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When final paper time looms, students become increasingly anxious about the grammatical errors they believe lurk in their writing. That belief is so strong it can undermine their drafts. Even worse, students have come to expect that their professors will point out errors—and make corrections—that seem invisible to student eyes. Such a learned practice dissuades students from the far more productive work of rewriting sentences that would remove many of those errors just as invisibly.
Helping students learn how to revise and rewrite should be our priority so that their writing becomes more effective and they’re able to eyeball what remaining errors need correcting. Nevertheless, even with that process, some errors persist. For years, I struggled with determining how much instruction to devote to error, how to time such instruction, and where to conduct it—classroom, conference, or paper annotations—so that my efforts would prove more helpful than hurtful.
We all want students to succeed in their polishing work; we also want them to become independent learners without us as shadow editors. The question is, how do we resolve that dissonance? If we’re considering the practices of most writers, we need to center on correcting errors at the last possible moments in a draft, the place where it will have the most lasting effect on performance. That time is best for practicing editing with the professor, similar to when we work with journal and book editors to secure the best possible final version. And since instructing students in the conventions of writing must be inductive—we can’t simply tell students, “Now edit with precision”—it’s better to start small with some simple examples that transition them into editing, examples that have the greatest power to make them conscious of ineffective sentences first.
Toward that end, I’ve used punctuation as an instructional focus for three reasons. First, students haven’t received much instruction in punctuation, so I’m less likely to have pushback from what Ms. Grundy may or may not have told students in sixth-grade English, giving me permission to address correction unabashedly. Second, I find students believe punctuation is a decoration rather than a powerful recaster of sentences and a container for meaning-making. When writers use punctuation, however, they are initiated into the rewriting experience that can transform the dismal passage into a more lively and fluid style. Last, continued short practice in punctuation can appropriate interleaving, the learning strategy where students learn a complex task by combining it with other content and skill learning (Pan, 2015).
For example, I encourage students to write a content-emphasis first draft, to print out one paper copy, and bring it to class for a short workshop. I frame this workshop as a time for students to celebrate “getting it down and keyboarded”: the first milestone rather than the capstone of a process. Since I’m emphasizing content for this draft, I tell students that we can now turn our attention to communicating that content in more effective ways in the workshop, finding ways to refine an approach to the final version.
In-class peer workshops
My in-class peer workshops are impromptu, involve one or two neighboring peers, and last no longer than 25 minutes. I produce step-by-step instructions on a slide deck, one-step-per-slide with minimalist directions, accompanied with a completed example taken from my bank of previous student papers. Since I’m using a remote, I advance the slides only after each step is successfully completed, so I don’t have students rushing through important tasks—there’s no advantage to rapidity.
I start students with simple tasks: “Exchange with any one neighboring peer, but give only when you can receive.” I can quickly spot outliers without a copy, whom I excuse to leave the room to print one rather than spectate during the session. If there are lone survivor peers with their paper copy, I encourage an impromptu three-way exchange of drafts. Next, I’ll ask readers, “Write your name at the top of the first page and then fulfill your role—read your peer’s draft”; after that, “Return the drafts back to their rightful owners so that writers will read their drafts to their peers alone. But read aloud with pen in hand in case you want to make a check beside something you want to rewrite later.” Ironically, since their peers have already quickly read the draft, the authors read aloud with greater confidence.
Sometimes I have students bring two copies to class so that the peer reader keeps one to place squiggly lines underneath (for hard-to-understand phrases) or straight lines (for great-sounding phrases) as the author reads aloud from her copy. (This is a standard practice in peer editing.) After that complete experience, they reverse roles.
In another 25-minute session on another day, the tasks become more challenging, as readers must annotate in the margin or between lines. I introduce sentences written by students—unedited on one slide, legitimate editing choices (at least two good candidates) on the next slide, followed by a third summary featuring each of the previous slides’ content positioned in columns. If the class has questions, I show them another set of three. Again, because I’m using the remote, I can pause over any slide, at any point where I see—while I’m roaming the classroom rows—that students are struggling or their whispered questions to me sound hauntingly similar. Likewise, I can skip any example slides from the computer console where I see students are following.
In essence, I’ve learned to scaffold the tasks I ask students to do, with punctuation as a theme within editing. This order follows below with a few observations.
First, students must learn how to read their own writing critically, and reading aloud in a public setting accomplishes that. It sounds silly, but after having students read their rough drafts in brief 15-minute conferences with me over the years, I know students stumble over their own words and unintentionally self-edit (reading aloud what they meant to say but not what they wrote). We can mimic that low-stakes activity in large section workshops. There, students can slow their reading so their ears have time to hear their mouth. Students have practiced the silent voices of so many textbook authors in their heads through reading that they do not know what their writing sounds like when released aloud in public space. Practicing how to read the cadence of their voices, to hear their own words-in-rhythm, with a non-threatening single peer helps them compare themselves to the authors they read in their heads. They need that practice of reading their text aloud—both writers and their peers with pens in hand—and with the professor available to hear how they’re reading.
At this stage, I’ve found the fewer instructions the better. Let the ear do its work first—a sensory impression. It’s instructive for both writer and reader to see what they notice when they focus on language; it’s also instructive later to see what they missed when I’m asking them for specific and patterned errors that they have overlooked.
If student writers repeatedly skip over words that their partners flag, I suggest a second method—having the computer read back to them slowly while they follow with a copy of the text (better) or on screen. In the classroom, they can pull out earbuds to hear a good computer voice from their operating system read their draft. (If they are English language learners, this practice is a bit harder—students with certain learning disabilities have the same difficulty—so they may have to work harder at identifying a clean text, but the bonus is that their gains are even greater than what others experience.)
I tell students that blind rule-followers who produce stale final versions from scratch have no sense of context and so never even hear their voice buried within the assembly line of words they produce. One student this semester told me that, until this class, he didn't know what his own voice even sounded like because he was so used to blindly mimicking “what my teachers wanted.”
Paradoxically, we’ve known for some time now that students who don’t rewrite and focus exclusively on avoiding errors will end up making more errors than not. Studies by Sarah Tinker Perrault and the continuing work of Randall Kellogg et al. on working memory resources make it abundantly clear that student writers falsely perceive editing as a less demanding task than drafting because of “all the planning and translating that preceded it” (Kellogg, Ronald T., Alison P. Whiteford, Casey E. Turner, Michael Cahill, and Andrew Mertens, 2013). There’s a learned and undesirable familiarity student writers gain from rereading their prose, which makes self-editing difficult. Therefore, a little teaching goes a long way: a little peer-to-peer reading aloud followed with some guided teacherly instruction on how students can rewrite through punctuating.
Second, student writers can transition to rewriting key sentences—the thesis and first and last sentences in the draft rather than tracking errors across the whole draft. I can show sample student sentences and narrate three different versions to point out effectiveness. If you’re teaching large sections, students can practice those skills within the classroom. These are short integrative actions during class time that students can incorporate into major sections of their draft during homework time. In other words, this introduction to sentence-level work creates a residue that spills into homework time for the rest of the draft.
Third, I can center on punctuation now, which translates into a time when I can concentrate on a core area of sentence choice. After the first draft—after the big things like content and focus have at least been addressed—I can give students real examples of punctuated sentences and then outline these principles that help make stronger sentences with that punctuation.
Here I use the second person to address students in a handout and the boldfaced headlines below on slides. My comments are in parentheses:
If you aren’t sure where to put a comma, leave it out. If you’re paranoid about putting commas everywhere when you’re typing, leave them all Then print your paper and go back and pencil in the ones you feel are necessary. Even change the font. You’ll de-familiarize yourself with your own writing when seeing your text printed. It is easier to learn where commas belong (one performance) when you’re not taking ones out (two performances).
I had a teacher who used to say that the comma is unteachable. I’m not that pessimistic, but I believe a little bit can go a long way. So, to start, when you’re putting in commas:
Keep subject and verbs clustered together without a comma when no words stand between them and
Place a comma between an introductory element and the following subject
(Again, I’ll show student examples on a slide. Identify the simple subject and verb—that’s it. Push to have that advice followed consistently because you are establishing the structure of clauses in a sentence.)
The second tier of punctuation includes periods, question marks, exclamation points: the so-called terminal marks. These deserve a separate editing scan: Just look for the ends of sentences and see if any commas are masquerading as periods. Read aloud those sentences you are uncertain about to see if they can be “ended” in places other than what you’ve written. Then again, why not try writing aloud? Even a mumble is worthwhile!
(If warranted, I’ll give other advice that’s increasingly more prescriptive, with examples on slide decks. If you show you’re giving rules against your immediate impulse, so to speak, you heighten the sense of their importance to better writing. You will also feed into that mode of learning called cognitive disfluency, where the error stands out boldly as something to be corrected and therefore learned. Such piqued interest is like the raised consciousness we witness at the beginning and end of class.)
Pacing is important. If I see good performance on the comma and terminal punctuation, I’ll turn to word choices that require attention to commas and terminal punctuation. For instance, if I show “third tier” instances where students should prefer that over which, I’ll define the first without commas and the latter with commas. All the time I’m teaching inductively the roundabout of sentence rewriting, through punctuation.
When students can confidently perform the first two tiers, I’ll deal with the third briefly and then move into the fourth sentence-level punctuation: colons, semicolons, and dashes (they are not hyphens). Most students can’t use them. But they’re not difficult if you follow the same script: student examples of doing it correctly after having tackled the other tiers under the writer’s control. The dash fits just about everywhere, so it isn’t used as much in formal writing. That’s where the colon comes in, but its uses are restricted. They are like arrows pointing to the end of the sentence and emphasize what the writer just presented.
In most classes, there isn’t time for intense grammatical instruction, and that’s a good thing. You could learn all the grammatical preferences for academic writing in your discipline, including the uses of punctuation, without mastering how to effect change in your own writing. But if your students are reading aloud and you’re giving brief practices in the tiers of punctuation—moving from one to the next only after student writers are performing—you’re giving students the apparatus to hear their voice as they begin to rewrite. Without that voice, they haven’t truly begun to punctuate error.
Kellogg, R. T., Whiteford, A. P., Turner, C. E., Cahill, M., & Mertens, A. (2013). Working memory in written composition: An evaluation of the 1996 model. Journal of Writing Research, 5(2), 159-190.
Pan, S. C. (August 4, 2015). The interleaving effect: Mixing it up boosts learning. Scientific America [Web page]. Retrieved from www.scientificamerican.com: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-interleaving-effect-mixing-it-up-boosts-learning/
Perrault, S. T. (2011). Cognition and error in student writing. Journal on excellence in college teaching, 22(3), 47-73.
Gary R. Hafer is the John P. Graham Teaching Professor at Lycoming College, where he teaches College Composition, Classical and Modern Rhetoric, and Learning Without Teachers. He is the author of Embracing Writing: Ways to Teach Reluctant Writers in Any College Course (Jossey-Bass, 2014).