Writer's Workshop, Conventions

Mat 5:18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

God is is a God of order and detail. He paid special attention to each aspect of creation and to His plan for salvation. A simple scanning of Deuteronomy or Leviticus lets us know that He is interested in the minutest details of our lives and how we choose to live. Because of this, we should also take care to present Christ even in the details of our life, bringing every part of our life under the authority of Christ.

The care we take in the details of our life shows the importance we place on what we do. This is as true in our writing as it is in our dress, speech and manners. Different media of expression do call for different levels of care. Errors that no one would notice in a blog become embarrassingly obvious in a resumé. Still, whenever the conventions distract from the heart of the message, the writing becomes cumbersome and difficult to read. Take, for example this entry. There are several simple errors which do cause the reader to stumble. The whole "genre" of blogs is a little more forgiving, but the grammatical error right at the start does throw the reader off a bit.

The purpose of proper use of conventions is to express your idea to your readers clearly. Poor use of conventions will distract from the text, making it difficult to follow. There are, however, no iron-clad rules. Every rule my high school English teacher taught me with her red pen on my papers, I have seen skillfully broken by published authors. Of course, you need to know the rules before breaking them effectiviely, but here are some examples to help illustrate why I maintain that the use of conventions is subordinate to purpose.

First, consider spelling. Conventional spelling allows the reader to concentrate on what you wish to express (your purpose) without distraction. Here is a short "article" I enjoyed that makes skillful misuse of conventions. The structure of the text would imply that the purpose of the text is to inform, however the conventions alone tell the reader that the author's true intent is to entertain.

I was continually marked down on my English papers for sentence fragments. No amount of arguing or demonstrating the effective use of the sentence fragment in classic literature ever helped my grade, and I don't think my 11th grade English teacher appreciated me telling her that Shakespeare would not have faired well in her class. I still have not been cured of them as you can see HERE. (And probably throughout my entries if you really look. See, there's one already.) I'm not saying this is the greatest bit of writing, but put all the sentences back into proper English, and the short piece does not have the same effect.

One final example, because I SO identify with this song. I'm better now, but you should have seen me in my college days. I truly thrived on stress and its infamous counterpart, caffeine. This song makes good use of the run-on. I think there really are only three or four sentences ("Where are the sharks? Where are the sharks?") If you listen to him sing it, he really does do it on only a few breaths, further expressing the frenzied, caffeinated, Type A lifestyle.

Before teaching conventions, it is important to have some idea where your child is and what the next stage of writing s/he should be aiming at is. Take a look at this rubric. It outlines the developmental stages of writing. Assess where your child falls in this rubric. My little Baby Bear (2) is in the scribbling phase. It would make no sense for me to try to teach him spelling lists (even if he were 8...it is about his developmental level, not age.) My Little Mouse, on the other hand, is beginning to approach conventional spelling. She is in the transitional phase, as evidenced by this bit of writing, and explicit spelling instruction would benefit her greatly.

You probably are familiar enough with your child’s writing to place him or her within the appropriate stage, but here is an engaging writing assignment for most elementary students. Keep this (or whatever assignment you choose to use) in a notebook so that you and your child can periodically assess development over the course of the year(s). The title of this exciting bit of prose is, “The Biggest Scab I Ever Had.” You will need crayons, a pencil, blank paper and a band-aid. For the paper, I took one sheet of printer paper and cut it in half length-wise (that would be hot dog fold, or when you have the two long ends touch in folding). Lay that horizontally and fold the right and left edges together to meet in the center. Your child can color this like a big band-aid. He or she then opens up the little book and writes his story about the biggest scab he ever had inside, complete with illustrations. No work is complete without a band-aid. Look carefully at their finished work and decide where they are developmentally if you do not already know. Make sure that your direct instruction is tailored to meet them where they are at and pushes them slightly toward the next stages of development. Movement through these early stages of writing really has more to do with their reading level than anything, so I will give more specific activities for each level in separate entries. Here I will focus on what is appropriate for multiple ages and skill levels.

Daily practice for conventions can start very early. I did this simple activity with my pre-K students, my first graders and my second graders. It is appropriate, with small modifications, until your child has the basic conventions mastered. Each morning, we do a short paragraph about the day. Your paragraph can vary according to how you structure your day. Mine was tied into our calendar routine, which is something I believe those of you who do “Math Their Way” are familiar with. Our paragraph would look something like this:

Today is Wednesday, December 7, 2005. It is 8°F. There is snow on the ground. It is the coldest day we have had so far this month. It is partly cloudy. It might snow more tonight.

When I do this, I verbalize everything I am doing. For young children, that is the extent of it. I say, “At the beginning of a paragraph, I need to indent. That shows I am starting a paragraph. The first letter of a sentence is always capitalized. Days of the week and months of the year always start with a capital letter because they are proper nouns. When you write the date, you need a comma after the day of the week. A sentence always ends with a period.” I make note of each convention and why it is used as I come across it. After children are familiar with this, I will pause and ask, “I am getting ready to start a paragraph. What do I need?” Little Mouse will answer, “An indent!” I do the same for each feature. Later, you can write the paragraph with errors and have children orally correct them. I used this to teach common editing marks. Eventually, they will be ready to be given the paragraph to correct independently on their own paper. When I did this with my second-graders, I made only five mistakes so students knew when they had finished. Most state standards I have looked at require a third grader to consistently begin sentences with a capital letter, end them with a period and have no “random capital letters.”

Here is a quick reference for the most common editing marks needed for young children. It is handy to keep at the front of your writing notebook. Use them consistently for all writing, but remember your child's developmental level. My daughter and I would both get overwhelmed if I made note of every error. Right now, we are working on capitalization/period, so that is all I correct unless she mispells a word I know she knows.

Here is a more extensive list for more advanced students.

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