This is the fifth in a series of blog pasts for faculty who might not identify as writing teachers but are still responsible for student writing. You can view earlier posts here.
Let’s talk about grammar. Knowledge of grammar rules and the ability to apply them in context are often considered “fundamental” aspects of writing: the building blocks upon which higher order communication skills are developed. This perspective makes sense insofar as direct, explicit grammar instruction typically happens in elementary school, before students are expected to create complex written arguments or analyses. There are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about our students’ grasp of grammar, though: their experiences in elementary and secondary school can vary dramatically in this regard; grammar is complex and not necessarily logical; there can be a bit of a blurred line between grammar and style.
As post-secondary educators, it’s reasonable for us to expect our students to arrive in our classes with a certain baseline level of knowledge. The real question is what to do when expectations and reality diverge. We can start by recognizing that the true foundation of effective writing is in critical thinking rather than the sometimes arcane rules of grammar usage. The relationship between the two is a complex one, though. It can be more useful to think of grammar as a set of tools rather than a set of rules; that is, having a deep understanding of grammatical structures is less the baseline from which a student starts than it is a means of achieving the precision and nuance of construction to effectively communicate ideas. The progression from grasping a complex idea to stating that idea in a complex sentence is not always a direct one. The “rules” are not always black and white (e.g., the Oxford comma). What is grammatically correct from a construction standpoint might still not be stylistically preferred. Students are navigating range of expectations as broad as the language and as narrow as the assignment on which they are working.
What can you do? At the simplest end of things, encourage your students to read for composition as well as content. How do the authors of their texts construct sentences, link ideas, organize arguments? Get them thinking not just about what is said, but how it is said. Make use of the resources available to you: online guides, writing-related websites, your school’s writing center. Incorporate those resources into your classroom, or direct students to them. When providing feedback on grammar, consider what we discussed here and here. Make your feedback formative so that students understand what they should do, not just what they did poorly. Prioritize grammar issues based on how much they impede sense-making for a reader, and focus your comments on those high-priority issues. Remember that, regardless of reasonable expectations, some of these concepts will be brand new to your students and could take some time to master.