Now, this will be an interesting turn for my blog. I have spent a fair bit of time working with pre-service English teachers on a topic called Numeracy and ICT (confusing? lol), and have been sharing some of the ways in which I would deliver various parts of the English Curriculum – particularly grammar without resorting to “circle the verb” style activities and worksheets. When I recently presented at the SAETA English teacher’s conference and mentioned similar things during my presentation, someone asked me why it was that I didn’t write any of this practice up on here. In truth, I hadn’t really thought about it! This site has been documenting my expertise with the use of technology in various classroom practice for years… I’d never really considered sharing some of my other learning and teaching styles 😉
That’s changing now! 😉 I’m going to write a few posts about how I have learnt to approach Grammar teaching during my career. I NEVER given students worksheets and ask them to circle words. Why? Because to me grammar is part of the decoding sytem / creative pallet of writing. I want my students to see every text as having an author who made conscious choices about which words, sentence and text structures they used. Everything, in my opinion 😉 has been done for reason. I like to hear, from them, what they think that reason is.
I thought that I’d start with a very simple task you can ask your students to do relatively regularly and I can tell you it’s awesomely powerful at getting them to think about their sentence structures. So, here’s the first post in the new series! I hope you enjoy it 🙂 If it’s useful let me know! Share it with others! I’ll write some more 🙂
Points for Punctuation!
I learnt this technique from English teacher Tony Dickens back in 2009 🙂 Thanks Tony!
Let’s imagine you’re in my English class today. I’d like you to give yourself 2 mins to add to the text below.
“I didn’t want to but I had no choice. I was told to befriend the new kid….“
Write me a paragraph explaining how you felt about this. You’ve only got 2 minutes remember!
Now, there were a few things I didn’t mention. I wouldn’t mention this to my students either. Not the first time I ask them to do it – afterwards, they don’t tend to forget (which is handy!)
I’m scoring you. Yep, that’s right, there’s a score board for your use of punctuation.
The aim is to get about 20 or more points in 3 mins. How did you do?
The first time I did this I wrote about 2 paragraphs and i got about 5 points! Why? Because I wasn’t concentrating on using my grammar to vary sentence structures. We deliberately don’t tell them what we’re up to because we want them to measure their own ‘natural’ writing tendencies. Of course, if you gave them 5 minutes to do it again they will start making conscious choices about their sentence structures so that they can get the highest points in the class. It’s amazing what happens… Go, on give it a go yourself. What happens to your writing? It get’s interesting and engaging 😉
Now, what might happen next is that students will decide to write a sentence in which someone shouts (to get 4 points for some speechmarks) and is excited ( to get another 4 for an exclamation mark). In fact, their character might be SOOOOO excited that it warrants 4 !!!!!s!!!!. Obviously, that’s no good. So, what you do is you tell them that you’re going to take points off if they use more than one ! in one sentence. infact, you’ll take of 10 points if they dare to write !! or worse !!! etc 😉 It’s about quality of punctuation use rather than quantity.
Keep a record of their scores in your mark book and get them to do this for 5/10 minutes every week. Watch what happens 😉 You’ll have to start making that 20 point target harder to reach!
You might need to adjust your score board to reflect the curriculum too.
Here’s what the Aussie Curriculum expects:
Year 10 states: Analyse how higher order concepts are developed in complex texts through language featuresincluding nominalisation, clause combinations, technicality and abstraction (ACELA1570) Analyse how higher order concepts are developed in complex texts through language featuresincluding nominalisation, clause combinations, technicality and abstraction (ACELA1570)
Where can I take this learning next?
First of all, you’re giving students a way to evaluate their writing. A quantative approach which creates competition and an interest in punctuation. Obviously, they’re not going to learn about grammar and correct punctuation if they’re just shoving punctuation everywhere. You have to be really vigilant about HOW they use the punctation and make sure they use it right but, this will show you, very quickly, what their understanding of the use of that punctuation is and then you can address any gaps.
I always teach punctuation as if it’s part of the alphabet. I tell my students that there are more than 26 letters… because each one of those punctuation marks means something. It’s the syntax of the way we speak and write. It’s a way of communicating meaning in the same way that words are. Usually, if I ask my year 7s what a comma is for, they’ll say something strange like ” 1 breath”… because at some point someone told them that when they read aloud they should pause for one breath if they see a comma and 2 if they see a fullstop. Sometimes they tell me it should be used in a list.. but they dont’ really know why.
I tell them that a comma means “wait there’s more!” in a list it means – “there’s something else coming up”, if it’s used after a complex clause it’s because that part of a sentence never makes sense on its own so it’s saying “i know that doesn’t make sense but wait, here’s the next bit… it will in a moment”.
If you teach punctuation like that, it leads to students understanding that punctuation is a vital part of grammar and… eventually, that grammar is a vital tool for all writers. If we “front a clause” i.e. move the subordinate before the main clause and use a comma between (because the first clause doesn’t make sense so we need the comma to tell the reader that it will in a moment) we can create an air of mystery and suspense for our reader, we can make a strong point stand out more than a weaker one… we can create effects in our writing.
Once your students start consciously making choices about using a variety of punctuation in their own writing you can ask them to explore the effect it’s having on the meaning and tone they are creating. They can begin to evaluate and critique the real effects that good grammar has 🙂
This does mean some explicit teaching of sentence level grammar to start with. Get students to come and write a main clause (the part of a sentence that makes sense on its own) on the board and then a subordinate clause (the bit that doesn’t make sense on it’s own) on the IWB. Provide them with an interactive comma and play around with the different ways you could order the parts. Discuss the effect it has on the meaning or focus of the sense of the sentence.
Then, try applying this knowledge when you begin examining texts 🙂 The opening of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is wonderful for this! Why? Because Dickens seems to completely disregard the ‘rules’ of grammar so he can create brilliant effects and really help us to understand how much pressure Pip is feeling.