Because most Dartmouth students write well enough that their essays are not rendered incomprehensible by grammatical errors, few professors (even those teaching first-year writing courses) offer their students formal, systematic grammar instruction. Accordingly, "teaching grammar" as it is understood on this Web page is not about setting out a formal system for teaching our students the basic structure of a sentence and the usage rules of the English language. A good handbook can provide you a system for that.
Instead, "teaching grammar" as we explore it is really about dealing with grammatical errors as they arise in student essays. How does one address errors in student papers? Should one mark every error, or just a few? Which methods of marking are most efficient? Most effective? And what resources are available to Dartmouth students who have persistent grammatical problems with correctness? This page will help professors seeking very practical advice on handling grammatical errors in student writing.
We've heard professors complain that students seem to make the same grammar mistakes over and over again. Indeed, a study by Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors show that this impression is correct: twenty different grammatical mistakes comprise 91.5 percent of all errors in student writing. If professors can teach students to control these common errors, they will alleviate most of the grammar errors that they find so distracting.
- No comma after introductory phrases
- Vague pronoun reference
- No comma in compound sentence
- Wrong word
- No comma in non-restrictives
- Wrong/missing inflected ends
- Wrong/missing preposition
- Comma splice
- Possessive apostrophe error
- Tense shift
- Unnecessary shift in person
- Sentence fragment
- Wrong tense or verb form
- Subject-verb agreement
- Lack of comma in a series
- Pronoun agreement error
- Unnecessary commas with restrictives
- Run-on, fused sentence
- Dangling, misplaced modifier
- Its/it's error
Professors have various options when addressing grammatical error in student writing. Which strategy they employ will depend on the kind and frequency of error in a particular paper, as well as the professor's priorities for a particular assignment. The following suggestions cover several response techniques commonly used in Dartmouth's writing classrooms. Because grammar instruction tends to be individualized, you may want to keep all of these strategies in your "toolbox" of instructional techniques, combining them to create a "customized" response to individual students' writing problems.
- Label all errors, using the proper grammatical terms. Occasionally professors encounter a paper with several different grammatical mistakes. If this paper comes in early in the term, a professor may want to label all the grammatical errors that occur in the paper, using specific grammatical terms (agreement problem, comma splice, and so on). This method is exhausting but works well when a student seems unschooled in grammar. Labeling errors in this way introduces students to the vocabulary of grammar, giving students names of errors to look up when using a grammar handbook. It also teaches students how to spot and to label the particular kinds of errors that they've been making.
- Use a system of annotations that correspond to those in a particular grammar handbook. Some instructors label error to correspond with specific symbols in the grammar handbook that they've asked their students to purchase. This technique encourages students to get in the habit of using their grammar handbooks. Moreover, instructors who work with a particular handbook find over the years that this method of annotating student papers saves them time.
- Create your own error sheets. Some instructors find it very useful to create their own error sheets, with errors numbered. They give students a copy of these sheets on the first day of class; they then use them to mark student papers. Instructors who use error sheets find them very convenient: instead of writing "comma splice" several times on a paper, they are able to write simply the number "5."
- Circle errors without labeling them. Most instructors who use the technique of labeling every error see it as a "beginning" strategy. They are less likely to continue to label all problems as the term progresses, believing that students must eventually learn to see error for themselves. In this spirit, as the term goes on, they circle errors without labeling them. This strategy makes our students responsible for puzzling out the mistakes they've made.
- Mark errors when then first occur and then leave the students to find the errors on their own. Some instructors mark errors the first or second time that they occur in a paper and then instruct students to look for similar errors elsewhere in their work. Students must review their papers for certain kinds of errors and ultimately become closer, better readers of their own prose.
- Look for patterns of error. What does one do when the grammar problems are severe and errors pop up in every sentence (for instance, in papers by non-native speakers of English)? In this situation, it is wise to look for patterns of error. Does the student consistently make article mistakes? Are there persistent subject-verb agreement problems? Is the student struggling to make sense of tenses? Students with severe and complicated grammatical problems are best served when a professor points out the most serious patterns of error and provides some substantial explanation of these errors in the summary comments. Furthermore, isolating patterns of error in this way helps ESL students to understand the broader patterns and principles of our language.
- Prioritize error. Finally, when addressing papers especially troubled by grammatical problems, a professor will want to prioritize the errors. Students can be overwhelmed by too much direction or editing—sometimes the most effective approach is to choose one or two types of error per paper to address.
Even though teaching writing at Dartmouth does not require instructors to do formal lessons in grammar, some instructors note that their students are making the same mistakes, and so they elect to do short grammar lessons.
The most effective way of handling grammar instruction is to hold a five-minute grammar lesson. Take a few minutes at the beginning of class to address a particular grammatical issue. For instance, if students are misusing semi-colons, show them the correct usage, then use examples from their papers to illustrate the error and to discuss how to correct it.
Another way of teaching grammar in class is to include this discussion as part of a writing workshop. In other words, every time you workshop a paper, paragraph, or sentence, ask your students, "Is this grammatical?" If it's not, ask them to locate grammar errors and to explain them to the writer.
Yet another way of teaching grammar is to use peer groups. You can ask students to find and correct errors in a particularly troubled paper, using a handbook and working out the grammar rules together.
Finally, if errors persist, you can present students with a grammar quiz. Students may experience a quiz as punitive; you should, if possible, use the quiz as a diagnostic tool rather than a punitive one. Give students the opportunity to correct any errors they might have made and to resubmit the quiz to you.
Different instructors have different pet peeves when it comes to grammar. Here are some of ours. Feel free to send us yours. For an exhaustive list of common pet peeves, see Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage.
- Vague or unclear use of pronouns
- Confusing "that" and "which"
- Using a colon after a verb
- There are/it is constructions
- "Between you and I"
- Comma splice
- Apostrophe abuse
- Agreement errors
- Run-on sentence
- Dangling, misplaced modifier
- Persistent punctuation problems
Dartmouth has no commonly used grammar handbook. Handbooks that are popular among, and recommended by, our faculty include (in alphabetical order, by author):
- Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference
- Jim Heffernan and John Lincoln's Writing, A College Handbook
- Andrea Lundsford's St. Martin's Handbook
- Joseph Williams' Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace
Please contact Karen Gocsik, Executive Director of the Writing Program, if you have a handbook that you would like to recommend.
Last modified: Tuesday, 18-Dec-2007 20:50:12 EST
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