Why is grammar and spelling being taught differently than it was in past?


This is a common question asked by parents about how writing conventions (mechanics, usage, and sentence formation) are being taught in order to best to support developing writers.

It is not surprising that parents have this question– the entire school experience for students today is extremely different, and the world students are being prepared to live and work in requires new knowledge and skills. Parents naturally wonder why they no longer see traditional grammar workbooks and worksheets. They are curious why their children are no longer memorizing lists of spelling words. Hopefully, this post will help clear up some of that confusion.

 Before delving into the specifics, it’s important to state that while methods of instruction have changed, the core beliefs and values remain the same. We know the ability to effectively communicate ideas and opinions in written form is critical to the future success of our students. We value the process involved  in learning how to write well and we will continue to focus on developing the crafts and conventions involved in written expression.

Our main goal is to provide instruction that is relevant, rigorous, and related to purposeful written communication that students construct and value.


What does research say about how we should teach writing conventions and how are we applying that knowledge with our students?


For the past several years, educators all over the country have been challenged to rethink what and how they teach in all subject areas, including written expression.

When discussing changes that have occurred related to writing conventions, it is not so much changes in curriculum (what is taught), but rather instruction (how it is taught) that has changed.

One of the driving forces behind many of the recent changes in the field of education is the tremendous increase in brain research, which has improved our understanding of best practices in teaching and learning.

Research confirms that teaching writing conventions in isolation is ineffective. Instruction needs to be focused on teaching students how to use the structure and mechanics of language to communicate their ideas in their own authentic writing pieces throughout the school day. It also emphasizes that the focus during the writing process should be on ideas first and conventions last.

A recent article in The Atlantic “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar”  tackles this very issue. In this article, there are direct links to relevant research from 1984, 2007, and 2012. The pattern of the research remains the same: Teaching conventions in the context of real writing provides the strongest instructional return.

When students entrust their ideas to the page, they are ready for lessons that assist them in the communication of these ideas. In other words, when students have something to say, they are vested in learning how to say it well so that it can be understood by the intended audience.

This is one of the many reasons parents no longer see the traditional grammar workbooks and worksheets. Those instructional methods focus on the concepts and skills in isolation rather than in the context of students’ authentic writing.

In the primary grades (K-2), students begin to learn how to write down their experiences, stories, thoughts, and opinions. They are developing fluency in writing, finding their voice as writers, and learning different craft moves. Their initial drafts are not corrected for punctuation, spelling, and usage because the focus is on getting their ideas down on paper. Once students are producing fluent writing, teachers conduct editing mini-lessons related to simple convention rules so the ideas can become “readable” to others. Teachers connect these lessons to the students’ authentic writing pieces during one-to-one conferences and small focus groups embedded in the daily writing workshop.

Upper grade students in grades 3-5 write for a variety of audiences across all content areas and their ability to share their ideas and opinions is further developed. They are able to focus more of their attention on conventions and how these conventions vary for different writing genres. During the writing process, students are encouraged first to revise their writing for content, then edit for conventions. In this way, students move beyond surface-level writing. Direct instruction in writing conventions continues and is driven by what teachers observe in the writing pieces as well as what is developmentally appropriate for these older writers. This instruction also occurs within the context of the writing workshop during whole group mini-lessons, small group focus lessons, and one-to-one conferences.


Where does spelling fit into this conversation?

Spelling instruction is focused on how words work– spelling patterns, word parts, and  morphology. Students learn about high frequency words and are asked to study these words that often break the “rules,” but memorizing lists of spelling words for weekly tests is no longer applicable. We believe our approach better positions students with multiple strategies to tackle unknown words when reading and writing. By providing a foundation and understanding about how letters and words work, we expand the list of potential words a student will be able to read and write and move beyond recall to application.

If you have more questions or want to discuss this topic further, please reach out to Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Ruth Thomas (rthomas@ravenscroft.org).  Mrs. Thomas collaborated and contributed to the content of this post and I am very grateful to work with such an experienced, knowledgeable, and talented educator.

National Council of Teachers of English Position Statement About Teaching of Writing

Image from: http://www.writingforward.com/category/grammar/good-grammar

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