Center for Faculty Excellence

Building Skills

Grammar and Mechanics

Several books in the last ten years have helped teachers of writing think about the best scope and sequence of instruction at the sentence level. In Teaching Grammar in Context (1996) and Lessons to Share (1998), Constance Weaver advocates that we work with error in the context of current writing composed by students in a given course, as opposed to traditional lectures and drills focused on usage and mechanics. In high schools and colleges since the 1970's, writing instruction has moved away from traditional workbook exercises and red-pencil correction. This move can be traced to a landmark study:

In view of widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing. (Braddock, R., Lloyd-Jones, R. and Schoer, L. Research in Written Composition. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1963; qtd in Bean 55).

In Engaging Ideas (1996), John Bean summarizes best practices for teachers who struggle to "cover" content while dutifully addressing the problem of inadequate prose (see Chapter 4, "Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness"). These strategies, summed up below, may be used in class discussion of writing samples and in one-on-one interactions with students:

  1. Talk about how errors destroy meaning--how they undermine one's message;
  2. Talk about how errors create negative impressions of one's authority;
  3. Try to notice patterns of error in student work--see if there is indeed a "logic" of error governing those patterns. Discuss them with the student and contrast the standard English rule;
  4. See if such errors are associated with English speakers of other languages (ESOL), and refer the student to Dr. Regina Shearer (;
  5. Encourage students to proofread aloud;
  6. Ideally, in courses with several pieces of writing due throughout the semester, instructors can adopt a marking method in the margins of students' final drafts that succinctly codes frequent errors (fr=fragment; cs=comma splice, etc). Students then count up the errors in the margins and are responsible for tracking them on a personalized editing chart. They then turn to teacher, tutor, and handbook (LB Brief) to begin the process of taking responsibility for understanding and correcting their common errors. Over several writing assignments, students should see the frequency of their errors diminish. This method is the foundation of WRT 215 Practical Grammar (a one-credit, graded course, typically offered on Tuesdays at 5:15-6:15).

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