Grammar and Errors in Student Writing

What  Does Writing  Studies  Research  Say?

Bean (2011) offers an excellent summary of the research in writing studies regarding grammar. Perhaps the best place to start, however, is with Hartwell’s definitions of grammar:

  • Grammar 1 = native speaker’s innate knowledge of their native tongue.
  • Grammar 2 = linguistic sciences descriptions of the way language works
  • Grammar 3 = linguistic etiquette/usage
  • Grammar 4 = school grammar
  • Grammar 5 = stylistic grammar

Grammar 1 is known to all school-aged children and adults. Grammar 2 is a scientific model of Grammar 1, and it is not useful in learning Grammar 1 for native speakers of English. Grammar 3 is not grammar at all but usage. Grammar 4 is, in Hartwell’s terms, “unconnected with anything remotely resembling literate adult behavior” (p. 364). Grammar 5, or style, can be taught either implicitly through extensive use of the language (one school of thought) or explicitly through the study of prose style (the other school of thought).

Clearly we cannot teach Grammar 1 or (unless we are teaching a linguistics course) Grammar 2. Grammar 3, or usage, and Grammar 5, style, is similarly outside of the usual focus for instructors in courses that are not focused on writing. Grammar 3, school grammar, has been the subject of hundreds of studies since 1900.

Pressure to teach grammar as a way to eliminate errors in student writing comes from assumptions about these grammars. As Connors and Lunsford (1988) showed, however, the rate of errors in student writing per 100 words has remained relatively constant over the last century at about two (345). In a survey of research into the various ways grammar has been taught over this period, Smith, Cheville, and Hillocks (2008) found that hundreds of studies of various methods of teaching traditional school grammar to improve the quality of student writing is at best ineffective. At worst, it takes time away from strategies that do work to improve student writing (process approaches, genre approaches), and it also focuses assessment on surface errors and correctness—two features of writing that are easier to identify and appear “objective.” School systems create tests that focus on errors and correctness at the expense of audience and purpose, and the result is that students may be able to produce “clean” texts that communicate very little.

Where do errors come from?

Research with student writers at the university level shows that they are capable of correcting the majority of errors they make. Many errors result from poor editing proofreading (Haswell 1983, quoted in Bean  p. 75), and Bartholomae showed how students self-correct when reading texts aloud (1980, quoted in Bean p. 75).

Shaughnessy (1977), working with open enrollment students at the City University of New York, showed how errors are best seen as failed attempts by student writers to grow and develop. Without these errors, those students would not try new prose structures and therefore not improve. She advocated that instructors look for patterns of errors in student writing, bring those patterns to the attention of the students, and then work to correct the underlying mistaken rule that students were applying.

Implications  For Instructors

Bean points out that the number of student errors increases with the cognitive difficulty of the assignment (77). If instructors ask students to write in an unfamiliar genre, or ask them to create a large (20 page plus) assignment, they can expect the number of student errors to increase. Instructors can exacerbate the problem through their grading practices: while the best students benefit from having errors pointed out on their marked papers, for the rest of the class this practice demoralizes them and does the work of finding errors for them (Bean 78-9).

  1. Structure your assignment deadlines and evaluation schemes to require students to proofread and edit their work.
  2. Communicate to your students the specific kinds of errors that you find unacceptable.
  3. Ignore or minimize the importance of “accent” errors in non-native speakers written texts.
  4. Focus your efforts on identifying patterns of error in student writing, and work with students on correcting the incorrect rule they apply that generates the surface error.



Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hartwell, P.  (1985). “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English 47: 105-27. Rpt. In Cheryl Glenn, Melissa Goldthwaite, & Robert Connors. (2003). The St. Martin’s guide to teaching writing. (5th Ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Hillocks, G. (1986). Research on written composition. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearing House on Reading and Communication Skills.

Smith, M., Cheville, J., and Hillocks, G. (2008). “’I guess I’d better watch my English’: Grammars and the Teaching of English Language Arts.” In MacArthur, C. Graham, S., and Fitzgerald, J. (2008). Handbook of Writing Research. New York: Guilford.

Walvoord, B. and Johnson-Anderson, V. (2010). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Towards a Plan for Communication Skills in the New BA

In this space I’ll try to sketch out some ideas for how a new BA structure might account for the development of communication skills in our undergraduates. We already have a base in first year; we could add two further components—one in second year and a second one as a capstone exercise—to give shape to the work we already require of students.

First year “W” course
Current requirements for the first year. Currently Arts students take 6 credits of 100-level English or a combination of 3 credits of 100-level English and 3 credits of 100-level Writing Studies. While English and Film Studies is currently reviewing the curriculum of the 100-level courses, at the moment they devote approximately 30% of the course to writing development.

The Writing Across the Curriculum program has done studies of writing assignments in Political Science and Community Service Learning (CSL) that show that every course in each of these two programs require students to write at least one assignment. In Political Science, the average number of writing assignments in all courses is 3 (2.5 in 100-level courses); in CSL the average number of writing assignments is 6. To graduate with a major in Political Science, students currently write in excess of 60 writing assignments. It may be something of a leap of faith, but it seems likely that most humanities and social sciences require similarly intense writing experiences. In the fine arts, my own experiences working with Art History, Sociology, English, History, Women’s Studies, East Asia Studies, Economics, MLCS, and Religious Studies classes confirms that they, too, require numerous writing assignments from their students.

Ideas for new requirements. Offer any department who wants to take on the task of introducing students to academic writing the opportunity to schedule 100-level classes in their discipline that would devote at least one-third of course to developing student writing skills.

Second year “W” course
Writing in the major. Students who took courses in their major would be required to take a course designated as a “W” course by the department as a requirement for their major. This course would have responsibility for explicitly communicating the ways scholars in the discipline use writing in the production of knowledge: what kinds of evidence are valued, what systems are used for documenting the use of knowledge produced by others, what genres of texts are typically used in this discipline. This course could be an existing course that is revised somewhat to include explicit instruction in how to write in the major; consequently, this requirement would not necessarily require the development of a new course.

Third or Fourth year Capstone Portfolio
Portfolio of written work. Students would be required to create an online portfolio of their best written work from their undergraduate courses. The exact requirements of the portfolio might vary from one program to another, but the broad outlines might be faculty-wide:
• perhaps 8-10 written projects, half of which had been revised;
• perhaps a total of about 50-75 pages of finished prose in the portfolio.
Students might be required to take a course such as “WRS 400: The Writing Portfolio” that would help students develop their writing style and support feedback that would lead to revisions of the work included in the portfolio. The instructors of this course would grade the portfolio, perhaps in conjunction with some one from the discipline of the student. In addition to the WRS version of the portfolio course, departments might want to offer discipline-specific versions of the portfolio course. For students who wanted to use the portfolio as part of graduate school applications, a department-specific course might have advantages.

A Draft Proposal
In short, this vision of the communication skills requirement would consist of three requirements for the new BA:
1. “W” course at the first year level (English 100-level and WRS courses would count for this).
2. “W” course in writing in the major at the 2nd year level (an existing course + writing instruction).
3. A writing portfolio requirement.

These requirements, together, would
a. function as an introduction to academic writing;
b. provide clear information about how to write in a particular field; and
c. generate a capstone assessment that would provide employment application material and/or graduate school application documents.

A benefit to our faculty could be that the portfolio might also function as an assessment tool for our faculty of the level of work produced by our graduates.

Roger Graves
Director, Writing Across the Curriculum

Learning outcomes for “Communication” in the new BA

There is much to like in the submissions from the five groups to the BA degree. Each identifies a compelling theme or even themes that would attract students and reward their study in those programs. In addition to these themes, though, I think that the proposals need to identify learning outcomes. Three of the five proposals do not address written communication learning outcomes. The BA in Creative Thinking and the Visual Communication Strategies, Skills and Reflections for the Twenty-First- Century BA do not include learning goals for communication (or at least written communication), and the Experiential Learning proposal mentions communication in passing as one of a series of transferable skills.

Two of the proposals identify learning outcomes:

  • ‘Interdisciplinary, Intercultural, and International’ Skills:
    “critical thinking and problem solving skills, (ii) creative and analogical thinking, (iii) writing and communication skills, (iv) interpersonal and intercultural skills, and (v) research skills, as well as (vi) media literacy.”

In this case, not much is said beyond naming the learning goal—writing and communication skills. However, the global/cross-cultural proposal goes into more detail:

  • The Global Value of the 21st Century BA, in Cross-Cultural Perspective
    iii) Effective communication skills are a critical hallmark of the BA graduate. These are more important than ever given the speed of communication processes and the range of communication technologies. Verbal and visual analytical strategies are essential parts of
    communication competencies. These critical capacities can be creatively applied in a range of employment or entrepreneurial settings.
    How do we teach the skills aimed at achieving a globally knowledgeable and intellectually sophisticated BA graduate? iv) Writing competency is crucial for all BA graduates, allowing the expression of critical thinking, with interpretations and analyses of global/local/chronological connections. Higher standards of writing competence and increased requirements for research papers should be explicitly part of undergraduate training. Examples already exist of this preparation. We believe it should be more generally applied. The application of these skills may involve various media platforms before or after graduate. But effective critical thinking/writing is at the heart of all these endeavours.

The integration of the visual and verbal here would also fit well with the visual communication strategies proposal.

Restating the learning goals from the global/cross-cultural proposal might look like this:

  1. Upon graduation, students will be able to use language to critique ideas and concepts.
  2. Upon graduation, students will be able to analyse and interpret ideas, concepts and texts through their own written work.
  3. Upon graduation, students will be able to write sophisticated research-based documents, including term papers.

I think the next stage for each of the groups proposing a new BA would need to include writing learning outcomes/goals for communication (and whatever other key learning outcomes/goals we agree are important for the BA). The list above is a good start.

A step beyond identifying the learning outcomes/goals would be to identify the strategies used to achieve the learning goals.

  • Should students take a writing course?
  • Should each program offer a “writing in the major” course?
  • Should students create a portfolio of writing as part of a capping exercise or senior course in their major area of study?
  • Should the Writing Across the Curriculum program provide group writing tutorials to all 300 and 400 level classes?

With learning outcomes specified for each proposal, we would have a better sense of the potential for each one. Until we know what the learning outcomes/goals are for each proposal, and, even better, how each group proposes that students will attain each outcome/goal, I don’t think we have the information we need to judge which of the proposed programs is the best one.

Roger Graves

Director, Writing Across the Curriculum


A Rhetorical Education in the Arts

What do we want BA students to learn about communication in their degree program? At the University of Alberta, we are actively pursuing an answer to this question as we consider revising the BA degree.

In a recent award-winning article, Professor Doug Brent of the University of Calgary noted that we could define “rhetorical education” narrowly as the courses students take explicitly in how to write. Alternatively, rhetorical education could be defined broadly as all life experiences (in and out of school) that contribute to communication competency. Instead of either extreme, Brent adopts what he calls a middle ground—rhetorical education is the “sum of institutionalized practices in the postsecondary education system that help a student develop rhetorical knowledge and skill” (Brent 2012, p. 559).

But what makes up “rhetorical knowledge?” Brent adopts Anne Beaufort’s definition: discourse community knowledge; rhetorical knowledge; genre knowledge; subject matter knowledge; writing process knowledge; and a mental schema for learning to write (Brent, 2012, 560). As undergraduates, Arts students learn about the values and ideas of the professors and students in their major areas of study (discourse community knowledge). They learn about how to write for these people and for what purposes (rhetorical knowledge), and they build knowledge about the genres of documents that they must create to engage in academic study (genre knowledge). Subject matter knowledge comes from reading and writing in courses in their major, and writing process knowledge comes, partly from trial and error and partly from guidance from instructors through linked assignments and the reading of drafts of final papers. But how do they develop the mental schemas that allow them to communicate in novel circumstances, such as work outside the academy?

Brent isn’t sure how this happens. But he is sure that students do develop a considerable degree of rhetorical knowledge through their experience in the academic world, and they transform this knowledge into skills that help them succeed in work environments. Brent reported that although co-op students at that university only sporadically transferred specific practices and ideas they learned about how to write, they were able to transform their rhetorical knowledge of audiences and purposes for writing and apply that in their work placements (Brent 2012, p. 588-89).

Brent is also confident that students did not acquire all or even most of their rhetorical knowledge through a one-semester course in professional writing (589). Instead, he argues that “students were drawing on a repertoire of rhetorical activities in a variety of courses both within and external to their majors and also on the general experience of attending the university and having to figure out how to serve multiple rhetorical masters in reasonable ways” (589). Research I have done here at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Arts supports Brent’s views. In surveys of all the writing assignments given to students in the Political Science department and the Community Service Learning (CSL) program, we found that students wrote

  • at least one assignment in every course they took
  • in a wide variety of genres—18 in Political Science, and 21 in CSL
  • an average of over 3 assignments per course in Political Science and over 6 assignments per course in CSL courses
  • nested or linked assignments 35% of the time in Political Science and 68% of the time in CSL

A student who took the current BA major in Political Science would have to write a minimum of 60 papers in their major courses alone, and likely much more if we count their elective courses.

The current BA programs in Political Science and CSL (and likely across the Arts) require students to write frequently and in a variety of genres. Brent’s work would suggest that many of them will be able to transform, if not transfer, the knowledge they gain along the way into skills they can use beyond the BA—in graduate school, at work, and in the community. I think a reasonable question we can ask is how can we help them transform their rhetorical knowledge more quickly, more deeply, and more broadly?

Currently the Writing Across the Curriculum program offers group writing tutorials to help students writing assignments in a specific course develop their writing skills. The Centre for Writers offers one-to-one tutoring sessions, and the Writing Studies program offers courses primarily for first-year students. English and Film Studies 100-level courses also support the development of rhetorical knowledge as part of their mission (about one-third in most 100-level courses).

What is missing is a “capping exercise” or writing portfolio. These online portfolios, created by students and perhaps containing revised work from their major programs of study, would help students

  • reflect on their academic work over the past several years,
  • provide an opportunity to polish work that perhaps wasn’t as good as it could have been when they turned it in at the end of the semester, and
  • create a bridge to their future work or graduate studies
  • provide a tool for assessing the work of the new BA

Portfolios of writing have the potential to prompt students to engage more deeply and critically in their BA studies.

Roger Graves

Director, Writing Across the Curriculum

Brent, D. (2012). “Crossing boundaries: Co-op students relearning to write.” College Composition and Communication, 63, 558-592.