Students and Grammar: A Perspective from Inside the Writing Center

Jason Schneiderman, Writing Center

I have often observed something of a paradox in the Writing Center. Students regard grammatical correctness as the most important part of writing, and yet it is also the area where they feel the least competent. Frequently, it is the very worst writers who value grammar the most.

Writing is a process of exploration and discovery. Experienced writers know that when they sit down to start writing, they will be confronted by their own ignorance. As they write, experienced writers work out their ideas, maintain a flexible mindset, and do research as needed.

Inexperienced writers often encounter the uncertainty of a first draft as a chaotic failure. Our students often do not get past that initial uncertainty. They turn in papers that reflect an initial encounter with a subject, rather than a careful consideration of it. As inexperienced writers, our students must be taught to expect that most writing involves an initial phase of confusion, followed by phases of exploration and discovery.

Experienced writers know to attend to grammatical correctness after they have worked out their ideas. Unclear thinking often results in unclear sentences. When a student’s writing stays in the initial stages of encounter, the writing will reflect that confusion. In responding to student writing, we want to emphasize the process of development. In the widely anthologized article “Responding to Student Writing,” Nancy Sommers writes that faculty should respond like real readers, “registering questions, reflecting befuddlement, and noting places where we are puzzled about the meaning in the text.” Our goal should be “to engage students with the issues they are considering and help them clarify their purposes and reasons in writing their specific text.” In the Writing Center, we have often found that as students’ thoughts become clearer, their writing becomes clearer.

How a teacher attends to grammar is significant. If we focus on correction too early, we confirm our student’s worst preconceptions about writing. We take responsibility for grammar, and the student regards revision as correction. However, this does not mean that we have to ignore grammar.

It may be helpful when giving feedback to point out a particular pattern of error. It may also be helpful to ask students what kind of grammatical help they would like. In The Elements of Teaching Writing, Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj suggest that faculty offer ESL students a variety of options, allowing the students to self-select the level of correction they would find useful. “Do they need to have you actually make the changes…? Do they prefer that you underline errors so that they can figure out what’s wrong on their own? Do they require only an X in the margin, leaving the search for error up to them?” This approach can be combined with asking students other questions about their writing, ensuring that students are receptive to faculty feedback. Most importantly, this approach insists on writing being a process.

Grammar does matter, and it is ultimately the responsibility of the student. However, we do not want our students to value grammar to the exclusion of nuanced ideas, clear arguments, careful research, and critical thinking. If we can engage students in the writing process, we ultimately have more opportunities to cultivate all of the skills entailed in writing, with grammar taking its rightful place among those skills.