Note from Dave: Ever since I started using Doug Stark’s approach to grammar and mechanics instruction, I’ve been encouraging him to share it with the wider world. I first became a believer when I saw the results: when I taught kids after they’d had Doug, there was a noticeable difference in their mastery of the English language.
As Doug explains below, we had a neat opportunity to measure the difference Doug’s approach made, and the standardized test results were pretty incredible — even though, as Doug affirms, test prep is not what these warm-ups are about.
To me, these warm-ups are the epitome of being as clear and impactful and purposefully repetitive  as we can be. Why would we teach grammar and mechanics this way? Because each of our
secondary students deserves a shot at mastering the most fundamental conventions of the English language, and because the world will not graciously look past distractingly erroneous prose.
With that said, I am so proud to introduce Doug’s brand new e-book, Mechanics Instruction that Sticks: Using Simple Warm-Ups to Improve Student Writing, which includes a full year’s worth of warm-ups (17 units in all) as well as three supplemental activities. This is the first book I’ve published that isn’t my own, and I could not be prouder. I am so grateful and excited to introduce to you, Doug Stark.
Below, please enjoy Doug’s introduction to his new book.
English teachers are, in my humble opinion, the hardest working people in public education. We have the unenviable task of trying to convince a generation of kids raised on electronic devices and nursed by spell check to slow down and write with purpose and precision. We see ourselves as the last line of defense against the continual erosion of the language, and we try to teach our kids to avoid all of the dreaded errors – the run-on, the forgotten apostrophe, the misplaced modifier – that threaten to reduce our language into an incomprehensible stew of unpunctuated gibberish filled with text-friendly abbreviations and inscrutable emojis. We admire our content-teaching colleagues, but we secretly envy their ability to simply ignore the numerous errors that litter essay responses as they grade for ideas and content knowledge.
We, on the other hand, are English teachers, so we can’t just ignore those minor grammatical errors. We have to figure out how to teach our kids the “rules” in a way that sticks and works for them as writers. Over the course of my career as an English teacher, I have wrestled with competing notions about how to help students write with clarity and a degree of correctness. I remember my first year of teaching and how I focused on free-writing and journaling, rarely taking the time to use direct instruction in relation to grammar or conventions.
I also vividly remember having students switch into my class at semester; these students had been taught by an outstanding veteran teacher who had high expectations for student work. Needless to say, her kids were miles ahead of mine simply because she refused to accept work that did not reflect a student’s best effort.
Entering my second year, I decided that my kids were going to get some top-notch grammar instruction. I planned out a start-of-the-year, six-week “boot camp” of sorts. I would teach these kids how to diagram sentences, and I would cover various common errors that they would be expected to identify and correct.
I went through with my plan. At the end of the six weeks, my students could diagram sentences quite well. They could identify different types of clauses, and they could label parts of speech like nobody’s business. Unfortunately, during this six-week period, my kids didn’t do much authentic writing, so nothing I had taught actually stuck. As we wrote various compositions throughout the rest of the school year, I found myself reteaching virtually everything that I had covered so diligently at the start of the year.
Thankfully, my school sent me to training to learn the “John Collins” approach to writing instruction and grading as a part of our school’s push to begin writing across the curriculum. At this training I learned all about focus correction areas. I was told that I didn’t need to mark every error on every piece of writing that I assigned. I could simply focus on three or four criteria, one of which would be a convention (i.e., no fragments, no run-ons, no errors in agreement, etc.).
This training session was a revelation to me. I immediately became a much better writing instructor, primarily because my students were writing much, much more. Still, many students struggled due to the fact that they had very little background knowledge in relation to the conventions of language. Our school district’s philosophy, at the time, was very much anti-grammar or mechanics instruction. All instruction regarding correctness was supposed to take place within the context of student writing, which makes sense and is supported by research. However, in practice, very little instruction was actually taking place either within or outside of the context of student writing.
As a result, I was getting a large number of freshmen students who knew very little about the actual language of grammar and correctness. For instance, when I would first introduce a mini-lesson on avoiding run-ons, I would start out by asking students to define “run-on.” The vast majority of students would define it as a “really long sentence.” I would then correct this misconception and explain to them that a run-on didn’t necessarily have to be a “really long sentence.” In fact, I told them, you could have a run-on if you incorrectly joined two independent clauses. This led me to define and explain what an independent clause was, which led me to define and explain what a subject and verb was. Basically, I had to work backwards to fill in all of the missing background information that was essential if my students were going to understand WHY an error was an error.
And that was really the crux of the problem. The kids didn’t need to know how to label every single grammatical function within a sentence, but they did need enough knowledge so that they could explain the WHY behind any error that they might encounter.
Using Warm-ups to Supplement Writing Instruction
From this point on, I began experimenting with using “warm-ups” (also known as bell-ringers) as a way to teach students how to identify and edit common errors in their writing. The warm-ups were designed to focus on a particular concept and took about 10 to 15 minutes to complete. I would make sure that whatever area we were focusing on during warm-ups became the focus correction area for any and all writing assignments.
As I continued using these warm-ups, I noticed that students were getting better at editing for errors; however, they were not necessarily experimenting with new sentence structures. When it came to sentence variety, my students were struggling, and I wasn’t quite sure how to get them to transfer the knowledge they were gaining from editing practice to their actual writing.
Fortunately, at this time a colleague gave me a copy of Jeff Anderson’s book Mechanically Inclined. Anderson uses extensive modeling and visual aids to help students craft sentences. Most of the sentences he uses as models are either from works of literature or from student work.
I decided to incorporate Anderson’s approach to sentence crafting within my warm-ups , and my students responded positively. They enjoyed drafting sentences and didn’t even mind reading them aloud. More specifically, I found that students were actually transferring many of these sentence structures over to their writing. I noticed students were starting to use the semicolon correctly. I saw fewer comma errors, especially after introductory elements. In general, my students were pushing themselves to become more sophisticated writers.
Because I had put up posters with models of different sentence structures, I found it much easier to teach sentence variety. Often times, before students would begin writing, I would simply ask students to use and highlight a particular sentence structure. I felt like I had finally found a functional, logical way to teach students to use punctuation properly.
All of my experimentation with warm-ups coincided with the state of Michigan adopting the ACT as its official state test. Now, I am not a big fan of standardized testing, but, in this case, it did help me explore the effect of my instruction on student performance.
In 2013, I was assigned to teach Freshmen Composition and Literature throughout my entire school day. Because our district was on a trimester schedule, this meant that I would be teaching about 80% of our district’s freshmen. The other 20% were taught by my friend Dave Stuart. Both of us decided to use the warm-ups I had developed to teach basic grammar/mechanics.
During the course of the school year, I requested the results of the ACT Explore, which had been given to our students during their 8th grade year. On the English section, we found that the average student in the class had scored in the 49th percentile nationally. Basically, our group of kids was a little bit below average in comparison with the rest of the country when it came to identifying and correcting errors in writing.
Dave and I didn’t know it at the time, but in order to better prepare our students for the ACT, our administration had decided to give freshmen the ACT Plan during the spring of their freshmen year (generally it is given during the fall or spring of the sophomore year). For the first time in my career, I was looking forward to analyzing the data from a standardized test.
The next fall, Dave and I looked at the results. We looked only at the 208 students who had taken both the ACT Explore (as 8th graders) and the ACT Plan (as 9th graders), and we decided to focus on percentile growth.
The average student went from the 49th percentile to the 64th percentile. Our “average kid” was now well above the national average. When these 208 students were in 8th grade, 57% of them earned a “proficient” score on the English section of the ACT Explore. By the end of 9th grade, 78% of them were “proficient.”
It is my belief that much of this growth was due to the instruction students received in our classes.
How to Use the Warm-ups
The warm-ups will not work if you use them like worksheets. You can’t just hand them out and let the kids go. I try to think of each warm-up as an interactive lesson with multiple checks for understanding. Here are the steps I follow when using a typical warm-up.
Step 1: When students enter the room, a copy of the warm-up is projected on the screen in the front of my classroom. Printed copies of the warm-up will be sitting in the front of the classroom, right next to the door. Students know to grab a sheet when they enter. (See Figure 1 for the sample warm-up on semicolons being used in this explanation; click on the Figure to see a larger version.)
Step 2: Most students will start filling in the background knowledge before or right after the bell rings. They know that I will give them approximately one minute to fill in this information. I always ask students to try to fill in the background knowledge from memory. If they can’t remember, they can look back in their writing guides. (My students receive an Academic Writing Handbook at the start of the year. It includes the explanatory pages that I’ve included in this e-book. See Figure 2 for a sample explanatory page.)
Step 3: After a minute I will start randomly calling on students to help me fill in the necessary background knowledge. I try to get through this process as quickly as possible. Sometimes I fill it in on my copy; sometimes we just go over it verbally.
Step 4: I read through the directions for the application exercise (1-3 in this case) and get kids started. As kids work, I quickly circulate around the room, focusing on students who I know are struggling. In most cases, I circulate for no more than about 1-2 minutes.
Step 5: After circulating, I read the following aloud: “Use a semicolon and a transition to join two independent clauses.” I then point to the different visual clues for the sentence structure. Finally, I read the model sentence and point out that the semicolon and the word “consequently” are used to connect two independent clauses. I then ask the students to construct their own sentences following that model.
Step 6: After a minute or two, I read the directions for exercise #5. I remind the students to be prepared to explain why the other four examples won’t work.
Step 7: As students finish, I say the following: “Turn to your elbow partner (or neighbor) and check numbers 4 and 5 together. Read your sentence construction aloud and have your partner initial next to the sentence if it makes sense and is punctuated properly. Then, discuss which answer is correct and explain why the other four are not correct.” While students check their answers, I circulate around the room, making sure they are on task and checking in with struggling students.
Step 8: After a minute or two, we are ready to correct the warm-up. Most of the time I will have students correct their own warm-ups. Sometimes I will have them exchange papers. I ALWAYS have the students put some type of grade on the warm-up, and I ALWAYS collect the final product. How you choose to grade these warm-ups is totally up to you. Because I call on students randomly as we correct the warm-up, I rarely have any issues with students not finishing. I also make sure that kids understand that this is a timed assignment and will often place a stopwatch on top of my copy under the document camera, so they can see how long they have to work.
Step 9: For the first three, I would simply call on a student randomly to tell me where he/she placed punctuation. If the student gets anything wrong, I will try to talk him/her through his/her mistake.
Step 10: For the sentence construction, I call on three different students to read their sentences. I always have the students read the punctuation aloud so everyone in the class can hear where they placed it. This may seem weird at first, but it is extremely effective. For instance, I’d read the model sentence like this: “The evidence was overwhelming … semicolon… consequently … comma … the jury returned a verdict of guilty.” If a kid forgets to read the punctuation aloud, I make him/her repeat the sentence. If any part of the sentence does not make sense, I quickly explain what is wrong. I do not want to get into a prolonged discussion at this point, but I do want the student to understand why the sentence does not work.
Step 11: Finally, for number five (see Figure 1), I would ask one student to identify the best response and to briefly explain why it was best. I would then go through the incorrect answers, asking random students to explain why each example was incorrect.
Reading through those directions, this sounds like it takes a very long time. In truth, the entire process takes around 10-12 minutes. If that is longer than you want to spend, cut the warm-ups down. Split them up. Do whatever you need to do. Just don’t cut back or eliminate the process of checking for understanding. Give the kids time to share their answers with a partner. Make sure that you talk over the WHY behind the answers.
My preference is to complete approximately three warm-ups a week (30-35 minutes of instructional time). Because my school is now on a semester schedule with 60 minute periods, I still have 45-50 minutes to initiate and complete a lesson on days when I use a warm-up. If I need the whole 60 minutes, I skip the warm-up on that particular day.
In my opinion, the warm-ups help my students build a base of knowledge that they can apply to the writing process. When we’re writing, I am free to circulate through the room, conferencing with students, making note of other errors that students are making (this is where I focus on surface errors involving capitalization, word errors, or spellings that are not heavily discussed during warm-ups). I can refer back to concepts that we’ve learned and discussed, and I can quickly and efficiently adapt to the needs of my students during the writing process.
Using warm-ups or any other type of worksheet will have zero effect on student achievement if it is not tied to extensive, repeated opportunities to write. I have always looked at these warm-ups as mini-lessons designed to improve the writing ability of my students, not as a replacement for authentic writing.
Some of the activities on these warm-ups resemble the activities on the ACT or SAT tests, but that is more a function of my wanting to give kids a few examples to build some degree of familiarity. If you look at the warm-ups as a whole, you’ll see that they are not designed for “test prep.” They are designed to help students gain a stronger command of the conventions of the language.
Feel free to adapt these warm-ups as you see fit. Look through the supplemental activities that I’ve included and see how they might fit within your classroom. I know that I am constantly tweaking every classroom process and activity to help my classroom function more efficiently and effectively. I have shared my warm-ups with many of my teacher friends, and I am always impressed with how they alter them to fit their instructional style.
I have ordered the warm-ups based on the sequence I followed when teaching Freshmen Composition and Literature. However, if you prefer, you could certainly choose to pull mini-units to teach as you see fit.
I sincerely hope that this little handbook helps make your job a little bit easier. If I can be of further service, don’t hesitate to be in touch.
1. John Wooden once said, “The importance of repetition until automaticity cannot be overstated. Repetition is the key to learning.” John Wooden produced many, many successful young people; we ought to consider his words before we make snap judgments about unfashionable words like “repetition.”
2. Anderson’s templates, sometimes with variation, are incorporated on nearly every warm-up (e.g., see Figure 1’s “Independent Clause; Transitional Words, independent clause” graphic). These are used with permission from the publisher. For a robust treatment of these sentence templates and Anderson’s approach to mechanics instruction, check out Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop.