You Can Teach Writing

Stop teaching grammar. 

Use Individual Mastery Plans instead.

Teaching grammar is far from the most important part of teaching writing. However, if you want public approval of your students' writing and your teaching of writing, you must make sure students' writing is relatively free from grammar errors and other common writing mechanics flaws.

It's a waste of students' time and yours to teach, for example, subject-verb agreement to students who never make subject-verb agreement errors.  Your time is better spent helping students master the errors they make habitually.  

That is not something that can be done easily or well using traditional ways of teaching grammar.

The only strategy I've found that eliminates habitual errors in grammar and related writing mechanics is what I call Individual Mastery Plans, or IMPs.

IMPs reduce surface errors in students' work and the improvements stick after the course is over.

Besides that, IMPs are simple enough that any teacher — not just English teachers — can use them as an alternative to the traditionally ineffective ways of teaching grammar.

An IMP individualizes remediation.

It's rare to find a student who doesn't regularly repeat a same few errors.

For example, I regularly type it's when the context calls for its. I know the difference, but in the writing I do, I more often need it's than its, so it's is what I usually type, even when it's the wrong word. A quick computer "find" to search for it's  lets me fix those errors.

In my course writing objectives, I specify a maximum number of errors from the student's own error list that I'll allow before imposing a grade penalty.

In order for students to achieve that objective, I must to do some work early in a course to help each student identify his/her most frequent errors in grammar, punctuation, homophone use, and other common writing mechanics errors that either make writing hard to understand or make readers laugh out loud.

An IMP allows a student whose work is full of comma errors to concentrate on getting rid of comma errors, while another student who never puts a comma wrong but regularly confuses it's and its works on figuring that out.

By identifying a small set of errors for each individual student and penalizing them if they fail to master those errors, I typically see a quick improvement in grammar and related writing mechanics without my teaching any grammar.

Grammar for writing gets a fast fix from an IMP.

The best way to make a group of students look like better writers fast is to help them rid their work of their most frequent writing mechanics errors, beginning with the most serious of their habitual errors in grammar, punctuation, and homophone use.

Grammar for writing targets first drafts.

The goal of teaching grammar for writing (as opposed to teaching grammar for scoring well on bubble tests) is to produce clean first drafts.

A clean first draft means that the writers write and correct what they've written in a single session so those first drafts contain almost no serious writing mechanics errors.

A great deal of workplace writing goes to readers without a second draft so writers must write competently on the first draft. First draft competence includes remediation — self-correctionof one's habitual, serious errors in grammar, punctuation, homophone use, and other writing mechanics.


When I impose Individual Mastery Plans on students, my goals is help them produce clean first drafts by focusing remediation on just the most serious errors they make habitually

When teaching grammar, teach this rule: You make a mess, you clean it up.

Teaching grammar means teaching editing so it's as ordinary as vacuuming..
Clean up the mess you made.

Mastering grammar doesn't mean writers never make mistakes. It means writers know what their habitual, serious errors are and they consciously seek to find and correct those errors in the first drafts of all their writing.

Here's how to set your IMP standards.

1. Set a specific word count as a measurement unit.

Common Core State Standards require students by sixth grade to be able to type three pages (about 750 words) in an hour. Typing doesn't require as much thinking as writing does, so I set my word count standard for novice writers a third lower than the CCCS typing standard.

I expect teens and adult students to compose and edit, either in longhand or at a keyboard, 500-word texts on an unannounced class topic in an hour. The editing is for the students' most serious habitual errors as specified on their IMPs.

Many of my college students who had been special ed students in high school refused to ask for help because they didn't want to be labeled as special. Because of that, I keep the word count as low as I dare so English language learners and other students with challenges can manage without having to seek special accommodations. 

2. Flag any of up to two dozen common, serious errors.

Early in a course, I examine several samples of each student's writing, both formal and informal, flagging any of 20 common, serious writing errors. (I use the 1988 Connors and Lunsford errors list because its items are specific and numbered.)

I flag errors by putting the Connors and Lunsford number for the error in blue brackets in the students' documents right after the error.   

I give students copies of the errors list. They are responsible for finding out to what error the code numbers refer.

3. Rub students' noses in their errors.

As I return papers, I have students count and graph the kinds and number of errors they made in their papers. Since I evaluate digital documents, students can have their computers count the number of times a specific number appears in brackets in a paper.

Most students aren't aware that they make the same few errors repeatedly.

When teaching grammar, have students make a bar chart like this to track their errors.
Bar chart reveals habitual errors

If students graph the mistakes in all the papers, formal and informal that they wrote in, for example, the first month of class, they have visual evidence that mastering as few as three errors will make people perceive their writing to be significantly better.  That's motivation for doing remediation.

Having students count and graph their mistakes also saves me a lot of trouble, but I don't find it necessary to mention that to students.

4. Confer with each student to select IMP items.

Using the student's graph, the student and I together decide which specific errors on his/her list the student will be responsible for learning to identify and eliminate from first draft copy.

I hold all students to the same number of errors, typically three errors in a semester or shorter course. Once the students' errors lists are established, I:

  1. flag on a student's papers only the errors on that student's IMP
  2. stop flagging any errors when it's obvious the student is over the grade cap limit.
  3. cap students' grades for errors in excess of the limit.

I also provide a resource list that suggests where they can get help with that specific error. My remediation resources include page and paragraph references in students' texts, if one is used, and online resources.

FYI. When I teach face-to-face classes, I like to have each student in my office for three conferences a semester. I use the first to get acquainted and set up the IMPs.

IMPs focus students' remediation efforts.

The IMP procedure strikes a balance between making students correct their work for any errors (a requirement that is difficult for the best of us) and having students correct exercises that contain only one error of a particular type per sentence.

Having students aim at freeing their writing from three errors rather than one makes English-class editing mimic real-life editing but keeps the challenge within reasonable limits.

The two sample IMPs below show their simple format. The error names are taken from the Connors and Lunsford list.  

Sample Individual Mastery Plan #1

By December 20, for every 500 words written under test conditions specified in the ninth grade English objective for writing, Caitlin Carhart will have no more than two errors in total of these types:
  • comma splice
  • run-together sentence
  • its/it's confusion

Another student in the same class with Caitlin will have an IMP that specifies the serious errors he makes habitually.

Sample Individual Mastery Plan #2

By December 20, for every 500 words written under test conditions specified in the ninth grade English objective for writing, Joshua Juniper will have no more than two errors in total of these types:

  • missing comma in a series
  • missing comma(s) with nonrestrictive element
  • unnecessary comma(s) with restrictive element.

The unwritten message that IMPs give students is that getting rid of grammar, punctuation, and their habitual homophone errors is something they can do. None of my students has ever complained that mastering three rules was too hard.

IMPs hold each student responsible for his/her own small set of errors.

Each student must:

  1. Track errors to establish baseline performance.
  2. Identify, in partnership with the teacher, his/her most serious habitual errors.
  3. Develop strategies for identifying the errors on her/his IMP.
  4. Learn the relevant definitions and rules so s/he can spot and correct those errors in her/his writing.
  5. Note their IMP items on the grading sheet they turn in with each formal writing prompt.
  6. Graph his/her own progress toward elimination of those errors.

Some students think the graphing is silly, but for many others the graph provides proof they're making progress even if their writing overall is still below competence level.

Teacher's role in IMP deployment

The IMP also gives teachers a clearly-defined role. The teacher must:

  • Teach students which grammar errors are serious.
  • Flag in each student's writing only IMP-listed errors.
  • Help students develop strategies to find their IMP errors.
  • Help students develop strategies to correct their IMP errors.
  • Penalize students for IMP errors above the limit.

It is particularly important to confine your error flagging to just the individual student's IMP errors. Such self-control saves students' egos and saves you a great deal of time.

Once students realize that they can make themselves look far smarter by mastering a few grammar rules at a time, many make an effort to expand their IMP list to other serious errors they make habitually.

Make the grade penalty fit the good writers.

You have to be careful when imposing penalties for more than the allowable number of errors. 

If you set the penalty too high, you risk making grammar appear the most important part of writing. If you set it too low, students won't think trying to remedy their habitual grammar errors is worthwhile.

What I've found to work best is to say the highest grade a student can earn on a paper with excessive errors is a C.  I discovered that technique literally by mistake. 

Need help between school PD workshops?

If you find you need inspiration or teaching tips between professional development workshops, getting my weekly blog posts by email may meet your need. My posts going back 10 years are located at PushWriting.com*. You can sign up there to get new posts as they are released Friday afternoons.  

*Links in this box take you away from YCTWriting. 

IMPs change the teaching of grammar.

The rule in my first year college English course was that no one got higher than a C if they had a spelling error in their research paper. I had never thought correct spelling was worth bothering about, and I thought the rule was dumb. 

In my research paper, I misspelled optimism. I misspelled it multiple times. I left no doubt in the teacher's mind that I didn't know how to spell optimism.

I can honestly say the C I got in that English course changed my life. It taught me that, however trivial I thought correct spelling is, there are powerful people who think correct spelling matters. 

I've never taken the value of correct spelling lightly since.

By imposing a cap of C on students who have more errors than your standards permit, you can motivate good writers to pay attention to writing mechanics if they want to get the kinds of grades their ideas and writing ability deserve.

Try it and see if you can't change somebody's life forever.

Use informal writing to teach grammar in small bites.

Sometimes IMPs let you avoid teaching grammar entirely. Errors often disappear almost overnight when students realize that their carelessness turned what might have been an A into a C.

When you must teach grammar, IMPs change what you do from presentations, worksheets, and comments on papers to conferring with and supporting students as they write.

When IMPs are used, teaching grammar doesn't require lengthy grammar lessons, exercises, or worksheets. Instead, you can use informal writing for 5-minute lessons over a period of weeks about one rule that seems to be a tripping hazard for many students.

Doing what is essentially a single five-minute lesson repeatedly using different practice items over a period of weeks increases the likelihood that you'll present the lesson at a time when Josh or Caitlin is ready to learn that lesson.

Work with groups or individuals on grammar problems.

If students appear to be working hard to correct their grammar but having little success, some individual or small group work may be appropriate.

If you make a habit of walking around the room, looking over shoulders, asking questions, and providing feedback while students are writing, they won't find it threatening to have you pull a couple of them aside to discuss a grammar problem they're all experiencing.

Students don't persist in making mistakes unless they believe what they are doing is correct. Try asking students to explain step by step why they made the choices they did. What rule did they apply? What do they think the main words in that rule mean?

I often find that college students with persistent grammar errors misunderstood some term that a teacher used back in elementary school and that misunderstanding is the reason for their making a mistake 30 years later. 

The site glossary includes plain English alternatives to textbook phrases you can use in teaching grammar so that students can master their IMPs.

IMPs help students learn grammar for writing.

Setting up a system for establishing and using Individual Mastery Plans takes some work, but it pays off in long-term improvements in student writing.

An IMP is the only method I've found that works for such things as eliminating homonym errors in students' writing and getting students to not use possessive apostrophes when the context requires only a plural.

And the time and effort required to set up IMPs pays off in time and effort saved by having fewer errors to flag when I grade papers.

What to read next.

If you're working through the instructional strategies in order, using  informal prompts for daily writing practice is next after this page about using IMPs instead of teaching grammar.

If you reached this page via a search engine, you may wish to start from the beginning to see what you missed. Here are your choices:  HOME page. Instructional strategies. IS1 Teach required writing. IS2 Aim for competence. IS3 Align objectives to goal. IS4 Plan 3/4 point finish. IS5 Teach 1 writing pattern. IS6 Teach 1 writing process. IS7 Individualize remediation. IS8. Do daily writing practice. IS9 Give fast feedback often. IS10 Require full documents. IS11 Assess for competence. IS12 Wait for writing skill.

Originally published 2008-08-11 by Linda G. Aragoni on her website you-can-teach-writing.com; updated 2012-10-26;  updated and revised 2017-10-29.

Stage 1 instruction should prepare for teaching grammar by making IMPs.

Prepare IMPs while you teach students planning strategies.

In a full-year class, you ought to get students' Individual Mastery Plans prepared in the first month of class, so that students have them to use when you teach the eighth writing strategy, single-error editing. You should have students writing informally every class period during that first month and writing formally once a week so that you have a representative sample of their work on which to base their IMPs.

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