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AdLIT In Perspective > 2007 > May/June

Stray from the Conventional Wisdom: Show Writers How to Shape Writing with Grammar and Mechanics

by Jeff Anderson

Before we can talk about what's unconventional in the teaching of grammar and mechanics, we have to settle on what's conventional. I'd have to say death by editing or tough-love-error eradication― you know, papers splattered with red marking off a crime scene of error. We train kids to follow the errors, to become a CSI― crime sentence investigator. That's been the order of the day. As if students take home the eviscerated essay and consider their pattern of error and use a handbook to brush up on their weak spots. I think they file them away― in the garbage― and then assume the identity that they can't write. And as I travel throughout the United States, I hear that this is conventionally― though a bit exaggerated― how grammar and mechanics are taught. There are a few who stray from the flock of the conventional; however, many do unto others as was done to them. I don't mean to get biblical on you, but the teaching of grammar and mechanics has a history, and that affects how it is taught today.

Many teachers tell me, "If I don't mark up every error, how are students going to know they're wrong?" Even more say, "I get it. If I mark every single error, I just make the kids think they can't write. Then, they don't experiment or grow as much as they could." At the same time, I don't think that daily sentence practice works either (you know the drill― one sentence with enough errors to exhaust the most tireless CSI). Every single day we edit a sentence on the overhead. We correct it, but then later the kids don't know how to apply it to their own writing. What are we supposed to do?

I say stray. Stray from the conventional. Stray from teaching students that hunting for errors (Weaver, 1995) is the end-all and be-all of writing. Stray from putting incorrect sentences on the overhead everyday for editing― or is it target? ― practice. Does it make sense for students to stare at wrongness every day (Anderson, 2005)? Really. I am asking. Does it make sense?

When I invite teachers into a conversation about how focusing on a sentence smudged with error might not be a sane educational strategy, they ask questions which range from "What do I do while I take roll?" to "How else do they get enough practice?" The latter is the real question: How do we warm students up― figuratively and literally― to know and use grammar and mechanics to shape their writing?

I began with an attitude shift. In my book Mechanically Inclined: Grammar, Usage, and Style in Writer's Workshop (Anderson, 2005), I propose we love our students' errors. They are going to make them; that is part of the process. Embrace the errors. Rather than putting our students in the author's electric chair, let's invite them to join us on a thinking path toward correctness. We can assist students in following thoughtful paths to make decisions about how grammar and mechanics can best serve them as writers instead of giving them the feeling "You got served!" when they get a paper back with every error marked.

Marking up errors or even staring at them everyday doesn't teach students how to think through constructing powerful sentences or making meaning with punctuation. It teaches them that teachers get excited about errors: capitalization, commas (they really get in a tizzy about those), subject-verb agreement. Name the error― teachers don't like it. In trying to avoid error, students revert to what I call crapshoot grammar (Anderson, 2007). Students know teachers worry about capitalization. If they are unsure of what to do, students know they have a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. They roll the dice and see what happens. Sometimes they're right; sometimes they're not. It's a crapshoot. Have you ever noticed students get it right sometimes and not others? They aren't thinking― they're rolling the dice. That's not what I want, but how do I help students think?

I celebrate attempts rather than eradicate errors― this is essential to move students down the path to correctness and meaning. "Wow, this is so cool. Tell me what you were trying to do here." I follow that up by asking the writer, "Are you ready for a writer's secret?" (Anderson, 2007; Spandel, 2004). Next I offer some writer's advice on how to achieve what the young writer wants. Then the student writer shares the discovery with the class.

It's not about fearing error. It's not about avoidance. It's communication. It's an invitation, providing stepping-stones along the way that teach students how to think about the meaning of their writing and shape what they have to say. I try to:

  • Show powerful models rather than correct weak examples
  • Model thought process and share writers' secrets rather than simply make corrections
  • Encourage experimentation and play rather than have them go on error hunts
  • Facilitate student thinking through grammar and mechanics choices rather than let them guess and hope for the best

But How Do You Teach Grammar and Mechanics?

Writing is about learning how writers create text we want to read, about understanding how to create clear messages― and maybe while we're at it, about creating beauty. Vicki Spandel, author of Nine Rights of Every Writer (Heinemann, 2005), often says in her workshops that every piece of writing is a lesson on writing waiting to happen. Instead of error, I'd rather focus on a great sentence by a student or published author and discuss how the writer achieved the technique, rule, or pattern, and give it a try ourselves.

A student, Jesse, wrote this sentence: If you wake up singing, you will probably get a raise. Besides putting a smile on my face, I knew I could use this sentence to teach my students about subordinate clauses― though I will let Jesse's sentence illustrate what a subordinate clause is rather than name it. When young writers analyze powerful models, they learn from them. I ask, "What do you notice? What did this author use to communicate with his readers?" Students notice that Jesse used a comma to tell us where to pause, and then we suppose why we would need to pause there. Does the if cause us to need a pause? If we say the phrase up to the comma, is that a sentence? Is the part after it? Then students are guided to imitate the sentence. I say, "I noticed that the author started with if. So here is my sentence: If I go into my class smiling, I know my students will learn. I notice that the if part by itself leaves my reader hanging, so I must attach it to a complete sentence that explains what will happen if. Then I ask, "What else did I do like the author?" We go through it step by step, where I put my comma, how I attached the if phrase to a complete sentence. Next, I invite students to imitate the sentence, to play around with the pattern.

Later, students revise a piece of their own writing by using an if sentence― or other subordinating conjunctions as sentence beginnings, as they discover them. We celebrate and recalibrate as we go. At the end of class, we discuss our challenges and successes, sharing our sentences and celebrating what grammar and mechanics can do.

Why Not?

If helping students think and shape their writing isn't conventional grammar and mechanics instruction, I think it should be. Why not? I invite you and your students to look for unconventional ways to teach conventions. After all is said and done― why not?


Anderson, Jeff. (2005). Mechanically inclined: Building grammar, usage, and style into writer's workshop. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Anderson, Jeff. (2007). Teaching editing: The error of our ways. In Constance Weaver, The grammar planning book: A smart teacher's approach. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Spandel, Vicki. (2005). Nine rights of every writer. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Spandel, Vicki. (2004). Creating young writers. Boston: Pearson.

Weaver, Constance (1995). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jeff Anderson teaches middle school in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Style and Usage into Writer's Workshop (Stenhouse, 2005). He enjoys sharing what works in his classroom in staff development as well in articles in Educational Leadership, Voices from the Middle, and English Journal. Recently, he received the National Council of Teachers of English's Farmer Award for an outstanding contribution to English Journal. He has also been selected to be a part of NCTE's consulting network. Currently Jeff is working on a new book about unconventional daily grammar instruction, Everyday Editing (forthcoming). The Craft of Grammar, a DVD of Jeff teaching his students, is available from Stenhouse (June 2007).

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