Writing Conventions


Writing conventions matter.  Typically minor errors can be fixed in the editing stage of the reading process but if spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors get in the way of meaning-making it is much more serious. 

Consider the following sentence and think about how you might punctuate it.

A woman without her man is nothing.

The entire meaning of sentence changes depending on where you place the punctuation. 
Kelly Chandler-Olcott (2000) writes,

When we hold students accountable for poor spelling but do not provide any deliberate instruction regarding how to become better spellers, we abdicate our absolutely essential responsibility to help all the writers in our care move forward from wherever they may be in their development.

Although, Chandler-Olcott is talking specifically about spelling, the same is true for all of the writing conventions.  We need to spend time with our students working through the editing process and directly teaching the necessary skills.  The question is what is the most effective way to do this?  When I was a student in elementary school, spelling was taught through predetermined weekly lists from a textbook and grammar lessons were taught using worksheets.  Students and teacher worked their way through the lessons topic by topic, parsing sentences and doing the prescribed spelling activities.  How much did this process really help students develop as writers though?  A student might get every spelling word correct on the weekly test, but still not spell the word accurately in her own writing.  What we need to do is teach the skills within the context of the students’ own work.  A writers’ workshop approach allows us to teach the skills that each individual student needs as they need them in the context of whatever they are writing at that moment.  This can be done through individual or small group writing conferences with the teacher or with another knowledgeable person (parent volunteer, strong writer in the class, reading/writing buddies, etc.).

K. Chandler-Olcott,  “What I Wish I’d Known About Teaching Spelling” English Journal, July 2000.

Your Spelling Program

More traditional spelling programs require students to memorize correct letter sequences typically through lists found in ‘the spelling text’ based on the most frequently used and misspelled words at a particular grade level.  As mentioned above, however, there is little transfer to other writing activities.  This approach is also limited by the fact that a typical spelling text might address between 4,000 and 6,000 words, but to be effective writers, we need many more thousands of words at our disposal.
Spelling instruction that occurs within the context of the writing process not only helps students with their spelling accuracy but also their understanding of the writing system, syntactically, semantically and pragmatically.  (See Cueing Systems – link to this).  Rather than relying on students’ short-term memories, this experiential approach focuses on the students’ cognitive processes.  One of the challenges of this orientation to your spelling program is that the teacher needs to be aware of each individual student’s needs, which requires keeping accurate and organized records. 

Proficient writers make important spelling-related decisions.

  • How much time should I spend spelling this word?  Is the spelling of this word important enough to interrupt the flow of my writing if I stop?
  • How important is this word to the piece I am writing?  If it is a key word, should I spend the time I need up front to spell it accurately?  Or can/should I leave it until the editing stage?
  • Will an invented spelling work for this word for now, or is it a word that I could get right if I thought about it briefly?
  • Does this word look familiar?  Where might I have seen it before?  What similar words do I know? 
  • Should I just attempt to spell the word and highlight it?  Should I worry about it later? 
  • Is there a quick way to find the word that won’t take me too far away from my writing?  For example, a word wall or a resource that it handy?

Spelling Strategies to Teach Your Developing Writers

  • Look in a book or the writing dictionary you keep with your difficult words in it
  • Go to a place where the word appears (i.e. a word wall)
  • Stretch the word out – Say it slowly
  • Hear the word, or say it in your mind
  • Spell the root word
  • Use a word from the same family that you already know and change it a little
  • Figure out how many ‘chunks’ or syllables the word has
  • Make sure each syllable has a vowel
  • Substitute letters you know that make the same sound until it looks right (ph/f)
  • Ask a friend who is a good speller
  • Ask a friend/teacher for a part of the word, so you can find it in the dictionary, or the part of the word that is wrong
  • Ask for confirmation
  • Use a mnemonic device
  • Underline the part of the word you need to check

Vocabulary Development

Word Wall

  •  coming soon

Making Words

  • Take a large word such as Thanksgiving or hieroglyphics and cut it into individual letters, placing the letter tiles in a Ziploc bag
  • Students work with a partner, using the letters in the bag to create words
  • Have students record their words on a chart
  • Students see if they can figure out the large word that all of the other words come from

2 letter words

3 letter words

4 letter words

5 letter words

6 letter words

7+ letter words







Word Sorts

A word sort is an activity that requires students to group words into different categories. They are called sorts because they foster discussions on how words are ‘alike’ or different’.  There are two basic kinds of word sort activities:

  • Teacher chooses the categories; students sort words into each category
  • Students develop the categories themselves and sort words into each category

What are the advantages of each type of sort?

Vocabulary Self-Selection

Teachers model and then students choose two words from various sources and place in a chart in the classroom.

New Word

Where did you find it?

What does it mean?

Why is it important?









Once words are gathered, they are refined to 5-8 words per week for study. Words are recorded in vocabulary logs and practice in various settings in students’ daily work.

Root word activity

Assign a word root to each group of 3 or 4 students. Have them write the root on the trunk of the tree and as many words as they can think of that are related to the root. Have them share their work in a gallery walk, where the trees are posted around the room.

What other spelling or vocabulary building activities can you develop for your students?  Submit your ideas via the wiki.