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Responding to Grammatical Errors in Student Writing

Every writing teacher has had the experience: you receive a student essay riddled with mechanical errors—spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You struggle to comprehend every sentence, and you have to re-read each paragraph three times. Where do you even begin to address the mechanical issues?

In this post, I’ll discuss the strategies I use to respond to grammar issues when commenting on student writing—whether the essay presents a grammatical nightmare, or it just needs to be slightly polished.

First, as with everything in teaching, I am strategic and targeted. Early in my career, I was tempted to mark every error, out of a combination of annoyance, a need to justify my grading, and a genuine desire to help. I’ve learned to resist the urge to pour my time away like that. Since students improve their skills incrementally and often without explicit teaching, marking up everything will mainly leave them anxious and overwhelmed.

Instead, as I read, I identify the systematic patterns of errors the student is making, as opposed to random outliers. Usually, I know after reading a page or two. For instance, does the student repeatedly leave endings off words? Do they repeatedly put commas where ending punctuation should go? Do the repeatedly write oral-sounding sentences that ramble out of control? The kinds of errors that rear their heads only once or twice warrant little attention.

When addressing grammar, we face a common red-herring—confusing fuzzy issues of grammatical taste for errors. Such issues may fall into the category of personal idiosyncrasies and pet-peeves (“regardless” vs. “irregardless”), artificial “rules” of prescriptive grammar (don’t split an infinitive), or other issues of usage, style, or formality where respected writers differ (“It was me.” versus “It was I.”). Probably the most frequent issue of such fuzziness involves certain instances of comma usage.

As much as possible, I avoid getting mired in these areas of fuzziness. Calling students’ attention to these issues—at the least—wastes their time with trivia, and—at the worst—gives them needless confusion and paranoia. If you don’t know whether a grammar issue is truly an error, assume it is not.

As I notice the types of errors, I distinguish low priority issues from high priority. I draw the distinction using a combination of four criteria:

  1. Higher priority errors tend to disrupt readability. For instance, when two sentences run-together, it interferes with readability much more than a missing ending on a verb. Likewise, when an oral-sounding sentence rambles out of control, it disrupts readability much more than a sentence phrased with a tinge of awkwardness.
  2. Higher priority errors tend to seriously obscure the student’s meaning. For instance, errors with hyphens or apostrophes rarely obscure meaning, while errors where it’s unclear what a pronoun or another anaphoric expression refers to usually do.
  3. Higher priority errors are those that are more prevalent. When the student learns to successfully address that one type of error, they will make a sweeping improvement.
  4. Higher priority errors are those that will be addressed in my classroom curriculum. Students are more likely to improve on an error in their writing if it’s also covered in class instruction than if it’s only pointed out in commentary on their essay. (And if a given error occurs in many students’ essays, I consider whether it warrants coverage in classroom instruction.)

As I decide which types of error to address and which to downplay, I choose how to mark each instance in the essay, if at all. From most to least directive, here are the options:

  1. Correct the error for the student.
  2. Circle the error, label it, and tell students where in the handbook the issue is discussed.
  3. Circle the error and label it.
  4. Circle the error.
  5. Ignore the error.

In deciding which option to use, I try to find the right balance between being directive and being non-directive. On one hand, I don’t want to do all the work for the student, and I know that students will learn a lot that I don’t explicitly teach. On the other hand, I want to empower the student with the knowledge of how to identify and fix crucial errors, rather than leaving them to blindly grope through their confusion.

Which option I use depends primarily on the student’s strengths. Many of my students at higher levels (first-year composition or beyond) need less directiveness. They can easily turn to the handbook and correct grammatical issues on their own. Many of my students at lower levels (basic and developmental) grow frustrated with the non-directive approach. They know their writing contains errors but they simply lack models for how to address the issue. Finally, students with ESL backgrounds lack certain types of grammatical knowledge we assume of native speakers, and may need to be explicitly told—for instance—which idiomatic phrase to use.

Which type of response I use also depends partly on the type of error. Spelling errors rarely demand the more directive responses. But when a sentence is larded up with many needless words, the student may need to be explicitly shown which words could be omitted.

For many types of errors, I shift from directive markings to non-directive markings as I progress through the essay. I use the more directive options for the first few times the error occurs, and then gradually shift to the more non-directive options as I continue reading. This option shows students a constructive example of how to fix a given type of error, and it also allows them to retain ownership over their writing.

I’ve found that my basic and developmental students need to be taught what to do with my markings on grammatical issues. For instance, they need to know what common proofreading marks and abbreviations mean, and how to use them when revising. They also may assume that when a teacher who evaluates their essay is proofreading exhaustively.

I strategically note places where the grammar and mechanics work well. If a student makes a specific type of error, in addition to pointing it out, I might also point out the places where they got the same issue right. Not only does this boost their confidence, but if gives them a positive model for how to correct the problem. There’s much truth to the claim that much of what students learn comes from seeing models of success, rather than from being corrected on errors.

My end comments sum up the high priority grammatical issues I identified (usually only 1 – 3), and I discuss them in the context of the skill of proofreading. For instance, I write “proofread more carefully for comma-splices before you hand your next essay in,” rather than “work on comma-splices.” Though this distinction may seem trivial, it encourages students to approach future writing assignments from a writing-as-process perspective.

Further, this approach assumes that many errors are performance errors (which the student could easily have fixed if they took the time), rather than knowledge errors (which the student could not fix on their own). With performance errors, students simply need to be reminded to include in their writing process ample time for proofreading.

In my end comments, I go out of my way to note when a student generally does a good job of applying the mechanical skills we’ve covered in class or when they’ve improved on a particular grammatical issue over the prior essay. With grammar, teachers tend to focus too much on error and see past the countless places where students get the issue right.