The Grammar Hammer


Kyle2013Kyle Harley, Tutor,  Kaplan University Writing Center

The Grammar Hammer,” as a former professor of mine once said, flattens out any and all possibility for exploration and exposure with some students when it comes to their writing.  Almost right on cue, our inbox, as of late, finds itself filled with students asking for help with both grammar and spelling.  I do not wish to minimalize the importance of grammar and spelling, I think we can all agree too many grammar and spelling errors impede meaning, and intervention may be the best option to help the student succeed.  However, many students come to the writing center stating professors want their grammar and spelling fixed when the paper clearly demonstrates the necessity to focus on content.

Thinking about this, I reflect back to my graduate school days, sitting in the English building—no pun needed there—and arguing over what students ‘need’ more.  After we conducted our ritualistic slap fight between the pages as we in higher education love to do, we then realized, as a collective group of angered adults talking about the hot commodity of composition, that maybe, just maybe, one camp of thought or the other is not the best option.  Maybe, just maybe, we, as the instructors, were failing to stimulate our students enough to allow for great prose to be produced.  For up-and-coming teachers of composition, this did not sit too well with those so diametrically opposed to their own bubble of righteousness, because, as you know, in graduate school, if you are not complaining about something, others are complaining about you.

Why is that, though?  Why do we place so much emphasis on one aspect of writing over the other?  At the end of the day, we could read a paper that contains the exact content required with illegible words and sentences barely strung together, and, likewise, we could read another paper that reads like a dream grammatically yet says absolutely nothing.

I truly feel that good writing comes from great practice, and what better way to do so than to simply write?  When did we become so bogged down with grammatical structure that we forgot the fun that writing used to bring?  I remember back during my undergraduate years when we were required to write in a journal once per day.  Yes, this did ‘force’ the student to write, but it was our own—we had complete control over our own space, domain, and voice. No one could tell us that we were wrong.  The beauty and fun of writing grasped me during this class, consistently challenging my pen to paper each night in an attempt to prove that I loved writing about what I loved.  And that was just it: I loved to write about what I loved, and what was so wrong with that?

Likewise, focusing solely on content can be just as problematic if the student could care less about the topic at hand. So where does that leave us in our Ivory Towers of student papers?  I think maybe we need to start thinking about our writing assignments a little differently.  Our students are here to learn the art of writing—let’s be sure we give them the practice they deserve in as many mediums as possible.

  1. Use journal assignments that allow students to write and explore their ideas without threat of losing a great number of points on grammar or spelling.  Journals can serve as one step in the writing process.
  2. Let students choose the style of paper most appropriate to their content.  For example, let them choose a narrative essay, compare and contrast essay, argument essay, or report.  Students may gain valuable insight when allowed to choose the audience and the style of the paper.
  3. Allow students to rewrite papers in different formats and for a different audience if their first attempts do not work.
  4. When designing writing assignments, consider allowing students to choose topics that interests them.  If essays must represent specific class content, consider how students can offer individualized points of view in order to produce interesting papers.  Do you enjoy reading boring papers?  Of course you don’t!  Nor do your students enjoy writing them!  Have fun!  (Yes, academic writing can be fun!)

Content and grammar and spelling  all work together to form the work.

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2 Responses

  1. starknotes says:

    While I appreciate the call for student responsibility when it comes to grammar and mechanics, this blog entry suggests more constructive alternatives to “gigging” students for minor mistakes, preventing the bad writing habits that can create patterns of structural error that can interfere with meaning. Regularly assigning a low stakes journal entry, as suggested in the list at the end of the blog entry, can help students replace “bad” writing habits with better writing habits. There is nothing wrong with placing value on grammar and mechanics, but students will become defensive and resistant to learning if there is not a healthy conversation through feedback about building good writing habits. Errors are a natural part of the learning process, so if we as writing center workers and writing instructors can take mistakes as a matter of course (pun intended), we can find less punitive and more effective ways to communicate with students about building better writing habits to reduce and eliminate patterns of error in their writing. I appreciate the refreshing attitude and sound suggestions in this entry.

  2. wformby says:

    I really don’t think it is asking too much for a student to have content and at least keep their tenses and pluralities correct in their sentences. They already have an advantage in spell check if they would simply turn it on and use it. University students are adults paying a lot of money to learn and I simply do not understand why they do not want to get more out of it. If they simply want a degree they can purchase one much cheaper and with less trouble than taking classes. Paying attention to their writing, and proofreading should be paramount among their activities. When they get gigged on something they should not make the same mistake twice.

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