The mini-lessons described on the previous pages are considered “craft” lessons. They equip young writers with techniques used by professional writers. With practice students can learn to use these techniques effectively to create their own literature. Using craft techniques effectively, however, is not enough. Students must also become competent at using language conventions correctly in order to successfully communicate with the reader. Instruction on language conventions consists of three main components:
1. Direct instruction on specific language conventions
2. Practice and application of these skills
3. Self-editing writing to make corrections or revisions
The most effective conventions lessons will be those drawn from the needs of students. When you notice several students struggling with a particular skill, that is a good time to introduce the skill (direct instruction) to the entire class. Typical mini-lessons that need to be taught (and re-taught) during the elementary years include:
? Ending punctuation
? Capitalization rules (sentence beginnings, proper nouns, titles)
? Comma rules
? Punctuating dialogue
? Apostrophe, hyphen, dash, colon, semi-colon
? Suffix rules: when to double the consonant, when to drop the e, when to change the y to i before adding –es
? Homonym confusions (especially there-their-they’re, it’s-its, your-you’re, to-too-two)
? When to use pronouns me or I
? When to indent a new paragraph
? The difference between possessive and plural nouns
Interactive writing is an excellent way to introduce emerging writers to writing conventions. See pp. 6-7 for a complete description.
Traveling books provide a motivating way to introduce young writers to a variety of language conventions. See pp. 13-22 for explanation and directions.
Importance of Punctuation
Ask students to list reasons why they think correct punctuation is important in a piece of writing. Read aloud Punctuation Takes a Vacation by Robin Pulver. Have students guess which punctuation mark has “written” the postcard on each page. After reading it, give pairs of students a copy of a page from the book and have them add the correct punctuation back in.
Have students skip spaces between lines and write on only one side of the page when they are drafting. This allows room for editing and revision changes and allows students to physically cut apart and paste a draft without cutting apart text on the back.
Have students check for spelling errors by reading their drafts backwards. This forces them to focus on each individual word rather than getting caught up in the meaning of the sentence and possibly skipping over errors.
Ask students to begin a class collection of errors that they find in published work, on signs, in newsletters or newspapers. Have them bring their finds in to share with the class. Check out this book for your own pleasure reading: Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Share the children’s version with your students: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! by Lynne Truss.
This technique helps young writers remember to leave spaces between words. It also helps emerging writers separate the text into manageable units that they are then able to “stretch out” and attempt to spell. Begin by having the student decide on a sentence of text. Then have him count the number of words in the text on his fingers. Next have the student draw the appropriate number of lines on the paper—one line for each word. Once the lines are drawn, the child may begin stretching out the sounds in the words and writing them on the magic lines. (Schaefer, 2001)
If a mini-lesson has been taught and a child is still not using the skill correctly, it is time for a one-on-one conference. I have found it effective to use my students’ journals for conventions conferences. The pieces written in their journals are not taken through the entire writing process; that is, they are not edited and revised for publication. Instead, I use the journals as a diagnostic and teaching tool for language conventions (and sometimes for writer’s craft). When I collect journals, I make anecdotal notes on the student’s evaluation form (see pp. 127-128) in my assessment notebook. In the second column I record skills the child demonstrates s/he is consistently using correctly. In the third column I record skills that I need to teach or re-teach. When I meet with that child for an individual conference, I select 2-3 teaching points from that third column and work with the student on just those skills. I then ask the student to proofread a page in his journal, looking for and correcting only the targeted skill/s. If there are other serious errors on the page, those will become the focus of a future conference.
Celebrate successes by showing positive examples of convention usage by displaying student work on the overhead. (Wagstaff, 1999)