How To Teach Grammar Without Teaching Grammar
As a writing assistant, I help a variety of students. Some students are required to attend and some students voluntarily seek help. In both cases, tutees usually have no expectation for our services. Many students arrive to a session hoping I will be their proofreader and markup their paper so they can insert in the “right” answers.
My goal as a writing assistant is to make better writers which, much to many people’s dismay, does not include proofreading or teaching to the paper. I always want tutees to learn how they can become better writers. I never touch their papers with a pen. In fact, I don’t even have a pen when I look over papers.
Often times I offer different suggestions for approaching an assignment or paper. Other times I simply act as a reader and ask the writer clarification questions.
We are trained to approach papers with higher-order thinking. Instead of nitpicking grammatical errors, many times the biggest issue in pieces relates to the overall concept or the logic in the paper. Although providing writers with traditional “writer rules” is much easier than delving into concepts and ideas, the writer, not the paper, benefits by using the latter approach.
Through my experience at the writing center, I have learned that grammar is crucial to writing, but it is not always the most important piece of the equation.
Most often if students are too caught up in writing grammatically correct sentences, their writing will be inhibited. If students have the liberty to first write down coherent ideas, grammar is a simple editing fix.
Today in the writing center, I met with a student required to attend a session for Intro to College Writing. The instructor of his course has designed the class to be a writing workshop, where students have to complete a variety of prescribed writing pieces by the end of the semester, working towards a final writing portfolio.
I love the premise of this writing class because students can write about whatever they please as long as it fits in the prescribed format. Some genre pieces include: short poem, long poem, letter to fictional person, etc.
I enjoy meeting with these students because we can have real writing conversations that get to the heart of the matter. The sessions are always writer-centered, not piece-centered.
The student I met with was working on a letter to a real person. He prefaced our discussion with: “I’m writing a letter to the parents of my girlfriend. I’ve been wanting to write this for a long time…it’s kind of personal.”
I could tell that this was a meaningful and private piece to him. He didn’t want to read the whole letter out loud, although I always like tutees to read their pieces out loud. Being sensitive to the writer, I accepted his decision. He took charge of the session, immediately delving into inquiries: “I really need to know the different rules of when to use a comma, a semicolon, and a colon.”
After explaining the difference between the three punctuation marks and how each one should be used, he nodded his head. He began looking through his letter, picking out specific sentences and asking specific questions.
He continued asking specific grammatical questions and, by the end of the letter, he was answering his own questions. This writer needed grammatical rules and the shocking part was that he willingly wanted to know about grammar. The session was widely rewarding for both the student and me.
After reflecting on the session, one thought rumbled through my head:
How can I get all students to willingly want to know about grammar?
This student approached grammar in a different way because he genuinely wanted to fix his piece. He took advantage of the writing freedom and wrote a meaningful piece. He had the liberty to decide what he wrote and, in turn, he really cared about his letter.
From what I gathered, I think he will send the letter to his girlfriend’s parents when he’s ready. Because he cared about his piece, he wanted to ensure it was a quality piece of writing.
How often do teachers assign topics and writing assignments and expect students to care about grammar?
I want to create a classroom conducive to this type of writer-centered learning. This student didn’t want to learn about grammar. He wanted to write a piece of quality writing which just happened to include writing grammatically correct sentences.