Perhaps no aspect of my teaching has been as radically shaken up by WID as much as my approach to grading essays. We read a lot of eye-opening material that has completely changed the way I read students’ essays.
Traditionally, I have line edited papers quite thoroughly. I would underline every grammatical mistake I saw, and write a little code above it, which corresponded to a correction legend that I would distribute to students. I would highlight all of a students’ mistakes, in the hope that they would become familiar with the types of mistakes they were making. Proper grammar, I figured, is the key to good writing, and only once students attain a certain level of proficiency will their prose sound credible. The problem was, this approach never seemed to actually work very well. I felt like it was my duty as an English teacher to highlight all these mistakes, but doing it didn’t always result in the student producing better writing next time.
In my class this semester, I did almost no line editing at all. When reading students’ papers, I focused much less on grammar, and much more on content. Reading papers was easier, took less time, and was more enjoyable. And, on the whole, the level of writing was better than it was back when I was editing like mad for grammar.
Sounds crazy, I know. Here’s the philosophy behind the whole thing.
I’ll start with Bean. A couple of things he says about grammar really hit home. He talks about the different ways a reader reads a colleague’s work in progress versus how a teacher reads a student’s paper: “many teachers read student essays with the primary purpose of finding errors, whereas they read their own colleagues’ drafts-in-progress for ideas” (74). Bean also goes on to suggest that “[even] in an error-laden essay, an actual count of the errors reveals that there are many more correct sentences than flawed ones and many more correctly spelled words than misspelled ones” (74). Granted, in some of our lower level 101 English classes, this may not actually be the case, but the point still applies. When hunting for grammatical mistakes, I often focused more on what a students were doing wrong than what they were doing right.
Bean also offers some valuable insight into how to get students to write more grammatically correct sentences. He writes that students make more grammatical errors when they are unsure of their ideas. As the concepts they are writing about become more complex, errors increase. Of course they do! This leads me to believe that more careful assignment design can allow students to have a firmer grasp on what they’re trying to say. Better designed assignments + clearer and simpler instructions = more error-free writing.
Grammar obviously also improves with drafting and revising. On rough drafts of essays, I did not mark for grammar at all. On the finished product, I was quite demanding on grammatical correctness. Students had time to clarify their ideas, and clean up their writing. I also realized that it is not reasonable to be as demanding in terms of grammatical correctness on in-class essay exams as on at-home essays. Finally, in terms of non-native English speakers, Bean writes, “My best advice…is to focus on ideas and organization, as one would do with native speakers, but to use a somewhat different approach for handling error” (85). Not all students are coming in with the same level of grammatical competency, and it’s somewhat unfair to expect ESL students to “catch up” to native speakers over the duration of a semester.
We read a lot of other great articles that have similarly illuminating ideas when it comes to language instruction. I’ve listed these in the “resources” section. I’ll just end this theoretical part of this page with a quote from Mike Rose’s article “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University”:
“But we must also rigorously examine our own teaching and see what model of language lies beneath it. What linguistic assumptions are cued when we face freshman writers? Are they compatible with the assumptions that are cued when we think about our own writing or the writing of those we read for pleasure? Do we too operate with the bifurcated mind that for too long characterized the teaching of “remedial” students and that is still reflected in the language of our institutions?”
Although there are black and white grammatical rules, there is no one right way to speak English. There is no one right way to write English. A lot of cultural realities go into the writing that second language students produce. Should we take that away from them in order to propogate “proper” English? Or should we coach them in the most effective ways for them to express themselves with a voice and style that is true to who they are?
Now, I handle grammar in a way that is suggested in Bean’s book. When I see an error, I put a little x at the end of the line. If I see two errors, I put two x’s. Then, at the end of the paper, I write a list of grammatical mistakes that the student has made. Then I advise the student to come and see me if they would like to fix their mistake, and earn a higher grade for next time.
Since I’ve adopted this technique, I feel a lot less like I’m grading papers, and a lot more like I’m reading them. Instead of little grammatical symbols, I write detailed comments, both on the text and at the end of the essay, about the content. The ideas. The meat. For the most part, as students go back and rework the content of their essays, the language gets cleaner, stronger, and less error-laden.
Here’s a rubric I used for my students’ final essay: