Monday, 4 November 2013

Spelling And Grammar - Useful Sites

So, you've marked your student books and they're full of the 'usual' mistakes. Mistakes which drive you mad because you know they've learned how to do it properly in primary school. Mistakes like missing capital letters, run-on sentences, fragments, confused homophones and apostrophes sprouting up like weeds before every single s.

Mistakes which could ruin their grade.

As we all know, spelling and grammar (or SpAG as it is sometimes known) has been introduced to almost every GCSE - and could be worth as much as 20%. That's two full grades.

SpAG is not just short for spaghetti

The trouble is, for most students, SpAG is deathly boring - and for most teachers, it's resource heavy and stressful to create differentiated responses to the plethora of errors a class of individuals may throw up. The culture in some schools doesn't help either. I vividly remember as an NQT, many moons and many miles away, being earnestly advised to create single-use flashcards (with a complex filing system) as literacy "starters". Different ones for each of my 7 classes. New ones every week. New ones which took 2 hours per class to create. When the HoD challenged the consultant about this as ridiculously over-complex, it all seemed to boil down to "if we work hard and look like we're working hard then even if they don't learn it we'll be OK". So very wrong on so very many levels.

So how do I address those irritating errors without endless preparation? My method is pretty simple and students seem to enjoy it. The first thing I do is a monthly trawl of every website, blog, folder etc' I know of. I file everything (everything: games, worksheets, ideas, lists...) on my laptop under various topics. I'll stick a selection of my favourites at the bottom of this post. Now, I say monthly, but really it's whenever I get time. The idea is to get plenty of different material, in plenty of different forms.

Then I mark my books. That's the important part.

While I am marking, I note the types of error on a piece of scrap paper (e.g. 5 students - apostrophes, 3 students - question marks etc'). I usually focus on either punctuation, spelling, sentence grammar or word grammar to keep it simple. In my marking pen, I make notes in the margins of the exercise books for the student.

The next lesson, the students look over their feedback. We start with content feedback and then we do half a lesson of SpAG:

  • They identify the error I have picked up most often in their books;
  • They choose the website, or printed materials out of the folder provided. If you are lucky and have access to laptops or a PC suite, there really is very little preparation (just make sure the kids can see the folder!). If you haven't, you'll have some printing and photocopying to do.
  • I will give them a challenge in term of level and quantity (for example: learn 15 words from the hardest homophone list): I do this in class, face to face - no planning, more expectation, more personal. This means the activities are differentiated two ways: (1) matching the activity to the type of error and (2) by ability. You could add a (3) which is that with the choice of activity, their learning style is catered for. I often add a level of competition, too: "who can do three activities? Who will re-write their error sentences perfectly at the end?" Weirdly, this seems to add more enjoyment than 'bells and whistles' - kids love to choose and love to win. Even at punctuation.
  • Then ... well I just set a timer and set them off. The trick is to add a continuous air of excitement, competition and challenge. Don't shy away from the idea it's tough, embrace it (without being harsh).
  • Reward. Verbally, with points ... however you wish.
  • Review at the end. The simplest way is to get them to correct or re-write the sentences from the marked books with errors in (only correctly, obviously!). At my school we do this in green ink, so corrections are clear to see - but whatever the ink, the main thing is they have had a practice and are now connecting the SpAG to their own work.

It's that simple. I discovered it one day when I was too busy to turn activities into pretty powerpoints: I didn't need it, and quite frankly if students feel they are choosing their activity and proving they're up for a challenge they prefer to choose their own websites. Smiles all round.

Here are some of my favourite SpAG sites (word of warning: US sites, check Brit spellings!):

What sites would you add as your SpAG favourites?

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