Sunday, August 19, 2012

Responding to Student Writing

While the discussion was a little sidetracked here, it was really good, and made me think.  It especially got me thinking about the quality of research behind the argument to leave off marking/correcting grammar on student writing.

So I've been looking for recent research on the subject, and to tell the truth, I'm not finding much so far.

There's TONS of work on second language acquisition.  And there's a fair bit of work from the 1980s or so, mostly on teaching grammar.  There's some work on teaching in secondary contexts (high school in the US, but also elsewhere).

But I'm not having huge luck with finding helpful stuff that's recent, college level, and English primary language learners.

One thing I've learned is that this is a hugely complex issue on a lot of levels, including levels I don't always think about. 

I thought I'd share a couple of helpful essays here, and see what you find and think.

First off, I've found Patrick Hartwell's "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar" (originally published in College English 47.2 (February 1985), though I'm reading it in Victor Villanueva's Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader (2nd edn, Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2003.  205-233).

Hartwell does a sort of meta-study, looking at what other researchers have found more than on his own.  What really helps me here is that he distinguishes different sorts of grammar.  These are hard to lay out (and I wish he'd done a better job), but here goes:

1)  "the set of formal patterns in which the words of a language are arranged in order to convey larger meanings" (209; here Hartwell is quoting W. Nelson Francis from 1954).  So that's probably what most of us think of as grammar.  It's the whole stuff we've internalized about patterns and word order.

2)  Linguistic description (209; again, Hartwell quotes Francis here)

3)  "Linguistic etiquette" (again, quoting Francis).  This category seems to be where we get the admonition not to use "ain't" and such.  Hartwell notes that this category is "usage" rather than "grammar" in a formal sense  (210).

4)  "School grammar" (210-211), which Hartwell distinguishes from #2 because it's not done in terms of linguistic description, but rather seems to be prescriptive, and based on the sorts of grammar text books that gave me nightmares as a little kid.

5)  Stylistic grammar (211).  I'm not quite sure how this is different from the etiquette one, though.  It seems that Hartwell defines it as "grammatical terms used in the interest of teaching prose style" (211).  So maybe it's also tied into #4.

At any rate, I think what's important here is that we who teach writing aren't necessarily linguists or really good at grammar, but rather we're competent at usage and etiquette.  It's worth thinking, then, as we mark grammar about what we're marking.  Are we marking actual grammar problems, or are we marking our regional (or other) preferences for usage?

Hartwell concludes his article by making two conclusions:  First, his review of the literature suggests that teaching grammar doesn't teach students to write better, and second, his review suggests that we've been (well, in 1987) reinventing the same square wheel for a long time, and we should stop.

Now for a grammar question for you:  Here's a usage thing that sticks with me.  My native usage is to write "X is different than Y."  But I remember distinctly being corrected in a grad grammar type class, and told that I was wrong, and the proper usage is "X is different from Y."  But I've also now heard people use "X is different to Y."  (I think of that as a British usage, but I don't know.)

What would you do?  Which is correct and why?

Let me know if you've found good articles, please.


  1. I didn't write a comment on the last post, I don't think, but this is exactly a conversation we're having at work.

    The way minimal marking was explained to me, the idea is to move away from line-editing for the student, which is something I have never done. Or if it's really bad, I might do it for the first page and then leave the rest for the student to fix. But rather than making the correction, with minimal marking, I'm supposed to mark the error with an X. This clearly conveys to the student "something is wrong with this sentence" and directs them to reconsider/revise what that is.

    Honestly, I sometimes do this with editing marks. The point is that the student doesn't just make the connection I suggested but rather must reread the sentence and think about what isn't working. As they become aware of these mistakes, they get better.

    This is what we're supposed to do for what we call "lower order concerns"--that is mistakes in grammar and usage rather than style. Spelling and other mechanics, that sort of things, but also sentences where I might be tempted to write "awkward."

    The bulk of my comments are supposed to focused on "higher order concerns" which are things like organization, paragraph structure, and argument.

    K, this comment is suddenly epic. Sorry.

  2. "Different from" = standard American English.

    "Different than" = colloquial, possibly more prevalent in some regions than others, although I'm not sure what the geographic patterns are.

    "Different to" = definitely a Britishism, although I don't know whether it's standard usage or a colloquialism.

    The bigger question is an interesting one, and I have to admit a lot of regionalisms that are common in the area where I currently live set my teeth on edge, probably more than they should. (It's not that I think I shouldn't correct them, because part of our job is to teach students how to distinguish between colloquialisms and standard academic English. But when a student writes "might could" in a formal paper or addresses a business letter "Dear Miss Nancy...," my instinctive reaction is "GRRRR!!!" And I don't get GRRRR-ish with, say, Asian students who leave out articles, and I have an uncomfortable feeling that this indicates some deeper regional and class prejudices on my part.)

  3. To your question at the bottom, I think Fretful has the handle of it. I wouldn't necessarily mark anything but a note of "colloq." by the first one, and I'd leave the other two alone. From and to in this context really don't have much difference, which makes sense given the dative construction, so I don't see much point in bothering about it unless the student is inconsistent.

    They're all correct, but the first seems informal and colloquialisms are always sort of a hit or miss. Some professors say to go ahead and others try to stamp them out.

  4. The types of grammar I correct (these are generally technical writing--policy briefs, reports, things they'll have to do on the job in the future and will reflect on their training in our program) are more like: "loose vs. lose," "less vs. fewer" and "there/they're/their". And, of course, the extra/missing articles and subject-verb mismatches from sadly, not just my international students. I'm much more loose (or do I mean lose...) about stylistic differences unless I've told them to write a specific kind of position paper.

    I gave a mini-lecture in one of my math classes last semester about loose vs. lose after a particularly egregious problem set. I considered putting it on the final but decided not to.

  5. 1987? An entire generation worth of writing has happened since then, and I don't really think we have better writers. I think we have worse writers. If this so-called minimal marking research really worked, you'd think we'd see some improvement in writing on the whole.

    Granted, I've only been teaching since 1999. But thirteen years is long enough to see trends, isn't it? My students are not writing better at all. Their grammar keeps getting worse all the time -- likely because of texting -- and I don't see fantastic ideas either. They mainly summarize instead of analyze, and asking them to have an argumentative thesis statement is like asking them to find the holy grail.

    In my meetings last week, a presenter also brought up minimal marking and how "research shows" that students don't learn from editing their work. Until someone brings me research with an actual study that's been conducted within the last decade, I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing. I honestly do not think I'm hurting my students by correcting them. And if their feelings are hurt, well, too bad. Who ever got through life without hurt feelings?

    Perhaps what we should be examining is why we are so reluctant to mark up the students' papers. Is it because it's a waste of time? Is it because we're lazy? Is it because we're overwhelmed with too much work? Is it because the professors don't understand the rules themselves? Is it that we don't want to hurt the students' feelings? Is it because we don't want to alienate people from writing, despite the fact that some people are most certainly better at it than others? I mean, what's the motivation behind backing off? Perhaps THAT is the question. I have yet to see specific evidence besides the ubiquitous "research shows" statements that minimal marking does anything to teach students how to write -- or that editing student writing is somehow a waste and/or harmful.

    I really don't mean to sound like a troll. I'm not trying to be mean. Your findings here suggest to me, though, that minimal marking is a fad that needs to go by the wayside, and that students deserve some honest and critical feedback on their work.

    I'll be kicking some writing butt here in the next 16 weeks. I'll let you know if anyone drops out as a result. :)

  6. That's a good point about 1987 and hurt feelings... 1987 was around when the self-esteem movement was getting started... and educationists are currently repudiating that movement.

    Educational psychologists (such as Carol Dweck, but there are others-- Nurtureshock outlines the research on the self-esteem movement) have high-quality studies showing that the self-esteem movement had it backwards-- good self-esteem doesn't cause learning, instead learning causes good self-esteem. It was a simple case of correlation mistaken as causation.

  7. For what it's worth, I do "minimal marking" of mechanics/grammar type stuff *at first* - and once students have things like an argument, a solid structure, etc., then we move on to the nitty gritty of the mechanical. I've found that this results in *MUCH* better papers than *either* minimal marking *or* than "maximal" marking. Yes, this means that I look at drafts of student writing and I look at many "short" assignments, even in my literature courses. But at least then I feel like I am accomplishing something. There is nothing more demoralizing to me as a teacher than feeling like my students don't learn anything in my classes. Also, I'm not sure there's anything less inspiring to them.

    Also: for me it's always been different from, and while I feel like it's ok if somebody from the British Isles says "different to" I want to smack Americans who adopt that construction. The problem with different "than" is that than expresses differences in amount - more than and less than - and not just difference in general, which "different from" and "different to" do.

  8. First, comp has most definitely published research and scholarship on responding to student writing since 1987. I would recommend that you search at Comppile ( if you haven't already. Traditional databases do a very poor job of covering comp research; Comppile is the largest and best database for field (even if it is, admittedly, clunky; we cut it some slack on that front because it's completely volunteer-driven). Use the search term "response" and you'll get over 2000 hits, some as recent as this year.

    You might also check out Anson's essay in a 2012 collection _Writing Assessment in the 21st Century_, pub by Hampton Press. He does a good--and critical--recap of the research and scholarship on response to student writing. He targets some assumptions that too quickly became dogma in the 80s and early 90s and also highlights more recent, solid research that is headed in the right direction.

  9. I wouldn't ignore the SLA research either--one finding is that first language writing ability is a good predictor of second language writing ability, so it could be relevant.