Listen, I know I can be a bit of a nut with the English language.  I’ll admit I have plenty of triggers in this area, both spoken and written, and that it’s entirely possible more than one person has given me the side eye if they overhear my rant.  That’s my baggage.  I own it.

Grammar mistakes – especially on important stuff like, you know, artwork titles – make me crazy, and pretty much any sentence ending with at (“Hey, Jim, where’s that remote at?”) makes me shudder.  I’m not asking for the Queen’s English here, just a reasonable resemblance to proper English.  It doesn’t even have to be fancy English.  I’d be satisfied by casual language with some slang thrown in if we could only avoid those traffic stopping blunders.

Oh, and in case our texting generations were wondering, writing still matters.

I get that not everyone jams on writing like I do.  My level of delight in the written word reaches a peak that some might consider bizarre, but even so…I simply cannot understand people who can’t construct a simple paragraph.  A brief thank you note, a letter requesting time off, an essay asserting an opinion.  These are not antiquated remnants from a pen and paper world; they’re life skills that might actually come in useful someday.

Which is why I’ve been banging my head on the table with my reading groups lately.

A few background items first:

  • These are fourth and fifth graders, which means some are a semester away from heading off to middle school.
  • NC standards of learning begins writing skills right away.  Kindergarten uses a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to express themselves; first grade begins with the basics of opinion, informative, and narrative writing; second grade refines these using linking words and conclusion sentences.
  • Third grade requires each structural element be present (introduction/organization, supporting reasons/facts/dialogue and actions, linking words/temporal phrases, and conclusion).  Fourth grade refines and strengthens each structural element, while fifth grade students are expected to show mastery commensurate to their instructional level.

My point being, these kids have been “writing” since kindergarten.  Being required to write about a story or article happens all year, every year, especially from third grade on.  Sometimes it’s an opinion piece, sometimes it’s compare/contrast…whatever the prompt, the process is the same.  Go back to the piece, create an organizational chart, then write the essay.  Bing, bang, boom.

The same blessed thing every time.

So could someone please tell me, for the love of all that’s holy, how some of these kids reach fourth and fifth grade without being able to create a paragraph?!

I don’t mean write a logically thought out, beautifully flowing paragraph that grabs and holds the reader’s attention.  I mean that some of them are literally unable to put pencil to paper and come out the other side with a paragraph.

I’ve been hanging in there, but last week I hit the wall.  I had one more day with my fourth graders before we switched another group in and I just couldn’t take it any more, so I wrote up an extra lesson plan.  Thank goodness the teacher rolls with my crazy.

Bless those kids, ’cause when they walked in the next day I was waiting with both barrels loaded.

We started with the bare basics of a paragraph’s physical structure.  That you indent the first line, don’t add spaces between lines, and don’t skip lines between paragraphs.  Capitals, punctuation, and run on sentences matter.  The topic sentence kicks off the first paragraph but does not stand alone, and the last paragraph needs a strong conclusion to wrap everything up tight.

Then we dove in a little deeper.  We took apart the prompt, nailed down what it was really asking, then looked at their organizers to see if they’d used them to guide their writing.

I don’t know how much difference one thirty-minute session made, but at least it’s a start.  Because I don’t need Frost or Hemingway, but I do need kids who can put their thoughts down on paper.