TEACHING GRAMMAR TO IMPROVE WRITING

By Laura Robb and Evan Robb

The era of the Common Core has re-ushered in the study of grammar in all grades. This is both good and bad. Good because the study of grammar to provide students with tools to improve writing is positive and can lead students to independence with editing and revising.  The bad news is that many students are memorizing the parts of speech and completing worksheets that ask them to underline subjects and predicates, prepositional phrases, etc.

Research and common sense both point to the fact that knowing the definitions of the eight parts of speech does not lead to students using the parts of speech correctly in their writing. Workbook exercises that invite students to underline specific parts of speech or fill in blanks with a noun or a verb also do not improve students’ writing. Sentences in workbooks are controlled and do not reflect the type of writing that students do.  Moreover, for a knowledge of grammar to impact students’ writing, students must edit and revise their own work applying principles they’ve learned and practiced. Here’s a framework for teaching students how to use grammar to improve their writing in all subjects.

  • The teacher presents a model lesson and students discuss what they notice and ask questions.
  • Students practice the lesson by writing to demonstrate understanding.
  • Students edit and/or revise a piece of writing to reflect what they’ve observed and practice.

Sample Lesson for Strong Verbs

Materials: Two to Three typical student sentences with weak verbs.

Teacher’s Think Aloud:  Today we’re going to look at action verbs and make sure that the verbs in a piece of writing paint visual images for readers. Let’s read and study sentences that are similar to what I’m seeing in your writing:

  • My mom made a birthday cake.

Rewrite: My mom decorated a sheet cake with yellow roses and then squeezed icing from a tube and wrote: “Happy Birthday, Jenn.”

  • Jake and I went to the park.

Rewrite: Jake and I biked on the winding path that led to the park.

Have students Turn and Talk: Students should point out how the change in verbs affects their ability to visualize as well as the benefit of added details.

Students Practice: Provide students with sentences that have weak verbs and

have them to rewrite and share. You can organize partners and make the learning interactive as they rewrite together.

Students Use Their Writing: Underline two sentences in students’ writing that would benefit from stronger verbs.  Proficient writers can do this independently. Have students circle the verb and brainstorm a mini-list in the margin of alternate, strong verbs. Some students won’t be able to identify verbs; circle them for those students. Then ask students to choose a better verb and print it above the one in their text. I ask students not to erase what they originally had so they can discuss the benefit of the revision.

Extending the Lesson:  Build mini-verb word-walls on 12 x 18 sheets of paper. Here are some ideas that students can work on during the year.

  • Write other ways to say went.
  • Write other ways to say make.
  • Write verbs you can use for Thanksgiving or Holiday stories.
  • Write verbs that help you write about autumn, winter, spring, or summer.
  • Write verbs that help you visualize a specific sport.

Discuss extension ideas with colleagues and you will find many other situations for students to think about. The more they play with and use verbs, the better they will understand this part of speech.

Specific Nouns: In their writing, students often use general nouns such as stuff, things, junk, toys, food, snacks, games, etc. You can follow the framework of the lesson on verbs to develop your own lessons with specific nouns.

Help students understand that the more specific their nouns are, the clearer will be the images they paint for readers. For example, snacks could be pretzels, cashew nuts, apples, string cheese, etc.  Specific nouns permit others to envision what the student sees and experiences.

Tips For Productive Peer Editing

If this is your students’ first foray into peer editing, you might find that students tend rate every section on a peer-editing form as “excellent” or “Terrific.” This kind of feedback does not help a classmate improve her writing. Even though you implement the suggestions that follow, it can take a few peer editing experiences for students to understand the value of this writing stage.

  • The areas that students peer edit always match the criteria for the writing. If you change the writing criteria in this curriculum, then adjust the peer-editing form.
  • Show students how you respond to two to three sections. Start with a positive comment and point out a need with a question.

Examples:  Your Lead is short and announces the topic. Can you test it for raising questions and then revise it?

You build suspense and use descriptive details so well. Can you find two places to add dialogue?

  • By offering students examples, you build their mental model of what helpful peer editing looks like.

Questions that Help Students Peer or Self Edit for Writing Conventions

When reading a student’s piece for use of writing conventions, place a light check in the margin of a line that requires punctuation; two checks for two punctuation needs, etc. This points the writer in the correct direction, and asks the writer to do the correcting. Instead of a check, you can write the editing symbol in the margin on the line. You can find a list of symbols by going to:

http://www.lirvin.net/WGuides/editmarks.pdf

 

How do I Know What Grammar and Punctuation to Present?

The best way to figure out the lessons your students need is to make notes as you read their writing. You’ll find that all students might benefit from a lesson on using the colon and semi-colon, while a small group needs your support with paragraphing.  In addition, you can ask students to write three things they need help with in their writing. I find that students are honest and want to make their writing clear and interesting. The issue is that they often don’t know what to do!

Mini-lessons to Present for Revision and Editing

What follows is a list of possible mini-lessons that you can consider.  Mini-lessons will have to be repeated as students benefit from practice and repetition. Avoid marking up papers for students. The need to do the work to become independent and improve their writing.

REVISION LESSONS:

Reading your writing out loud

Posing questions to revise

Strong verbs

Specific nouns

Vary sentence openings

The art of peer editing

Transition sentences between paragraphs

Leads and endings

Dialogue

Add details with prepositional phrases

Adding showing details

LESSONS AND EDITING STRATEGIES

Paragraphing

Repairing run-ons

Combining short, repetitive sentences

Agreement of subject and verb

Commas: in a series, direct address, opening expressions, parenthetical phrases, dependent clauses, –several   lessons

Spelling

Pronoun reference

Active or passive Voice

Direct Quotations

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Metacognition: The Thinking Teacher’s Secret to Nurturing Independent Learners

By Laura Robb
Metacognition is often defined as thinking about thinking. However, a three-word definition does not explain the benefits of becoming metacognitive to students in elementary, middle, and high school. Three words—thinking about thinking– are not specific enough to help teachers show students how to be metacognitive. When students are aware of what they understand and don’t understand, they can clarify their thinking on their own or seek their teacher’s help. The combination of being self-aware, taking action, and experiencing success leads to independence in learning.
Defining Metacognition:
Metacognitive learners are tuned into how they process new information, what they do and don’t comprehend, and the emotions they experience while learning. Dr. Immordino-Yang and her colleagues at the University Southern California’s Brain Creativity Institute have drawn conclusions about the relationship between emotions and students’ learning capacity.
If students emotional associations with tasks are positive, feelings of “I can do this” and “I enjoy this” develop and accelerate their learning.
However, if associations are negative—“I’ll never be able to figure this out” and “I hate this work”—it becomes difficult for students to succeed. The replay of in-the-head negative thoughts prevents students from taking the risks that are characteristic of metacognitive learners. The possibility of failure negatively affects their lack of self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Metacognitive learners welcome new learning tasks and have life experiences that enable them to access strategies for learning. Taking risks and risking failure don’t affect their willingness to keep trying.
So, two big questions for us as educators to wrestle with are, How do we teach students to be metacognitive? How do we transform negative emotions toward learning tasks into positive ones? The answers may lie in encouraging students to do four things: plan work, monitor comprehension, confer frequently, and self-evaluate.
1. Planning Work
When students plan their work—drafts, revision, book talks, projects, speeches, and group presentations, etc– they think, select, discard, and research to learn more. The planning process supports thinking before taking action and reveals to students what they understand and don’t understand, and what they need to do and don’t need to do. Learners who grapple this way are using their meta-cognitive skills.
2. Monitoring Comprehension
Students who read independently at school and home feel a range of emotions while immersed in a text. They also can step into the shoes of the person they’re reading about and experience life from his or her perspective. They visualize, predict, infer, and pause to savor words, phrases, figurative language, and their feelings about and reactions to texts. In a nutshell, those students are monitoring comprehension while reading. An effective way to determine whether students are monitoring comprehension while reading is through bookmarks.
Bookmarks for Monitoring Comprehension
Bookmarks help students track in-the-head-conversations they have during reading. To create a baseline bookmark, ask students to write what they think and feel while reading. Then, have them read and respond using a specific strategy such as predict and support, infer, visualize, determine important information, or name specific feelings they have about a person, character, event, or conflict. What students write or don’t write–offers a window into their thought process while they read. Avoid over using bookmarks or asking students to record their thoughts and feelings for several pages of text.
When you assess students’ bookmarks and then coach them in frequent, short conferences, you can help students experience success with learning tasks and develop a rich and rewarding personal reading life. Kahmariah’s story below illustrates this.
Kahmariah’s Story
Fourth and fifth grade teachers at the Discovery Charter School in Rochester, New York, have been meeting with me on the telephone about using bookmarks and conferring to improve students’ instructional and independent reading. Fourth grade teacher Jean Hoyt recently emailed me Kahmariah’s story. A reluctant reader, Kahmariah, slightly below grade level with instructional reading, had difficulty making inferences and recalling details. During independent reading she would “fake read” and was unable to retell the text.
What helped Kahmariah begin to “real read” were the conferences and coaching sessions that followed Jean’s assessment of her bookmarks. Jean moved Kahmariah from quoting text phrases and “fake reading” to making predictions, showing empathy for characters, and connecting the story to her own life. Kahmariah now reads a variety of genres, has read five books during the third quarter, up from only one book the first half of the year. Kahmariah sees herself as a “reader” who chooses to read at school and at home. Independent reading combined with Jean’s support ramped up Kahmariah’s instructional level to mid-fourth grade!
The message here is that bookmarks alone won’t help students find meaning and joy in reading. Teachers must analyze students’ bookmarks to figure out how to support them. That means conferring with students, coaching them, modeling for them, pointing out their successes, and encouraging them to self-evaluate.

3. Confer Frequently
Coaching students for three-to-four minutes during a conference enables you to help them apply a new strategy, concept, or task—and enjoy the feeling of success. During conferences you can show students who aren’t metacognitive how to reflect on their learning and point out any progress they made. Conferring with students briefly and frequently allows you to turn negative feelings and attitudes toward learning into positive ones–gradually.
Jean Hoyt told me that through continual but short conferences she was able to develop students’ self-confidence and feelings of self-efficacy—“Yes, I can reach that goal!” After several months of conferring and teaching students how to reflect on their work and progress, Hoyt observed that positive feelings toward reading and writing among students she coached outnumbered negative feelings. And equally important, students were able to express feelings of pride in writing and pleasure in reading.
4. Self-Evaluate
Self-evaluating progress in reading comprehension invites students to call on their metacognitive skills. They study their reader’s notebooks and reflect on what they did well along with how to improve comprehension.
Coaching students to be metacognitive requires us to raise students’ awareness of what they do and don’t understand about reading. This is a tough task for teachers and students, but one that’s important because metacognition creates independent learners who find pleasure in reading and writing about reading and have the fix-up strategies necessary to comprehend what they read. And after all, developing students’ independence in learning should be the goal of every teacher!
Independence in Learning
During conferences, engage students in planning, monitoring comprehension, and self-evaluating their work so they can pinpoint strengths and needs. Then, think aloud and coach them to show how reflecting on their reading highlights what they do well and points out areas that need improvement. In addition, help them be positive about their needs so they understand that learners take risks and work hard to make progress. By developing students’ metacognitive skills, you put them on the road to lifelong learning.

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Moving Students from Basic Recall to Analytical Comprehension

By Laura Robb

“Comprehension” is a word that teachers use all the time: Jake’s comprehension is weak; Talia can’t comprehend nonfiction; David comprehends everything he reads. In this blog, I’ll look at recall, the basic step in comprehending a text—a step that provides readers with information that enables them to determine important details, infer, identify themes, and analyze a text’s meanings. And I’ll provide ideas for helping students move from recall to those more sophisticated reading strategies.
Recall Is Basic Comprehension
A common sense belief I always share with teachers is that it’s pointless to ask students to read and reread a text they can’t learn from—a text at their frustration level. Recall implies that the learner is able to decode the text, and understand and remember the information. That can only happen when the student has enough background knowledge and the text is close to his or her instructional reading level.
Classroom Snapshot: Tasha
Recently, I administered an Informal Reading Inventory (IRI) to Tasha, an eight grader. Before plunging into the assessment, we spent time chatting about her interests, and she volunteered this statement: “I hate reading. I suck at it.” Her reasons were logical and on point. Reading three years below grade level, and required to read and reread grade level texts, she said: “If I have to read again and again and can’t understand it, what’s the point?” She shrugged and added, “I get nothing from it.”
After completing and analyzing Tasha’s IRI, I suggested two actions that could improve her reading:
Have her read and learn from material at her instructional reading level—preferably books she chose. Not only would she recall information, but she would also be able to practice inferring, determining importance, identifying themes, and at the same time enlarge her vocabulary and background knowledge.
Accelerate her reading stamina and achievement by having her self-select books for independent reading. Researchers Richard Allington and Steve Krashen agree that 40 books a year can enlarge a student’s vocabulary and background knowledge, build fluency, and most important, develop a love of reading that will sustain Tasha.
Scaffolding Suggestions Recalling Details
Have the student reread if the book if it is at his instructional level.
Place the student in a book in which he or she has enough background knowledge to recall its details.
Find another book that’s more accessible.
Have the student reread a few paragraphs, and then stop to think and check his or her amount of recall. If recall is solid, have the student read on. If it’s not, have the student reread or close read.
Moving Students From Basic Recall to Analytical Comprehension
You can move students beyond basic recall to analyzing texts by using the three strategies that follow: determine importance, make logical inferences, and identifying themes. In addition, when you use these reading strategies, you’ll move students beyond recall to high level thinking.
Use your read aloud text to explicitly model how you apply the strategy.
Set aside time for guided practice as you circulate to offer students’ support, answer questions, and acknowledge what’s working.
However, it’s also important to note that with skilled readers, reading strategies work in teams. For example, I can infer and determine important details at the same time. Or I can compare the protagonist to antagonists and settings. To help students understand, apply, and absorb reading comprehension strategies, teach them one at a time initially—and gradually move toward showing students how to integrate them.
Determine Importance
This strategy applies to fiction and informational texts. With fiction, good readers decide the events, conflicts, and decisions that are significant and can explain why. Determining importance also helps them understand literary elements, such as protagonist, and genre, such as science fiction.
With informational texts, good readers separate nonessential from essential information. They set a purpose for reading because it helps them focus their efforts on specific, essential information. As they read and reread, they also figure out the information and vocabulary that are important to helping them infer and understand themes.
Classroom Snapshot: Mikel
Paul Green gives a group of fourth graders a short article on the Amazon Rainforest and asks them to set purposes for reading by studying the two photographs and captions and by reading section headings. Here are two purposes students offered: Read to find out why deforestation is bad. Read to see why the Amazon Rainforest is needed for fresh water. Paul explains that having different reading purposes will make their discussion richer.
However, while Paul circulates among students as they read, he notices that Mikel does not have a purpose written in his notebook. Mikel says, “I never set a purpose. I read it.” Later that morning, during independent reading, Paul meets with Mikel and has him read a different article without setting a purpose and then reread it after setting a purpose. Then he asks Mikel, “Which reading helped you figure out key details?” Mikel grudgingly agrees that setting a purpose helped.
Scaffolding Suggestions for Determining Importance
Help students set a purpose for reading for informational texts.
Help students set a purpose for reading fiction. For example, a purpose for reading Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins could be to monitor the problems Gilly, the protagonist, faces in the first three chapters. .
Ensure that students understand the diverse sub-genres of fiction. For example, a purpose for reading The Giver by Lois Lowery might be to explore what makes the book a dystopian novel.
Model how you set purposes by reading aloud. First, set a purpose: To determine the structure of folk tales. Then, as you read, think aloud and pinpoint the essential details that help you meet your purpose.
Make Logical Inferences
To infer from text, students first have to understand what an inference is: an unstated or implied meaning. Making inferences that are logical means students have to use details in texts they are reading as support.
Inferring is a strategy that you should model many times during the year because it is difficult for most students to grasp, absorb, and apply to their instructional and independent reading. From my experience, with practice, inferring becomes automatic for most students between eighth and tenth grade.
Classroom Snapshot: Sam
Sam, a fifth grade student is reading Ruby Bridge’s Through My Eyes and experiencing difficulty inferring from the text. His teacher switches gears and invites Sam to use details in the book’s photographs to infer. Once Sam shows that he can infer from photos, his teacher moves him to text and says: “Words and phrases in the text give you details similar to what you saw in photographs.” She supported Sam by selecting words and phrases and inviting him to infer. Then she provided an inference and asked Sam to find supporting details. The teacher gradually released responsibility for inferring to Sam until he could apply the strategy on his own
Scaffolding Suggestion for Making Logical inferences.
Invite students to make inferences based on events in their daily lives. For example, they can infer the temperament of a dog from its behavior or the mood of a friend or sibling from his or her words and actions.
Think aloud and share your inferring process using a read aloud text.
Have students make inferences based on photographs and illustrations in books.
Help students transfer inferring from events in daily life, photographs, and illustrations to inferring from text details by first providing them with target words and phrases and asking them to infer. Have students practice with you and/or a peer until they can work independently.
Identifying Themes
Themes are tough for readers to identify because, like inferences, they are unstated. But by using informational text details and literary elements students can identify themes that not only apply to the text they’re reading but also to other texts. Here are three steps that can help students pinpoint themes in fiction and nonfiction:
Identify the big idea or general topics in the text and talk and/or write about them.
In fiction, explore what characters do and say that relate to that big idea or general topic. In nonfiction, explore information and details that relate to that big idea or general topic.
Create a theme statement that expresses the author’s message about the big idea or general topic. Encourage students to avoid using character’s names or the names of places mentioned in a text. An effective theme statement applies to people, characters, and ideas across texts, not just the text in hand.
Classroom Snapshot: Ricardo
Ricardo, a sixth grader, can name specific characters and places in the book he’s reading, but he can’t use the information to state themes. His teacher, Ms. Krieger, meets with Ricardo on three separate occasions for five minutes as the rest of the class reads independently. Her plans include modeling how she uses what characters say and do to arrive at a theme and discussing her process. Then, she’ll provide Ricardo with a theme and have him find the details in the text that support it.
Scaffolding Suggestions for Identifying Themes
Have students watch a video and identify its theme. Then ask them to talk about how the same strategy can be applied to a text.

Give students the details from a text that they need to identify a theme and have them compose a theme statement.
Show students how you pinpoint a general topic in fiction and link it to what characters do and say. Then model how you use the information to compose a theme statement. For example, the general topic is the pain and anger that a child experiences when he realizes his parent commits evil acts. In The Giver, Jonas feels shock, intense anger, and deep pain when he watches, on video a feed, his gentle and nurturing father kill a “newchild” who doesn’t meet the growth standards of the community. To transform the father’s unspeakable action into a theme, the reader has to think beyond Jonas to all young adolescents: Disillusionment occurs when an adolescent sees that a beloved parent is capable of evil.
Pair up students who have read the same text and have them work together and identify one to two themes.
Work backwards: Give students a theme statement and ask them provide the text details that support the theme statement.
Document Teacher-Student Conferences
A five-minute, one-on-one conference can support a student’s needs; one meeting might be enough, but more likely, you’ll need two or more meetings. It depends on the extent of the student’s needs and the level of the instruction you’re providing.
You can schedule a series of conferences over several days while the rest of the class reads or writes independently. Keeping conferences short and focused allows students to practice a strategy over several days and provides the time students need to absorb how the strategy works and how well it’s working for them.
Hold these five-minute conferences in a quiet place in the classroom. Use a small table or use an extra student desk and meet away from other students to ensure privacy. I recommend documenting these conferences using a form at the end of this blog. The filled-out form provides a record of what you planned and what you and the student discussed, practiced, and accomplished. It can also inform the focus of future conferences and teaching decisions.

Five-Minute Intervention Conference Form
Name____________________________________Date______________________
Directions: Complete this conference form and use the information it contains to inform your practice. Store in the student’s assessment folder to consult later as necessary.
BEFORE THE CONFERENCE
Focus the conference topic:
Points to discuss with the student:
The kind of scaffolding I’ll try:

AFTER THE CONFERENCE
Note important comments the student made:
My observations of the student:
Negotiated goal for the next conference.
Date of the next conference:

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Creating a School Culture That Values Independent Reading

By Evan Robb

Changing your staff’s attitudes toward educational practices takes time, but it’s something that you can accomplish through continual communication. Staying in touch with your teachers means attending all meetings, sending them short articles that build their educational knowledge base, providing positive feedback after walkthroughs, and meeting one-on-one with staff or in small groups to have meaningful conversations about best practice. The fifteen tips for creating change that followed enabled me to develop a school culture that made independent reading an important part of the middle school curriculum.

1. Share the research: Before asking teachers to weave independent reading into their teaching schedule, invite them to read and discuss articles on the power of independent reading of self-selected books. Without the practice that independent reading provides, students’ progress in reading and their ability to comprehend complex texts will be limited. Moreover, when students regularly read self-selected books at school, they develop a love of reading that lasts a lifetime!
2. Speak at faculty meetings and to individual teachers: Purchase, for teachers, the book whisperer by Donalyn Miller (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and invite them to organize book study groups. Extol the benefits of independent reading: students enlarge their vocabulary, build background knowledge, practice applying strategies teachers model, and find pleasure in reading about people and places from the past, present, and in the future.
3. Set aside funds for books: Each year offer teachers funds for building their classroom libraries because access to books can bring students into the reading life. Encourage the PTO to do one or two fundraisers for classroom libraries annually.
4. Encourage student self-selection of books: Explain to teachers that permitting students to choose their independent reading books means students invest in their reading.
5. Read aloud to students: Make appointments to read aloud each week to a different class.
6. Become a role model: Discuss a book you love at assembly or during a school wide broadcast.
7. Have students share books on the school’s morning broadcast: Invite teachers to choose students to share a great read with the entire school. Peer-to-peer advertising of terrific books is a topnotch way to interest other students in reading.
8. Drop into classes during independent reading: Catch students reading and loving it! Praise students and show them a book you’re reading. If you have time, join the class and read for ten to fifteen minutes.
9. Designate a weekly independent reading time for entire school: This shows students and teachers how serious you are about reading self-selected books.
10. Encourage teachers to read while students read: Explain that when teachers model that they have and enjoy a personal reading life, they inspire their students to emulate them.
11. Invite teachers to share successes: They can do this during full faculty meetings and at department or team meetings.
12. Track reading scores: Do this to show that when students have a rich, independent reading life, their scores in vocabulary and comprehension start to reflect what they do. Share progress with teachers so they feel the changes and adjustments they’ve made are supporting students’ progress.
13. Feature a student’s recommendation for independent reading in school’s newsletter: This lets parents know how much you, teachers, and students value independent reading.
14. Commend teachers and students in writing: Don’t overdo written notes, but when you see independent reading flourishing in a class, write a note to the teacher and his or her students. Noticing positive reading practices inspires teachers and students to read even more.
15. Inform parents: On back to school night let parents know the benefits of independent reading so they can foster it at home.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of:
The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.
Follow Evan Robb on Twitter: @ERobbPrincipal
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