When we discuss the importance of grammar in class, I like to tell students this story: My brother-in-law was a manager of a consulting group of computer analysts, programmers, etc. He had hundreds of employees reporting to him, and each month he would receive more than a hundred resumes from applicants. He was trying to hire for a position which required specific skills, certifications and experience, and he got one resume from a person who actually fulfilled all of the requirements of the job. That resume had an error.
After telling the story, I ask students, “Did the guy get the job?” They are often surprised to find out the answer: no he did not.
Now, few people love grammar more than I do, but even I had to question my brother-in-law about his decision. He said, “I have to assume that his resume was this guy’s best work because he probably really wanted that job. If his best work has an error, then his everyday work will be flawed. How can I trust him to write a program, give a presentation or communicate with clients without errors?” The applicant lost out on an $80,000 per year opportunity because of a grammar mistake.
Grammar is that important. In the fields of business, law and medicine, which many students want to enter, perfect grammar is vital. Mistakes that obscure communication cost money—and potentially even lives. Even when grammar does not have high stakes, it is important. WHY? Although there is no direct link between proper grammar and intelligence, most people will judge a speaker’s intelligence, level of education, and social class based on grammar in both spoken and written communication.
Given the importance of grammar, it should be surprising to see the decreasing amount of time spent in school to teach it. But, as the amount of information that needs to be learned grows, the proportional amount of time for basics shrinks. Plus, it’s difficult to teach grammar. How do teachers overcome the patterns of communication ingrained in a child’s mind in the home and interacting with peers? The answer is probably not with a red pen and certainly not with generic grammar exercises.
Approaches span from spending days having every student work on a problem area, like run-on sentences, to letting students write without concern for correctness under the assumption that if they feel passionate about what they are writing, students will just want to get everything right. The problem is that even after students do worksheet after worksheet about a grammar problem, they don’t transfer that knowledge onto their own writing. And even if students want to get everything just right, they often don’t recognize errors. When they do recognize errors, they don’t know how to fix them. Grammar correction programs like the one I have on Microsoft Word are often incorrect. On one document I wrote, I found the corrections offered by the program were wrong over 75% of the time.
When I meet with students individually and have them read their papers to me, they read them as though they are correct—either they read over the error or they correct it when they read. The trick is to help students recognize and correct the errors they frequently make. For most students, correcting one or two types of errors which are repeated over and over will eliminate most of the red marks on their papers. For that, I use a Grammar Log (available in Student Resources). Students keep track of errors on their graded papers, find the correct grammar rule in their handbooks, do pointed exercises, and go back and correct the errors in their papers. For each paper, I expect to see the frequency of each type of error decrease.
Expectations and hope–that’s the stuff of teaching.