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  • Pam Koutrakos

Teaching Students How To Transfer Conventions Into Their Writing

“You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.” Ah, yes, this proverb is so true when it comes to teaching, hoping, praying that students will apply the taught conventions to their own writing. There have been many times I have done a quick “well check” in my head that goes something like this:

  • Have I generated curiosity around language? CHECK

  • Did I bring a healthy dose of inquiry to teaching conventions? CHECK.

  • Have I modeled explicitly what it looks like to apply learning? CHECK.

  • Am I convinced students have internalized the steps involved in applying these understandings? EHHH...

I decided I was tired of living with that constant low level anxiety around students’ ability to apply language learning. I purposefully infused whole class lessons, small group instruction, and one-on-one conversations with scaffolding that would better assure transfer.

During our writing block, I kick off most sessions with an explicit and straightforward demonstration of a useful tip students might try in their own writing. These short and sweet “mini” lessons help students turn inspiration into practice. Here, I show and tell the process of a strategy. It is when I am likely to hear a whole lot of, “Ohhhhh...That’s how you do it” which is music to my ears. When teaching students how to try applying taught conventions in their own writing, I make sure to explain three essential pieces of information:

  • Why we would use the writing convention

  • When to use the writing convention

  • How to use the writing convention

Here are a couple of charts I have used as I taught students how to apply specific conventions:

Once the how behind using a convention is taught, students can try, tinker, and tweak their work in all kinds of ways. They might focus on how to use grammar conventionally in a piece of writing. They might also explore using grammar to further their voice, tone, or intentions. For example, Mia, a fourth grader, loved experimenting with using appositives and similes to explain the expert lingo she included in her informational writing about different computer coding languages.

I do not expect success and full independence right out of the gates. I know that students will learn by trying....trying...and trying again. After introducing the “how” behind applying a convention, I am also ready to support students as they experience varying levels of success. Of course, I could reuse the same charts created “in-the-moment” during the intro lessons. However, I have also found that having a smaller, more general and flexible version in my teaching toolkit is well worth it! I’ve included a snapshot of a more adaptable chart I have used in small group instruction and one-on-one conversations with students. Notice how the general language on the chart makes it possible to support students’ use of a variety of conventions. My quickly jotted storehouse of sticky notes helps me feel confident that my instruction matches what will be most useful right here and right now with specific students.

Because I have also found that even with high-quality instruction and the very best of intentions, sometimes students have difficulty remembering to use a convention. They may forget to reread their work, checking for and/or fixing up attempts. I have tools that help me prepare for that, too.

In the next blog, I will share ideas for how to support rereading, editing, and applying across a unit. Until then, feel confident in knowing that the explicit instruction you are ready to provide during your writing block will promote greater transfer of all you introduced.

NOTE: This blog is the 6th in a series on teaching the language standards with greater consistency and intention. Click here for blog 1, blog 2, blog 3, blog 4, and blog 5.

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