Harry Wong
Oct 2017
Vol 14 No 3

What Writing Isn’t

By Cheryl Sigmon
From the archives
If we teach grammar in a way that shows students how it can be an effective tool for expression, they might just grasp it and want to use it.

In our writing classrooms, it’s hard sometimes to find the balance between conventions and composition. When state standards and tests mandate conventions, we feel we must demand that of our students. On the other hand, when we read a good book, we don’t find ourselves talking about how great the punctuation was or how many fragments and run-ons it had. (Can you imagine Oprah convincing anyone to read a book based on its perfection in spellings and conventions?) In fact, if you look closely at the writing of many of your favorite authors, you’ll find that even the editors agreed that some accepted conventions became cumbersome. They dispensed with many of the markings because it created a special and desirable effect. 

So, how important are conventions—grammar, mechanics, usage, spelling? We know we have to teach Standard American English and the conventions that apply and that are acceptable in different situations. But, we need to recognize what produces quality writing—and it ain’t (Oops!)…isn’t grammar. Borrowing from Six Traits, Ruth Culham shares that voice, sentence fluency, ideas, organization, word choice, and conventions are necessary for quality writing. Years ago when I had my training with Culham and Spandel, creators of the approach, I realized that the trait of conventions was only 1/6 of the formula. Conventions didn’t drive writing, didn’t rule writing, didn’t define it solely…but did impact it. Without adherence to conventions, reading what is written would surely be difficult, if not impossible.

Especially as I have written more myself over the past few years, I’ve come to realize how conventions can aid my writing, clarify my meaning, and create the special effects in a way that the words themselves can not accomplish. So, I’ve grown to appreciate the markings that are available—not that I always make the best choices! (My oldest child, for example, who is a marketing specialist, tells me that I’m terribly guilty of overusing exclamation marks. Imagine that! Not that I’ve given up their use now, but I’m more cognizant after she accused me of using more than my fair share of them. Maybe it’s just my nature to be more passionate in my written expression.)

If you’re looking for hard and fast research to defend why you shouldn’t unnecessarily burden students with conventions or overemphasize their importance in relationship to good writing, you need only read the research of Hillocks and Smith (2003) in their meta-analysis of the study of grammar instruction. They unequivocally concluded that the instruction of grammar in isolation has little if any impact on the quality of students’ writing. In some instances, it even has a negative impact on writing. If we, however, teach grammar in a way that shows students how it can be an effective tool for expression, they might just grasp it and want to use it. Caroline, for example, will use commas in her poetry, short sentences when she’s quickly pacing her character, and longer more complex sentences when she’s slowing down and analyzing the character. When grammar, punctuation, and usage are seen as valuable tools, we want and need to use them.

If you’re interested in taking a new direction in your writing instruction/grammar instruction, be sure to read some of my favorites—Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm’s Getting It Right, Fresh Approaches to Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Correctness, Ruth Culham’s 6 + 1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide (and maybe even one of my Just-Right Writing Mini-Lessons books to see how to contextualize your lessons!). We can turn these writing classrooms around and put the emphasis where it belongs. You might even want to print this article and share it with your students for their response. Now, that would be interesting for a debate!

Click here to access 91 additional articles about literacy instruction by Cheryl Sigmon.

About the author

sigmonCheryl M. Sigmon is currently an educational consultant, working in schools nationally and internationally to help teachers integrate balanced literacy. She has served as a language arts specialist in the South Carolina State Department of Education, and is a former classroom teacher. Cheryl has coauthored several professional resources with Sylvia M. Ford on writing lessons for specific grade levels and for the content areas. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband, Ray, with whom she has three grown daughters. Visit Cheryl Sigmon’s Web site:



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