Grammar and Correctness

When many faculty think of student writing assignments, the first thing that comes to mind is the number of errors that many students make. Issues of spelling, grammar, and sentence construction stand out in our minds to the extent that we may overlook many other aspects of the writing. To be sure, one of our goals as educators is to teach students to write good, literate English. Unfortunately, improving students’ grammatical competence in writing is one of the most difficult goals to achieve. Eliminating error from students’ prose is a slow and difficult process. Moreover, many students grow up in cultural and linguistic environments where they hear various dialects other than what is normally referred to as standard English, making it difficult for them to improve and refine their ability to speak and to write according to established rules of English prose.

Accordingly, the field of writing pedagogy has shifted its emphasis away from teaching grammar primarily through workbook exercises in punctuation, usage, and sentence construction. The study and correction of error remains important, but emphasizing the teaching of writing as a process that is based in critical thinking and a process that takes the writer through stages - from an initial outline, through drafts and revisions, to the final essay - has been shown to be a more effective way to improve student writing than placing the primary emphasis on grammar and correctness. In fact, often, as the content improves, so does the grammar and sentence structure improve. If teachers constantly see work that is full of errors, they are probably seeing assignments (papers?) that have not yet undergone a process of revision and editing.

Instructors can respond to writing errors in a variety of ways. It is not necessarily helpful to mark, and to correct, every error, which is very time consuming for the instructor, and tends to overwhelm the student (and therefore not necessarily improve the student’s writing skills.) One possibility is to place a mark/indicator at the beginning of a line that contains an error, leaving it to the student to determine what the error is and to correct it. Another possibility is to identify a few of the most serious and common errors in a piece of writing, and to indicate those on the paper. The goal is to enable students to develop their own mental procedures for finding and correcting errors. If students read their papers out loud before turning them in, they will often find a number of errors themselves. And, as mentioned previously, going through a process of drafts and revision (in which drafts are not necessarily graded, but instructors make selective comments) will greatly improve the quality of student writing.

While teachers across the curriculum are deeply concerned about the number of errors in students’ writing, the problem is not an easy one to solve. Focusing on the content of the assignment, using such strategies as informal, “low-stakes” exploratory writing activities, and teaching the students to edit and correct their own work can in time lead to improvement both in the writing itself and in the number of errors. This will not necessarily be accomplished in a single course but, over a period of time and in a series of courses involving writing, the quality of students’ writing can greatly improve.

You can find a great deal of student-oriented tips on grammar and correctness at Writing strategies for ESL/Multilingual students.

Instructors may also wish to refer students to a website that is based on the classic Strunk and White handbook, The Elements of Style. The Strunk (not with White) website address is

  • Source: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), Chapter 4.
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