Error in Student Writing: A Balanced, Developmental Approach

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By Paul T. Corrigan

Paul T. Corrigan teaches writing and literature at Southeastern University, where he serves on the steering committee for Writing Across the Curriculum. He writes at Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed. You can reach him through Facebook, Twitter, and paultcorrigan.com.

Errors in writing may irk and confuse readers, imply ignorance or negligence on behalf of the author, and have unintended consequences in the real world. For these reasons, many teachers feel compelled to try to “cure” students’ writing of errors, often by prescribing heavy doses of red ink. I am grateful for the thankless efforts these teachers make to help students become clearer, more accurate writers. But I bear bad news. There is no cure for errors in student writing. We need to be absolutely clear on this. Short of not writing, students will continue to err, no matter what we do.

Butlet me hasten to addthis bad news is also the good news. When we abandon the notion that there is or should be a way to stop students from misspelling words and misplacing commas, we can move past the frustration we may feel and the frustration-based teaching strategies we may resort to upon encountering the thousandth error in a stack of student writing. When we accept with Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford that “mistakes are a fact of life” and “a necessary accompaniment to learning,” we can adopt a balanced, developmental approach to promoting accuracy and precision in student writing.

For just such an approach, I propose the following principles and practices for thinking about and working with errors in student writing for teachers of writing, both in composition and in the disciplines. These recommendations stem from my experience teaching writing, from conversations I’ve had with others who use or teach writing in their courses, and from a good bit of reading on writing pedagogy. (For those wanting to read further on handling error, I particularly suggest Nancy Sommers’s fine book Responding to Student Writers, John Bean’s excellent chapter on “Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness,” and Joseph M. Williams’s classic essay, “The Phenomenology of Error.”)

With this list, I specifically have in mind teaching situations across the curriculum where students write to engage ideas and information and to practice skills, but also where edited/polished prose is not in itself an essential outcome. Some courses (e.g. Resume Writing 101) and some students (e.g. English Language Learners) may certainly benefit from more intensive or specialized instruction on English language usage and editing strategies than what this list suggests. At the same time, teachers may find that many of these principles and practices apply quite broadly. As scholars, aspects of this balanced, developmental approach may even benefit our own work, given that we too are always developing as writers and are likely make mistakes from time to time.

  1. Writing is so much more than grammar, mechanics, and citation. We should always remember what else matters in writing: thought, creativity, analysis, structure, voice, sources, style, the ability to connect with others across time and space, etc.
  2. Being “tough on grammar” does not equal having high standards or being academically rigorous—and vice versa. We can challenge students to work hard and accomplish a lot without grading “hard” on correctness. We can also grade “hard” on correctness without challenging students to work hard or accomplish a lot.
  3. In the development of both writers and papers, correctness comes last, not first. Professional writers and student writers alike only care about correctness after they have something they care to communicate effectively.
  4. Rules for “grammar” are not universal. Many rules for syntax, style, punctuation, citation, and usage (which people often include when they say “grammar”) are actually “dialects” or “idiolects,” the quirks and preferences of specific disciplines or even individual teachers.
  5. Not all errors are the same. Some errors obscure meaning. Others hurt credibility. Others merely annoy. Others still may not even be noticed by readers who aren’t specifically looking for them. Some errors stem from oversight. Others are caused lack of knowledge. Others result from the right knowledge in the wrong place (e.g. over-applying a rule or applying a rule from a first language or dialect to a second language or dialect).
  6. Grammar, mechanics, and citation do not matter as ends unto themselves. Correctness only matters insofar as it contributes to communication; incorrectness only matters to the degree that it hinders communication, whether by obscuring meaning or by being off-putting, in much the same way as mumbling or bad breath hinder face-to-face communication.
  7. Errors do not necessarily indicate sloppiness, laziness, stupidity, or moral failing. Students may make errors because they do not know the rules in your discipline, because they have a learning disability, because they put so much effort into other areas of the assignment that they ran out of time to sufficiently edit, etc. It also does not mean that students can’t write.
  8. When we deal with error, we should take care to not frame the conversation in an overly negative way. Research has shown that making threats, “correcting,” and “marking down for” errors do not actually improve how students perform in the areas of grammar, mechanics, and citation but can detract from how students perform in other areas. We can still address and respond to error. But instead of punitively “counting off” for mistakes, we can holistically “take into account” correctness as one aspect of overall quality.
  9. What is needed is not remedy but development. Students are not deficient but undeveloped. Development takes a lot of time. We should keep in mind their long-term development as writers over the whole of their education and careers as writers.
  10. Decide what few things are most important to you—and focus on those things. Even if you can cover all the “rules” in one course, students cannot truly learn them all in just a few weeks or months.
  11. Give interactive lessons. As with most lessons, if you do want to teach students something about grammar, mechanics, or citation, active learning will likely work better than passive learning. For instance, instead of lecturing on mechanical rules, give students two examples of a rule or skill you want them to learn, a correct and incorrect one. Then ask them to explain the difference.
  12. Provide supports. Giving handouts, assigning sections from a writing handbook, and pointing to web resources (such as the OWL at Purdue) on select topics most important to you can help all students. For those who are particularly behind, you can provide additional exercises, send the students for tutoring, or meet with them individually.
  13. Do not give much feedback on errors after the fact. Giving many or detailed comments about errors on work that has already been submitted for a final grade is basically a waste of time. Some students will not read the comments at all. Most will read them, or at least glance at them, but will not be able to remember or apply the intended lessons in later work. When it comes to finished work, a brief comment, a score on a rubric, or a mark on a checklist is enough to indicate to students whether the writing is or is not sufficiently precise and accurate. If you want to give more detailed feedback that students will use, then comment on work while it is still a draft and require students to revise in light of your feedback.
  14. Do not mistake editing for teaching. Correcting every error students make is unequivocally a waste of time. This practice, which costs teachers a great deal of time and energy, does not help students learn. If you simply enjoy marking errors, consider it a hobby, but keep in mind that research shows that students often do not learn from marked correction. Instead of marking each mistake, mark one or two errors of a particular sort and ask the students to look for the rest. Or simply give holistic feedback (e.g. “check for comma use throughout the essay, especially in the first paragraph; you may want to review these rules”).
  15. Teach editing skills. Teach students to look for errors by reading aloud, working backwards sentence by sentence, asking someone else to look over their work, setting aside the writing for a few days and looking at it with fresh eyes, etc.
  16. Do not hold your students to higher standards than publishing writers. Publishing writers have editors. Students don’t. Set a standard that is “good enough” for the level your students are at and stick with that.
  17. Consider the “goodwill economy.” Even if you do it well, focusing on grammar, mechanics, and citation too heavily or too soon in a course can sap students’ motivation. If you earn good will by attending to matters students find more meaningful and enjoyable, you can spend some of the goodwill on matters of correctness without losing students.
  18. Try to cultivate intrinsic reasons for students to be accurate and precise. Students will work more diligently to avoid errors when they write things that they care to communicate well.

In sum, I encourage teachers to not ignore or obsess over correctness but to take the middle way: hold medium standards, offer sufficient support, and keep the attention and emphasis given to correctness in appropriate proportion relative to other, more important learning priorities. Finally, remember that development is slow and that students who leave your class without having perfected their spelling, punctuation, or grammar may yet continue to improve in the future.

3 thoughts on “Error in Student Writing: A Balanced, Developmental Approach

  1. Pingback: Links Worth Reading | Chelsea A. Lonsdale

  2. Pingback: Why I stopped grading using red ink years ago and what I’ve learned about constructive feedback as opposed to correcting papers | Debi Martin, B.J., M.A.

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