As upper elementary teachers, our focus is so often on teaching students how to write a strong essay. While that’s a worthy goal, consider what element makes up that lengthy essay – the humble sentence. Stories and reports are compilations of sentences, and sentences are the building blocks writers use to construct them. If you want your students to be good writers, focus a lot of your instructional time on teaching them how to write a complete sentence.
So, let’s focus on writing sentences. I needed a strategy for communicating my expectations for a mechanically correct sentence to my students in a way that would be easy for them to remember. In my room, we use a simple acronym called COPSS. It stands for:
C – capitalization
O – overall appearance
P – punctuation
S – spelling
S – sounds right
Each letter is worth one point, so a sentence totals 5 points. It’s very simple and focuses on conventions and presentation, if you’re familiar with the Six Traits of Writing model. Here’s a link to a PDF you can download and use in your classroom.
Now, just putting a poster on your wall does almost nothing to improve sentence mechanics. You have to teach your students how to use the strategy to improve their sentences. Display practice sentences you’ve created and ask students to identify mistakes using COPSS. Ask, “How could the writer improve this sentence using the COPSS strategy?” This question is key. The real purpose of COPSS isn’t to get a grade, but to give students a framework for how to include good mechanics in a sentence. It should be used to improve student writing, not just grade it. Repeat this process many, many times with lots of samples, especially at the beginning of the school year. Then, hold students accountable to this standard ALL the time.
Group-Pair-Solo to Improve Sentences
After I’ve modeled how to use the COPSS strategy with my whole class, we then use the Group-Pair-Solo cooperative learning structure developed by Kagan. Divide students into groups of 4. Give them sample sentences to score and then revise using COPSS. Monitor their progress by walking around the room, listening in on their conversations and providing feedback as needed. I would probably spend three 20-25 minute sessions on this step. Then, release a little more responsibility to students – take the group of four and break it into pairs. Once again, repeat the process of evaluating and rewriting sentences. Finally, it’s time for the Solo step where students work individually correcting sentences using the COPSS model.
Another benefit to the COPSS model is the common language we have in my room when discussing conventions expectations for sentences. This model can be used in any subject area. Whenever my students are writing, they know that one of our expectations is to “call the COPSS.” This then reinforces good mechanics of sentences all day long – math, reading, science, social studies. I even use a gesture with my hand as if I were on the phone as a nonverbal way to remind students to check their writing. Another teacher and I co-teach lessons in reading and language arts in my room. We each have a copy of the poster in our teaching area and are consistent in our expectations for students.
Explain the Strategy
Explain what each letter in the acronym means and provide examples.
C – capitalization. That means that the first word in a sentence is capitalized, as well as the pronoun “I” and a person’s name. This is our starting point. As the year progresses, I teach lessons on other proper nouns and quotations. Once taught, those skills become part of our expectations.
O – overall appearance. This is the presentation piece. I integrate cursive handwriting here, as well as spacing between words and size. This is where having actual student work, instead of teacher samples, can be particularly effective.
P – punctuation. All I hope for here in August is correct ending marks. As the year progresses, I teach the use of commas to separate clauses or to list a series.
S – spelling. Use your Word Wall to help students get at least the most commonly used words spelled correctly. Don’t hesitate to add to it if you notice popular words being misspelled. Just write it with black marker on a card or print it in Microsoft Word. Century Gothic in bold or Comic Sans are two fonts that work well. The 100-120 point range is readable from across the room. Our expectation is that if it’s on the Word Wall, you are responsible for it. When working at the sentence level, I simply say, “You need to check the Word Wall.” For a whole essay, I will write WW above the misspelled word.
S – sounds right. This phrase helps students understand what “grammatically correct” means! While the other letters in the acronym require our eyes, this letter requires us to use our ears. I encourage students to read their sentence to themselves and check.
To help students use this strategy on their own, have them write the letters COPSS on their paper. They can use this as a check list before they turn in their work. By using the same criteria and language repeatedly and across all subject areas, my students know what is expected of them when writing sentences. This model focuses more on the proper conventions of writing. In the coming weeks, I will share a variety of activities you can do with your students to improve the fluency of their sentences.