The 5 most common Spag errors in secondary schools

Spelling, punctuation and grammar errors need to be noticed and corrected. These five are the worst offences in secondary schools, says Laura Tsabet

SPAG errors

I’ll admit that, in the past, I have been a bit of a pedant when it comes to spelling, punctuation and grammar (Spag). I’ve sniggered as I’ve passed shops advertising potato’s and egg’s, or cafés with menus offering deserts.

And even though it sounds awful to admit, I’ve made assumptions about people because of the way they spell.

I now realise I was lucky: I had two parents who read to me regularly and I went to a good school with good teachers. Learning to read and write accurately wasn’t really an option; it was more of an expectation.

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We should make sure that this is still the case: that every teacher pinpoints Spag errors when they see them.

Spelling errors in school

Whatever subject we teach, we should ask our students to produce work that is accurate and well written, because the more pedantic we are about accuracy, the more pedantic they will learn to be.

Some errors are more common than others. So here are my top five Spag errors that all teachers should be on the lookout for:

1. Capital letters for proper nouns

A proper noun refers to specific or one-of-a-kind people, places or organisations. Examples across the curriculum include Pythagoras’ theorem, Microsoft and the Mississippi River. 

Teachers can help students to correct this basic error by getting them to ask themselves: is the thing I am writing about a single entity? Is it unique to itself? If the answer is yes, then it is likely that it is a proper noun. 

For example, Coca-Cola is a single entity – there is only one Coca-Cola Company. There is also only one James Quincey, Coca-Cola’s CEO (he too is unique, even if there are several other James Quinceys on the planet), therefore the first letters of his name also require capitalisation.

2. Comma splices

A comma splice is the incorrect use of a comma to separate two independent clauses (full sentences). For example: Coca-Cola is my favourite drink, I cannot resist a refreshingly cold can

Both sentences make complete sense on their own and so they require either a full stop to separate them or a conjunction to join them, not a comma.

Students who tend to make this error clearly understand that it requires a pause, so teachers can encourage them to correct it by asking them to read it aloud to test whether the sentence on each side is a full and complete sentence.

3. Apostrophes to show possession

The good news for students who struggle with apostrophes is that there are only really two rules. Once they have grasped both, they should be well on the road to accuracy.

Firstly, apostrophes can be used to show when somebody or something owns another thing. 

For example, my cat Romeo wears a collar and I could refer to it in one of two ways – either as Romeo’s collar or my cat’s collar.

The difficulty comes with plurals. 

If I have lots of cats (which coincidentally I do), then I can refer to all their collars by moving the apostrophe after the ‘s’ to become cats’ collars.

Remember, organisations or places can also "own" things. Examples of places we could see apostrophes of possession across the curriculum include Apple’s editing software and London’s River Thames.

4. Apostrophes to show contraction

The second rule for apostrophes is far easier to remember. When two words are pushed together (contracted), an apostrophe is used to show where there are omitted letters.

For example, do not becomes don’t, or it is becomes it’s

As it is aptly named "contraction", I like to use the metaphor of birth to explain it to students to help them remember: a contraction is when muscles push together to squeeze a baby out – and the baby is the new word that is created. 

I tell students that the apostrophe helps to signal to the reader that the baby is a combination of parts of its mother and father.

5. Homophones

Last but not least, a common error among students is the confusion between homophones, in particular commonly used ones such as to/too, your/you’re and there/their

Teachers must identify these inaccuracies to students when they spot them in their work and ask students to consider what it is they are trying to say. 

It may help to ask students questions such as: “You use you’re here in your work, but it is a contraction of you are. Can you read it aloud to see if it fits in your sentence?”. Or another example could be: “Their refers to when something belongs to someone. Is this what you are trying to say here?” 

If this fails, there are some great memory aids and cartoons easily discoverable on Google that could help students to remember the difference between common homophones.

Laura Tsabet is lead practitioner of teaching and learning at a school in Bournemouth. She tweets @lauratsabet

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