Usually, around this time of year I am worrying about which books to teach next fall. I have written blog posts in the past detailing my reading lists for the coming year, and discussing the merits of this book or that book.
This year is different. My obsession this year is the teaching of writing and grammar.
We will be adopting writing and grammar textbooks for the high school English classes next year, and some literature will have to be cut from the syllabus to make room for this instruction. Although my students continue to be under-read, the teaching of writing skills and the structure of the language has become a dire necessity. SAT exams have grammar and writing sections, and I am discovering that students know less and less about the structure of English, and do not recognize even the terminology of grammar. If a student does not know what pronoun-antecedent agreement is, he cannot fix a sentence containing such an error.
Recently, I embarked on a thorough examination of how we teach writing and grammar in the English Department. I collected writing samples from every grade level and every teacher throughout the months of March, April and May. Currently, our middle school program utilizes a writing and grammar textbook and a workbook. The high school teachers focus on writing in the context of studying literature.
In examining each teacher’s corrected student essays, reviewing the workbooks, journals, formal assignments, and informal writing from several classes, and discussing the teaching of writing and grammar in conference with each department member, I discovered that there are gaping holes in our instruction.
The high school classes need a writing and grammar textbook. Simply assigning whole writing—papers, essays, and timed, in class writing—is not enough. Each paper contains teachers’ remarks and notes with phrases such as “awkward syntax,” “subject-verb agreement,” and “unclear sentence,” yet the mistakes are never remedied by the student on successive assignments. It is clear that the kid does not understand the note, and therefore is helpless to make the correction.
Teachers struggle to balance their class periods each week with literature, vocabulary skills, grammar, and writing. Across the board, we should have two periods per day for English: one for literature and one for writing and grammar. I have taught at schools that have done this and it works. The other option is to dedicate a particular grade level for heavy writing and grammar instruction and very little literature. From my experience, this did not work well. Writing skills need to be re-taught and reinforced each and every year from middle school through the end of high school.
What also became very clear are the weaknesses in student writing. Students do not understand the purpose of verb tense. They throw in helping verbs whether necessary or not. They see common indefinite pronouns as plural when they are singular. And there is no understanding of the components of a good sentence. Clauses, phrases, active voice verbs—all are mysteries to our student writers. Common usage errors riddled the papers.
Do we need to know these things to write well?
Yes, because the rules of grammar, syntax and usage help a student writer understand the structure and nuances of the language. Students learn the terms and parts, and when they make mistakes, teachers and students have a common terminology to discuss what is wrong.
The scary thing is, high school teachers rarely get the opportunity to address problems with organization, critical thinking, analysis, or content because there are so many technical problems with a student’s use of language. Expressing clear, articulated ideas cannot happen without a structure in which to frame those ideas. If language is a tool to convey meaning, one must have the tools in place or the meaning is lost.
So next year, we will continue to focus on improving language instruction by teaching grammar and writing. I have asked teachers to split their class time 50-50: fifty percent on literature and vocabulary development; fifty percent on writing and grammar skills. I want to see chapters covered in the textbook that correspond to those common errors: subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, verb tense, active voice, clauses, phrases, sentence structure and usage problems. Students must also write frequently within several rhetorical modes: narration, description, persuasion, cause and effect, comparison-contrast, analysis, and expository writing. Research should also be a key component of these courses. Kids today have no idea how to evaluate the reliability of sources on the internet.
The final area needing more attention is within the teacher’s domain. Teachers have to give student-writers immediate feedback.
Reading student work is time-consuming and labor-intensive. When the paper crosses my desk, I read it through once without making notes or marks. This pass is to simply understand the writer’s thesis and discussion. A second pass allows me to mark spelling and grammar mistakes. The third pass is dedicated to content and organization, coherence and clarity of thought. I make a final note at the bottom of the last page summarizing my assessment in detail. Each paper can take upwards of ten to thirty minutes to read and mark up. I must avoid copy editing the piece, as I will become bogged down and never finish. Marking too much and covering the paper in ink can cause the student writer to shut down.
My department policy is to return papers in five to seven class days. I struggle to hit this mark, and I lose sleep over the sets of papers that drag on longer before being returned to students. I have tried all kinds of methods and shortcuts, but there is no shortcut. A teacher must fully read and respond to a student’s work. Check marks, pass-fail grades, a comment bank from which a teacher chooses automated notes—nothing is as effective as reading and commenting to the student in a note on a student paper.
The best discussion on this subject can be found in the Harvard Writing Project Bulletin: Special Issue: Responding to Student Writing. This is an invaluable resource for writing teachers, and offers a detailed discussion of how we grade and comment upon student work.
This bulletin will be the focus of my next post this week in Part II.