Tag Archives: grammar

Individual mastery plans: my best weird idea

As many people have pointed out, I do a lot of really weird stuff when I teach writing.

Sometimes the stuff I do becomes mainstream after a few decades: I began flipping my classroom during my first college teaching job back in 1970; I began doing backward design six years later as I wrote instructional materials General Electric’s Field Engineering School.

My best weird idea

One of my best ideas is a method of attacking the written errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are harder to get rid of than Lady MacBeth’s spots.

You know the ones I mean. They are intransigent errors such as:

  • Using it’s when its is called for.
  • Failing to put a comma after an introductory element in a sentence.
  • Writing unintentional fragments.
  • Using commas to splice sentences together.

They are often errors that happen because the writer was concentrating on getting ideas down, not thinking about the appearance of the text.

Or they may happen because the writer’s brain makes his fingers write the most familiar spelling of a homonym set rather than the less common spelling.

Such things are mistakes.

Let’s stop treating them as if they were tragic flaws.

Teach students to deal with them as editing issuesmistakes they can correct before anybody else sees them.

Individual Mastery Plans defined

I call my method Individual Mastery Plans. They are a bit like special education IEPs.

The IMPs identify each individual student’s habitual and serious errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling (GPS) — including homonym errors—and lay out a plan so the individual student can focus on his or her most serious habitual errors.

The goal of an IMP is for students to produce  clean first drafts, rather than error-free final drafts, because a large proportion of writing today is done with only one draft. Clean first draft is a journalist’s term for writing that’s been edited to contain very few serious GPS errors.

My procedure is to identify for each student a list of their most frequent serious errors and then turn responsibility for editing their own work for those errors over to the students. For courses of less than 12 weeks, I usually have students work on eliminating three errors. For year-long courses, I raise the number to five.

How I set up IMPs

I use Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list of the 20 most common errors in student writing as a tool for establishing students’ baseline performance. Early in a course, as students submit written work, every time I see an occurrence of only those 20 conveniently numbered errors  I put its number in brackets after the error.

I don’t correct errors or identify them other than by the bracketed number.

I use word processing software to tell me the word count, and I use find and replace to put each bracketed number into blue type. That process tells me how many errors of a particular type were in the document.

I make sure each student has access to the Connors and Lunsford list in multiple places;  I also provide highly-specific resources  so students can turn in their text or go online directly to the exact paragraph(s) where the rule governing error [13] is discussed.

When I return written work anytime throughout the course, I require each student to graph the type and frequency of their errors. Some students really like graphing their progress.

After students have written enough to give us a picture of their most frequent errors at course entry, I negotiate an IMP with each student based on that student’s graph.

Examples of IMPs

Here’s a sample IMP for Josh who has a real problem with commas:

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Missing comma in a series
  • Missing comma(s) with nonessential (nonrestrictive) element
  • Unnecessary comma(s) with restrictive element

Here’s a sample IMP for Caitlin who has a problem with sentence boundaries and distinguishing its from it’s.

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Comma splice
  • Run-together sentences
  • It’s/its confusion

You’ll notice the IMPs specify a numerical error limit.  Depending on how long the course is, I set my error limit at no more than 1 or 2 IMP errors per 500 words written in class in an hour on a writing prompt the students did not know in advance.

IMPs and the grade cap

If students exceed the error limit set in their IMP, I impose a grade cap. Typically a student who exceeds the limit cannot get a grade higher than C, regardless of the quality of the writing. The grade cap policy eliminates a lot of sloppy papers.

Once the baseline is established, when I grade papers I flag only errors on a student’s IMP plan, and stop flagging when the error limit is reached.

Having fewer errors to flag when I grade papers saves me a lot of time over the course of a year. It makes no difference to Caitlin’s grade if she had 3 or 30 comma splices in 500 words, but seeing 30 comma splices flagged might well make Caitlin give up trying to master comma splices.

Value of IMPs

Setting up a system for establishing and using IMPs take a bit  of work, but it is a good investment.

IMPs make students responsible for applying their learning to their writing.

Students who historically have not been successful in a writing classroom find reassurance in having an aspect of writing that they can measure and control. Having the same number of errors to work on as the class genius has is good for a weaker students’ self-images, and mastering their IMP items is wonderful for their self-esteem.

An IMP is the only method I’ve found that works for such things as eliminating homonym errors and getting students not to use possessive apostrophes when the context requires only a plural. Those are errors that publisher-created exercises can’t touch.


Other blog posts about IMPs are here and here.

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What Americans want

photo of vegetable products above headline about what Americans want in food and the food chain

Don’t just laugh.

Make that headline into a learning activity about how grammar and punctuation interact to create meaning.

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Competition adds bit of fun to eliminating errors

Although it’s only May, it is not too early to plan a major push to get rid of some persistent writing mechanics errors next school year.

Instead of the usual test-prep methods of working on grammar, punctuation, and spelling, try drilling down into the problems students actually have when they write.

Organize a contest to see which students can do the best job of eliminating habitual writing mechanics errors from their own writing. A contest can be done within a class but it’s far more interesting if the competition is between classes or between grades.

chart of top 20 errors in student writing with associated  resources

The most-common student errors and resources for mastering them.

Before the school year starts, pick a specific number of errors that all contestants will attempt to eliminate by a specific spring date. I recommend using between three and five errors as your standard across all classes and all grades. Such small numbers won’t scare students, but even small reduction in habitual serious errors have significant impact on students’ written work.

Also before school starts, identify a restricted list of specific errors to work on. I suggest the 20 errors identified by Connors and Lunsford in their “Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research” as a starting point. Depending on your students, you might need to add other items such as “A sentence begins with a capital letter” or “Texting abbreviation used instead of full spelling.” If you add items, be sure to keep the same syntax on all items.

Before announcing the contest, teachers must establish baseline performance in a 10 to 20 day period for each student in each of their classes class participating in the contest. Establishing a baseline requires multiple writing samples; a single sample won’t work. Having students write individual sentences won’t work either. Students must write at least full paragraphs so teachers can tell what errors students make when they compose.

After baseline performance has been established for each student, teachers can introduce the contest to students.

If the contest rules specify eliminating three serious, habitual errors in the year, then using the writing in which the teacher has flagged the errors from the master list that Josh made, teacher and student together identify that Josh’s three most frequent serious errors. Those three errors become the only errors that affect the writing mechanics aspect of Josh’s grade for the year.

Through the year, each time students write, teachers focus students’ attention on whether they have corrected any instances of the errors on their personal mastery plans before submitting their work. (Note, please, students don’t need to write error-free; they need only to edit their work to eliminate their habitual serious errors.)

This procedure lets diverse groups compete (sixth graders vs. sophomores, for example) without favoring one over the other. Each student is personally responsible for eliminating the same number of habitual serious errors regardless of which particular errors plague the student.

For 10-20 days after the contest end date, do to a post-test by counting the errors in all student work again.

The class that comes closest to reducing the number of errors in their written work to zero is the winner.


Connors, Robert J. and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research.” *College Composition and Communication* Vol. 39, No. 4 (1988), pp. 395-409. Web. JSTOR. 23 Dec. 2014. Access to the original study is restricted by paywalls but as of 23 Dec. 2014, by selecting *read online free* at JSTOR, teachers could get free [access to it](http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/357695) for 14-days. The 20 errors are listed in numerous places.

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Writing mechanics build feeling of mastery

The number of serious mechanical errors most students make routinely is small. Even students who seem to make all sorts of errors can profit from learning to focus on eliminating a handful of them.

Serious mechanical problems often result from misunderstanding some concept that underlies several rules. If they can master one grammar concept, students can often solve several mechanical errors.

If students can be induced to master a small number of serious errors and to edit their own writing to eliminate those errors, students’ work will appear more polished.

Even when eliminating habitual errors produces only modest improvement to students’ written output, the psychological benefit to students of mastering a few of their routine errors can be immense.

graph of student errors

Instead of requiring students to  master “correct punctuation” or “comma rules,” require students to master between three and five individual rules in a school year.

(For high school and college students, I use Connors and Lunsford‘s classic list of student errors for my master list; younger students may need rules such as “begin each sentence with a capital letter.”)

There’s nothing fuzzy about a rule. Someone who understands a rule can determine whether it was or was not correctly applied.

For example, if you understand the rule that an introductory element before a sentence is set off from the sentence by a comma, you can look at a sentence and tell:

  • Is there an introductory element ahead of the sentence?
  • Is the introductory element  set off from the sentence by a comma?

Because correct use of individual rules is countable, students don’t have to wonder if they are doing better. If the number of times they failed to set of an introductory element with a comma declines from five errors per 400 words to two errors per 400 words, students know they are making progress.

I usually require students to graph their errors. Students who struggle with the mechanical aspects of writing find great satisfaction in seeing the graph of errors tip toward zero.


The post based on material in The Writing Teacher’s ABCs, © 2015 Linda G. Aragoni

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Free Cambridge literary terms glossary

The Cambridge University posts online  a free one-page glossary of literary and grammar terms its English faculty use in their online classes.

The first section of the glossary is terms used in the analysis of verse, which are less familiar to students than terms used other literary genres,  The second section explains grammar terms.

English and composition teachers could list the resource in a syllabus or on a course/department website for their students.

The list is short enough that it won’t overwhelm. Hyperlinks expand the brief entries.

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Free Online Linguistics Glossary

Linguistics, the study of language, is a a neglected but vital part of English language arts.

It’s also an area that excites many students. Teachers ought to expand their linguistic knowledge for that reason, if for no other.Snip from web page of linguistics glossary

Like other sciences, linguistics has its own vocabulary. If you don’t know a morpheme from a motor bike, the LinguaLinks glossary of linguistic terms is a good place to find definitions of those specialized terms. The glossary is available free to anyone, no registration needed.

LinguaLinks  is not a site for K-12 students. Use it for your professional development.

If your grammar terminology is shaky, you can get help understanding terms like clause or verbal noun from LinguaLinks.

The glossary is also useful for anyone who must teach reading.

The glossary is part of the LinguaLinks Library developed by  SIL International, which the organization sells. The organization’s website is worth a look for ideas on using language topics to make school meaningful to students from diverse backgrounds living in a global community.

SIL began in 1934 as the Summer Institute for Linguistics. The nonprofit organization’s  “works alongside ethnolinguistic communities and their partners as they discover how language development addresses the challenging areas of their daily lives.”

 

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Simple Games Give Grammar a Boost

The only memory I have of sixth grade is of playing “My grandmother went to Europe,” a traditional memory game.

In the game, the first player (the one closest to the teacher’s desk, if I remember correctly) says, “My grandmother went to Europe and in her trunk she took…” The first player names some object. The second player repeats the sentence adding a second object. Play continues with each player repeating the list and adding an object not already named until a player makes a memory error.

The game requires no real talent, but it has just enough challenge to keep a class from getting out of hand.

An English teacher with a grain of creativity could modify the game to add a bit of oral grammar drill — and possibly drill on other topics as well — while still keeping the game moderately engaging for middle school students and even for some high school students.

Here are three possible ways to add some useful content to grandmother’s trunk:

1) Instead of using the simple past tense, use a different verb tense. For example:

  • “My grandmother will go to Europe, and in her trunk she will take…”
  • “My grandmother has gone to Europe, and in her trunk she has taken…”

2) To give students practice in using irregular verb forms, use a different verb in opening clause such as fly, swim, drive, ride, hike, or cycle.

  • “My grandmother will fly Europe, and in her trunk she will take…”
  • “My grandmother swam to Europe, and in her trunk she took…”

3) When students are familiar with the way the game works, have them invent a pair of clauses to use in practicing other grammar and possibly in recalling other information.

  • “This week my favorite sport is football, but next week it may be __.”
  • “Last month my sister’s hair was blonde, but next week it may be __.”
  • “Anne Frank and her family hid in a building, and in this building there was/were __.”

Since most of us acquire grammar by hearing spoken language, oral activities help students whose out-of-school experience has not provided opportunities to hear “good” English grammar patterns. Try one of the memory games when you have a block of class time that’s too long to waste but too short for any activity you’ve planned.  Observing students’ reactions can provide a useful clue to students who could benefit from ear training in grammar.

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Why punctuation matters in 21st century

Jason Renshaw, who teaches English literacy in a vocational program for students 16-18 in Australia, blogged recently that his students have given up using punctuation:

Evidently, the apostrophe is obsolete to my learners, as are capital letters for proper nouns (though, curiously, they do occasionally capitalise the starts of other words for what appears to be something along the lines of emphasis).

At sentence level, commas are very infrequently used and even full stops are sporadic at best (and almost never followed up with a capital letter to signify a new sentence). Question and exclamation marks are seldom employed; colons, semi-colons, dashes and brackets are quite positively extinct.

Jason discusses the reasons students give for their disuse of punctuation, which range from “that’s what computers are for” to the difficulty of punctuating on a mobile phone.  He notes that punctuation-free prose does not look wrong to students. One student him there’s no need to use punctuation when everyone already knows what you mean.

Unfortunately, everybody does not know what you mean.

The 21st century is experiencing an explosion of English users around the world. Most of them will learn English rather than acquiring it. Those new English learners will not know what you mean unless they can parse what you say or write.

Since punctuation is handmaiden to grammar, only those who understand grammar at more than a superficial, acquired language level, will be able to make themselves understood internationally.

Teens tend to have a cosmos that is all ego, to borrow Henry Syndor Harrison’s phrase. A major function of education is to teach students that the world is a bigger than their circle of Facebook friends. That should include teaching them to use punctuation to make themselves understood by people who do not already know what they mean.

NOTES:
Jason’s  Twitter name is @EnglishRaven.
Novelist Henry Syndor Harrison’s 1911 novel Queed, which contains the phrase noted above, is reviewed here on my vintage novel blog.

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Good grammar question, good teacher

Mindy, a  fifth grade teacher from Ohio, shares her triumphs and challenges today in the teaching grammar forum.

She reports good success with a technique for finding sentence fragments that I picked up from linguist Rei Noguchi’s book Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities. Teaching students to find and repair run-together sentences is proving far more  challenging for her.

I was impressed with Mindy’s clear description of her problem. She explained what happens in a way that made me see the interaction.

I also liked the fact that Mindy wants her students to be able to correct their own writing without her help or prompting. To me, enabling students to get along without a teacher is central to the teacher’s mission.

Perhaps more impressive is the fact that a few weeks from the end of the school year, this teacher hasn’t slacked off on teaching. She’s still trying to find ways to help her students learn the material she knows is important.

Mindy and other dedicated teachers deserve a round of applause—and a pay raise.

[2/26/2014 removed links to content no longer available. 1/31/2016 removed link to content no longer available.]

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