Introduction: Why Should I . . . ?

Welcome to the wonderful world of teaching things you never had to learn.

Why do I say that? Because if you’re anything like the 99% of English teachers I’ve known, you grew up reading books, needing them like others need air. This need probably resulted in lots of positive outcomes, like high SAT scores (Verbal, anyway . . .) and a life-long love of literature, but it probably also resulted in some not-so-positive outcomes, like an inability to avoid sneering when you see an incorrectly used apostrophe and a growing frustration over why your students insist on driving you crazy with their written conventions.

If you’re reading this book, chances are, you never had to learn how to use a comma. Nobody ever had to teach you that “a lot” is two words. But you know what? The vast majority of our students DO need to be taught these things, and it’s your job to teach them. Not because the world will stop spinning if your students continue to splice sentences with commas, but because they deserve every advantage you can give them, and this you can do. The truth is, nobody else is going to do it, and the students who need to learn correct conventions are not going to learn them like you did, through reading.

Teaching conventions is not always barrel-of-monkeys fun, but it is satisfying. It also gives you and your students the opportunity to enjoy something not common in the world of Literature and Language Arts: OBJECTIVE ASSESSMENT. Yes–you, too, can employ the “right or wrong” method of assessing at least this small part of teaching English. The arts of “language arts” still include the heartbreakingly subjective assessment of and response to all types of student writing, but if you choose to incorporate conventions into your course, you can–at least in this small way–be cheerleader and coach instead of judge and jury. And you can give your students valuable and necessary knowledge and skills they will use for the rest of their lives.

About this book

Before you start using this book, you should probably know that it’s not 100% correct. What I mean is, I teach my students that “affect” means “alter” and that “effect” means “outcome.” But the truth is, sometimes “affect” is a noun that doesn’t mean “alter” at all, and sometimes “effect” is a verb. I don’t tell my students that (and this book doesn’t teach that) because the only people who will look down on them for making that error are people whose opinions they should not be concerned about. (Yes, I did just end a sentence with a preposition, and if that bothers you, this book isn’t right for you, although it might be just right for your students.)

There are tens of thousands of grammar textbooks out there. What makes this one different? Glad you asked. I think it’s different in three ways.

1) This book was written by someone with 24 years of experience teaching at public high schools and colleges.

2) This book zeroes in on errors commonly found in students’ writing, but it doesn’t use phrases unfamiliar to students. I love knowing how to hyphenate phrasal adjectives, for example, but I’d never teach hyphenation using those words. I don’t really care whether or not my students know what a dependent clause is; instead, I want them to know when they should use a comma instead of a semicolon. To be fair, I guess I do teach students certain phrases like “fragment” and “run-on,” but for the most part, this book is about function–not terminology.

3) Perhaps most importantly, this book includes something I haven’t seen in others: comprehensive assessment.  How many of us have successfully taught the difference between “their,” “they’re,” and “there,” only to have the same errors pop up in students’ writing two weeks later? The quizzes in this book are cumulative, so students are less likely to forget what you taught two weeks ago.

Dear instructors,

Even if you don’t decide to use this book, please do consider teaching conventions to your students. Yes, your students’ previous teachers should have done that. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t, but here we are. Take this opportunity to learn how to teach something you never had to learn. I think you’ll find your students are grateful and more eager to please you than they are to frustrate you. If you teach at the high-school level, I encourage you to find out the college placement test your local community college uses, and arrange for your students to take the Writing part of that placement test at the beginning and the end of the school year. The results will shock you. Because the vast majority of these placement tests (Compass, Accuplacer, etc.) are multiple-choice, they rely heavily on students’ knowledge of conventions. Incorporating conventions into your course can result in huge gains on these tests, which saves your students time and money when they aren’t required to take remedial college courses.

Please email me if you have questions, concerns, quibbles, corrections, or suggestions. This is very much a work in progress, and I hope it always will be. I have not provided answer keys in this book, but if you need them, email me. I also have lots and lots of units of study, cumulative vocabulary programs with Latin and Greek parts of words, approaches to literature, and all the other stuff English teachers can’t help but re-create every year, so if you’d like any of that, email me–I’m happy to share.


P.S. This book is licensed under creative commons, so don’t make money with it but do use it to make your teaching life a bit easier because if you’re an English teacher, you need an easier life.

P.P.S. If you do sometimes really want to know the RIGHT answer, I cannot recommend highly enough Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Brian Garner. It’s a fabulous resource (and a great gift for all word nerds) written by a man who’s smarter than anybody deserves to be.


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Conventions 101 Copyright © 2016 by Chauna Ramsey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.