Archive

Posts Tagged ‘David Bartholomae’

Where do Errors Come From?

storkLet’s consider some common explanations of the sources of linguistic error and disfluency, explanations I see reiterated over and over (both explicitly and explicitly) in handbooks and the professional literature. Even if errors are being blamed on text messaging or bleeding-heart teachers or whatever else, the source is reducible to one of the following:

1. The Standard Theory: students make errors because they don’t fully comprehend the grammatical patterns of English, as well as the idiomatic expressions and the conventions of usage. Students simply lack linguistic knowledge. This view has been around since the invention of writing, and most teachers still turn to it as the default.

2. The L1-Interference Theory: multilingual writers commit errors when they over-generalize the grammatical patterns of their native language (L1) to English. (Similarly, this theory suggests that students will transfer the grammatical patterns of native dialects of English into their school writing.) This theory comes to us courtesy of our colleagues who teach ESL and foreign languages.

3. The Speech-Based Theory: many students write in ways that are closely modeled on the way they talk or the way people around them talk.  Standard written English differs substantially from speech, which is fragmentary and halting, and which is aided by para-language and contextual cues. This theory is often connected with scholarship on “Generation 1.5” learners.

4. The “Competence versus Performance” theory: students commit many errors that they know how to identify and fix. Their performance in the writing task misrepresents their actual competence—their true knowledge of the language. Errors emerge when writers are tired or distracted, when they simply fail to invest enough time, or even when they don’t know how to use their word processing software effectively. Other times, our brain just hiccups. This theory is usually attributed to the early work of Noam Chomsky.

5. The Complex Ideas Theory: students who otherwise write grammatically clean prose make more errors and write more clumsily when they are asked to write about complex ideas or use academic registers that they can’t fully control. The complexity of the writing task overloads their ability to process syntax. Amongst others, this theory is articulated particularly well by David Bartholomae in Inventing the University.

Different theories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the source of any given error can usually be explained by some combination. For instance, #4 and #5 both suggest that errors often belie our true abilities in ideal circumstances. Or a student may lack linguistic knowledge about how standard English enables two sentences to be joined (#1), and might thus fall back on the patterns of their native language (#2) or the patterns of their speech (#3). For any given error and any given student, discovering the source requires thoughtful inquiry.

Still, as teachers, we often lack the time to conduct such inquiry, so we make hidden assumptions about where errors come from. We should be aware of these assumptions, because each theory suggests something different about how to respond:

1. The Standard Theory suggests that we should teach students the grammatical patterns of correct English, and how these patterns are distinguished from the incorrect. Such pedagogies typically include teaching students “rules” or having them correct errors and/or demonstrate correct usage in workbook exercises. Alternatively, students could be encouraged to spend lots of time reading grammatically correct prose, so they can internalize and unconsciously imitate the patterns.

2. The L1-Interference Theory suggests a similar response to the standard theory, except that instruction should be tailored to the specific errors and disfluencies that characterize particular groups of ESL students. For instance, if students speak a native language that lacks the inflectional morphology on verbs that characterizes English and they tend to leave endings off of verbs, instruction should focus on the patterns of English inflectional morphology.

3. The Speech-Based Theory suggests that students need to be made more aware of the differences between the conventions of spoken English and written English. Since the two are essentially different dialects of the same language, the approach suggested is akin to #2 above. Since speech-based errors suggest students have been under-exposed to the written word, students should be encouraged spend lots of time reading, similar to #1 above.

4. The “Competence versus Performance” Theory suggests that students need to learn the steps and strategies for effective proofreading. Further, they may need to learn academic success skills, such as how to budget ample time for their writing process or how to manage the mental exhaustion of academic work.

5. The Complexity Theory suggests—somewhat counter-intuitively—that errors and disfluencies often represent a necessary sign of linguistic development, rather than a cause for concern. When writing lacks errors, the assignment has failed to challenge. Many errors will resolve themselves without a teacher’s intervention as students grow more experienced and comfortable with writing tasks of greater complexity.

Again, no one way is “right.” In my own teaching, I integrate a little of each into my classroom instruction. Once I have a good understanding of a particular student or group of students, I tailor my instruction to their grammatical needs.

Advertisements

What Back Pain and Grammatical Errors Share in Common

When you complain to your doctor of back pain, your doctor has the option of approaching the problem from many angles. They could approach it as a structural problem, in which case they order an MRI or physical therapy. They could approach it as a manifestation of a high-stress lifestyle: exercise more and work less. Is it as an issue of tissue inflammation? Take some ibuprofen and apply heat/ice.

When teachers find a grammatical error in student writing, the stakes are lower and the relationship less clinical, but we face a similar sort of decision. How we categorize the errors in student essays is neither trivial nor straightforward. It caries important implications for how we understand it and how a student addresses it.

To see this, try a simple experiment—read the following sentence, which closely resembles a sentence in a student essay I recently read, and then say what type of error it contains:

1. I don’t have much time to surf the internet like my little cousin, who’s on it for 10 or more hours per day, I have work and school to take care of.

Most people will classify this error as a comma splice between “day” and “I.” This is how I was inclined to mark it. But marking it as a comma splice is mainly the result of tradition.

If we leave traditional typologies of error aside, the error could have been labeled as:

  • A failure to insert a conjunction. Perhaps the student wanted to join multiple clauses together, but didn’t know how. This categorization would make sense in the context of a Christensen-inspired sentence-combining pedagogy.
  • An error with the punctuation of a non-restrictive clause. The phrase “who’s on it for 10 or more hours per day” is used non-restrictively, and students are often instructed to set these off with commas. Perhaps the student over-generalized that principle.
  • An error due to an oral-sounding sentence. When students’ speech influences their writing, they might sprinkle in commas where they “sound” right or mix up one type of punctuation with another (commas and periods). After all, in speech, commas and periods sound the same—like silence.

In another view, the error in #1 exists in our imagination only. Edgar Shuster notes that what are traditionally categorized as comma-splice errors do appear intentionally in professional writing.[1] Anecdotally, I have seen an increased incidence of comma-splices in the edited writing of the English teachers that I work with. Punctuation standards change. Twenty years from now, who knows if teachers will judge sentences like #1 as error-free?

There’s no “right” answer on how to categorize this error. Just as back pain is influenced by many factors and can be addressed in many ways, the same holds with student errors. With English grammar and the human spine, many complicated subsystems interact, and a student error often results when several things go wrong at once. Before a doctor chooses how to approach the problem, they need to learn more about the whole person. Likewise, the instructor needs to know something about the student’s background and the pattern of errors in the rest of the essay.

Many grammar errors might better be understood as the surface manifestations of “deeper” problems students are facing. Just as the back and neck muscles tense up painfully under psychological stress, a student who otherwise writes error-free prose slips into clumsy, ungrammatical sentences when they push beyond their zones of comfort, think through complex issues, or try to sound “academic” to their teacher—a point which has been made by Mike Rose[2], David Bartholomae[3] and Ian Barnard[4]. Students’ language processing centers overload when they try—all at once—to think through complex ideas, weave together elaborate syntaxes, and deal with all the other demands of writing and being human.

How you categorize an error strongly suggests to the student how to address it. Labelling the error in #1 a comma-splice suggests the student should change the comma to a period. Labelling it an error with a missing conjunction suggests the student should review the ways to combine sentences. And labeling it a speech-based error suggest that the student needs to more generally become more attuned to the differences between written academic English and the version English they speak at home and with friends.

Finally, let’s consider three less-directive alternatives to the categorizations of the error discussed above:

  • Maybe we don’t even need to bother with categorizing the error. Maybe the student already knows how to fix it. Sometimes students just need to be reminded to proofread.
  • It could be categorized simply as an “error,” with no finer-grained distinctions made. Smart teachers know when it’s futile to try to understand what was going on inside a student’s head. In this case, the student is left to figure out how to fix it. This implies a non-directive pedagogy where students take the initiative in improving their writing.
  • Or the teacher could have ignored the error and said nothing, which suggests to student that in the universe of issues to address in their essay, this one ranks low.

Doctors often respond this way to short-term back pain, essentially brushing it off. Like many student errors, it often disappears on its own with little to no intervention. Patients’ health faces a bigger threat from unintended consequences when the doctor over-treats the initial problem. And I’d argue that a parallel principle holds when teachers have to decide how to respond to a wide swath grammatical errors.