You can help students improve their grammar
Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?
September 5, 2019
Being distracted by grammar and punctuation errors as you grade papers can be a real downer. Spending 10 minutes carefully marking every error in a student’s paper only to find the same errors in that student’s next paper can be maddening. And dedicating a few minutes of every class period to a mini-lesson on an aspect of grammar but seeing no results in your students’ writing can be frustrating. Is there anything that works?
Take a SIP of this: helping students improve their grammar
The bottom line of writing researcher George Hillocks’ (1984) exhaustive meta-analysis of over 500 studies on teaching composition is this: Teaching grammar and punctuation out of context does not work. In other words, referring students to grammar drills or exercises does not improve the grammar in their own writing, although it may improve their ability to do grammar drills or exercises. Other research, including a meta-analysis of 115 studies, has found that grammar and punctuation instruction outside the context of the student’s own writing can actually have detrimental effects (Graham, McKeown, Kiuhara, & Harris, 2012). In fact, the National Council of Teachers of English says that teaching grammar and usage outside the context of a student’s own writing is “a deterrent to the improvements of students’ speaking and writing.”
On top of that, much of what nonlinguists believe to be true about language is not true at all (check out Leah Zuidema’s article below for more details). Moreover, some of the well-meaning comments instructors make, such as “this isn’t proper English” or “‘ain’t’ isn’t a word,” are not linguistically true.
So what are some ways to help students improve their grammar?
- Focus on the big-picture aspects of writing, such as focus, development and organization, especially early in the writing process. Students often make errors because they are trying to mimic academic language, with its complicated sentence structures and lofty vocabulary. When students are encouraged to write to express ideas, rather than to sound academic, they often make fewer mistakes. After they’ve generated a draft without worrying about “sounding smart,” you might talk about conventions of academic writing and ask them to revise with those in mind.
- Identify patterns of error to students and teach them how to identify them and correct them. If you find nine comma errors in a paper, instead of noting that there are nine errors, it is more helpful to the student and less demoralizing if you tell them that you noticed a pattern of comma errors. Then, identify the comma rules being broken and show the student how to correct their errors.
- Confirm that what you are identifying as an error is actually an error and not a strongly held preference. Many people, for example, prefer a list to include a comma before the last item; however, there is no rule that says there must be a comma before the last item in a list.
- Have realistic expectations. Students who have been using commas incorrectly for years will not magically start using them correctly because of one explanation from you. Praise students for any improvement, no matter how slight. And more important, praise them for any effort they make toward improvement, such as going to the Writing Center or talking to you about their writing during your office hours.
- Avoid telling students their English is “nonstandard,” “not proper” or “wrong.” No form of English is “better” or “worse” than any other form (Lippi-Green 1997). There are forms of English that are more commonly used or expected in particular situations, such as more formal English typically being used in However, it is simply not true that informal English is sloppy or weak or lazy. If you expect formal English to be used in your assignments, be explicit about that in assignments and explain to students what you mean. If you have strong preferences about contractions, for instance, tell students that.
- If you see problems in a sentence but can’t name the problem, avoid simply telling the student their sentence is “wrong” or “awkward.” This information doesn’t help the student improve their writing and may only serve to confuse them. Ask a colleague or a Writing Center consultant to help you name the problem you see or consult one of the many grammar websites on the Internet.
- Tell students who might benefit from regular work on grammar and punctuation in the context of their writing about the Writing Center’s Roadways Into Developing English Skills program, which pairs students up with specially trained consultants who meet with them regularly through the semester to build their writing skills.
And two more things to keep in mind when talking about grammar with students:
- Recognize that people in power didn’t come to power because of their good grammar; rather, what is considered good grammar is shaped by people who are in power (Bourdieu, 1991).
- Avoid the term “grammar Nazi.” The term trivializes the crimes of the Nazis.
Still thirsty? Take another SIP of helping students improve their grammar:
- The MSU Denver Writing Center
- “Teaching Sentences, Not ‘Grammar’” by John Warner
- “Myth Education: Rationale and Strategies for Teaching Against Linguistic Prejudice” by Leah A. Zuidema
- A short TED talk on “Does Grammar Even Matter?” by Andreea Calude
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