Things you see when you haven’t got a red pencil.

It’s too close to Thanksgiving to do any heavy brain work. Here are two published tidbits to amuse and/or annoy.

Headline from regional newspaper:

School beefs up security after shooting roomer.

I’m afraid I laughed out loud at the roomer’s misfortune.

My sister sent this:

A recent hospital newsletter reported one of our docs was going to the Syrian boarder.

My sister speculated that it might be the doctor’s turn to collect the rent.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Use cell phones to teach editing

Editing and teaching editing are not my favorite activities

Learning editing and editing are not my students’ favorite activities.

But neither of us enjoys being laughed at when we’ve let some silly mistake slip by us.

To help students realize the importance of editing their work for errors, I have students snap three shots with their cell phones (or grab screen shots) of errors. I ask students to submit each of their items with a single-sentence caption that indirectly indicates what the error is.

Below are three sample visuals.

ad in which chauffeur is misspelled
Any gifts for moms who spell chauffeur correctly?

ad containing misplaced modifier
I don’t think I know anyone with unwanted space.

ad for a two-sided box
This two-sided planter box is a one-of-a-kind item.


This is a simple activity that can lighten up a classroom and make the point that people notice errors.

Your students might even make news: A 9-year-old  shocked her teacher by finding 15 apostrophe errors in 15 minutes in a market in West Yorkshire.



Individual mastery plans: my best weird idea

As many people have pointed out, I do a lot of really weird stuff when I teach writing.

Sometimes the stuff I do becomes mainstream after a few decades: I began flipping my classroom during my first college teaching job back in 1970; I began doing backward design six years later as I wrote instructional materials General Electric’s Field Engineering School.

My best weird idea

One of my best ideas is a method of attacking the written errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are harder to get rid of than Lady MacBeth’s spots.

You know the ones I mean. They are intransigent errors such as:

  • Using it’s when its is called for.
  • Failing to put a comma after an introductory element in a sentence.
  • Writing unintentional fragments.
  • Using commas to splice sentences together.

They are often errors that happen because the writer was concentrating on getting ideas down, not thinking about the appearance of the text.

Or they may happen because the writer’s brain makes his fingers write the most familiar spelling of a homonym set rather than the less common spelling.

Such things are mistakes.

Let’s stop treating them as if they were tragic flaws.

Teach students to deal with them as editing issuesmistakes they can correct before anybody else sees them.

Individual Mastery Plans defined

I call my method Individual Mastery Plans. They are a bit like special education IEPs.

The IMPs identify each individual student’s habitual and serious errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling (GPS) — including homonym errors—and lay out a plan so the individual student can focus on his or her most serious habitual errors.

The goal of an IMP is for students to produce  clean first drafts, rather than error-free final drafts, because a large proportion of writing today is done with only one draft. Clean first draft is a journalist’s term for writing that’s been edited to contain very few serious GPS errors.

My procedure is to identify for each student a list of their most frequent serious errors and then turn responsibility for editing their own work for those errors over to the students. For courses of less than 12 weeks, I usually have students work on eliminating three errors. For year-long courses, I raise the number to five.

How I set up IMPs

I use Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list of the 20 most common errors in student writing as a tool for establishing students’ baseline performance. Early in a course, as students submit written work, every time I see an occurrence of only those 20 conveniently numbered errors  I put its number in brackets after the error.

I don’t correct errors or identify them other than by the bracketed number.

I use word processing software to tell me the word count, and I use find and replace to put each bracketed number into blue type. That process tells me how many errors of a particular type were in the document.

I make sure each student has access to the Connors and Lunsford list in multiple places;  I also provide highly-specific resources  so students can turn in their text or go online directly to the exact paragraph(s) where the rule governing error [13] is discussed.

When I return written work anytime throughout the course, I require each student to graph the type and frequency of their errors. Some students really like graphing their progress.

After students have written enough to give us a picture of their most frequent errors at course entry, I negotiate an IMP with each student based on that student’s graph.

Examples of IMPs

Here’s a sample IMP for Josh who has a real problem with commas:

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Missing comma in a series
  • Missing comma(s) with nonessential (nonrestrictive) element
  • Unnecessary comma(s) with restrictive element

Here’s a sample IMP for Caitlin who has a problem with sentence boundaries and distinguishing its from it’s.

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Comma splice
  • Run-together sentences
  • It’s/its confusion

You’ll notice the IMPs specify a numerical error limit.  Depending on how long the course is, I set my error limit at no more than 1 or 2 IMP errors per 500 words written in class in an hour on a writing prompt the students did not know in advance.

IMPs and the grade cap

If students exceed the error limit set in their IMP, I impose a grade cap. Typically a student who exceeds the limit cannot get a grade higher than C, regardless of the quality of the writing. The grade cap policy eliminates a lot of sloppy papers.

Once the baseline is established, when I grade papers I flag only errors on a student’s IMP plan, and stop flagging when the error limit is reached.

Having fewer errors to flag when I grade papers saves me a lot of time over the course of a year. It makes no difference to Caitlin’s grade if she had 3 or 30 comma splices in 500 words, but seeing 30 comma splices flagged might well make Caitlin give up trying to master comma splices.

Value of IMPs

Setting up a system for establishing and using IMPs take a bit  of work, but it is a good investment.

IMPs make students responsible for applying their learning to their writing.

Students who historically have not been successful in a writing classroom find reassurance in having an aspect of writing that they can measure and control. Having the same number of errors to work on as the class genius has is good for a weaker students’ self-images, and mastering their IMP items is wonderful for their self-esteem.

An IMP is the only method I’ve found that works for such things as eliminating homonym errors and getting students not to use possessive apostrophes when the context requires only a plural. Those are errors that publisher-created exercises can’t touch.

Other blog posts about IMPs are here and here.

A cautionary message

Probably nothing about public education irks the general public more than graduates who can’t spell.


Warning cone shows a passerby corrected spelling of CAUTION by adding the U wrote DUNCE on the backfront

The person who noticed the U was omitted from the word caution on the warning cone in front of a Bainbridge NY business added it.

Then he or she added a comment about writer: DUNCE.

Competition adds bit of fun to eliminating errors

Although it’s only May, it is not too early to plan a major push to get rid of some persistent writing mechanics errors next school year.

Instead of the usual test-prep methods of working on grammar, punctuation, and spelling, try drilling down into the problems students actually have when they write.

Organize a contest to see which students can do the best job of eliminating habitual writing mechanics errors from their own writing. A contest can be done within a class but it’s far more interesting if the competition is between classes or between grades.

chart of top 20 errors in student writing with associated  resources
The most-common student errors and resources for mastering them.

Before the school year starts, pick a specific number of errors that all contestants will attempt to eliminate by a specific spring date. I recommend using between three and five errors as your standard across all classes and all grades. Such small numbers won’t scare students, but even small reduction in habitual serious errors have significant impact on students’ written work.

Also before school starts, identify a restricted list of specific errors to work on. I suggest the 20 errors identified by Connors and Lunsford in their “Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research” as a starting point. Depending on your students, you might need to add other items such as “A sentence begins with a capital letter” or “Texting abbreviation used instead of full spelling.” If you add items, be sure to keep the same syntax on all items.

Before announcing the contest, teachers must establish baseline performance in a 10 to 20 day period for each student in each of their classes class participating in the contest. Establishing a baseline requires multiple writing samples; a single sample won’t work. Having students write individual sentences won’t work either. Students must write at least full paragraphs so teachers can tell what errors students make when they compose.

After baseline performance has been established for each student, teachers can introduce the contest to students.

If the contest rules specify eliminating three serious, habitual errors in the year, then using the writing in which the teacher has flagged the errors from the master list that Josh made, teacher and student together identify that Josh’s three most frequent serious errors. Those three errors become the only errors that affect the writing mechanics aspect of Josh’s grade for the year.

Through the year, each time students write, teachers focus students’ attention on whether they have corrected any instances of the errors on their personal mastery plans before submitting their work. (Note, please, students don’t need to write error-free; they need only to edit their work to eliminate their habitual serious errors.)

This procedure lets diverse groups compete (sixth graders vs. sophomores, for example) without favoring one over the other. Each student is personally responsible for eliminating the same number of habitual serious errors regardless of which particular errors plague the student.

For 10-20 days after the contest end date, do to a post-test by counting the errors in all student work again.

The class that comes closest to reducing the number of errors in their written work to zero is the winner.

Connors, Robert J. and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research.” *College Composition and Communication* Vol. 39, No. 4 (1988), pp. 395-409. Web. JSTOR. 23 Dec. 2014. Access to the original study is restricted by paywalls but as of 23 Dec. 2014, by selecting *read online free* at JSTOR, teachers could get free [access to it]( for 14-days. The 20 errors are listed in numerous places.

Spelling matters

An ad in the local free distribution newspaper offered a “Black Rot Iron Fireplace” for sale. The ad ran one week.  There was no interest.

The ad ran a second week. Still no interest.

The ad was changed to “Black Wrought Iron Fireplace.”

The fireplace sold the same day.

Spelling matters.