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Conventions are BIG in the Common Core
Get ready. Conventions receive significant emphasis within the Common Core Standards, and are likely to play a major role in upcoming assessments relating to those standards. Students will not only need to be in conventional control of their own writing, but will also need to be proficient editors of any text we might throw at them. How do we get them there? Order more red pens? Maybe not . . .

Correcting ALL Errors: NOT the Best Choice
Chances are, you can look back on your own experience as a student (particularly if you’re over 30), and recall the old-school approach to “teaching” conventions: elaborate, meticulous red-penning of errors. If you’ve ever been subjected to this approach, you can probably recall how it felt—and how enthusiastic it made you feel about writing. Granted, there are those exceptional students out there who not only take time to correct every single error, but also look up all pertinent rules for future reference—using those well-worn handbooks they keep by their beds. Hm . . . right. Most of us have never met these wonder students, yet their legend lives on. And the red ink keeps flowing. Why? Well, think about it: This was the approach modeled for most of us. Many teachers (even those who question the value of error hunts) simply don’t know what else to do. Unfortunately, despite the incredible amount of time and effort required, line by line correction (unless specifically requested by the writer) almost never pays off. Here’s why:

1. It creates a sense of hopelessness among students who struggle with conventions. Getting this sort of response to one’s writing is like having strangers walk into your house and begin remodeling. What can be perceived as a kind of assault may trigger hurtfulness, resentment, indifference—or alienation. The odds of an over-marked paper surviving a trip past the nearest trash can are small indeed. Of course, if you have a student who is conventionally skilled (a natural born editor), and you mark one kind of error—say, use of quotation marks—that student may actually welcome your suggestions. But the student who struggles with spelling, grammar, capitals, punctuation, and paragraphing cannot possibly absorb the 20 or more “suggestions” his or her paper calls for. A student who feels overwhelmed is likely to think, “I can’t write,” and just give up.

2. It isn’t enough. Correcting is not teaching, and we kid ourselves when we assume it is. Students learn next to nothing from simple, quick corrections that lack any explanation or suggestion of how to approach editing differently next time. “How many times do I need to correct this error?” I hear teachers ask. The answer? Every time it appears—forever. Do you want to sign up for that? If not, be a teacher, not an editor. Writers (even professionals) who are given a choice quickly become dependent on editors, and have little incentive to notice, learn about, or correct mistakes the editor will fix anyway.

3. Once you identify errors, the hard part is done. The ONLY way students become proficient with conventions is by doing their own editing and developing what Jeff and I call “an editor’s eye.” This refers to the ability to spot things like a misspelled word or missing word or letter, misused or omitted punctuation, faulty subject-verb connection, and so forth. Developing such an eye takes a lifetime of practice. That’s why it’s difficult to find any publication (novels, newspapers, textbooks, whatever) that’s error-free. Each time you do the identifying for your students, you rob them of one more opportunity to practice developing that editor’s eye that is critical to conventional proficiency.

4. It’s too time consuming. You don’t have time to be an editor for 30 to 180 students. The time you spend correcting would be much better spent developing editing lessons or searching literature for models you can use to teach excellent use of conventions. And most important of all . . .

5. It doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. In fact, research (See George Hillocks, The Testing Trap, 2002; Hillocks, Research on Written Composition, 1985; Vicki Spandel, Creating Writers 6/e, 2013; Carl Nagin and the National Writing Project, Because Writing Matters, 2003; Jeff Anderson, Mechanically Inclined, 2005) indicates overwhelmingly that students subjected to extensive marking of errors may actually decline in editorial skill. We cannot afford to have that happen.

So—What DOES Work?
Many things. Here we offer just 12 suggestions to help you turn your students into confident, capable editors. (And by the way, no guilt trips allowed. When you stop correcting everything, you are NOT showing that you don’t care about conventions. On the contrary. You are shifting your focus from errors to students. You are showing that churning out perfect copy is a lower priority than coaching your students to become strong, independent editors—like you.)

Suggestion 1
Explore the “why” behind conventions. An easy way to do this is by removing all punctuation and spacing from a piece of text, and ignoring rules of spelling and grammar. See how long it takes your students to decode a piece like this:


Can you decipher it? Of course. You’re a teacher. You can read anything, right? But imagine if everything you read were written this way. Reading would be quite a chore. The very term “conventions” implies the conventional, traditional, or accepted way of doing things. Good writers break rules all the time. But following most traditions most of the time (e.g., writing left to right, putting spaces between words) makes reading easier. In a very real sense, editing is a courtesy. You make your text comfortable for readers just as you might make your home comfortable for guests.

Suggestion 2
Develop a routine. Editing and writing are related (like swimming and diving), but are NOT the same skill, and teaching one will not necessarily increase proficiency in the other. Instructional time must be devoted to editing per se. But—isn’t it enough to have students edit what they write? No. It sounds like a good plan, but unfortunately, most students don’t write anywhere near enough text to become proficient editors simply by correcting their own work—even if they do so regularly and carefully. In addition, they need daily practice editing text that is not their own. This is important for a couple of reasons: (1) as just noted, it extends editing practice, and (2) we are all much more ruthless when attacking something we ourselves did not write. Remember the words of H. G. Wells, who reminded us that “no passion on earth is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

Take advantage of this impulse. Give students “someone else’s draft” to work on (preferably an anonymous someone, not another student from your class). Keep the practice short: about 50-100 words of text (depending on students’ age), not overloaded with errors (See Suggestion 4 for guidelines on this). Create lessons students can finish in ten minutes or less. Double space copy so students have ROOM to edit; or, if possible, put editing lessons right on the computer. And don’t be seduced by those speedy one-sentence “daily” lessons; they’re far too short, and most are irrelevant to students’ current editing needs—which means, in a nutshell, that students will tune out.

Suggestion 3
Identify problems your students are having right now. Why spend time on capitals if everyone has this nailed? Focus on trouble spots. You can identify problems by skimming through a stack of your own students’ papers and creating for yourself a list of 10 (very manageable), 15 (still do-able), or 20 (that’s plenty) of the most frequently recurring errors. Zero in on those.

Note: Andrea Lunsford, Professor of English at Stanford University, has identified the 20 most common kinds of errors in English writing (see Easy Writer, 3rd edition, 2009). Find Lunsford’s book if you can; or look up her list by searching under “20 most common errors in English.” This kind of focused instruction will benefit your students far more than 60 random lessons developed by someone who doesn’t know your students and has never looked at their writing. (Suggestion: If you work with older writers—say, grades 6 and up—share the list itself with them, too.)

Suggestion 4
Develop your own focused editing lessons. That way, you can zero in on one sort of problem at a time—such as subject-verb agreement. Each lesson should include two parts. The first is instruction in the concept: What IS subject-verb agreement, and what does it look like when it’s done right? Provide several examples. The second part involves practice, a chance for students to apply what they’ve just learned in editing faulty text. Such text (again, think 50 to 100 words) should contain at least three (and for older students, as many as ten or more) errors relating to the concept at hand. (The paragraph you just read is 103 words long, not counting this sentence.)

Following direct instruction in the concept, give students a few minutes to edit the faulty text on their own—then a minute or two to check with a partner to see if any errors were missed. At this point, I like to tell students how many errors they are looking for. Students who have found, say, five out of ten have a reason to go back for another look. When everyone has finished (remember, keep the time short), ask students to coach you as you edit the piece on a Smart board or document projector. Provide this kind of practice as often as you can possibly fit it in. You will see a marked difference in students’ editing skills.

Sources for lessons: By the way, ready-to-go editing lessons ARE available (Check the end of this post), or you can write your own—from scratch, or based on newspaper articles, online articles, junk mail, or other everyday print sources.

Question: What happens when students have had practice with ALL the recurring errors you’ve identified for the class? Answer: Create new editing lessons based on additional problems you’ve identified, or lessons that combine several kinds of errors—with two or three of each kind. You might also have students take turns designing editing lessons, and leading the discussion that follows.

Suggestion 5
Pull anonymous problem sentences from students’ current writing. As you review students’ work, pull out a sentence (or more than one) that seems representative of problems several or more students are having. Share these sentences on the board. This is an excellent way to kick off a writing class, and takes about five minutes. (Let students know you plan to do this, so you know they feel comfortable having their writing shared in this way—you need not use names.)

Ask students to confer with partners about what they notice, then coach you as you edit each sentence. Be sure to let them know if they miss anything. As a teacher, I found this strategy extremely effective because—somewhat to my surprise, I confess—students waited eagerly at the beginning of each class to see if their writing would be chosen as an instructional model. I was very concerned about not making anyone feel picked on, but I needn’t have worried. No one to my knowledge ever felt self-conscious in the least. What did happen, however, was a dramatically heightened interest in every lesson because the examples were coming from them. This was perceived as real, immediate, useful information because it was personal—and current.

Suggestion 6
Look to literature. In the 1800s and far into the 1900s for that matter, many teachers began their instruction in conventions by sharing a rule—often stated in language no one could understand. No wonder most rules were never internalized, and those that were, were quickly forgotten. But, we’ve come a long way, baby. We know now that one of the best ways to teach conventions is the same way we teach voice, ideas, fluency, word choice—or any trait: through literary examples.

Here are just a few, and they’re diverse. Normally, when you’re teaching one convention—say the use of semicolons or dashes—you’ll want several examples because there are nuances of usage that rules simply don’t cover. You might collect three sentences containing semicolons, for example. Share them aloud, one at a time, but also write them out. Then discuss them. As you do so, the question to ask students is this: What difference does this [convention] make? Open-ended discussion encourages students to look and listen closely, to do their own inductive reasoning, and to come up with rules or guidelines or possibilities for themselves. (My “what to notice” notes in this section are only for clarification. I don’t share my reason for choosing a particular example at first because I want students to tell me what they notice.)

• If you don’t have a copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, consider getting one. Grahame is particularly adept at using conventions with precision, style, grace, and creativity, and you can find an example of just about anything in the world of conventions that you’d like to teach—like semicolons (which can be hard to find in current lit). In this example, Mole (who’s just overturned a boat in the river), is being rescued by Rat, who offers Mole shelter in his home: “It’s very plain and rough, you know—not like Toad’s house at all—but you haven’t seen that yet; still, I can make you comfortable” (Ariel, 1980, p. 15). What to notice: Two distinct clauses are closely aligned, “joining hands” we might say, via the semicolon. Would a period work as well?

• In The Good, Good Pig, author Sy Montgomery uses semicolons in a totally different way [Christopher, by the way, is a pig]: “We lined up to face the camera in ascending seniority: Christopher, age one; me, thirty-three; Liz, sixty; Lorna, ninety-three” (Random House, 2007, p. 64). What to notice: Semicolons provide a nifty way to handle a complex series in which too many commas could create confusion.

• In this passage from Hatchet (20th Anniversary Edition) by Gary Paulsen, the hero Brian (who is beyond hungry), is watching a kingfisher go after a meal. Think about how the ellipses at the very end affect you: “Of course, he thought. There were fish in the lake and they were food. And if a bird could do it . . .” (Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 108). What to notice: The ellipses give us time to enjoy the same aha moment Brian is experiencing, to fill in the blank, as it were: If a bird can do it . . . maybe I can, too.

• In Mockingbird, author Kathryn Erskine uses conventions in extraordinary ways to show how Caitlin, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, responds to the world: “I don’t like very outgoing. Or efFUSive. Or EXtroverted. Or greGARious. Or any of those words that mean their loudness fills up my ears and hurts and their face and waving arms invade my Personal Space and their constant talking sucks all the air out of the room until I think I’m going to choke” (Philomel, 2010, p. 44). What to notice: Creative use of italics and unexpected capitals helps us get inside Caitlin’s head.

• The humble hyphen is useful in two-part words (like that one) or for splitting multi-syllable words at the end of a line. But perhaps it has more creative uses, as in this passage from Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool—in which one of the main characters, Jack, is wondering just how strange his new acquaintance Early Auden might be: “Was he straitjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and-put-bugs-in-your-nose strange? I knew a kid who used to do that in second grade” (Delacorte, 2013, p. 28). What to notice: Hyphens can help a writer create unique adjectives that put some pretty vivid images in readers’ minds.

You don’t want to do all the digging, of course. After sharing a few examples, have students find their own—and present them to the class. As you collect moments that capture your attention, you’ll discover together that conventions are not all (or even mostly) about rules. They’re tools that allow us to share both message and voice in memorable ways.

Suggestion 7
Give students room to breathe. If we wait—three days seems about ideal—from the time we write a draft until the time we attempt to edit that draft, our ability to spot errors is heightened noticeably. Almost no one (not even skilled, experienced editors) can do his or her best editing immediately after writing. (Writing assessment developers, please take note.) That’s because the message we wanted to put on the paper, meant to put on the paper, is fixed in our minds—and we tend to “read” what’s in our heads, not what found its way to the page. When editing our own work, we also tend to read rapidly, and in so doing, skim right over missing words, misspelled words, faulty punctuation, and the rest. Allowing time between drafts creates perspective so that we see our work more the way an objective, critical reader would see it. We literally create the illusion that it belongs to someone else.

Suggestion 8
Keep it real. Students for whom editing does not come easily may feel very nervous about writing five pages if they anticipate having to edit every line. While I am a huge advocate of making students responsible for their own editing, I also agree that we need to find ways to make the task manageable for students who dread it. After all, we want them to write more, not less.

You can ask a student to edit just the first paragraph or two with extreme diligence—then give more of a once-over to the remainder. (The amount the student edits with close-up care can and should expand with time.) A similar approach is to ask the student to look only for particular kinds of errors—preferably those you have already focused on in your editing lessons (See Suggestions 3, 4, and 5).

Many students benefit from having a teacher mark (with a check, star, etc.) those lines in which errors appear (some teachers use a number to show how many errors a given line contains). No need to mark every line. Use your judgment in determining how much the student can handle—and think about which errors should receive priority.

A conventions conference can be helpful, and it need not take long. Go over one or two errors you think deserve the most attention—perhaps those that come up more than once in the paper. Have the student correct one example as you coach, then attempt to find other similar errors on his or her own.

For students who wrestle with spelling (for many, this is the most significant problem and the source of most errors), provide a mini dictionary on a large Post-It® note, and attach it right to the first page of the rough. As an alternative, keep a running list of frequently misspelled words for your students (not a prescribed list, but one that’s personal for your class), and post it where everyone can see as they write. Add new words as the need arises; remove words students have conquered.

And of course, provide access to dictionaries, thesauruses, and other materials writers and editors use in the real world. Note: Unfortunately, many writing assessments still do not permit such access. Some people, evidence and common sense to the contrary, fear that the mere presence of a dictionary can somehow transform a struggling writer into a best-selling author. If only it were that simple.

Suggestion 9
If technology is available, use it! It’s no secret that revision and editing are far easier and faster when you have access to word processing. A student can create multiple word processed revisions in the time it takes to tediously recopy one draft by hand. Further, the ability to make big and continual changes in a draft (e.g., moving copy, perhaps more than once, deleting or adding text, trying several different leads or endings) means that a word processed document winds up mirroring the writer’s thinking more closely than a handwritten, one-time revision ever could. Technology also allows for last-minute changes (oh—just thought of a different word, got a better title) that someone writing longhand just won’t trouble to make. Comfort with word processing is particularly important given that (based on current best guesses) assessments pertaining to the Common Core writing standards will be administered on computer.

Suggestion 10
Encourage students to edit with their ears, not just their eyes. Do your students read everything they write aloud? If not, this is a good habit to instill—the sooner the better. Reading aloud sloooooooooowwwwwwwws us dooooooooooowwwwwwwwwn, increasing the likelihood we’ll spot problems. It’s also harder to skip right over repeated or missing words (and similar errors) when reading aloud. Further, moments that sound awkward when read aloud will probably slow a silent reader down, too. As students gain sophistication, reading aloud helps them hear places where specific punctuation (e.g., ellipses, dashes), italics, FULL CAPITALS or other conventions of emphasis might bring out the voice in a piece.

Suggestion 11
Get a good handbook. You need an “authority” for your classroom, a book to turn to when you cannot answer that question about commas or citing sources. No one remembers everything. You might consider—

The Write Source College Handbook by Dave Kemper and Patrick Sebranek (other grade-specific handbooks are available from these authors, but I happen to prefer the college edition, even for younger students)
The Chicago Style Manual (the most respected source out there—and most complete by far)
MLA Handbook, 7th edition (some portions are also available online)

Teach students to use whatever resource you settle on, and when a question arises, have one of your students search for the answer, even if this takes a little time. If you have two copies in your classroom, students can do this competitively, which makes the search considerably livelier—and students who help the class in this way are learning a skill they will use for life.
Other resources provide suggestions for writing that go beyond what you’ll find in even the best handbooks—and they’re often entertaining too, so you can choose passages to read aloud. Here are a handful of my favorites (Every single one of these is fun to read):

Room to Write by Bonnie Goldberg
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Words Fail Me AND Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
Writing Toward Home by Georgia Heard
On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Edition) by William Zinsser
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher
A Writer Teaches Writing by Donald Murray
Crafting Authentic Voice by Tom Romano

Suggestion 12
Celebrate! When students do something that is conventionally correct or (better still) creative, celebrate! That’s the ideal time to make a mark on the paper—and share the example with the class, too. Expand everyone’s thinking about what conventions can do and be.

Notice content and voice first. Students are far more excited about tackling editing when they feel certain they have a reader’s attention and have written something worth editing in the first place.

Have students collect examples of conventional creativity. Create a class Podcast featuring these examples, or make a bulletin board display. Help students see how much fun conventions can be.

Look beyond writing. What conventions are important in math, for example? How about music? Physics? Chemistry? Do you have any bilingual students in your class? They may be willing to share conventions from another language and talk about how they differ from those in English.

Celebrate conventional evolution. There’s nothing stagnant about English; it changes hourly! Split infinitives? Commonplace! They actually precede Shakespeare (who is reported to have used a few). Dickens apparently favored sentences that began with “And” or “But” (and I’m happy to know this since I like them, too). Snuck is becoming an accepted form of sneaked (though not in all circles, admittedly). Words like dis, chill, creds, phat, and bling weren’t even words (at least not in the modern sense) until recently, but they’re finding their way into Webster’s. For numerous other examples of English on the move, check out the fascinating Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Conner, a brilliantly researched and very funny book you will enjoy sharing (one selected passage at a time) with your students. Then talk about which conventions will last (Is the semicolon doomed? Are dashes enjoying a renaissance?), and why our amazing language is ever-evolving—and expanding.

Looking for editing lessons?
Check these NEW resources we designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind . . .

Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching conventions & presentation a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:

Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
Jeff reviews the remarkable historic narrative Bomb, a Newbery Honor book by Steve Sheinkin. Not many informational books can also claim to be thrillers. You won’t want to miss it. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards, writing process and workshop, and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.