Category Archives: Grammar

Week 29 – Writing Rubric Dissection


So, I’m going to dissect one of the easiest rubrics I use to guide beginning students through the writing process.  Imagine that everything in the bordered cells is on one sheet of paper (more or less as shown in “Week 29 – Why a Rubric?“). All the rest is comment.

Rubric for Humanities 1 Paper
Notice that there is no real prompt yet.  Learning how to read a prompt will be another lesson.
Part 1 – Independent Grades
Students can see the parts of the writing process which they will be responsible for.  Many students sit down and write a paper the night before it is due; they brag about it.  Of course they can, but nine times out of ten the paper they will write would have been improved by having put their ideas through the writing process, even if it means just an editing.  They also get a sense of the kind of work that makes a strong paper.
Brainstorm and Plot Map 10 Due:
10 points total for this work. This is not about quality. Either they did it or they didn’t. This always means when they need to have it in class.
Brainstorms and Plot Maps are really two separate things.  The brainstorming happens as a series of questions that students answer as a way to think more deeply about the elements of literature.  The plot map is a series of steps that ask the student to put the events of the novel in order.  This may look like outlining, but it isn’t.
Outline 5 Due:
Students are taught a basic outlining format.  They pick up information straight off of their brainstorm and plot map and put it into an outline form.  They are required to skip lines between ideas and not to write in complete sentences.
Rough Draft 10 Due:
The due date is super important here.  Our next task simply cannot be done if students do not come to class prepared.  Students who do not have it finished write their papers while everyone else is doing the Clang Session.
Students start drafting.  They are asked to write paragraphs based on their outlines.  I ask them not to worry about grammar or spelling or anything (at all) that keeps their hands from moving. They are exhorted to shut down anything that keeps them from turning the phrases on their outlines into sentences and paragraphs on their papers.  If they are working on a computer, I ask them to shut off the grammar and spell check totally.  I want to see their eyes moving from the outline to the paper, from the outline to the paper until it is written.  Damn the torpedos!  Full speed ahead!
Clang Session 5 Due:
Students get credit for reading another writer’s paper back to them.  They are not allowed to make any comments whatsoever unless they are specifically asked for help by the writer.
The clang session is the place where students learn that their first draft is not good enough.  What we write and what we think we write are often two separate things.  The process is simple: a student trades papers with another writer and has their own paper read back to them.  As they listen, they stop the reader to make changes on their own paper.  They will learn to change out words, fix sentences, and move ideas around to make their writing clearer by ear.
Second Draft 10 Due:
Students make the corrections and changes based on what they learned in the clang session.  We’ve now hit “crafting”.  They also know that this 2nd draft will be given a score for quality for one of the 6+1 Writing Traits.  They have anchored the trait by the time they get to this step, but until they have to give a classmate’s paper a score, they really don’t “get it”.
Peer Edit 5 Due:
This is the point where they score a classmate’s paper.
Third Draft 10 Due:
Students make changes (I won’t call them corrections) based on the recommendations of their peer(s).  They also know that they will be turning this paper into me for a final grammar and mechanics edit.  As such, they want to make any corrections to ensure that their paper is as grammatically watertight as possible.  Officially, this is the first time I’ve seen their work, although I’ve been coaching them from the sidelines since the beginning.
Personal Skills Record 10 Due:
This gets picked up with the final draft.
Upon getting their paper back, students learn the grammar rules they broke so that they can not make them again.
Total: __ / 65 pts.
Students turn all of the above in when they turn in the final draft.  None of the grades go in the book until I see all of the above.   I am looking evidence of how the thinking of the student changed throughout the process of writing the paper.  Did they hear problems in their paper when they heard it read back to them?  Did they take into account the score they were given and make appropriate changes?  Did they correct all of the grammar and mechanics mistakes?  Is their final paper the result of a writing process?
Part 2 – Final Draft Due:
This will be the result of all of the above labor.  It also tells the student what they will be writing about.  Students will refer back to it as they write.
Paragraph One – Introductory Paragraph
Introduce the paper  (Touch on setting, characters, and plot) 1   2   3   4   5
Here we see points given for the quality of the work.  If the student receives a 1, 2, or 3 which is underlined, then they will have a writing conference with me.  Students get a choice to either fix the paragraph right then or wait and put it in effect in the next paper.
Author 5
Title 5
Remember I’m working with young writers.  They honestly do not know that they need to name the author and the title of the book they read in the introduction.  In later papers, I add these points to the overall grade for the introductory paragraph.  They get five points just for remembering to say the author and the title.
Paragraph Two
Setting 1   2   3   4   5
Atmosphere (tone) 1   2   3   4   5
Paragraph Three
Main Character 1   2   3   4   5
For each of these above, I’m looking for the amount and quality of information in the paragraph. But I’m also looking to see what transferred from the brainstorm to the final draft.
Paragraph Four
Plot Development 1   2   3   4   5
Similar to the character and setting paragraphs, I’m looking at their plot development chart to see how they rearrange the information to make it read as a summary through to the final draft.
Climactic Moment 5
Similarly to the author and title bit, students have a hard time not giving away the resolution even when they identify the climactic moment.  They are really getting five points for not giving a plot spoiler.
Paragraph Five
Conclusion Paragraph 1   2   3   4   5
(Remind readers about what was important in tone, character and plot)
For very new writers, I sometimes dump the conclusion paragraph entirely.  I don’t count it against them.  If they are expected to write one, I’m looking to see how effectively they wrap up their ideas.
Over-all paper
Idea and Content Trait 1   2   3   4   5
As we move through the year, we will add Organization, Word Choice, and Voice.  This is the only time when their grade might be compromised by having a lower score on a trait.  Overall, it helps me to see if they have taken on board the suggestions from the second draft.  I’m looking to see if the score their peer gave them is reasonable and if their score improved by the changes they made.  I have been known to give extra credit if the students made changes which seriously improved their papers.
Grammar and Mechanics 1   2   3   4   5
I never take off points for the first grammar mistake.  No matter how many times you edit, you will always find a mistake.  Students find this reassuring.
Rubric 5
Students receive five points just for turning in this piece of paper with their work.  I rarely, if ever, write on a final draft.  I use the rubric to give feedback.  I know they are reading the rubric; they will never go back and read the notes on the paper because they are not writing another draft.  My time is frankly too precious to waste in writing things that students are not going to read.
Total for Final Draft: __ / 55 pts.
Students are always asked to add up the points to make sure I’ve done it correctly.
Total Paper: __ / 120 pts.
Et, voila!
Students are required to keep the work in their portfolio at school.  The rubric, however, can be taken home for “bragging rights”.  Although I always ask that they bring back the rubric, they never do.  It’s okay.  It’s all in my grading program in the end.

Week 25- “Grammaring” with the Goddesses


Somebody please help me find the research (and I know it’s out there) which states that worksheets do not transfer grammatical knowledge to students.  I’ll give you a cookie.  (This is why I can’t wait to get into a doctoral program.  I will finally have time to find the research or do it myself.)  Research or no, I’ve seen where students are given a rule and then are expected to practice it.  Yet the knowledge goes no further than the recycle bin that they all drop the worksheet in once they’ve scanned it for their grade.  Ask students to write a sentence or a paragraph and the rule goes right out the window.

Think about what goes into writing a paragraph.  Let’s take one of my students, sitting at her desk, as an example.  She needs to be able to concentrate.  She needs her writing journal.  She needs a writing implement.  She needs to know how to write. (Stay with me.  All of this really does count.  If you have ever tried to work with a student who doesn’t have one of the above, you aren’t going to get very far writing a paragraph.) She needs an idea.  She needs to be able to transfer what is in her brain to her paper.  She needs to communicate the idea in a way that helps others understand.  She picks up her pencil and writes something.  Did you see thinks about all the grammar rules she has ever learned and applies them to her idea in there?  It was in the “communicates idea” sentence.   She sure didn’t.  And she didn’t stop to think to herself, “Hmm.  It’s the beginning of a sentence; I need to capitalize.”  Nobody does that.

Furthermore, grammar knowledge varies wildly from student from student.  Some will be very adept; many will not.  To ask all students to do worksheet after worksheet when they already know the material just seems really dumb to me.  I want a program that is specific to the needs of the learner.

Grammar rules in action need to happen by rote.  Automatically, like flushing the toilet.  (If you are raising your hand to argue about whether flushing the toilet is automatic, go stand in the corner.) Which is why worksheets are so seductive.  It looks like you’re asking students to grind in one point so that it’s ingrained.  But when one sentence out of 100 has a noun clause, the rule learned by that worksheet is unlikely to be remembered when it is written authentically.  (Let’s not get into the question of how in-authentic schools are right now.  Let’s save it for another day.)   In previous posts, I have waxed rhapsodic on the merits of English 2600, but I’ll be honest, if practice has not been coupled with it, the textbook is little better than worksheets.  (Maybe a little better, but not much.)  So, how do you make the practice authentic?

Let me start out right now by admitting I’ve never even tried the “writing applications” that comes with the new edition of both 2600 and 3200.  They struck me as not really useful, but I’m willing to be proven wrong.

I lucked into a conference where the Grammar Goddesses were presenting.  (I can’t seem to make the link to their website work, but I’ll have my tech support, i.e. husband, help me later.)  Instead of editing student work with the tradition editing symbols, they give students codes at the error which reflect the grammar mistakes their students made.  Students then write out a list of the codes, write the rules correctly, and then fix their mistake on the next draft.  It’s brilliant. It dove-tails nicely with English 2600 because, well, it would.  It’s all the language of English. 

They also made an important point.  Don’t write on a paper that students are not going to revise.  Students look at a grade and toss it away.  If you are going to take the time to give feedback, make it worth their time.  This is where authentic practice comes in to play.  Students are already writing for you.  Whether they be writing a sentence or a paragraph or a 20-page paper, if they are turning it in for a grade, that is the time to have them make a Personal Skills Record (PSR).

Here’s how it works in my class: students write something I am going to edit.  They hand it to me.  I take a pen and write codes like “sp” for spelling or “comma-sub. clause” for a comma error when it has to do with a subordinate clause at the place the error happened.  I do this for every error I catch.  I hand the paper back.  Students take a new piece of paper and write down the codes I gave them and the grammar rule off of a Code Sheet that they keep in their writing tools.  Then they fix their paper.  They turn in the edited draft, the PSR, and the next draft all at the same time.  I need the original document to see where the errors were, I need the PSR to see that they studied the grammar rules they broke, and the final draft to give them an A on their paper.  The next time they know they need to turn in a paper for me to edit, they check their PSR to see what mistakes they made last time.

Somewhere I lost the book that I bought at the conference explaining how to do this in better detail.  As I looked at the Grammar Goddesses’ website today, I didn’t recognize the titles, but since they wrote it, I’m sure they would know what I’m talking about.  They struck me as very nice ladies. I’m sure you could contact them for specifics.  Or, you could ask me, too.

Over the years, I have tweaked the code sheet for the grammatical needs of each class.  Instead of asking students to write the rule every time they made the mistake, I ask them to tally up the number, so that they know how often they made it.  Sometimes, I ask students to look at the codes they garnered and choose one or two that everyone (or almost everyone) needs a lesson on.  As students move through the grammar program,  they see it play out in their own writing.  By the end of the year, students pride themselves on having fewer and fewer errors.  The grammar rules really do become a habit.  But be warned.  Like any habit, if your school falls out of making it a priority, your students will stop doing it.  We can’t assume that because students were taught appositives in 5th grade that they will still be using them correctly in 9th unless all of their teachers hold them accountable to the rule.

So, there it is, my long-winded description of how I try to make grammar authentic for my students.  There are other things I do, but I think the marriage of a strong grammar program and an opportunity to practice with real work does more to cement grammatical ability than anything else I’ve seen.

Week 25- How to Grammar


Some of you are writhing in pain just looking at the title.  I’m glad.

And, as promised, here is what I’ve found to be effective.

Start with yourself.  If you aren’t confident, you won’t teach grammar well.  That doesn’t help your students.  Here’s the story of how I learned.  When I was in junior high, my English teacher, Mrs. Genovese, was worried about my grammar.  She was right to be worried.  I didn’t know it at all, and I am dyslexic to boot.  She handed me a copy of English 2600, by Joseph C. Blumenthal, which I promptly stole.  I’m not sure why, but I held onto it for years and years.  I carried it to college, I carried it to Japan, and I took it into my classroom with me when I started to teach English.

This is a very odd book.  It looks funny.  It’s a workbook made up of 2600 questions on grammar.  To achieve this without using an entire forest of paper, Blumenthal formatted the page with variegated stripes of white and grey.  You start with frame one where it asks you if “dog barks” is a sentence.   Turn the page, and you see the answer.  There is no need to cheat, or pretend you already know, because it’s right there.  You follow the stripe of white to the last page, where you flip back to page one on the grey stripe.  Repeat.  The lessons build upon each other, ultimately teaching you how English grammar supports itself.

When I started needing to know grammar (really needing to know it), because I was teaching it, I went back to Mrs. Genovese’s book.  I realized what a gold mine I had been carrying around with me, and I really finally learned grammar by going through the book with my students.

I typically use the book in a group setting by handing each student a copy (if money is tight two students share it—it’s an expensive book), and I lead them through it question by question asking them to write down their answers before they look at the answer.  I’ve had students in Japan and exchange students here in the US get very high TESOL scores using this method.  But I also remember a frustrated Korean student doing practice tests at the dorm.  He had convinced his English teacher that he didn’t need the grammar lessons.  The next year, he came to me not knowing why he was getting questions wrong.  I marked a chapter in the 3200 book (the college-level version of 2600) and said, “Here, read this.”  He handed me the book back a day later totally confident in his knowledge.  (He passed.) I’ve also had American students tell me that the SAT was much easier because they had studied from this book.

But my favorite story is about a former student who was taken out of the public school I was teaching at and placed in a parochial school.  He came to me really upset because his new classmates were so far ahead of him in English.  He was failing.  After some thought, he decided it was about his grammar.  I handed him my English 2600, which he promptly stole.  About a month later, I opened my mailbox at school and found a copy of his report card.  B+ for English and a post-it note saying, “Thanks!”  He kept the book.

And once you’ve got English 2600 down, you can move to English 3200.  It’s the same concept, just more advanced — and 600 more questions.  I find that my students who have gone through the book can easily point out the difference between a phrase, a clause, and a sentence.  They can write a complex sentence and a compound one.  They can see the effectiveness of the simple sentence used well.  They can choose to use a fragment for effect.

Most importantly, I am rarely stumped when it comes to the why of grammar.  If I want a down-and-dirty explanation of a grammar concept, I log onto Purdue’s OWL website, because it gives me a quick answer. But when I needed to learn the materials, I needed a text that lead me, step by step, to enduring understanding.

I don’t mean for this to be a commercial for Blumenthal’s book.  Do whatever works for you.  But do something.  Learn it so you can teach it.

Week 25- Grammar? Huh! What Is It Good For?


I’ve gotten into some pretty heated debates with people I respect on the issue of whether or not to teach grammar.  By and large, I think they think they’re making valid points.  For example, many begrudge the fact that we “Englishers” don’t have an intellectual body making rules for us about what is or is not linguistically kosher.  They feel that trying to nail down a rule is pointless.  “Remember,” they often quote, “every grammar rule can be broken.”

On the other side of the issue, we have people who will call you out because they can’t come to grips with the fact that we aren’t using Latin grammar rules anymore.  Honestly, there is no real reason to not use a preposition at the end of a sentence unless you happen to think that Latin and English are the same language.  Furthermore, the group listed above will tell you horror stories about parents, teachers, professors, and absolute frickin’ strangers (with a death-wish) who have beaten them down with Latin rules, making those young grammar-phobes run for cover.  I guess I have an abnormally thick skin because I simply never paid attention. (Except for that old lady at the mall… but we don’t like to talk about that.)

I think a bigger bugaboo is the fact that many people really don’t know grammar, and therefore don’t teach it.  Sure, most people know the parts of speech, but this is not the same as knowing grammar.  In fact, in some ways, knowing the parts of speech, to the exclusion of everything else, can create problems.  Teachers need to be fluent not in English (although that helps), but in the language of English.

Let me ask you this question:  Can you do math without using the language for it?  Sure you can.  You’re smart.  But isn’t it a whole lot harder?  Take 3+4=7, a fairly simple mathematical sentence.  Three plus four equals seven.  Even if you allow for the numbers, “plus” and “equal” take paragraphs to describe.

And so it goes for English.  Take this sentence: The cat ate my Cheerios.  Now, ask a student what the subject is.  If they only know the parts of speech, I bet they will pull the nouns and pronouns cat, Cheerios, and if he or she is mighty keen, my, as well.  Students need to know the structure of  a sentence.  Now the above sentence is very, very simple, but as with math, as the student grows and develops, the sentences and what they are trying to express will become more complex.  It is so, so much easier to point to a sentence and say, “Are you aware that you are missing a subject here?”  (In which case, some might say it isn’t a sentence.  For the purposes of not frustrating my students, I simplify to going from capital letter to end punctuation as “the sentence”.  This also keeps me from pointing at my student’s paper and say, “That’s wrong!” and all that it implies.) Then the student can say, “Yes, I’m using a fragment for emphasis. Ba-dow!” This is preferable to knowing that it sounds good, but not knowing why.  Ba-dow! indeed.  The only time it is wrong to write a fragment sentence is when you don’t know you are doing it.  When you don’t know you are doing it, you are not in control of your writing.

I once did a lesson with my students where they read Where the Wild Things Are, in which they had to say not the parts of speech but what the word was doing in the sentence.  I have to be honest here, I don’t even know the academic word for this.  (Scansion?  Grammar?  Dissection?  What is it called when you put it on little branches on a tree?  Shoot.  I forget.  See how hard it is when we don’t know the language?)  I wasn’t just looking for nouns, adjectives, and verbs (because without knowing what the word is doing in the sentence, this is actually impossible), but for subjects, verbs (predicates), direct objects, and clause markers. At that level of understanding, rules can’t be broken.  If the rule is that a word is the subject because it is what the sentence is about, then no matter what that word is, it’s the subject.  Period.  You can’t break that kind of rule.  That’s what I think of when I think of grammar.  What is this word doing that not only carries meaning by its definition but by how it supports the structure of the sentence?

My class likes to say, “We’re going science-ing!” Never mind that “science-ing” isn’t a word (and my grammar school teacher is probably spinning in her grave), think about the fact that “science-ing” has to be acting as a gerund in a direct object because it is the noun form (imaginary verb “science” plus -ing) that tells us what we are going to do.  It can’t be a subject complement because it isn’t telling us what we are equal to. (<– notice me ending with a preposition.  Ha!)   It can’t even be just a gerund.  Does knowing this make us better writers?  I say yes.

And the same goes for punctuation.  (Did you notice the fragment? Ba-dow!) What is that mark doing there?  Is it supporting your meaning?  Is it slowing your reader down so that meaning is clear?  Is it asking a question or making a claim?  Sure, you might follow Chicago, MLA, or your own company’s style guide, but really they don’t differ dramatically, and at least your students will know why.

Which leads us, I’m afraid, to the problem of teaching grammar.  There is a lot, a lot of crap out there.  I’m sure I am not the only person ever to toss away a grammar textbook because even the author didn’t seem to know what he or she was talking about.  Or how about those grammar worksheets?  I personally have never seen a student transfer what they gained from a worksheet into their own writing.  So, how to teach it?  Well, this is a long enough essay that I feel I should let you go.  However, I have had some success, and I will begin with that next time.

I’d love to hear from you.  What has been your experience teaching grammar, or being taught it, or not being taught it?  I think that my students are better writers because they can control what they really want to say.  And that’s what it’s good for.  Huh!

(By the way, I’m dyslexic which is not exactly why I married my editor, but it helps.  When he gets home, I’ll ask him to run his eye over my work.  Bless him.)