The English Teacher’s Halloween

How should an English teacher dress for Halloween? A Part of Speech of course!
The best one is the “connector!” Sure! It has such a vital role, yet unappreciated. Now, the noun and verb are the main parts of a sentence, but how about the conjunction? More importantly, the coordinating conjunction? It fills the relational role of bringing clauses and phrases together!

What are the cc’s? FANBOYS!
for and nor but or yet so



When she goes down….

IMG_2830And after I have played with her and fed her……IMG_2797I work.

What is it about my job that keeps me completely enthralled? Is English Language Arts all that exciting? I will argue, YES it is. Reading books, analyzing lesson plans, researching ideas, reading English blogs, perusing texts…it all excites me. What is wrong with me? I do this in my free time. Most people go to the news or the latest Hollywood gossip as their sites du jour, but me? I go to or.. TED talks or… some other writing blog. My never-ending question: How can I engage my students? How can I teach them to THINK? How can I insert the needed skills in their head by connecting all the reading/writing/speaking/listening modes simultaneously? AND of course….they need grammar grammar grammar. What new ways can they get it?

The questions persist and they drive me to continue seeking best practices.


To comma or not to comma!?

I have begged, borrowed and stolen many rules from many sources in order to teach COMMAS!? They are overused, underused and misused. Do you like all of my series?

So, here is a quick summary of a few of the MANY MANY MANY RULES!…Let’s dive in! 🙂

Rule #1: Use a comma to separate three or more things

EXAMPLE: He’s bundled in a wool coat, mitts, hat, scarf and snow-boots because it’s so cold.

You try: Katherine did the shopping cleaned the house and finished the laundry.

ALSO: If you’re repeating words for emphasis, a comma will separate the repeated words so it’s clear you haven’t made a typo.

EXAMPLE: I really, really like chocolate.

You try: Maggie has been a naughty naughty dog.

RULE #2: Before a quote

EXAMPLE: She told her students, “I would add the comma before the quote.”


“I could add the comma at the end of the quote,” this amazing person said.

You try:  “I just have to get a new car “ she said as she stood in the garage. She then continued “I know I can find a good deal!”

Rule #3: Comma Use Around Interrupters

Interrupters are little thoughts in the middle of a thought, added to show emotion, tone or emphasis. When we use an interrupter in the middle of the sentence, it should be emphasized with commas. Without the use of commas, the flow of the sentence may be awkward for the reader. Interrupters are easily identified by saying the sentence out loud; you’ll naturally pause where the commas should be.

EXAMPLE: Queen Victoria was, as they say, a formidable woman.

The interrupter as they say needs a comma before and after it to emphasize its separation from the rest of the sentence.

You try: Having demonstrated a decided lack of ethics, the CEO was needless to say dismissed from the company.

You try: It does indeed look like rain.

Names can also be interrupters.

EXAMPLE: What, Susan, do you think?

You try: Where do you suppose Davey your shoes might have gone this time?

Here are some more common interrupters: in fact, to say the least, however, generally speaking, sadly, happily, and unfortunately.

Rule #4: Commas After Introductory Phrases

An introductory phrase is like a clause, but it doesn’t have its own subject and verb; it relies on the subject and verb in the main clause.

EXAMPLE: Fighting against reason, Martha decided to pull an all-nighter in hopes of passing the exam.

First, what kind of phrase is this?

REMEMBER?? A participial phrase: (acts like an ADJECTIVE! And starts with a what?? A participle: remember, a participle is a VERB that became an adjective: Splash and built now are adjectives. Despite the type of verb, these phrases modify the noun that immediately follows them.)

EXAMPLE: Splashing through the puddles, the girls looked like they were having a blast.

EXAMPLE: Built in the 1920s, the house had a stronger foundation than originally thought.

(remember, a participle is a VERB that became an adjective: Splash and built now are adjectives)

You try:

Finding a good book she decided to take a break and read!

Remembering what is a participle he finished his grammar homework quickly.

What about this example?
In the heat of the moment, many people make rash decisions.

REMEMBER?? A prepositional phrase (starts with a what??? A preposition!)

You try:

Without understanding why, Annie woke from a deep sleep with an urge to check on her children.

Between March and April the little boy grew three inches.

By flashlight in the woods we made our way along the path.

What about this example?
To experience the delights of high-altitude meadows, we drove a Jeep through mountain roads.

REMEMBER? An infinitive phrase (starts with a what??? An infinitive!)

You try:

To dance all night she must have maintained tip-top physical conditioning.

Rule #5: Use a Comma After Introductory Clauses

Remember: A clause is a group of words containing a subject and a verb.  A clause that can function as a sentence on its own is called an independent clause: e.g., My sister eats a lot of ice cream.

Dependent (subordinate): Cannot stand on its own

Independent: Can stand on its own

Introductory clauses are dependent clauses which are found at the beginning of the sentence (although they can be moved to the end of the sentence, too, without confusing the meaning of the sentence). After a dependent introductory clause, we use a comma to separate the introductory clause from the independent clause. The dependent introductory clause may start with an adverb or conjunction like although, if, or when.

EXAMPLE: As the man was walking into the store, he came face-to-face with his childhood sweetheart.

EXAMPLE: Because the rain was torrential, the day’s Little League games were postponed.

You try:

Although temperatures were freezing we stayed warm in front of the fireplace.

Before the ambulance arrived I performed CPR on the unconscious victim.

(The clause starts with either a subordinate conjunction, such as after, while, if, etc…. The clauses cannot stand on their own because they are incomplete thoughts)

You try:

If you are not ready to commit you are unlikely to experience success while trying to lose weight (“if” is a subordinate conjunction).

Common mistake: Using a Comma After Conjunction in Introductory Clause

Introductory clauses frequently begin with a conjunction (although, since, when, if, etc.) There should be no comma after the conjunction in the introductory clause.

EXAMPLE: Because, it was going to rain, we cancelled the picnic.

(The comma after because should be removed; the comma after rain is properly used as it separates the introductory clause from the independent clause.)

What’s wrong with these sentences? FIX THEM:

After, flunking her Victorian Literature class, Martha decided to do the assigned reading.

When and if, it gets delivered, please bring the package into my office immediately.

So, that the water didn’t get in, we attached rubber seals around the windows.


Rule #6: Use Comma After Introductory Clause With Date

Dependent introductory clauses which include a date should be offset by a comma. The date can be a year or the date of the month.

EXAMPLE: In 1989, he graduated from high school.

By the 1960s, most households had a television set.

You try:

During the 1800s canned foods were becoming popular.

Since November 15th we’ve raised more than a thousand dollars for charity.

A couple of side notes on comma usage

  • A comma can change a noun to a verb.
    • The panda eats shoots and leaves.
    • The panda eats, shoots, and leaves.
  • A comma can change the person to whom you are speaking into the person aboutwhom you are speaking, and determine the rest of the punctuation in the sentence.
    • Mary is the one today.
    • Mary, is the one today?
  • A comma can tell the reader to pause for a brief moment because what you’re about to say will add another mind-boggling idea:
  •     The gymnast leapt several feet into the air, and then he did a triple twist and a somersault.
  • Commas are also used to offset information (such as found in an appositive or an introductory clause).
    • Yesterday, we went to the park for a picnic.
    • Michael, my brother, is a nice guy.
Helpful sources

A Call for VERBS!

A Call for VERBS! Breaking down the Common Core Standards

Next time you write an email or construct a sentence for some writing purpose, look at your sentence. A sentence can offer a moment of peace, explode with energy, or lifelessly fade by the wayside. What is the difference? THE VERB.

VERBS are the ENGINE of your sentence.

Verbs basically fall into two classes: “passive” and “active.” Passive verbs are just that. Shy, unassuming, they allow the subject of the sentence to take charge. (Example: The ball is being thrown by me. (verb= is)) vs.: I threw the ball. (The verb (threw) takes control and moves the sentence producing a powerful statement). Do you know you can virtually eliminate adverbs by using powerful active verbs? (See? I just used an adverb to illustrate. I could have said, “ You could minimize the use of adverbs….”)

It is a skill writers perfect to maximize power and lessen word count; it’s a skill to teach my students. When I say, “OK, let’s rock this paper with POWER verbs,” they may know the meaning of a verb, but not truly understand the function of it in a sentence.

Challenge # 1.

Year after year, I promote students to have more “VOICE” in their writing; or perhaps it is dynamic “WORD CHOICE”; Sometimes, I zone in on their “FLUENCY” and beg for a variation of sentence structures and lengths. I can beat my head against the wall all year, but without proper knowledge of sentence construction and the function of words, nothing will ever improve their writing. As I have taught now for about a decade, and focusing on writing as a form of learning and expression, I’m faced with seeing the students’ difficulties with organization, coherence, and revision. News flash: It is not getting any better! WHY?? What has changed in the past 25 years?

Challenge # 2.

As an Arizona English Language Arts teacher, I was always struck by the lack of attention to grammar in the English Language and Literacy standards. As a public school teacher for eight of these ten years, grammar was only focused on as a form of conventions deeply hidden within the Writing Standards. It wasn’t even in any of the Strands of Reading. The Reading Strands dealt with Informational Text, Literary Text, and Functional Text. For the Writing Strands, they dealt with the Stages, Traits and Genres. Within the Traits, as mentioned above, is the Trait of Conventions. This is where one would find some proofreading standards. But that was the extent of the stress on grammar knowledge. Moreover, grammar was not a tested skill. (Teachers threw it out based on time constraints as well) Sadly, if students cannot think through a sentence and how it is structured, their writing will never improve. Grammar is the function of language and works together with reading and writing. We see grammar in action whenever we read; we apply and practice it in our writing.

With years of being able to rattle off standards, strands and sub-strands from the Arizona State Standards, I have been delving into, digesting, and soaking in the Common Core Standards. Forty-five states (including Arizona) and three territories have adopted the Common Core Standards and are now using them in the classroom. The Common Core for ELA includes Reading of Literary and Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Media and Technology, and (thankfully) Language. This is not to say school districts are using them to the fullest potential, crossing curricular practices, but it is beginning to take effect.

While Reading is the process of gaining and integrating new knowledge, WRITING is the process of producing new thoughts from their knowledge and experience. Moreover, writing is clarity of thought. Writing is given a portion of the spotlight in the Common Core standards, but this time, I see a new LIGHT: Attention to VERBS!

Conventions of Standard English

1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

a. Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences.

b. Form and use verbs in the active and passive voice.

c. Form and use verbs in the indicative, imperative, interrogative, conditional, and subjunctive mood.

d. Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in verb voice and mood.

(Source: Common Core Standards; English Language Arts and Literacy)

Let me give some background on why this is not only vital but so refreshing:

It was discovered that the teaching of grammar alone is like teaching what a dollar bill is but not giving the function or use of it in daily life. It’s meaningless. Lynn Sams discussed this in her article on Grammar and noted that structure and meaning need to be discussed together. It is no wonder why direct instruction in grammar had no impact upon writing. “Quite simply, the grammar instruction in these studies was not related to writing. It merely taught prescription (usage and rules) and description (noun, verb, prepositional phrase), the naming of parts.” (57) So, instead of working to incorporate grammar into instruction, teaching of the basics of grammar was thrown out.

This can be likened to football. I know very little about the game. I can sit and enjoy it, know when a player scores, but in terms of understanding the plays and how they work, I’m clueless. Now, if I were to play the game, I would be lost, making many mistakes, but seeing my way through with a lens of little knowledge. This is basically why our students’ writing has not improved in twenty-five years. They can know bits and pieces, but can they write a sentence, understanding the fundamentals and the functions of the players (parts of speech)? After time, their plays are elementary and never advance; until

they understand the function and the rules, their writing stagnates.

When I want to strengthen the WRITING of my students, I can’t give them a protocol of including stronger verbs if they know not the function nor various usages of this glorious grammar bite.

To illustrate the power of verbs, here is a list of the verbs used in the Common Core Standards:

Acquire Adapt Analyze Apply Approximate Articulate Assess

Audit Calculate Categorize Chart
Clarify Classify Collaborate Collect Combine Compare Compete Compose Compile Compute Conceptualize Conclude Connect Contrast Cultivate Correlate

Concur Conduct Construct Create Critique Debate Decide Decipher Decode Deduce Deduct Defend Define Delineate Demonstrate Depict Derive Describe Design Detect Determine Develop Devise Diagram

Dictate Discuss Discover Dissect Dispute Display Document Download Dramatize Edit Elaborate Employ Envision Establish Examine Execute Exemplify Exhibit Explain Explore Express Extract Evaluate Focus Gather Generate Graph Group Hypothesize

Identify Illustrate Imagine Implement Infer Inform Inquire Inspect Integrate Interact Interpret Invent Investigate Judge Justify Locate Map Manipulate Model Modify Monitor Observe Organize Outline Paraphrase Participate Perform Perceive Plan Portray Practice Predict Prepare Present Pretend

Process Produce Publish Qualify Question Rank Reason Recall Recite Recognize Relate Reproduce Research Respond Restate Retrieve Review Revise Rewrite Select Stimulate Solve Study Summarize Support Survey Translate Transform V erify Visualize Write

Our writing skills speak volumes about our intellect. So, next time you write that email, see if you used a powerful active verb. Start writing with more attention to this, and your writing will sparkle. It all started with the simple understanding of a part of speech called a VERB.

Thank you Grammar.


Sams, Lynn. How to Teach Grammar, Analytical Thinking, and Writing: A Method That Works. English Journal, January 2003