This semester, in an effort to help my students recognize writing conventions in the texts they're reading, I implemented Conventions Reading. I knew it was time to introduce my students to this type of reading because many of them confused one punctuation mark with another (they would call an apostrophe a comma), they would randomly insert commas where they didn't need them, many either weren't capitalizing in places where they needed to or they capitalized in random places such as in the middle of words/sentences, and other mistakes I could fill up an entire blog post with.
Using the aforementioned mistakes as my rationale for introducing them to Conventions Reading, I also explained that I'd noticed too many of them zipping right through editing (they would edit one paragraph or one page, but not the rest of their pieces). To begin this lesson, I asked them to write down our goal for Conventions Reading:
- Recognize writing conventions in the texts we're reading.
I then displayed this text on my smartboard and read it as I normally would:
On a dark December night in 1776, as he led a barefoot brigade of ragged revolutionaries across the icy Delaware River, George Washington said, “Shift your fat behind, Harry. But slowly or you’ll swamp the darn boat.” He was talking to General Henry Knox (they called him “Ox” for short). There’s a painting of George Washington where he’s standing up in a boat scanning the riverbank for Redcoats. I always thought he just wanted a good view. But I guess the reason he was standing was because he didn’t have a place to sit down.
Using Conventions Reading, I read the same passage a second time like this:
[NEW PARAGRAPH] [INDENT] [CAPITAL] on a dark [CAPITAL] december night in 1776 [COMMA] as he led a barefoot brigade of ragged revolutionaries across the icy [COMMA] [CAPITAL] delaware [CAPITAL] river [COMMA] [CAPITAL] george [CAPITAL] washington said [COMMA] [QUOTE] [CAPITAL] shift your fat behind [COMMA] [CAPITAL] harry [PERIOD] [CAPITAL] but slowly or you [APOSTROPHE] ll swamp the darn boat [PERIOD] [QUOTE] [CAPITAL] he was talking to [CAPITAL] general [CAPITAL] henry [CAPITAL] knox [PARENTHESIS] they called him [QUOTE] [CAPITAL] ox [QUOTE] for short [PARENTHESIS] [PERIOD] [CAPITAL] there [APOSTROPHE] s a painting of [CAPITAL] george [CAPITAL] washington where he [APOSTROPHE] standing up in a boat scanning the riverbank for [CAPITAL] redcoats [PERIOD] [CAPITAL] i always thought he just wanted a good view [PERIOD] [CAPITAL] but [CAPITAL] i guess the reason he was standing was because he didn [APOSTROPHE] t have a place to sit down [PERIOD] [END OF PARAGRAPH]
Naturally, reading it this way drew some groans and negative comments, but there was also a genuine curiosity in the room. I explained that the second passage is what we're actually reading, even though we don't say the writing conventions aloud or in our heads every time we read. Instead, we don't really give much attention to these "tools" writers use to clearly convey their ideas to their readers. But we should. This is where some key learning can take place.
In one paragraph, we stumbled upon:
- 48 conventions: not including the spelling of 95 words and the use of 94 spaces.
- 10 different conventions in addition to the space, including: new paragraph, indent, capital, comma, quote, period, apostrophe, parenthesis, and end of paragraph.
- The following rules: Indent for new paragraph; Period at end of sentence; Capital at beginning of sentence; Capital for proper noun; Capital for the word “I”; Parenthesis for an aside; Quotation marks for dialog; Quotation marks for a nickname; Comma to separate clauses; Apostrophe for contraction.
After this mini-lesson, it was time we practice together as a class. I displayed a shorter passage of high-interest text from Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins on my smartboard. In a whole class choral reading, we first read the excerpt as we normally would:
I straighten up and wave his offer away. “No. I’m fine.” To reinforce this, I begin to move away from my old house and in toward the town. Gale asked to be dropped off in 12 with me, but he didn’t force the issue when I refused his company. He understands I don’t want anyone with me today. Not even him. Some walks you have to take alone.
Then, we practiced using Conventions Reading:
[NEW PARAGRAPH] [INDENT] [CAPITAL] i straighten up and wave his offer away [PERIOD] [QUOTE] [CAPITAL] no [PERIOD] [CAPITAL] i [APOSTROPHE] m fine [PERIOD] [QUOTE] [CAPITAL] to reinforce this [COMMA] [CAPITAL] i begin to move away from my old house and in toward the town [PERIOD] [CAPITAL] gale asked to be dropped off in 12 with me [COMMA] but he didn [APOSTROPHE] t force the issue when [CAPITAL] i refused his company [PERIOD] [CAPITAL] he understands [CAPITAL] don [APOSTROPHE] t want anyone with me today [PERIOD] [CAPITAL] not even him [PERIOD] [CAPITAL] some walks you have to take alone [PERIOD] [END OF PARAGRAPH]
Again, there were some negative comments and students read at different paces, so I asked that we try again with a slower pace. After a few tries, we sounded a lot better and some students were really into it. I explained that with Conventions Reading, we're not reading to understand the text, so it's going to be slow. Again, our goal is to recognize the conventions the writer uses to make the text work. Keeping this in mind, I asked the following questions:
- How many conventions does the writer use?
- How many different conventions are there?
- Which rules does the writer follow?
I gave my students several minutes to come up with the answers in their groups, which we talked about together. As a small group activity, I then gave them one more passage of text to work with following the same steps as before. I walked around the classroom listening to each group read, giving feedback and support as needed, and reinforcing the work we'd practiced together. After they finished reading, I asked them to answer the same questions as before. As a class, each group shared out their answers, which we compared and evaluated together.
For independent practice, I asked that students find a passage of text from the current book they're reading. I asked that they copy this text down in their reading journals, skip lines, and then follow the same steps we'd used before.
As students worked, some of them noticed punctuation marks we hadn't encountered in the earlier texts. Not only were they recognizing other writing conventions, they were genuinely curious about the types of punctuation they were encountering and why the author had used each type. These inquiries provided opportunities for "organic" mini-lessons that I could give individually, in small groups, and/or in a whole class setting. Lessons that might not otherwise have happened without Conventions Reading. More importantly, we'd opened the door into rich conversations about writing that we could add to each time we practice.
Tips for Successful Conventions Reading
- Practice regularly. We practice at the beginning of class on Thursdays and Fridays.
- Solicit passages from students. This will help build interest and engagement (and is a clever way to "get the word out" about what students are reading).
- Use short passages. Start with passages that are 100-150 words, then challenge students with longer passages over multiple paragraphs.
- Read slowly. This helps keep everyone together and helps fast readers pay closer attention to what they're reading.
- Let it happen. Allow students opportunities for questions, explanations, AND answers. You'll be surprised by how much they know.
- Keep track. We keep track of the writing conventions we've encountered by copying the original text, the conventions used, and the rules the writer breaks/follows.
- Have fun! This isn't the best way to read because it's slow, but it's a great way to learn about conventions. To keep it interesting, I have students who volunteer to "lead" our Conventions Reading. We also have "battles" between individuals, small groups, gender, etc.
For more on Conventions Reading, see The Reader's Workshop Activity Organizer pg. 21.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.