocabulary instruction every day to build lasting word knowledge. But how can you fit this into an already-packed literacy schedule? And how can you make it engaging and fun?

Classroom teachers Leslie Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith teamed with veteran literacy educator Brenda Overturf to develop an innovative 5-part plan for vocabulary instruction, which they share in their new book, Word Nerds. Refined over two school years in real classrooms, their framework helps teachers improve student achievement while building confidence and enthusiasm about word learning. You’ll find:

– 10 essential ingredients for effective word study;

– routines and classroom structures that support vocabulary;

– how to introduce new words in both primary and intermediate classrooms;

– making the most of synonyms and antonyms;

– a collection of engaging activities for practicing and celebrating words;

– formative and summative assessments;

– connections to the Common Core State Standards throughout.

The appendixes include reproducible planners, organizers, and rubrics.

Word Nerds will be released early next month, and you can pre- order and preview the entire book online now!


1 comment January 17th, 2013

Now Online: Poetry Mentor Texts

Poetry Mentor Texts is the perfect guide to help us on our journey of locating the just-right poem to inspire and guide our students in writing and reading poetry.
—Georgia Heard

Building on the success of their books Mentor Texts and Nonfiction Mentor Texts, Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli use the same practical structure to make it easy for teachers to incorporate model poems into literature circles, small- and whole-group instruction, and mini-lessons.

Each chapter of Poetry Mentor Texts features five mentor poems that focus on one of five student-friendly poetic forms, including the list poem, acrostic poem, and poem for two voices. Lynne and Rose use the mentor poems to highlight essential writing traits such as word choice, point of view, and figurative language. Student samples and “Your Turn” lessons help you transfer the ideas into your classroom.

Poetry Mentor Texts shows you how to leverage students’ natural love of poetry to strengthen reading as well as writing. The print version will be released in mid-November, and you can preview the entire book online now.

Add comment October 23rd, 2012

Quick Tip Tuesday: Two-word sentence smack down

In this week’s Quick Tip, Jeff Anderson demonstrates how his two-word sentence smack down activity helps students identify what is a sentence and what isn’t. This tip comes from Jeff’s book Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop.

In Plain English: A sentence must contain at least one subject and one verb, and it must form a complete thought. A fragment is missing a subject or verb, and/or it doesn’t contain a complete thought.

AKA:  Incomplete sentence, non-sentence, intentional fragment.

A fragment is not a sentence. It may have a capital letter. It may even have a period, but it’s missing an important element, such as a subject or a verb. Fragments may add rhythm, emphasis, and variety to writing—when they’re intentional—and sometimes even when they’re not. However, students need the ability to fix sentence fragments. They must be able to identify them and avoid writing them in high-stakes situations such as testing. Sentence fragments may also make writing appear sloppy and incorrect. Students need to distinguish between the effective use of fragments, which is purposeful and rare, and the ineffective use, which looks careless and choppy.

To identify and correct fragments, writers must understand the simple sentence. They don’t need to mark all the parts of speech or make a diagram. Students do need to know that a group of words starting with a capital letter and ending with a period is not necessarily a complete sentence. When I ask students what makes a sentence a sentence, they respond: “Letters,” “A capital at the beginning,” and “Periods.” But what do they really know about the sentence?

Do they know that a minimal simple sentence must have a subject and a verb? Sean laughs. That’s a simple sentence. We could add a few prepositional phrases such as at The Real World blaring from his plasma screen TV. While those prepositional phrases add detail, they are not needed to form a simple sentence. Everything students learn about sentences, from compound to complex, rides on this essential understanding: Simple sentences are made up of a subject and verb. Sean laughs. Who or what laughs? Sean, the subject. What does he do? Laughs, the verb.

The ability to pare a sentence down to its essential core is the first tool students need in order to uncover the craft of all sentences.

Student Error:  “When I was five. I had a Chuckie doll. I would scare everybody with Chuckie. Chuckie was about two feet, had orange hair, little red and white shoes, overalls, and plastic knife. I replaced the plastic knife with a real knife. To make Chuckie look more like the real thing. From the kitchen Drawer. Like a mini-butcher knife. I super glued it into Chuckie’s hand. Ready for business.”

Behind the Error: This is a typical student attempt at adding sophistication to sentences. Randy doesn’t want to use only simple sentences. He wants to add some life and complexity to his sentences, but in taking this risk, he creates fragments with his punctuation. Have you ever wondered why kids in fourth grade start writing fragments? Their skills aren’t keeping up with their growing intellect and their ability to express ever-more-complex thoughts. Randy writes: When I was five. I had a Chuckie doll. We should celebrate that he’s stumbled on the complex sentence. His thinking needs this more sophisticated sentence form. On the surface, we see a fragment, and if we were bean counting, we might see that he’s writing more fragments now than he did a year ago, but a lot of these fragments are fragments because Randy is punctuating the dependent clause with a period instead of a comma. When students hit this stage, they are ready for more tools to express themselves.

Mentor Text:
 They race. (p. 5)

—Jerry Spinelli, Loser

Matt winces. (p. 364)

Maria flinched. (p. 366)

Matt froze. (p. 370)

Matt nodded. (p. 372)

—Nancy Farmer, House of the Scorpion

Tad watched. (p. 6)

Blood flew. (p. 111)

He sprung. (p. 128)

—Stephen King, Cujo

Two-Word Sentence Smack Down

I ask students to write a sentence in their writer’s notebooks—just one sentence. After a minute, I ask, “What’d you do?” After they share, I ask, “How did you know that was a sentence? What makes a sentence a sentence?” We discuss the fact that most of us know how to write a sentence, even if we can’t explain why. I emphasize that the point of grammar is to help us write. Though we need not know every single definition, we should know a few. Competent, confident writers know that an underlying structure holds some thoughts together and separates others. So, students need to be able to break down a sentence. This knowledge is the foundation for taking writing from choppy to flowing, from run-on to controlled. Understanding this pattern is essential, for every craft move is built on it.

“You know sentences. Everyone wrote a sentence. Even those who said, I don’t know what to write were saying a sentence. It’s basic to our human nature to speak in sentences.”

“So, why is it so difficult to figure them out on tests?” I ask. We discuss an oversimplified formula for the sentence: subject + verb = a simple sentence. It’s easy to lose students’ attention when we talk in abstractions, so I get their eyes on a sentence from a book as soon as possible. Using a sentence from Spinelli’s Loser, I explain the sentence test, which will allow us to strip any sentence down to its core, subject and verb. I write They race on the board. “Is that a sentence? How do you know?” I explain that it’s a sentence if it provides answers to the following two questions:

• Who or what did something? (The subject is They.)

• What did they do? (The verb is race.)

“The core of any sentence is a subject and a verb,” I say. I preselect a few longer sentences from Loser that students can shave down to two words: a subject and a verb.

We pare down a few together first, such as this one: The lights cluster brilliantly up the street at Claudia’s house (p. 174). Using the test, we determine that the subject is lights and the verb is cluster.

“Now we’re ready to do a sentence smack down!” I say. Before class, I have made a wall mat like the one in the visual scaffold, with the categories “subject” and “verb.” To make this activity more exciting, I play some snippets of music from a sports mix. The music adds a feeling of joy to the room, taking the dread out of grammar instruction. I play the music and yell, “Are you ready to grammar?” The music continues to play while students work with their sentences and during each transition.

I put a kid in charge of the music, so I am free to emcee. First, I divide students into groups of three and give each group a sentence (see the Appendix for the “Sentence Smack Down!” handout). Each group then follows the handout directions. After paring down their sentence, they use construction paper to record the subject on one sheet and the verb on the other. After the kids finish with the construction paper, I explain that one member of each group must assume the role of the reader, and the other two will play the parts of “subject” and “verb.” Then I describe how each performance will go:

• The reader will read the whole sentence.

• The “subject” will “smack,” or slap, the wall mat under the word “subject” and yell the subject of the group’s sentence.

• The “verb” will follow, “smacking” the wall mat under the word “verb” and yelling the verb of the sentence.

• The reader will read the whole sentence again.

To illustrate, a group takes a sentence: He reaches back to touch the door. The group pares the sentence down to the subject (He) and verb (reaches). After choosing roles, the “subject” writes He large enough for the class to see on one piece of construction paper.

The “verb” writes reaches and surrounds it with exploding marks to connote action. When called to the front, the reader reads, “He reaches back to touch the door.” Next, the “subject” runs and smacks the subject side of the wall mat, yelling out “he” as well as holding up the piece of construction paper. After that, the “verb” smacks the verb side of the wall mat, yelling out “reaches.” These two hold their positions at the wall mat, while the reader reads the entire sentence again.

Two-Word Sentence Search—Powerful Words, Powerful Verbs

As a follow-up, I challenge students to collect two-word sentences from their reading; this will become a yearlong collection. We post the collection on a wall chart—it’s the skinniest wall chart ever. It is fun to watch students find out how rare two-word sentences are and to witness everything else they discover along the way. When students bring what they think is a two-word sentence to me, such as Or not, I ask the sentence-test questions: Who or what did something? What did they do? Students have no answer. “Is it a sentence then?” A light goes on in their eyes, and they know it’s a fragment. Of course, we exclude dialogue from this collection, but we do have valuable conversations about dialogue tags as parts of sentences.

My favorite craft spillover is that most two-word sentences have powerful verbs, so we have mentor sentences that we can either expand or allow to remain elegant and simple. Students will finally own the core sentence. A great mentor text for two-word sentences is the pop-up picture book Worms Wiggle by David Pelham and Michael Foreman (1989), which is ripe for imitation if one has the inclination.

4 comments December 29th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Content Area Word Learning

In his fifth-grade classroom, Max Brand has integrated word learning into his literacy workshop. In this week’s tip, excerpted from Max’s book, Word Savvy, he talks about how he helps students tackle content area vocabulary.

Content Area Word Learning

Content area learning is ripe with opportunities to develop vocabulary skills. Each content area has a unique vocabulary. The sophistication of the material and its content is embedded in this language. Helping students develop strategies for learning these vocabularies is more than a yearlong effort. I prioritize strategies and skills that intuition and experience have taught me students struggle with while learning content. I also limit myself to a few key goals connecting word and content learning. In my early weeks of planning for content area word learning, I focus on the following goals.

• Do students know when they do not know the meaning of a word or phrase?
• Do students know how to determine if a word or phrase is important for understanding the big ideas of a text?
• Do students have a strategy to figure out the meaning of an unknown word or phrase?
• Do students infer the meaning of unknown words?

I assist students in developing new strategies to tackle these issues as they read short texts during shared reading and eventually independent reading with coaching and guidance. Students need help as they use highlighters and pencils to identify unknown or important words and phrases.

I introduce vocabulary webs and other graphic aids as students develop tools that help them become strategic. These graphic aids help students synthesize what has been learned about syllables, root words, and affixes as they infer the meaning of new words.

Some short nonfiction texts I use are
Write Time for Kids
Time for Kids—Exploring Nonfiction
Time for Kids Magazine
National Geographic for Kids
Bug Faces by Darlyne Murawski
Birds Build Nests by Yvonne Winer
A Drop of Water by Walter Wick
Plant Families by Carol Lerner
Going on a Whale Watch by Bruce McMillan
The Usborne Library of Science—Animal World

Find your own books, and share them with your students. Think carefully about what you want your students to learn about vocabulary through each text. Short texts work wonders for teaching or revisiting developing strategies and skills.

When I sit down to plan, I know that these short texts that take fifteen to twenty minutes to read in June take what feels like forever at the beginning of the year. This “forever” talk is necessary to help students see highlighting, underlining, and using graphic organizers as tools, not tasks. Students learn to respond to their reading by writing. I use shared writing to demonstrate how the students can use the text, their highlighted sections, or graphic organizers to add new vocabulary to their writing, demonstrating a growing awareness of topic and vocabulary.

For example, my first science investigation involved trying to answer questions about food chains—exploring the idea of food webs and the concept that most animals’ food comes from plants. I read Swinburne’s The Woods Scientist to the class. This book describes understanding ecosystems by observation.

The vocabulary strategy I wanted students to develop was using context clues to determine the meaning of synonyms. This lesson fit in well with what we had been discussing because the students would have to determine what the synonyms are, use background information, and relate word meanings, similar to what we were doing during the word connections lessons in word study block. To help the students organize their thinking I used a semantic word web.

While reading, we came across some interesting information related to animal waste. The students enjoyed making a word web about it. The conversation that supports making this type of word web has to be focused on why. Why are we making this web of words? How will this grouping help a reader understand the unknown words feces, scat, and defecate, and the phrase “a bear memento”? What background knowledge is used? Over the course of the week, I read aloud from other books that explore similar ideas. We added words to this list and created other word webs.

Planning for word learning takes practice as I observe, analyze, and reflect about students’ writing and reading processes. There is no shortcut to developing this craft.

Add comment March 24th, 2009

Podcast: Janet Allen on academic literacy

“The single biggest reason that students don’t read textbooks is because they don’t understand the vocabulary words. That becomes not only an impediment to their reading but it becomes the single biggest problem with their writing, because if you don’t have insider vocabulary it’s almost impossible to write about content.”

In this podcast, Janet Allen talks about her new book Inside Words and how it complements her previous books, Words, Words, Words and Tools for Teaching Content Literacy.

Listen to the podcast with Janet

Add comment July 24th, 2008

Questions & Authors: When texting and IM intrude on school work

According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the College Board’s National Commission on Writing, the shorthands and casual style of text messaging is seeping into teenagers’ schoolwork.

The study was based on focus groups and a survey of 700 children, ages 12 to 17, and their parents. The kids reported that “their e-communication style sometimes bled into school assignments,” and about half of them admitted that they omitted punctuation and capitalization in schoolwork.

Liz HaleI think in the future, capitalization will disappear,” commented Richard Sterling, emeritus executive director of the National Writing Project and professor at the University of California at Berkeley, in a recent New York Times article about the study’s findings. He added that when his son asked him what a capital letter added to what a period at the end of a sentence already signified, he had no good response.

We asked Liz Hale, author of Crafting Writers, K-6, to comment on the results of the study. Is it really that bad that kids are writing so informally? Shouldn’t we be happy that they are writing at all? What opportunities do teachers have to turn text messages into teaching moments?

When I was a high school student, I remember my English teacher Mrs. Mathews waving her arms with excitement and praising the wonderful world of poetry. And I shared her enthusiasm. Poetry was the one genre of writing where I could disobey all the rules of writing I had been taught. These days, of course, with the ever-increasing presence of technology in daily communication, there are more and more forms of writing that do not follow the typical “rules” of formal writing. E-mails and text messages, written by teenagers and adults alike, consistently disregard the use of capitals, punctuation, and grammar. Even when I write a text message, I will shorten words, use acronyms, or occasionally communicate an emotion with a 🙂 or a 🙁 . Interestingly enough, I can no longer just type a colon followed by a parenthesis without my computer automatically turning it into one of the little faces in my previous sentence. Even my own computer is programmed for this new language.

All this shortening of language in some ways makes sense, especially when it comes to writing on a cell phone. After all, in the few text messages I send each week, I certainly don’t have the patience to type every single letter of every word with my thumbs. All that matters is that I get the message across. But according to a recent New York Times article, this more informal, short cut style of communication is seeping into the academic writing teenagers do in school. The popular acronyms and symbols they text and email to their friends are appearing in their papers. The most important question is not why are they doing this, but what should teachers do about it.

I think it’s great when some aspects of school allow students to communicate however they wish whether it’s with blog sites, poetry, personal journals or even free-writes done in class. But I think a majority of writing in school should adhere to standard writing expectations, regardless of current trends. Having both outlets in school honors the fact that different generations communicate differently, as do different cultures, but it also respects the fact that we have a responsibility as teachers to prepare students with the skills they will need to be successful in the future.

When I was in middle school, there was no such thing as e-mailing or texting, but we did have an informal oral language that conflicted with the formality of writing. I don’t know how many times my mom told me to stop using “like” in all my sentences, but it sure was what all the cool kids in seventh grade said: “I was, like, so not eating your chips. Like, how can you say that?” If the language I used with my friends back then seeped into my papers, I am pretty sure my teachers would not have deemed it unacceptable, and not because it was a language my teachers didn’t use themselves. Reading a paper that uses the word “like” over and over when it’s not really needed would not only be distracting for most people (even my seventh-grade friends), but it would interfere with clear communication. And I think this is what writing expectations should come down to: what is going to support or hinder clear communication?

When it comes to communicating ideas from one person to another, oral language has a lot more flexibility. When speaking to another person, you know your audience. You use slang or jargon with one person you wouldn’t with another. Your interaction is also live and multi-sensory. Body language and facial expression can add tremendously to the effectiveness of our words. And when I am not being clear, there is instant feedback. All I need is a quizzical look or a “What do you mean?” from a friend for me to stop and clarify what I just said. With writing, none of the above communication supports are givens. It’s not always clear who your audience will be and they won’t always be there to tell you what parts they do or don’t understand. In addition, listening is a much more passive process than reading. When listening to someone speak, your brain is not doing the added work of turning text into meaning. The fact that there is far more brain work involved in extracting meaning from print, as opposed to just listening, matters.

In the New York Times article mentioned earlier, a professor from The University of California at Berkeley suggests that capitalization might someday disappear, alluding to the fact that he could not answer his son’s question about why capitals are needed when a period denotes the end of a sentence. There is nothing wrong with questioning rules, but his point of view disregards the intricacies and incredibly fast pace of the reading/writing connection. Any time a reader needs to readjust, backtrack, or fill in the blanks to make sense of what is written, he or she has to use more effort to turn print into meaning. Few would argue the previous statement if the issue was that all quotation marks or all periods were missing from a novel. But even extra effort on the part of the reader that is barely discernible gets in the way of reading. Paragraph spaces are not absolutely essential to understanding text, but they are still around because they just make the process of reading easier. And this is the reason–the avoidance of unnecessary effort on the part of the reader–is why sentences start with capital letters! If all the sentences I wrote had periods but no capitals, it would take more work to be aware of when sentences end. When you take time to look for a reason behind the rules of writing, you will almost always find one.

So anything that gets in the way of the reader making sense of print–whether it is missing punctuation, run-ons sentences, or trying to decipher slang or acronyms–gets in the way of the purpose of writing: to communicate thoughts, ideas and images as clearly as possible with only the written word. As teachers, it’s our job to help students to get good at writing clearly for a wide range of audiences, not just their peers. The point is not to make teenagers write with this formality all the time. The point is to prepare them so that they can write at this level: so that they can write a grant application that has a chance of being chosen; so they can write an essay for college admission; so they can write a report for their boss or a memo for co-workers that can be easily understood. Otherwise we are, like, choosing popular fads over preparation.

Add comment June 18th, 2008

Authors in Action: Jeff Anderson

During his visits to classrooms around the country, Jeff Anderson often notices a shift in tone when teachers talk about editing and grammar. “I’ve been in classrooms where teachers are doing a lot of great things with writer’s workshop and craft lessons and then they get to editing and they say, ‘Okay, guys. We have to prepare for the test and so now we’ve got to do some editing.’ It sounds like ‘take your castor oil,'” says Anderson.

And the typical editing activity isn’t much more inviting. In the classic daily oral language drill, a teacher puts up a sentence filled with errors and students shout out all the things that are wrong with it. Again, Anderson wonders about the messages that students are taking away: “The brain absorbs the patterns it sees all day; I don’t think it’s a good idea to look at bad patterns.” Instead of leading students on a scavenger hunt for errors, Anderson posts a wonderful mentor sentence and invites students to notice its characteristics and then to imitate its structure. When students immediately start shouting out errors they see in the mentor sentence, Anderson slows them down. “Wait, wait. This year I’m going to put up sentences that I like, that I love, and let’s see what we notice about them.”

Anderson demonstrated the activity in a recent webcast with a group of a dozen teachers and staff developers from around the country. You can listen in to the 45-minute webcast and see Jeff’s slides by clicking here.

Add comment May 22nd, 2008

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