Tag Archives: peer editing

Making Grammar Tangible: Designing Ways for Students to Interact with Tools & Rules by Tosh McGaughy

As a seventh grade writing teacher, I adored conferencing with student writers but I struggled with the lack of impact that those conferences had on my students’ understanding (and application) of grammar concepts. I modeled; I provided mentor sentences; I corrected (with non-red Flair pens); I even… assigned a few grammar workbook pages that came with our textbook. (Yes, I was that desperate.) I knew that I needed to teach grammar and conventions within their writing, but I also knew that the things I was doing weren’t working for the majority of my seventh graders (especially my students who were not avid readers.)

The Impetus

Fate intervened and my own daughter transferred to my campus and landed in my English class. Having the benefit of knowing this particular seventh grade learner since birth, I was privy to a depth of understanding about how she learned best which equipped me to design learning tailored for her. A dancer since an early age, she communicated and learned through movement. Though exposed to many books and rich text experiences, reading did not involve enough physical activity to be one of her passions and she had not “absorbed” grammar through prolific reading. Knowing all this, I was presented with the challenge of designing grammar experiences that would actually “reach” this learner because if I was only going to get this one year to be her teacher, I wanted to make the most of it.

The Action Research aka. trial & error

So, I threw out everything I had done previously with grammar and approached it from a different perspective: how can I make the nitty-gritty and fascinating tools of grammar something that students can physically touch, move, and manipulate? This led to me nailing down a process to identify what my students needed to understand, through our writing conferences and formative writing tasks in our journals, and then creating “tangible grammar” tasks that I could use with students during small group instruction based on their specific needs. The lesson components I found most effective with my students were manipulative, cooperative, personal, and memorable.

The Process

The process that evolved was centered around answering four core questions related to those components. 1) How can I make this concept touchable and moveable? 2) How can I get students to discuss and work together on this concept? 3) How can I help students connect the concept to their own writing and usage? 4) How can I design an experience that students will remember as they learn this concept?

Chart with hyper link

The Successes

One successful mini-lesson that came out of this process was “Punctuation Clothespins Dialogue“. Hearing students repeatedly say that they didn’t “see” the punctuation in sentences and that they felt that punctuating was largely an arbitrary process, I wanted to create a lesson that made the tiny pieces of punctuation BIG while providing opportunities for discussions and revisions to punctuating choices.

HOW: I took colored card-stock and printed out the different pieces of punctuation, with end punctuation printed on one color, and all other punctuation printed on another color. Then, I hot glued (okay…my family members hot glued) the punctuation to inexpensive full-size wooden clothespins. In class, I provided my small group with a mentor sentence from a read aloud text that included punctuated dialogue. (The inclusion of the comma in relation to the quotation marks was baffling my students.) They created their own imitation sentences on paper and then re-wrote them, without punctuation, on large sentence strips. Next, they exchanged with one another and used the punctuation clothespins to punctuate each other’s sentences. The author of the sentence would then check the punctuating and discuss any differences in how their peer punctuated and how they punctuated the sentence. Because the clothespins were moveable, they would just clip and unclip to move them around during these discussions. The whole thing took only 15 minutes, but they engaged with a mentor text, wrote their own imitation sentence, punctuated multiple imitation sentences, and discussed punctuation choices with multiple peers. One of my favorite overheard comments was, “these are top punctuation and these are bottom punctuation” when one student explained where the quotation marks and commas went in a sentence. In all my years of teaching grammar and punctuation, I had never thought of the physical position of these things in relation to a sentence, but that was important to these learners and the clothespins helped facilitate that discussion in a way that my proofreading marks and writing conferences never had.

The “Hot Messes”

I’ll admit, not all all of my “tangible grammar” ideas were a hit. My brutally honest daughter would get in the minivan after school and pointedly ask, “How do you think that went?” Ouch. One particularly spectacular miss was “Punctuation Pasta”. Though having the many shapes of pasta for students to sort, choose, discuss, and use to punctuate their own imitation sentences seemed like a creative idea, it devolved into a crunchy pasta-on-the-floor debacle with seventh graders eating raw pasta (that other classes had touched) and few students (if any) leaving with a better handle on the nuances (and beauty) of correct hyphen use.

The Shift

But, my daughter’s incisive and reflective feedback did push me to take more risks that year, and I kept trying new things to reach those learners that I came to realize I had not been designing for: my kinesthetic students and my students who did not read for pleasure. It also pushed me to research the science of constructivism and concept building in order to tap into the pathways of learning that I had previously ignored. (Visible Learning for Literacy by Hattie, Fisher, & Frey was particularly helpful.) Moving away from “covering” grammar rules in my mini-lessons to truly “teaching” the tools of grammar with chunked, explicit, and very tangible tasks helped my students build understanding in multiple ways, which showed in their writing and improved the quality of our writing conferences.

4 Ways to Get Kids Talking…To Each Other

af115350d91f58bfb8c402b3b6159935--changes-in-life-quotes-change-your-life-quotes.jpgToday is a day worth talking about.

For one, it’s been 16 years since the Twin Towers fell. Sixteen years.

For two, much of Florida is waking up to the terror of Hurricane Irma, probably in the dark, without power–but not without hope. And Texas is still recovering from Harvey’s rage. But they’re Texas, so they’re tough.

Days like today should never become routine. And these are the things we should be talking about in our English classrooms. But to have the heavy talks, of course, we need to be able to listen.

“English teachers have rare opportunities to get to the deep, real work of an education,” Mitch Nobis writes. Yes, we do.

We have a multitude of opportunities for important, valuable, world-changing talk to happen in our schools. Before these kinds of conversations can happen, we need to be comfortable being vulnerable, truly listening to one another, and confidently articulating our thoughts–and then revising them.

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We make time for talk in my college classroom every day

Reasons like these are why I make talk a priority in my classroom every day. In such a digital world, it’s not as easy to get kids making noise as it used to be. Where early in my teaching career I had to work to settle down a chatty room, now I have to exhort myself to hear the sweet sounds of uncertain arguments and not the click of a quickly-locked iPhone.

Like all other skills we want our students to master, thoughtful speaking and listening is something we must teach. Rather than being frustrated by our students’ silence, we need strategies for helping kids close their apps and open their hearts and minds to one another. Here are four of the most effective I’ve used this year:

img_2223.pngQuickwrites that make us vulnerable – Getting to the heart of our wonders and fears and hopes and dreams in our writer’s notebooks builds community, sets a precedent for the type of writing we’ll be doing, and gets down on paper what’s really important: who we are, and how hard it can be to say that definitively. Strong mentor texts that invite this vulnerability are essential–imitating Mari Andrew’s illustrations is a great place to start. Writing about our scars is another favorite early-year activity. These first pages in notebooks don’t often get shared, but they get kids to do the early scaffolding work of honest thinking that leads to honest talk.

Turn and talk and LISTEN – The “turn and talk” directive is a common one in ELA classrooms, I hope, but I kind of want to change it to “look at your partner and LISTEN.” I tell students before a turn and talk that we’ll be sharing what we hear, so the purpose shifts from drafting their thinking through talk to expanding their understanding through listening. After the chatter has subsided, I ask students, “Who heard something great? Share with us what you learned from your partner.” This is a subtle shift, but one that cues students to turn their ears away from their own voices and toward their peers’.

On the record strategyWritten feedback is amazing, but if I’ve learned anything from doing a million reading and writing conferences over the years, it’s that the power of talking with someone about your thinking is incredible. For this reason, when I ask students to conduct peer writing conferences, I ask them to record themselves. Using apps on their phones, kids begin this practice by simply talking about the student’s writing they’re reading, but gradually progress to leaving one another specific, recorded feedback to be replayed at home. While “on the record,” I find that students become much more deliberate, thoughtful, and thorough in their feedback by simply slowing down their thinking.

Silent discussion – An early mentor of mine used this strategy to scaffold his students up to sophisticated Socratic seminars, and I still love using it. Students bring in a written response to a question, or a draft of a piece we’re working on, or a favorite quote from their independent reading book they want to mine. We hang these nameless papers all around the classroom, then kids get their earbuds, a stack of post-its, and a pen and progress into a silent discussion. The classroom is magically quiet–almost sacred. This is my favorite part.

First, they circle the classroom, writing lengthy responses to their peers’ thinking on large post-its. Each student receives two responses this way. Then, we do a counter-clockwise circle with small post-its where more feedback is offered in the form of short remarks or questions. Each paper receives three additional comments in this round. The following day, I redistribute the papers to their original writers and watch students drink up the feedback, which is made all the more valuable because it didn’t come from me.


I hope these four strategies for student talk make your classroom a little more conversation-friendly this week. Please share with us how you get your teens talking in the comments, on Facebook, or via Twitter!

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a sleepy surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, no-bake cocoa oatmeal cookies (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

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