David Rickert

Grading Gracefully – Grammar and the Red Pen

In mixed company when I tell people that I’m an English teacher I frequently get one of two responses. One group will tell me that they better watch what they say (to which I reply that I’m off duty.) The others will launch into a tirade about how people don’t talk properly anymore (to which I’d like to use some applied linguistic theory and tell them that no one actually talks incorrectly, but that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t go over well at parties.) So what’s the lesson here? Grammar enables people to be judgmental or self-righteous.

And it’s no wonder given how we approach it. I won’t mention the recent crop of stuffy English ladies who have carved out a decent career pointing out the mistakes in other people’s writing. The people that clearly take great delight in pointing out how the English language has been mangled and that clearly this shortcoming is the greatest challenge the modern world faces. (These people clearly need more fiber in their diet.)

But the way we approach grammar in school isn’t much better. I remember when I was a student teacher an incident in which I handed a piece of writing to my mentor, who immediately picked up a red pen before she started reading, on watch for any stray commas or errant capitalizations. I wonder to this day if that’s the way she read everything. But it immediately put me on the defensive by making me feel like there was already something wrong with it. And I’m fairly certain I wasn’t asking her to check the grammar in the first place.

So the dreaded red pen, unintentionally perhaps, becomes something that we use mainly to show kids where they fall short. (In school we were told to grade in blue pen because it was less threatening. I didn’t buy it.) We might as well save ourselves some time and just write “You’ve still got a lot to learn kid!” on the top of the paper.

This might not be a bad idea given that many of us take off points from grammar simply because we feel we ought to, that we aren’t doing our job if we don’t find every mistake in a piece of writing. And the large problem is that much of the time we point out these errors without giving students the opportunities to correct them and learn from them. If we were to do that, we would certainly be doing our students a favor. But it’s reasonable to assume that if they made the mistake in the first place, that they won’t know how to correct it without help. And if they do know how to fix it, it probably was something they just missed: a lack of proofreading, not grammar skills.

If we wanted to instruct students on fixing their mistakes we have to assume a couple of things in order to get any benefit out of the activity. First, students need to want to learn from these mistakes. Otherwise, I are teaching something just because I think I ought to and not for the students’ benefit. Second, that the mistakes that they are making are common enough to warrant some direct instruction.

But the bottom line here is that writing is a task that requires students to micromanage several things at once, and it’s difficult to do that and write freely and effectively. I’ve seen some rubrics that look like train tables that ensure that no mistake students make will be missed (more on sensible rubrics in a later post.) What would be most helpful to students is to give them the opportunity to write without worrying about everything they might lose points for doing. My students tend to write their poorest work when they feel burdened by a multitude of expectations. The stiff writing that I get as a result is not fun to read, and not as good as they are capable of.

Here’s the deal: grammar is only a real problem when it hinders what we have to say. This is a problem for many kids who have problems expressing themselves in writing. But to count off for it, but not give them the means to prevent further mistakes, is not a compassionate way to approach grading. Telling kids their grammar is bad, and even pointing out the errors, is like telling a comedian he needs to be funnier. It might be true, but there’s no way for the comedian to improve with that comment.

Meanwhile, I continue to put a box for grammar and mechanics on every rubric I use. I am fortunate that I have honors students, who don’t make grammatical mistakes too often, and usually when they do it’s a stray error that I know they missed. Also, I can expect a certain level of proficiency from these students because they are in an advanced class. Yet I still have problems with that box since I don’t really give students any way to remedy it. I have a feeling that the best way to improve students’ grammar is to have them write and read more often, certainly something a lot of students could do more frequently in and out of school.

So let’s let the grammar go once in a while. And not just for free writes or journal entries and other assignments that “don’t count.” Let’s allow grammar to sometimes be the least important thing, even even some lengthy essays. What might happen if we dared to do that? Can we be bold enough to leave some mistakes be in students’ writing? Can we still be confident that students are learning something? Can we live with ourselves that we didn’t point out every single misuse of the English language that passes through the classroom? Would this be a way to approach grammar that is in the students

So I’m wondering again about these people that I meet and what they say to other teachers. I’m wondering if the math teachers hear, “I better watch my addition.” Do the social studies teachers hear people rant about how no one know the state capitals anymore because of the Internet? (Actually, I bet they do.) For my part, I’m just hoping no one points out any grammatical mistakes here, which only shows that no one is immune from the wrath of the red pen.

Shameless plug: for some fun ways to teach grammar, check out my store here.


5 comments on “Grading Gracefully – Grammar and the Red Pen

  1. slashtagpolo
    January 8, 2013

    I noticed that the more I use Google docs to grade, the less I worry about all the little mistakes. It’s easier to make 1 comment that says, “Watch your commas.” If a kid decides to revise and doesn’t know where the errors are, this forces him/her to actually TALK to me and we can fix them together. Great post, fancy pants!


    • davidrickert
      January 8, 2013

      Somehow I noticed that I spent more time grading but less time on that stuff as well – mainly because it was so dang hard to pick at every little grammatical error using google.


  2. CheriT
    January 8, 2013

    I agree completely. (Do you also get, “Funny. You don’t LOOK like an English teacher”? How the heck is an English teacher supposed to look?) I hate the “Caught you!” attitude of teaching English, and don’t get me started on rubrics. I even hate the word itself. Personally, I would be frozen stiff, unable to write a word, if I was presented with a typical rubric and then told to write. Ack.

    Nice job.


  3. Matt Wooster
    January 8, 2013

    Thank you, David. It is inspiring to listen in on your process of reflecting on your work in a serious way, and especially since you are doing so from the perspective of compassion. My memory of learning to write was that the most important problems were related to structure and clarity, and feedback helped. The grammar came with experience. These are great posts, and I’m sorry that I can’t resist asking: are you betting that people actually do still know state capitals, or are you betting that social studies teachers actually do hear rants about the problem of people not knowing them?


    • davidrickert
      January 8, 2013

      A little bit of both. I’m guessing that most people can’t name all of the state capitals, but it also seems like an odd thing to fixate on when decrying students’ lack of knowledge about the United States. I was trying to speculate what people might harp on that was non-partisan.


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This entry was posted on January 8, 2013 by in education.
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