grammar as terror; grammar as tool

Taking dictation from kids is a great way to get them started with writing. It helps them leap over writing mechanics–the penmanship, the spelling, the grammar–so they can begin to see they have something to say.

But if you keep at it a while, whole new benefits begin to reveal themselves.

For one, kids begin to pick up those dastardly mechanics quite naturally. And second, they begin to think like writers.

Let’s talk about those mechanics today, specifically punctuation and grammar, shall we? I have another story excerpted from my book draft:

* * *

One morning when Mr. T was seven, he narrated the following lines for my transcription: Todding Toddington tore through his stew. It wasn’t because he liked it; it was because he wanted to get up to his room to talk to his friend. When he said that second line, he paused slightly between the two its. Just a little pause, less than the break you might expect between sentences.

I wasn’t sure how I should write the line, so I asked T’s advice. First, I repeated the lines slowly, as two sentences: It wasn’t because he liked it. It was because he wanted to get up to his room to talk to his friend.

He interrupted me. “No, I want it to sound like this,” and he repeated the line as he had before, with a shorter hesitation between the two parts.

I found myself explaining how those two parts couldn’t really form a single sentence unless we used special punctuation, and I showed him what a semi-colon looked like. I described how semi-colons sometimes join two sentences when a smaller word is left out, a word like but or because. This seemed a little ridiculous even as I said it: Mr. T was just seven, what did he need to know of semi-colons? But he nodded his head, interested, comprehending, as if we were discussing why bats are mammals or how sugar comes from cane or some other such matter you might expect a seven-year-old and his mother to happily discuss.

That semi-colon intrigued T, I think, because it was a captivating tool, like a corkscrew, or a car jack—though the lure of this particular tool wasn’t its form, but its ability to let his line to be written just as he wanted it written. The notion that a seven-year-old could be interested in semi-colons delighted and fascinated me, and I grabbed a Post-It and scrawled semi-colon on it. Then, as I transcribed the rest of his chapter, I took note whenever Mr. T demonstrated knowledge of, or seemed interested in, some other tool of writing: when he told me to erase a period because he wasn’t finished with a sentence, when he told me to write a few sentences “slantways” because they were lines from a poem.

* * *

That day with the semi-colon was really the spark that got me noticing how much T was learning from our dictation sessions.

I know that some of you may be saying to yourselves, Wait! I don’t even know how to use semi-colons correctly! That’s okay. You and your kids can learn this stuff together, in the context of their writing.

In the context of their writing. That’s key. That’s what makes learning punctuation and grammar through dictation powerful. You aren’t teaching it as a separate (incredibly dry and tedious) subject. Instead, you’re introducing it as a tool to help your kids express themselves just as they want to.

I don’t set out to teach punctuation and grammar when I take dictation from T.  Punctuation and grammar just come up as I try to get down what he wants to say.

For instance, from the time he was little, when T dictated a line with excitement or enthusiasm, I’d explain that authors usually end such a line with an exclamation point, and I’d ask if he wanted to use one. Likewise with question marks. (Which T’s older brother used to refer to, charmingly, as “huh signs”.) Or, when T would shift gears in a piece, and begin talking about something different, I’d explain that authors use separate paragraphs when moving on to a new idea. I’d show him how we could start the new line lower on the page, with an indent.

Now, when T. moves on to a different idea in a piece, he’ll often say, “Start down here,” indicating that I should begin a new paragraph. Just this summer I went to a workshop for helping homeschooled teenagers with their writing. The speaker explained how she had to spend a lot of time teaching paragraphing to teens. They didn’t understand how to cluster their ideas. I didn’t say anything, but sat, smug, knowing that kids who grow up writing with dictation will have a sense of how to paragraph long before their teens.

Just last week T. dictated this line in a story: It was blasting Zam’s ship with gamma rays. T wanted to clarify what gamma rays are like in his invented world and described them as thin blue lasers that destroyed everything in their path. He seemed a bit confused as to how to add this. I explained that I could write the line with a colon, like this: It was blasting Zam’s ship with gamma rays: thin blue lasers that destroyed everything in their path because a colon can be used to introduce a new idea. Later, however, when T re-read the story, he erased the colon, saying, “I want to do this instead,” and put parentheses around thin blue lasers that destroyed everything in their path.

Ha! I loved that. I love that he owns his work, and ultimately chooses how he wants it to look. And I love that he knows how to use parentheses. (He picked up that tool long ago, and it’s become a favorite.) And, yes, his line works just as well with parentheses–maybe even better than it did with a colon.

I bring up punctuation as it arises in T’s work, when I need to know how to write something. For example, if a character is speaking, I’ll double-check with T to see when the dialogue begins and ends, so I can add quotation marks. Often I don’t acknowledge the punctuation I’m using at all. From the start I never asked if T wanted me to use periods in his work; I simply used them where appropriate, and he gradually internalized how to apply them. I only ask for clarification when punctuation could be used in more than one way: when an exclamation point might stand in for a period, based on how a line was dictated; when parentheses might be applied because a line seems, well, parenthetical.

Does this mean that T. applies these rules correctly when he writes on his own, as he’s beginning to do? Well, no. He’s just learning to put his complicated thoughts on the page, so details like grammar often go forgotten. But if he plans to share the work, and wants it to be a bit polished, we look at it together after he’s done the initial writing. Then all he knows comes back to him. “It looks like Shadow-wing is talking here,” I might point out. “Oh yeah,” he’ll say, and in will go the quotation marks, without any further prompting from me.

He may not have remembered to add those quotation marks at first, but he gets quotation marks.

Grammar and punctuation get a bad rap. When they’re taught separately, as a bunch of rules that must be memorized, it can seem pointless and boring and baffling. I’m not a fan of grammar programs. I think they tend to bore kids with a lot of information that doesn’t necessarily get transferred to their own writing–and that kids would be better off using that time to write or dictate what they care about. At worst, grammar taught separately can terrify kids–and adults–into thinking that writing is overwhelming, and something to avoid. But I’ve found that when grammar is introduced in the context of kids’ writing, they have a natural fascination with it. Grammar is a tool that helps writers say what they want to say, the way they want to say it. And when kids are treated like writers, they begin to act like writers. They even go so far as to embrace grammar.

If you need a brush-up with grammar, one of my favorite resources is Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner. It’s both informative and fun to read. And for kids who are curious about grammar, there’s a version for them: Woe Is I Jr. Both are fantastic. Fun to simply read, or to keep on the shelf as a reference.

Any of you have similar experiences with grammar and your own kids’ dictated writing?

Next up: More on how dictation helps kids think like writers.

11 comments… add one
  • Lise Sep 20, 2010 @ 19:28

    Your posts about dictation have me thinking that I should start using a pencil when I take dictation, rather than a pen. I love your descriptions of T. correcting or changing the writing you’ve done. (But oh, how I prefer a nice juicy pen…)

    • patricia Sep 21, 2010 @ 7:11

      Well, I guess it depends upon the child you’re taking dictation from. If he or she doesn’t mind you continually crossing things out with your pen, then I suppose you’d be okay! But I do think it’s important for kids to understand from the start that writing is pliable. It’s a work-in-progress. You want to encourage them to revise at any point in the writing–not just for “final drafts.” And, as you’ve noticed, dictation is great for encouraging that sort of relationship with writing. (Even if the writing sometimes looks like a mess in the end.)

  • Just Peaches Sep 21, 2010 @ 4:55

    For two years my youngest (now 6) wrote her name with an exclamation point. She loves exclamation points. Although we do dictation I think most of her interest in grammar came from reading together. She would stop and ask me, “What is that mark for?” I would stop and demonstrate how the sentence would be read with a period instead of a question mark, for example. As a result, she is a very expressive reader!

  • Just Peaches Sep 21, 2010 @ 6:57

    I just remembered: when my son was three I was writing his name together with his sister’s name and in between I used an ampersand “&”. That became my son’s favourite symbol. He loved its squiggly look and the sound of the word “ampersand”.

    • patricia Sep 21, 2010 @ 7:56

      Both of your examples show how kids often have a natural fascination with the symbols of grammar. Especially if they grow up in a literature-loving household. If they are introduced to grammar in context, as as a set of cool tools that writers use, that they can use too–rather than being hit over the head with it–they will likely be eager to make those tools their own.

    • Jennifer Mar 17, 2012 @ 4:33

      I didn’t know it was called “ampersand” until I was thirty-two, working in a library as a clerk. Furthermore, I didn’t absorb many grammar rules–despite being an English major and writing paper upon paper– until I was teaching a composition 101 class at community college. When you “have to” know something, it sinks in!

  • You have become such an inspiration to me. Because of you and your son, I now take dictations from my DD9. She decided to write a newspaper last month. You can check it out on my blog.

    Today, she decided to enter a poetry contest. So together, like your son and you, we learned about the ins and outs of poetry (rhyme scheme, length and meter). I found an article on elements of poetry just so we could fulfill the requirements of her category. She thought it was so complicated. Her writing poetry was so free flowing why did she have to know all about this formal thing?

    So I explained that it was part of the challenge of participating in a contest: you have to fulfill the requirements of what the judges will look for and judge. I saw the light come on and she realized her poetry had rhythm and the rhyme scheme was exactly what they were asking for.

    Anyway, I have never had a thing for poetry in my life. Never really liked it. Never wrote it. She has written it and she likes it.

    thanks for encouraging me. 🙂

    • patricia May 23, 2012 @ 21:47

      It means so much to me when readers take the time to share an experience like this, Tereza.

      I loved reading about your daughter’s newspaper! Isn’t it amazing what kids can do when they’re motivated to do it? I’m so glad that dictation is allowing her to do all of this. Her writing voice is developing, no doubt about it!

      And that she’s written poetry and she likes it? Fantastic.

  • wanderingsue Jun 25, 2013 @ 8:14

    Hiya, love. Quick question for you…

    “And, yes, his line works just as well with parentheses–maybe even better than it did with a colon.”

    What about the dash thingy? (Em dash, not en dash, I think, because my mother has always insisted em and en are perfectly legal Scrabble words, thank-you-very-much!) I use them all the time, sometimes I think it’s instead of a comma, or parentheses, or sometimes instead of a semi-colon. But I never know the rules.

    A friend of mine used to get in superb trouble for underlining words in high school essays. From a teacher I loved, but sort of think was probably a lot of the reason I have so little writing confidence. Speaking of which- I’m in a book! I’ll blog about it soon, but a woman wrote a book and included my 2-page responses to her questionnaire, word for word! How flattering is that?!

    • patricia Jun 25, 2013 @ 9:35

      I am a chronic over user of the em-dash, Wandering Sue. It can replace parentheses, or set off a phrase with a bit more emphasis than a comma would.

      I understand a teacher’s need to teach the rules, but so often they do strike fear in us and keep us from writing. The emphasis really ought to be on the writing. Grammar and punctuation can be corrected, but correctness shouldn’t be the overriding message to students.

      Congratulations on being in a book! Please share! (Your blog isn’t linked here, so I can’t read along.)

      • wanderingsue Jun 25, 2013 @ 12:35

        I have just ordered the book- will definitely let you know when I get around to blogging it. I’ve been thinking about the teacher I mentioned a bit lately, and actually I don’t think it was the grammar that was our problem at all. I was a fairly outspoken American kid, recently arrived in Australia, and really, it may have been my written “voice” or perhaps just my ideas that she didn’t appreciate. I remember arguing for Stephen King and against some Aussie novel that I just didn’t understand at all. (Hmmmm, I ought to look that book up and read it again.) Or perhaps my bone-idleness.

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