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High School — Writing
Writing Conventions

A writing convention is an accepted rule of written and spoken language. Writers follow the rules of Standard English, including correct spelling, punctuation, capitalization and grammar to communicate in a widely understood language. Students must carefully consider the rules of written language to communicate clearly and precisely.

Encourage students to settle for nothing less than a meticulous presentation of their written ideas. Like a gift wrapped in colorful paper in honor of a friend's birthday, writing that is carefully edited for spelling, punctuation, capitalization and grammar makes an impression.

The Ohio Academic Content Standards establish the following expectations for student performance in the area of Writing Conventions:

  • Students must be able to communicate ideas free of grammatical errors that distract from clarity of meaning.

The content in this Teaching Tool is based on Ohio's Academic Content Standards and Benchmarks and includes types of questions asked on the Ohio Graduation Test in Writing. While various suggestions for working with students are included, this Teaching Tool is designed to complement a rigorous, research-based curriculum, not to substitute for one.


NCTE Executive Committee, NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing. Writing Study Group, November 2004.

Writing Conventions

1. Writing Conventions

Click on the following benchmarks for more information.


Benchmark A: Use correct spelling conventions.

Benchmark A: Use correct spelling conventions.

At the high school level, students no longer have the weekly spelling list to study. Many students only think about spelling conventions when they use the spell check function of their word processing programs. However, the spell check will not flag the mistake in the description of a wrestler who ways in at 145 pounds. Writers must pay close attention to the precision of their spelling in order to communicate effectively.

As a student's internal word bank grows, his or her writing becomes more sophisticated. In addition to using dictionaries and spell check functions in their editing processes, students must develop their own resources for improving spelling skills. Knowing how to spell is a crucial skill for future success, since most employers will promptly dismiss an application that includes spelling errors. Taking time to build spelling skills now will pay dividends in the future.

The following techniques help writers to become savvy spellers as they write and edit their work. By immersing students in language, you can help them pay attention to and become excited about words.

  • Spelling Interviews: Ask students to reflect on their relationship with words. Do they consider themselves good spellers? How do they determine the correct spelling of words when they are writing papers? How do they ensure they are using correct spelling when they write an essay in class or draft essays for a college entrance exam like the SAT? What strategies do they use when they want to use a word that seems difficult to spell? Ask students to interview each other using these questions.
  • Personal Spelling Dictionaries: As students write, ask them to keep track of the words that challenge them. Have them list the correct spelling of these words in a writing notebook so that they can access them when needed. Have students gather several corrected assignments to analyze and record their top ten frequently misspelled words.
  • Thematic Word Walls: Fill your classroom with words associated with a theme you are exploring in class. For example, if you are reading The Scarlet Letter, you might hang up words relating to themes such as betrayal, fidelity, identity, society, hypocrisy and purity. The visibility of these words will encourage students to use them in their writing and to consult the wall to check their spelling if needed. Another option is to have students brainstorm a list of words related to the unit of study.
  • Student-Created Word Walls: Ask students to provide words for a word wall by writing high-frequency, thematic or challenging words (such as SAT vocabulary words) on sticky notes. Use particular colors for each part of speech.
  • Poetry Walls: You can build word development and draw attention to words by asking students to bring in challenging or interesting words each week, color-coded by parts of speech, to post on a poetry wall. Have students arrange the words into new poems. Revisiting the words and adding new ones will help students focus on spelling and meaning.
  • Spelling Rule Clusters: Challenge your students' spelling and inductive reasoning skills by creating decks of cards containing groups of words that follow a particular rule or pattern (such as the silent e rule). Ask your students to study these clusters of words to determine the governing pattern or rule represented. After students have determined the rules, have them record the rules and sample words on chart paper, adding additional examples of the rule as they discover them in their reading. The more students apply the rules of spelling to their writing, the more command they will demonstrate over these rules.

Though there are many exceptions to spelling rules in English, the following list of tried and true guidelines are useful for high school spellers to keep in mind.

  • Check Homophones -- Words that sound the same but have different meanings are often used incorrectly even in the most conscientious writer's essay. Remind your students to check there/their/they're, to/two/too, weigh/way, and the many other homophones that can trip us up as we write--and that computer spell checks often miss.
  • Rules for Prefixes -- Usually when a prefix is added to a word, do not drop a letter from either the base word or the prefix. For example, dis + approve = disapprove.
  • I Before e Rule -- Write i before e (as in friend) except after c or when the combination makes the a sound (as in weigh or reign).
  • Plural Rules:
    • Add s to form the plurals of most words, including those that end in a y or an o that is preceded by a vowel (monkeys, patios).
    • Add es to form the plural of a word that ends in an o that is preceded by a consonant (tomatoes).
  • Rules for Suffixes:
    • When a single-syllable word ends in a vowel-consonant combination, double the consonant before adding a suffix that begins with a vowel (run/running).
    • If a word ends in a silent e, drop the e before adding a suffix that begins with a vowel (take/taking).
    • Change the y to i before adding a suffix to words that end in y preceded by a consonant (happy/happiness, happily).
    • If the root is not a complete word, add -ible (visible, edible, eligible).
    • If the root is a complete word, add -able (fashionable, comfortable, suitable).
  • Using affect/effect:
    • Affect: Transitive verb -- to act upon; to influence (Quitting smoking affected his health in a positive way).
    • Effect: Noun -- something produced by a cause; result or consequence (Quitting smoking had a positive effect on his health).

Highlighting words from reading, generating curiosity about words, displaying words for students to examine and question, and encouraging students to take risks in their own writing helps make the process of checking and using correct spelling rich and interesting, rather than rote and academic.

Click here to view annotated items from the 2005 Ohio Graduation Test that address this benchmark.


Benchmark B: Use correct punctuation and capitalization.

Benchmark B: Use correct punctuation and capitalization.

Ask students to imagine what the world would look like without rules to govern punctuation and capitalization. Punctuation helps readers understand the writer's meaning. Changes in punctuation result in different meanings and emphases. For example, consider the different intents in each of the following sentences:

  • She is there now.
  • She is there now?
  • She is there now!

Capitalization also signals certain ideas to readers. Students need to know the basic function of capitalization and punctuation marks, and understand their uses in writing.

Use students' writing as your guide for planning your review of punctuation concepts. As you discover common errors, conduct mini-lessons on these rules and make time during student writing conferences to address individual needs. You might organize your mini-lessons and conference discussions according to the following functions:

  • Ways to indicate pause: the comma, the semicolon, parentheses, the period and the paragraph indentation;
  • Ways to indicate interruptions: commas, dashes and parentheses;
  • Ways to indicate a borrowed or emphasized word: underline, quotation marks, italics or boldface.

Capitalization, like punctuation, is also a signal to the reader. A capital letter, for example, announces to the reader the beginning of a new sentence, a title, a name, a day, a month, a place, a season, a direction, a school subject or a language.

Begin class with an activity to spark student thinking about punctuation and capitalization.

  • Select an anonymous error from a student composition to put on the board for students to correct and discuss.
  • Transpose a text on a transparency, omitting all punctuation and capitalization marks. Ask students to discuss and punctuate the text as a class or in small groups.
  • Dictate a passage and ask students to transcribe it accurately, using correct spelling and punctuation. Provide the original so that students can compare and correct their transcriptions.
  • Distribute a text that has no punctuation and no capitalization for students to correct.

Click here to view annotated items from the 2005 Ohio Graduation Test that address this benchmark.


Benchmark C: Demonstrate understanding of the grammatical conventions of the English language.

Benchmark C: Demonstrate understanding of the grammatical conventions of the English language.

Grammar refers to the rules regarding the current standard of correctness in speech and writing. Though some students may be reluctant to learn grammar, you can generate excitement about communicating well and conveying ideas in a polished manner. Your enthusiasm for teaching the topic can be infectious.

Students' writing is enriched when they use a variety of sentence structures. To vary their syntax, students should recognize and use clauses--the building blocks of sentences. A clause is a group of related words containing a subject and a verb. Main, or independent clauses, can stand on their own as complete sentences, while subordinate, or dependent clauses rely upon another element of the sentence for meaning. For example, She is older than her brother is an independent clause, while the sentence Because she is older than her brother, she has a later curfew demonstrates the use of a dependent clause. Because she is older than her brother is a clause that cannot stand alone. This clause leans on the second part of the sentence for meaning.

A phrase is distinguishable from a clause because a phrase is a group of related words that does not contain a subject-verb relationship, such as "in the evening" or "dancing in the street."

A gerund phrase includes a gerund (a verb ending in the suffix "-ing" which functions as a noun) and the object of the gerund. Some sample sentences including gerund phrases are: The protesters gathered signatures in support of ending the war or Eben avoided doing his homework because he went out with his friends.

  • Placement: A gerund phrase may appear at the beginning, middle or end of a sentence. Swimming as fast as she could, the athlete won the competition, or She won the competition by swimming as fast as she could.
  • Punctuation: Use a comma to separate the gerund phrase from the rest of the sentence when it is used at the beginning of a sentence.

A participle is a verb form that is used as an adjective and most often ends in -ing (present participle) or -ed (past participle). Participial phrases include: The crying baby was hungry, or Shaken, he walked away from the smashed car.

  • Placement: To prevent confusion, writers must place a participial phrase as close to the noun it modifies as possible. The noun must be clearly stated, as in Carrying a heavy bag of groceries, he caught his foot on the curb as opposed to Carrying a heavy bag of groceries, his foot caught on the curb.He is the pronoun that indicates the actor performing the action, since a foot cannot act independently.
  • Punctuation:
    • Place a comma after the phrase when a participial phrase begins a sentence. Rushing into the room, I found the dog eating my steak.
    • Set off a participial phrase with a comma if it is placed in the middle of the sentence only if the information is not essential to the sentence's meaning. In other words, if the participle can be removed, leaving the sentence intact, use commas. The factory, destroyed by the flood, was never rebuilt.
    • If the phrase is essential to the meaning of the sentence, do not use commas. The man wearing the green shirt is my father.

Infinitive phrases express action or a state of being. An infinitive is a structure that includes the word to plus a verb, as in: We must practice to improve our skills. Be sure not to confuse an infinitive--consisting of the word to plus a verb--and a prepositional phrase such as to him, to the President, to my house, to the country, to the new address.

  • Placement: Infinitive phrases can be used as direct objects (We wanted to leave early), adjectives modifying nouns (I have a paper to write), or adverbs (To apply, you must fill out a form).
  • Punctuation: If the infinitive (used as an adverb) is the first phrase in a sentence, it should be set off with a comma. To improve your writing, you must edit and revise.

Your students should be sure to use parallel structure where applicable. Parallel structure is the phrasing of language so as to balance (grammatically) ideas of equal importance. (Note: Parallelism may apply to phrases, sentences, paragraphs, longer passages or whole selections. Writers use parallel structure because such sentences are clearer and easier to read.

Talk with your students about the meaning of the word parallel (extending in the same direction and maintaining the same distance apart at every point). Like parallel lines in geometry class or parallel streets in your city, similar groups of words must not "cross" over each other in lists by taking varied grammatical forms. For example, Lincoln ended his famous Gettysburg address by consistently stating "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." How might the speech have sounded if Lincoln did not understand parallel structure and said something like, "government made up of everyday people, a government where people vote for representatives, and a government that is meant to serve people shall not perish from the earth"?

A modifier is a word or group of words (such as gerund, infinitive and participial phrases) that describes another word and makes its meaning more specific. Often modifiers add information about where, when or how something is done.

A modifier is most effective when writers place it as close as possible to the word it qualifies. For example, the sentence The talented tennis player scored a point, returning a tough serve includes several modifiers. Talented and tennis are adjectives that qualify player, and tough is an adjective that modifies serve. These adjectives tell us what kind of player the person is and what kind of serve she returned. In addition the phrase returning a tough serve modifies the player's action to reveal how she scored a point.

Misplaced modifiers can muddle a reader's understanding of a sentence. For example, consider the sentence The waiter brought the pancakes to the table drenched in maple syrup. The modifying phrase drenched in maple syrup is not placed close to the noun (pancakes) that it is intended to modify. Therefore, the sentence is confusing because the phrase is placed near the noun table, wrongly indicating that the table, not the pancakes, was drenched in syrup.

Writing, even if does not tell a story, involves time frames for the actions discussed and states described. Changes in verb tense help readers understand the relationships among various events. However, unnecessary or inconsistent shifts in tense can cause confusion. Generally, writers maintain one tense for the main discussion and indicate changes in time frame from one action or state to another. (For example, The family loves the new car that they purchased. The family continues to love the car in the present tense, but they have already purchased it in the past.)

Writing should employ verb tenses consistently and clearly. Writers should not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state is the same. Consider the following sentence: While the dog barks, the telephone rang. A shift in verb tense can confuse a reader's understanding of the relationship among events.

Try the following approaches to teach and model good grammar and usage in your classroom:

When you notice that your writers are using various clauses and phrases, maintaining consistent parallel structure, placing modifiers properly, or maintaining verb tense appropriately, comment on their successful usage. Select well-crafted examples of clauses, phrases, structures, modifiers and tenses to share with the class.

Construct a correction sheet to accompany corrected papers. This strategy calls students' attention to grammar and usage. On the correction sheet, address issues of grammar and usage that commonly appear in student writing. As you read papers, note the number of the correction sheet item that corresponds to the error on the student's paper. When students receive their corrected papers, direct them to consult the rule or issue and make the necessary changes. The correction sheet is also a useful tool for peer editing. See the example below.

Mr. Stack's Grammar Correction Sheet:

  • 1. Tense shift: Choose to write in past or present tense and remain consistent.
  • 2. Run-on sentence: Avoid long, rambling sentences.
  • 3. Awkward syntax: Rewrite this sentence to communicate your message more clearly and directly.
  • 4. Repetitive syntax: Try to vary the length of your sentences.
  • 5. Dangling Modifier: The modifier should be placed as close as possible to the word it modifies.
  • 6. Split infinitive: When using an infinitive (the word to + a verb), do not separate the word to from the verb (i.e., To understand the issue better, we attended a City Council meeting not To better understand the issue, we attended a City Council meeting.)
  • 7. Parallel Structure: Phrases in lists should be consistent in structure (i.e., Lauren is good at writing a solid introduction, creating a fitting conclusion, and editing her careful work not Lauren is a good writer, she has neat conclusions, and her edited work is careful).
  • 8. Pronoun antecedents: You must be clear when you refer to "him" or "her" in the singular. Avoid "they" (plural pronoun) when discussing a singular object. (i.e. When a student is tardy, he or she receives a late slip rather than When a student is tardy, they receive a late slip).
  • 9. Passive voice: Use active voice. (i.e., Many students wear fashionable skirts to class in the summer not Fashionable skirts are worn by many students in the summer).
  • 10. Effective Verbs: Can you replace the to be verb with a more powerful word?
  • 11. Spelling/Capitalization: Use a dictionary to find the correct spelling of this word. Add it to your personal dictionary for future reference.

Click here to view annotated items from the 2005 Ohio Graduation Test that address this benchmark.



Help With Fundamentals

These activities can help you address the fundamentals of Writing Conventions with your students.

Activity 1

Simplified Spelling

Early in the 20th century, a controversy emerged as several American thinkers, leaders and writers argued that conventional spelling should be replaced by simplified spelling. Organize students into an even number of teams and ask them to debate whether to replace English spelling with simplified spelling. Assign each team a pro or con position and an opposing team. As they prepare their arguments, encourage the teams to explore print and/or online resources on the simplified spelling controversy.

This exercise aims to stimulate discussion about the importance of spelling in daily life. Viewing examples of simplified spelling (such as "a simplifíd speling sistem for the Inglish languaj shood be clér and consistent, and yet retain sum degre uv familiarity) might also illustrate the importance of efficient, universal spelling to clear communication.

Activity 2

Punctuate the Conversation

Pair your students and ask them to talk in turn about their plans for the weekend. Record these exchanges and ask the groups to transcribe their tapes, punctuating the sentences based on the inflection, pauses and emotions reflected in the speaker's voice. Discuss the way that punctuation conveys to a reader the flow of conversational speech.

Activity 3

Internet Grammar Scavenger Hunt

Ask students to create a class list of useful Web sites that offer helpful pointers, activities or guidelines for understanding common grammar structures (gerunds, infinitives, verb tenses, etc.). Have each student find a site for each item on the scavenger hunt list. Ask them to evaluate each site according to the following criteria:

  • Authority: Who is the author and what are his or her qualifications?
  • Timeliness: Is the information current? When was it posted and/or last updated?
  • Orderliness: Is the page arranged in an order that makes sense?
  • Clarity: Is the information clearly stated? Does the author define important grammatical terms?
  • Usefulness: How might this site help us as student writers?

Students who have difficulty grasping the fundamentals of writing conventions can use this list of useful and reliable Web sites as a reference. They can visit the sites to clarify and correct their spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Additional Instruction and Practice

These activities may be useful for students who require additional instruction and practice with Writing Conventions.

Activity 1

Spelling and Punctuation as a Career

ACES Editing Guidelines
Students can use this test from a copy editors' group of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to test their spelling skills and to discover the importance of good spelling to a career in journalism.

Activity 2

Hearing the Punctuation

Distribute non-punctuated and uncapitalized copies of a composition. Students should listen to a reading of this composition and correct their copies as they listen to the dictation. Finally, have students compare their copies to the original to see if they correctly punctuated and capitalized. If students missed punctuation or had errors in their versions, they can make a note of the rules that they missed and discuss them during your next individual writing conference. For students with difficulties grasping the fundamentals of writing conventions, be sure to focus the writer's conference on particular areas.

Activity 3

Code Switching

Often, the language students use informally at home or speaking with each other is more casual than Standard English. Ask your students to write two descriptions of their day. First, have them write using slang and everyday expressions. Then ask your students to translate these into a more formal composition, editing the slang into Standard English.

This activity illustrates the beliefs of the National Council of Teachers of English: "The teaching of writing should assume students will begin with the sort of language with which they are most at home and most fluent in their speech. That language may be a dialect of English, or even a different language altogether. The goal is not to leave students where they are, however, but to move them toward greater flexibility, so that they can write not just for their own intimates but for wider audiences. Even as they move toward more widely-used English, it is not necessary or desirable to wipe out the ways their family and neighborhood of origin use words. The teaching of excellence in writing means adding language to what already exists, not subtracting. The goal is to make more relationships available, not fewer." (NCTE Executive Committee)

Allowing students to embrace Standard English as one mode of communication provides them with flexible strategies in addressing various audiences.

Advanced Work

These activities can help your students reach the next level in their understanding of Writing Conventions.

Activity 1

L'orthographie (That's French for "spelling")

Just for fun when you are working on spelling conventions, have students bring to class examples of cognates, foreign words that are spelled like English words, such as joyeux and positif (French), professore and intelligente (Italian), or teléfono and diccionario (Spanish).

Activity 2

Break the Rules on Purpose

Poets use punctuation with particular intentions. Ask your students to analyze the way poets use (or omit) punctuation to create particular rhythms or patterns in their language. With this in mind, poets e. e. cummings and Ogden Nash are particularly interesting poets to study. Have your students look at some examples of these poets' work to determine why they use punctuation the way they do.

Activity 3

Get to the Source

Ask students to research and present the history of punctuation symbols, the history of linguistics or a biography of an individual who contributed to our understanding of English grammar. Other possible research topics include the way Romans approached grammar through philosophy, or the early attempts to study the grammar of Sanskrit in India. Pique your students' interest in the rich history behind the subject of grammar in various cultures.