Friday, February 2, 2007

Errors and Basic Writers

To err is human, yet how many students receive the courtesy of this epiphany? Barriers presented from the pressure of committing errors cause a multitude of problems basic writers face. Although unintentional, teachers create a standard of writing that many students believe is unattainable. Sometimes, the objective of writing is unclear. Many teachers simply do not know how to evaluate writing based on content and rely on errors to sort out the “good” writers from the “bad.”

One passage in Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors & Expectations states that basic writers are beginners and must learn by making mistakes (4). While, yes, there are times that mistakes must be pointed out and corrected, they should not be the paramount issue at hand. When my six year old writes a four sentence paragraph, I do not grab my pen and correct his grammatical errors. I praise him for being brave enough to express his thoughts on paper. I am able to make teaching moments out of his mistakes, but I strive to separate those from his victory in writing a paragraph. Can you imagine how much longer his enthusiasm for writing would last if I were to berate him for his errors? He would be crushed and then resist putting himself out on that limb again. Granted, there is a difference between a six year old first grader and a freshman in college, but ultimately they are both beginners in writing. It is my first grader, however, who is still uninhibited in his writing. He knows not the fear of being critiqued for his errors.

In reference to obsession with error, Shaughnessy states that students often crave a more “prescriptive” teaching of grammar and language, with the hopes that the concept will click eventually (9). My eleventh grade students often note that although grammar has been hammered into them since primary school, it has failed to make a permanent impression on them. I am currently using a program called Daily Grammar Practice, which was devised by Dawn Burnette. My students love this technique as it keeps grammar fresh in their minds, and it is relatively painless. Prior to this program, I practiced what I referred to as “shove it down your throat” grammar. It was as if I was trying to give my students a whole bottle of vitamins at once, rather than just one a day. Once a day is much more effective in the long run, and it is hard to keep a whole bottle of vitamins down. I have seen the benefits of this program in my students writing as well, and it allows me to separate grammar and writing to a certain degree.

Works Cited

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic
Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

2 comments:

TW said...

"Many teachers simply do not know how to evaluate writing based on content and rely on errors to sort out the 'good' writers from the 'bad.'" That is so true, unfortunately. It took me hours of creating and fine-tuning scoring guides before I finally felt that I could grade my students' writing fairly and without overemphasizing grammar and punctuation.

I also loved the analogy of the six-year-old writer. It makes much more sense to me than the birds in the walkway. (Which, for the analogy to really work all the way through, shouldn't the birds have to learn HOW to navigate on their own instead of being carried to the doors and put back outside?)

Amy said...

The writers of Discovery of Competence seem to suggest that we shouldn't bother correcting students' grammar at all--that this can and should only come naturally from experience working in academic discourse. Do you think that's what they mean? Does it seem reasonable?