The Conventions of Grammar
The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.
— Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer, 1963, quoted in Hillocks, 1986, p. 133
Hillocks (1986) meta-analysis spanned twenty-five years of writing research and concluded that traditional grammar instruction was an ineffective way to improve an individual’s writing. Hillock’s claims are supported by over fifty years of research into grammar instruction. The evidence supports what English teachers have believed for a long time, that traditional grammar instruction is not a viable teaching method.
There is a concern amongst teachers that discarding lessons on grammar and conventions could create a generation of students whose written work would be incomprehensible. The question then becomes what we should do as teachers to teach grammar and conventions effectively? The solution can be found in the Features of Effective Writing model which places conventions in the correct placement of the writing process – the very end. At the end of the writing process, when students have revised their work in line with the four other features and can consider the grammar and convention as they edit it for submission.
How do we define grammar conventions?
Conventions are the historic agreements that essay writers have reached about how language should be used. The agreements mean that information is written in a manner that the readers expect and are able to understand easily. Conforming to these conventions aid the communication process. It is a term that is used to describe the surface features of written communication such as punctuation, spelling, and grammar. One can split them into three main categories mechanics, usage, and sentence formation. This article will look at all three areas across a wide range of age groups to see what areas of grammar should be taught, and how to integrate it into an academic syllabus.
The Definition of Mechanics
Spoken and written communication use two different mediums to convey information and are largely two different systems of communication that have their own unique features. Spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphs do not exist in spoken communication but are prominent features of the text-based language. Mechanics is defined as the conventions of language that only exist in the written system.
An example of the different mechanics used in speech production and writing comes from the English Language. English is not a true alphabetic system as the phonetic realization of words do not always correlate directly to their spelling. Some examples are ‘women’ which is pronounced with an /i/ sound, not an /o/ or enough which is pronounced with an /f/ not a /gh/. Speakers do not have to worry about the spelling of the word when it is spoken, although if they wrote the words, they would have to spell them in the standard way, not the way they sound. Written language is also complicated by homophones such as ‘bare’ and ‘bear’ which has the same phonetic realization but different spelling and as well as homographs like the word ‘bow’ that have the same phonetic and orthographical realization but different meanings.
Another example would be the use of punctuation. In spoken language prosody, intonation, and pauses are more natural and don’t have to be thought about consciously. In written communication, you have to think about where to use a period, where to place a comma, if that semi-colon is used right, and how to indicate speech and quotations.
The Definition of Usage
Usage refers to the conventions of both written and spoken communication, and it includes the order words are used in, the tense of verbs, and subject-verb agreements. Children enter school with a basic understanding of how to form sentences to convey meaning, and as a consequence, this aspect may be easier to teach than the mechanics. This is something children learn naturally as they use spoken language to interact and play.
The spoken language used at home is informal, and often has different rules than the formal language used in schools. Children who speak a second language at home may be exposed to different rules of grammar, word order and verb conjugations which may confuse their language production. The children’s language is easier to correct the closer the home language mirrors the language used in the school, although research from bilingual studies suggests exposing a child to a broad range of spoken environments is more beneficial.
The definition of Sentence Formation
Sentence formation relates to how a sentence is structured, and how phrases and clauses are used to create simple and complex sentences. In spoken language word, order or sentence structure cannot be changed after they have been vocalized. While the physical nature of writing allows their creator to sculpture their words. They can combine and rearrange notions into a more compact sentence. The more competent an individual gets with the written language, the longer and more complex sentences get.
Why Conventions Should Be the Final Process
To learn, students need to apply their knowledge, which why is teaching conventions in isolation does not work. Students are required to have the procedural knowledge of how and when to use conventions in a text, and as such oral language activities are of little help. By integrating the instruction into the writing process, students will be applying their knowledge in the channel of communication.
Studies suggest that inserting information about conventions too early in a child’s development of the writing process can be detrimental to the development of the student’s automaticity. Text production has many physical and cognitive aspects that need to be juggled by the writer such as letter formation, spelling, word order, grammar, vocabulary and ideas – and many of these takes have to be done unconsciously to save working memory. Practicing is the best, and quite possibly, the only way a writer develops automaticity. The problem faced by most students is they lack work that will let them develop this automaticity. The most writing students tend to do day to day is fill in blank spaces on a worksheet.
To improve automaticity daily writing tasks should be introduced into student’s curriculum. At first, the assignment should be single-draft writing only; the student should be allowed to use phonetic spellings (eg. Wimin, enuf, nashion) and their work should remain unedited. When students have developed and strengthened their unconscious ability to produce language, the idea of grammar convention should be introduced by the teacher.
Focusing on conventions early is not only detrimental to automaticity but also to the student’s motivation. As teachers and parents are quick to point errors in text production, students lose confidence in their ability to write. If students were praised for their ideas first, they would be more motivated and confident. Cunningham et al. (2003) suggest the best way to develop this confidence is by having students share their first drafts in a positive way that focus only on their ideas and not on the correction of errors.
Conventions should be taught at the end of writing process during the revision phrase when students are getting their work ready to submit. As work will be targeted to a specific audience, the conventions used for the targeted reading group will change, and students will be more motivated to apply conventions of specialist language to the piece.
How to Teach Conventions in Primary (K2)
Primary students should focus on developing their fluency in producing written language. Due to this, they should be given extended writing exercises where their first draft is not corrected for usage, spelling, or punctuation. Primary students should also read their work aloud to develop an ear for their writing. One method through which this can be done is by having a five minute ‘share time’ time were a small number of students read their work to the class.
By the middle of second grade, most students will have learned to produce fluent first draft writing. At this stage, they can be introduced to simple editing rules. Cunningham et al. (2003) suggest that you should start with very basic corrections and build up to the more complex ones slowly. The two cited examples are ‘Does each sentence begin with a capital letter?’ and ‘Does each sentence make sense?’. It is also advised that primary students learn techniques to help them proofread their draft. One of the easiest techniques they can be taught at this stage is read their work out loud, and slowly spot mistakes out. Ideas for developing a lesson plan around this method and its benefits can be found in the ‘mumbling together’ task.
How to Teach the Mechanics
Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization are simpler for young children to spot in their writing. Primary students should focus on these conventions first as they learn to edit their work.
When teaching children of this age, the priority should be placed on them having the opportunity to apply their developing knowledge of the alphabet system and not on having the correct spelling. Have students spell out words through sounds patterns as they write. This will allow them to break down words into syllables and map them to the alphabetic system. This process is known as phonetic spelling. Although this helps with most words, as English is not entirely an alphabetic system not all written word forms correlate to their phonetic counterpart. These words are known as sight words and must be remembered rather than sound out through its constituent syllables. Children learning to write will need to be exposed to strategies that enable them to learn these words. Word Walls are a great way to provide students with a tool for children to learn the common sight words and apply them to their writing.
Punctuation and Capitalization
It is best to teach primary students these basic functions during shared reading and writing periods. When reading a book aloud to the class, the teacher can stop to point out the punctuation marks in the text and discuss what they signify and why they were used for. The first editing rule students should be introduced to is that sentences should end with a full stop.
Usage And Sentence Formation
Learning the definitions of grammar function and their conventions in isolation is ineffective. As such the teacher should discuss why an author uses certain adjectives or verbs in their writing. By talking about these words, students will soon learn how to discuss the words they encounter. The ‘Be the Sentence’ task can help you develop a lesson plan that teaches children how speech and punctuation merge to form sentences.
How to teach conventions to elementary grades (3-5)
Upper elementary students are able to cope with the multiple processes that occur during language production. These students can begin to focus more on conventions. Upper elementary students will also start to write on different subjects were the conventions will differ. The will need to learn how and why these conventions change across subject matter.
Many students will only edit at the surface-level and will never move beyond this to revise or develop the content. By emphasizing editing as the last process that should be completed after the other four features have been revised, we can encourage children to practice more substantive edits.
You can also develop peer learning lesson plans by encouraging students to proofread each other’s work. Encourage students to leave spaces between lines, so the proofreader has space for revision remarks and comments. Students are socially motivated and will become more diligent in their editing if peer marking activities are introduced.
How to Teach the Mechanics
Students will come across more challenging words in the second grade, and will no longer be able to rely on phonetics to ‘sound out’ a word they are unfamiliar with. It is during this period reading or writing impairments become noticeable, and children are diagnosed. By building a robust understanding of the nature of English and developing a repertoire of spelling techniques a student can learn to manage their condition.
English is a language that is derived from many language influences such as Germanic, French, and Latin. As a consequence, it is not a phonetically regular language as it is influenced by many phonetic realizations. Spellings are largely influenced by the etymology of a word and as such can be determined through morphological similarity. This means words are comprised of similar patterns. By teaching a student of the morphological similarity between words, they can develop a technique to use familiar words and spelling patterns to determine the orthographical representation of unknown words.
An example is the word ‘medicine.’ If a student is struggling to determine whether it is spelled with a ‘c’ or ‘s’ they can think of derivations of the word they know such as ‘medic’ or ‘medical’ to inform their decisions. A student could also use morphological derivations to identify silent letters such as using the word ‘bombardment’ to remember the silent ‘b’ in ‘bomb.’
Students should also use ‘making word’ activities and word sorting tasks to discover English spelling patterns. By learning the regular pre-fixes and suffixes from words, they can learn how to decompose words to morphological roots, which will also aid in spelling unknown words (Cunningham, 2000).
Word walls are also a great tool for helping elementary students to learn words that are used in high frequency. The older student’s walls should include homophones, ‘spelling demons’ and other words that are commonly misspelled. To help them build different conventions for subject areas you can build specific walls that are posted on different bulletin boards or topic sheets. This will help children learn and reproduce the core vocabulary or terminology of a specific area. Cunningham and Hall (2002) suggest that you provide students with a folder for their word wall sheets so they can access them wherever they’re studying and so they can develop their own custom spelling sheet.
Elementary students should be encouraged to use phonetic spelling as a placeholder if they are unsure of a spelling during their first draft. They can then check and find the correct spelling of the word during the editing process.
How to Teach Usage
Basic editing rules, such as subject-verb agreement, verb tense consistency, and pronoun usage, should be taught to upper elementary students. As students are exposed to a larger range of genres they can learn that different genres use different verb tense. Past tense is for narratives and recounts of science experiments. Present tense is used for reports, instructions, recipes, and explanations. Future tense is used for plans and proposals.
How to Teach Sentence Formation
Sentence fragmentation usually occurs when a student has problems with combining simple sentences into a complex one that uses subordinate clauses. A teacher can aid a student comprehension in these issue by giving them sentence combining tasks that show students different methods of conjoining sentences into one by using the correct punctuation.
Another problem older students experience while trying to form more complex sentences is a run-on sentence. These provide a teacher with the ideal opportunity to teach their students how to identify the components of speech, such as nouns, verbs and coordinating conjunctions. By learning these speech parts, students can divide run-on sentences into independent clauses. Run-on sentences sometimes occur as students want to highlight how the two sentences are interlinked. Teaching students how to use a semi-colon correctly can help solve this problem. The student can also be encouraged to use other punctuation marks to show the relationship between clauses in a complex sentence.
How to Teach Conventions in Middle and High School
Students that have entered middle school have learned the basic conventions of written language and should have a developed a vocabulary that allows them to discuss how they use these conventions within their writing.
The first thing that middle and high school students need to learn is how to edit their own work so it contains the correct conventions. The best way to get them to edit their work in this way is by having them explore how different conventions are used in different genres, and getting them to discuss the effect that this particular convention has on the reader. By discussing and analyzing rhetorical devices, they’ll learn how to use the devices themselves. Not only will this help them understand the convention at a word and sentence level but it will also let them discover how grammar conventions can aid the reader’s interpretation of a text as a whole. They should also be exposed to writers who purposefully defy these conventions for literary effect through poetry and literature. This will also aid them in understanding how convention informs the reader.
How to Teach the Mechanics
Students who are in middle school should have a good grasp on conventions such as spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing. They should focus on developing their specialized vocabularies that will aid them in producing field related texts rather than developing techniques to aid spelling. Spelling strategies by this stage should be robust and well developed. Middle schoolers should know how to correct their misspellings during the editing phrase by cross-referencing words with dictionaries.
An emphasis should be placed on teaching students how to use conventions that are specific to genres. For example, how informal letters to friends differ from formal business letters, capitalization in poetry, the use of headings and sub-heading to co-ordinate text, and convention for citations.
How to Teach Sentence Usage
Students should understand basic knowledge of sentence usage, such as word order, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and correct use of modifiers by sixth grade. They should start to use nominative, objective and possessive pronouns correctly when they are in middle school. Extension of this knowledge is encouraged through the use of appropriate dialect and comparing usage in different settings – formal, ethnic, and regional versus standard English.
How to Teach Sentence Formation
Middle school students should be experimenting with sentence length to see the effects they have on the reader and reading comprehension. They should be able to produce complex sentence by using the correct punctuation to combine dependent and independent clauses.
High school students start to develop their writing further by knowing how to form their sentences and paragraphs to achieve specific effects. They should know how to structure their sentences in parallel to aid reading comprehension. Sentences and paragraphs should be organized to emphasize the information that they provide about their topic and be laid out in a way that develops their argument logically.
High school students should practice embedding information in a sentence by using a subordinate clause. A great way to practice this is by using sentence combining activities. They should understand techniques like nominalization that converts verbs into nouns in order to create dense informative sentences that have a scientific slant.
Convention Checklist for Elementary Students
- Are your sentences complete?
- Do you have any sentence fragments?
- Are there any run-on sentences?
- Does your work show standard usage?
- Are there subject-verb agreements?
- Is the verb tense consistent?
- Are pronouns used correctly?
- Are the words used correctly?
- Are punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and paragraphs in the right place?