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Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Usage and Mechanics

Analyze when and how to consider, teach, and evaluate grammar, usage, and other mechanical writing elements.

This session focuses directly on key questions of grammar and mechanics: When should student writers and reviewers of student work pay attention to usage and mechanics? Does teaching grammar in context really work? Why should these things matter? Grammar experts add to the conversation, analyzing its role in communication and providing ways to bridge the connection between message and mechanics. In the writer’s workshop, Judith Ortiz Cofer challenges the teachers to use only one sentence form to tell a story.

Key Points


Our grammar instruction, our usage instruction, needs to happen in the context of the student’s writing.

— Kylene Beers

Kylene Beers

These are the key points the teachers, educators, authors, and students consider:

This workshop focuses on usage and mechanics in the writing classroom: how to introduce, explore, and assess elements such as grammar and sentence structure so that student writers are able to improve their writing by applying what they learn to what they write.

  1. Students must have a grasp of the correct usage to apply in many different situations (academic and personal) and, by identifying the audience for their work, select which style is needed.
  2. As professional writers use a style book, students must also have a set of rules to guide their writing.
  3. Grammar is best taught in context. Years of research have shown that grammar taught in isolation has little impact on student writing.
  4. A writer’s style grows through the examination and practice of construction in many different kinds of writing.
  5. Teachers have to decide when (in the processes of writing) and how to assess or evaluate grammar and syntax. They need to express their expectations to their students.

When it comes to assessing student work, how much emphasis do you place on usage and mechanics? Try this interactive to analyze your current practices.

Things To Consider

You teach writing and mechanics and usage will follow naturally.

— Charles Ellenbogen

Charles Ellenbogen

In your view, when is the most productive time to comment on usage and mechanics in a piece of student writing?

Select the answer that most closely reflects your thinking.

 The best time to comment on usage and mechanics is when the student has completed a first draft. Students can then make revisions in subsequent drafts.

 The best time to comment on usage and mechanics is at the final draft stage.

 Comments on usage and mechanics should be offered throughout all the processes of writing: at all the draft stages and in the final product.

 There is no one best time to comment on usage and mechanics. It should be an ongoing conversation between teacher and student and depend on the needs of the student.


  • Throughout their careers, several researchers who appear in this workshop have concentrated on analyzing the teaching of grammar and other issues of mechanics and usage. They have worked with other authors to prepare this NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar Guideline. It contains answers to questions teachers might ask about teaching grammar and offers many concrete classroom activity suggestions.
  • Rebecca Wheeler (who appears in this workshop) and her former student Rachel Swords have given us permission to include this article in our resources. The article talks about using contrastive analysis to look at language patterns in student speakers (especially African Americans). Building on an analysis and valuing of those patterns, Swords was able to help her students increase reading scores and writing acumen. The information in the article is applicable to all academic levels and offers inspiration and instruction to teachers who want all their students to succeed.
  • Research has shown that grammar instruction done in isolation has little effect on student writing. Because of this, many experts who appear in Developing Writers urge teachers to teach grammar in context. Teaching grammar in context, for example, involves analyzing student work for problematic usage or mechanics and then addressing the issue in class through mini-lessons or student conferences. What do you think?

In the Classroom

I think editing’s most important. And by that, I don’t just mean is the text correct? I mean is it crystal clear to readers?

— Lucy Calkins

Lucy Calkins

  • Kelly Quintero prepared this activity plan to help her students look at verbs in the context of their writing. You can adapt this plan to address many other issues of usage and mechanics, including parallel construction, sentence variety, and other parts of speech.
  • You can involve your students in an activity that’s similar to the one proposed by Kelly Quintero by using the sports section of any newspaper. Find an article or group of articles that relates the progress of a game. Ask students to underline all the active, vivid verbs in the article, and then talk about the image of the game they create in their minds as they read.This activity could be done in small groups, with groups sharing their findings at the conclusion of their discussions, or as a whole class discussion
  • Even professional style guides disagree on some aspects of usage and mechanics within the patterns of standard English. Your class might find is useful to examine several texts on a particular topic and compare and contrast the information they find in each. Consult this list for some print and online resources you may want to examine. Perhaps you could adopt one as the source your class relies on to answer questions of usage and mechanics.
  • What’s your take on usage and mechanics? What kinds of experiences do students need to become credible writers in many communities?

Additional Resources

It’s okay to break the rules, but you need to know what the rules are before you can break them.

— Tracy Mack

Tracy Mack

Listen to or Read: 

  • Maxine Hong Kingston’s thoughts on revision, expressed during an interview for this project.
  • Ruthanne Lum McCunn reflections on what grammar has meant to her as a student, a teacher, and a writer. She expressed her thoughts during an interview for this project.

On the Web:

  • Constance Weaver’s article “Teaching Grammar in the Context of Writing” first appeared in NCTE’s English Journal in November 1996. An online version is available here or through the NCTE Web site by subscription. While underlining the philosophy behind this practice, Dr. Weaver also gives sample lessons that illustrate how best to teach grammar in context.
  • Links to a wide assortment of online resources for teaching and learning about grammar, usage and mechanics are available from There are links for all kinds of topics here, including online articles, teaching suggestions, and specific parts of speech.

In the Library:

  • Hacker, Diana. A Writer’s Reference. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.
  • Haussamen, Brock, with Amy Benjamin, Martha Kolln, Rebecca S. Wheeler, and members of NCTE’s Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. Grammar Alive: A Guide for Teachers. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003.
  • Noden, Harry R. Image Grammar: Using Grammatical Structures to Teach Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999.
  • Noguchi, Rei R. Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1991.
  • Schuster, Edgar H. Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.
  • Strong, William. Sentence Combining: A Composing Book. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1994.
  • Strong, William. Writer’s Toolbox: A Sentence-Combining Workshop. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
  • Strong, William. Writing Incisively: Do-It-Yourself Prose Surgery. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.
  • Weaver, Constance. Lessons to Share on Teaching Grammar in Context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.
  • Weaver, Constance. Grammar for Teachers: Perspectives and Definitions. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1979.
  • Weaver, Constance. Teaching Grammar in Context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.
  • Williams, James D. The Teacher’s Grammar Book. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.