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The 7 deadly writing sins for schoolchildren (and how to prevent them)

Tim Roach explains how to prevent bad grammar habits from taking hold, and how to fix them later down the line...

  • The 7 deadly writing sins for schoolchildren (and how to prevent them)

As a Y6 teacher for many years, I constantly found myself grumbling about mistakes in pupils’ writing. Children in the latter stages of KS2 might have been able to drop in the odd subjunctive, but their work was often riddled with other inaccuracies.

Moving to a younger age group, I reflected on the most common mistakes that have plagued my marking for years, thinking that if I could catch them earlier, I might be able to free up more time for pupils to focus on the rest of the grammar they need to learn before secondary school.

Often, the mistakes detailed below become habit in KS1. If pupils are still making these basic errors after nearly four years of KS2, then it’s clear that something isn’t working as it should.

While there will always be children who haven’t grasped some of the earlier age-related expectations, it shouldn’t be the case that pupils can add to their writing repertoire throughout KS2 and clearly make progress, yet fail to apply these most basic of principles.

Here’s my list of seven deadly writing sins and what we can do about them.

1 | Misspelled high-frequency words

The fix: Test and re-test. This can be done systematically, by including these words in regular spelling tests, or it can be simple and ad hoc, on a mini whiteboard or verbally while you’re standing in the corridor. Highlight misspellings in pupils’ writing and insist upon them being corrected.

2 | Unconnected fragments

The fix: Deal with phrases and clauses that are not coherently connected to main clauses with a quick mini whiteboard writing activity that involves putting a fragment into a sentence. Alternatively, try a more intense task based on spotting and correcting fragments within a section of real pupils’ writing.

3 | Missing capitals

The fix: Reading work aloud is the key to helping pupils spot where their sentences begin and end, and thus spotting where capital letters are required.

4 | Non-capitalised proper nouns

The fix: Proper nouns, be they names, days, months, place names, famous events or titles, have that stand-out quality that almost demands recognition — there’s something special about them.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many signs displayed around school (and in society in general) tend to be capitalised like proper nouns, even if they just say ‘Glue sticks’ or similar.

Capitalisation is also often a default setting on word processing apps, especially when writing tables or lists of individual nouns. Don’t leave these unremarked upon when marking — I put a big circle around missing or incorrect capitals.

5 | Missing full stops

The fix: Missing full stops cause sentence splices (one sentence or clause abruptly continuing into another) or run-ons (the repeated use of conjunctions to lead from one clause to another).

Sentence splices need to be addressed and vanquished without mercy. Train children to spot them in writing displayed on the visualiser. Shout out “Splice!” as you read through them.

Encourage children to learn and recite the three simplest ways to fix them (full stop and capital letter; conjunction; semicolon).

Pupils love playing the role of teacher and marking someone else’s work, so photocopy a piece with a load of splices and let them loose. Alternatively, type one up so that they don’t try to play a game of ‘Whose writing is it?’.

6 | Misuse of commas

The fix: Comma splices (the demarcation of main clauses with commas rather than conjunctions, or commas and conjunctions) are the worst, and notoriously difficult to eradicate. Children think they’re doing the right thing by popping in some punctuation.

We need to stop telling children to punctuate where they take a breath. There are good reasons for using the breathing analogy when reading aloud with prosody, and for spotting places where complex sentences should be demarcated.

However, children seem to reduce this to, “When I breathe, put a comma”. It might solve run-ons in the short term, but it compounds misunderstanding with yet another error. A more dedicated focus on the sentence as the main component of writing is the way forward.

7 | Apostrophe confusion

The fix: This particular plague takes many forms, including:

  • placing incorrect apostrophes before the ‘s’ in plural nouns (cats) or present tense verbs (she gets)
  • omitting the apostrophe before the ‘s’ to show possession (people’s)
  • omitting or misplacing the apostrophe for possession in nouns or proper nouns ending in ‘s’ (dress’s, Chris’s)
  • omitting or misplacing the apostrophe for possession in plural nouns ending in ‘s’ (the troops’ formation)
  • omitting or misplacing the apostrophe for omission in contractions (don’t, should’ve, I‘d)
  • the misunderstanding between ‘its’ (determiner for possession, confusingly) and it’s (it is)

This sin is so endemic, so multi-faceted, so confusing, that eradicating it seems practically hopeless. The problem with apostrophes is that many pupils have not embedded the concept of omission in contractions.

Therefore, they tend to put apostrophes in the wrong places or miss them out completely.

And as for possession, some words have an ‘s’ at the end for other reasons: verbs (the inflected third person singular present tense form, such as ‘he runs’) and nouns (the regular plural form of ‘books’ or ‘dogs’) have the same additional letter for two different things.

As for ‘its’, well, it’s no wonder it confuses children. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written ‘‘it’s’ = ‘it is’’ on the whiteboard. Repeated rehearsal is our only weapon in the fight to defend the honour of the maligned apostrophe.

Fitting it in

Of course, this list is entirely subjective, and for the sake of brevity I’ve also omitted anything to do with dialogue – there are simply too many ways in which children can make mistakes when writing speech.

However, like any concept, deliberate practice and continual review are vital for children to hone their skills.

The problem, as always, is time. With a grammar curriculum groaning under the weight of technical jargon, it becomes an onerous task to teach your year group’s age expectations, stretch into ‘greater depth’ and practise the year-upon-year backlog of previous years’ content.

We must also be mindful of not turning the study of English into mere ‘feature-spotting’. Children get turned off by this pretty quickly.

The answer is to embed grammar, punctuation and spelling — as well as vocabulary, etymology, form, audience, effect and everything else — into the fabric of every reading and writing lesson.

Don’t do it just because of the test at the end of Y6; do it because it will free all pupils to express themselves with clarity.


Tim Roach is a Y3 teacher based in Oldham.

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