Putting Grammar in Its Place… But Making Sure It Has a Place


Of all the questions facing teachers of Comm-B and Writing-Intensive courses, one of the most puzzling is the question of how—and even whether—to teach grammar. For the most part, Comm-B and Writing-Intensive instructors begin teaching these courses with little background in teaching writing and no experience in talking about the particulars of grammar. Some instructors feel English grammar is the most important thing for students to master before they continue on in the university, and others choose to overlook grammar entirely, focusing instead on students’ ideas. They quickly discover, though, that some—sometimes many—of their students’ papers contain mistakes in grammar, punctuation, and word choice. Faced with this reality, most instructors find themselves somewhere between those two extremes: striving to find an effective and efficient way to deal with grammatical errors while still maintaining the focus on the central concepts and content of the course.

Putting Error in Historical Perspective

It is certainly true that almost every instructor occasionally encounters those students whose grammar does not meet our basic expectations for standard written English. But those cases are, for the most part, exceptional. Most often we encounter papers with a number of grammatical errors and stylistic lapses which make it difficult to focus on the ideas the student is striving to express in the paper. Instructor laments about such papers (on this campus and others) are common, and are often accompanied by a belief that student writing—especially grammar—is much worse than it used to be. But actually, such complaints have a long history. As early as 1899, Harvard issued a report bemoaning the underpreparedness of its students. And, as John Bean points out, researchers who surveyed student papers from 1917, 1930, and 1986 found that “The error frequency rate in 1917 was 2.11 errors per hundred words; in 1930, it was 2.24 errors per hundred; and in 1986, it was 2.26 errors per hundred words” (Connors and Lunsford, cited in Bean 60). From this history we might conclude that there has been no “golden age” of grammar instruction and student writing has not precipitously declined over the past several years.

Understanding Grammatical Errors

  • Nevertheless, as instructors we do indeed have students whose writing—and often grammar in particular—troubles us. How do we explain the frequency of errors that we find in our papers? John Bean, in his book Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011) offers the following explanations. “Students’ prose contains fewer mistakes than teachers sometimes perceive.” Almost every essay contains more grammatically correct sentences than incorrect ones. Instructors, however, tend to remember the error-filled sentences more clearly. Furthermore, research has shown that different readers will notice different errors and that some “grammatical errors”—like wordiness or passive voice—are really stylistic choices.
  • “Errors in student writing increase with greater cognitive difficulty of the assignment.” Research has supported the experience that many of us have had ourselves or observed in others: when faced with challenging material or a difficult rhetorical context, writers often find themselves making “easy” mistakes that they wouldn’t under other, less cognitively challenging circumstances.
  • “Students have more linguistic competence than the surface features of their prose sometimes indicate.” Research has indicated that most students can identify and correct approximately half of their own errors through careful proofreading—but for various reasons, many students do not proofread their papers as carefully as they can and should.

Strategies for Teaching About Grammar and Helping Students Reduce Grammatical Errors

Given these facts, we can expect that coaching students to improve their grammar is part of the job of teaching a Comm-B or Writing-Intensive course. The question then becomes, how can we effectively (and efficiently) incorporate such instruction into our courses? Although we have no magic wand to offer, here are a number of suggestions based on our experiences teaching, working with “at-risk” students, and talking with instructors across the curriculum.

For the Entire Class

  1. Assign papers with drafts that must be revised. Because the cognitive difficulty of a task can often force students to focus intensely on content and organization in early drafts, those early drafts may not reflect a student’s full mastery of grammar and style. By building revision into your course, you may find that you receive fewer error-ridden papers.
  2. Once you have instituted a policy of revision, set high standards and hold students accountable for progress from draft to draft. In particular, stress the need for editing and proofing before the final paper is submitted. You may want to make clear that although a grammatically perfect paper is not automatically an effective paper (thus the focus on content and organization early on is appropriate), nevertheless poor grammar is a distraction from an otherwise stellar paper. Some instructors give students several minutes of class time to proof their papers one final time before handing them in. To convey those high standards, you might share with students models of good writing and include grammatical correctness as part of your grading criteria. You may even decide to tell your students in your grading criteria that a specific part of the final grade will be based on grammar and style, but be aware that students sometimes then fixate on grammatical issues prematurely or even to the exclusion of larger writing issues. You might instead use portfolios to gauge students’ progress over the course of the semester.
  1. Address the most common grammatical problems during class. Consider breaking students into groups and making each group responsible for coming up with a creative way to explain one common grammar problem and how to avoid it to the rest of the class. You might also cover grammatical issues quickly but consistently throughout the semester by discussing, at the beginning of each class session, the “sentence of the day.” Each day, choose a sentence from students’ papers that illustrates a grammatical point you want to convey, put it on the board, then take several minutes to discuss the sentence. You might ask students to identify the error and revise it or to discuss what is effective in a particular sentence. (If you decide to take sentences from students’ papers, tell them early in the semester that you will be using anonymous examples from their writing throughout the course.)
  2. Distribute to and discuss with students a sheet identifying the most common errors you see and explaining how to correct them.
  3. Encourage students to take advantage of the Writing Center’s courses on grammar and style. Detailed descriptions, dates, and registration information are available on the Writing Center’s website (www.wisc.edu/writing).

For Individual Students

  1. Mark errors on papers judiciously. As Bean explains, traditional procedures for marking student papers may exacerbate grammatical errors. When instructors correct all of the errors in students’ papers, students are not forced find their own mistakes and learn to correct them. You might identify the type of error (fragments, possessives, “too” vs. “two” vs. “to”) or demonstrate the density of error in one paragraph or on one page, then require students to do the revising themselves; frequently students’ errors fall into distinct patterns. In fact, what may initially look like endless and unrelated errors may, if you analyze them, fall into a few definable categories of errors which students can work on systematically over the semester. Consider requiring a round of revisions focused particularly on grammatical issues: give the paper a grade, then explain that the grade will be lowered by one half (a B would become a BC) unless the grammatical revisions are completed by a certain day. With these strategies you can remain focused on the student’s ideas while stressing the importance of mastering issues of grammar and style.
  2. In individual conferences, ask students to read their texts aloud while you listen and look at their texts. Often students will “read” grammatically correct sentences even though the sentences are grammatically incorrect on the page. In these cases, encourage students to proofread more methodically by putting their finger on each word as they read aloud.
  3. Have students make their own self-editing checklist. Because most students consistently make the same errors if you and the student are able to identify those errors, the student can proofread especially carefully for those errors.

For Particularly Challenging Students

  1. If there are a great many problems in a paper, consider conferencing with that student individually. Rather than guessing why a student made certain errors and/or filling the page with red ink, you can ask the logic behind those decisions and help the student reformulate his or her understanding of grammatical rules.
  2. The Writing Center can help all students with grammar—but have realistic expectations for what a Writing Center instructor can help your student learn. Like course instructors, Writing Center instructors set priorities. If a student arrives with a paper that is clearly unfocused, Writing Center instructors, expecting that an improved focus will improve the paper more substantively, are more likely to focus on that level of revision than on sentence fragments as they offer advice to students. You may want to encourage particularly challenged students to set up an ongoing appointment with the same Writing Center instructor. For more information on regular appointments or how the Writing Center can help a particular student, contact the Center’s Director, Brad Hughes, at bthughes@wisc.edu or 263-3823.
  3. You might also consider adopting a portfolio system for grading—one that allows students to demonstrate the progress they have made over a semester and to be graded on their best work.

Additional Resources

Chapter 4 of John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose (New York: Longman, 2006).

Joseph Williams’ and Joseph Bizup’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (New York: Longman, 2013).