The Text, the Whole Text, and Nothing but the Text

As someone who is learning a second language (Spanish), I know how paper-crumpling frustrating it can be to grasp syntax and style (I still don't understand why adjectives come after the nouns). So whenever a student comes into the writing center asking for help with grammar, my reaction is empathetic, and we generally jump right in with the way words fit together. But over the course of about forty sessions, I've come to the realization that talking about grammar is almost pointless. In fact, it's counter-productive.

You sit there, marking up their essay with improper articles, run-on sentences, etc., and before you know it there's a legion of red ink-stains marching across the student's paper. Rather than a nesting ground for creativity, the piece has become a bloody battlefield for the instigation of proper grammar usage. There's no way the student will be able to remember everything you talked about, nor will you have time to discuss higher orders of concern!

So what do you do? Do you overlook the comma-splices, dangling participles, and other coherency issues in lieu of higher order concerns? The answer, unfortunately, is not as easy as yes or no. Sometimes those "grammar" issues do get in the way of coherence; sometimes those higher order of concerns do need to be addressed.

But to choose one over the other is folly. However, to teach grammar through pure memorization of "rules" is an exercise in futility. Language acquisition occurs when it is used for what it was designed for: communication. Those red ink stains are not helping with communication. They can help for some things, but to drown the student in red ink will not help them swim faster (I know, it's a mixed metaphor).

The concern with any paper should always be what's best for the student. If he or she appears to be following the assignment just fine but there are a couple problems with fuzzy grammatical constructions, then go ahead and discuss those. However, if their assignment is not being followed and you're getting caught up in the difference between "the" and "a," then something is very wrong.

Remember, "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts." --C.S. Lewis


  1. Focusing on too much grammar is overwhelming for the student, especially an ESL student. and the tutor; I think the best solution is to take it one step at a time. In my writing center we work regularly with the same student. When tutoring an ESL student who wants to focus on grammar, I don't review all the rules of grammar in one session. Usually I will focus on a higher order concern, such as content, and then at the end work on one grammar issue. I will send the student home with websites and articles to help them learn the grammar rule we went over (purdueowl for example). During the next session with the same ESL student we will work on a new grammar rule, in hopes that eventually he/she can learn and understand English grammar. I found that by doing this it doesn't overwhelm the student and they can take something away at the end of the session.

  2. Anonymous12:09 PM

    Very nice metaphor! I have had a few sessions where the grammar is so off that it is difficult to know what the student is actually saying. I don't think it's possible to go through all the rules and have the student really take away anything from it. I personally have a hard time memorizing the rules since there's always rule breakers to our language. I have tried the approach to have them actually speak what they have written (and this sometimes works) but if they don't speak the language well either then it's difficult. I think going over one or two grammatical concepts and have them demonstrate it may help. If the whole paper is confusing though, I am at a loss of how I would approach it.


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