Addressing Grammar

Because most Dartmouth students write well enough that their essays are not rendered incomprehensible by grammatical errors, few professors (even those teaching first-year writing courses) offer their students formal, systematic grammar instruction. Accordingly, "teaching grammar" as it is understood on this Web page is not about setting out a formal system for teaching our students the basic structure of a sentence and the usage rules of the English language. A good handbook can provide your students with this kind of information.

Addressing Grammar

Instead, "teaching grammar" as we explore it here is really about dealing with grammatical errors as they arise in student essays. Instructors frequently ask us, What is the best way to deal with errors in student papers? Should one mark every error, or just a few? Which methods of marking are most efficient? Most effective? And what resources are available to Dartmouth students who have persistent grammatical problems with correctness? This page will help professors seeking very practical advice on handling grammatical errors in student writing. Marking Error
Professors have various options when addressing grammatical error in student writing. Which strategy they employ will depend on the kind and frequency of error in a particular paper, as well as the professor's priorities for a particular assignment. The following suggestions cover several response techniques commonly used in Dartmouth's writing classrooms. Because grammar instruction tends to be individualized, you may want to keep all of these strategies in your toolbox of instructional techniques, combining them to create a customized response to individual students' writing problems

  • Mark individual errors.  Instructors can mark individual errors in a variety of ways.  For instance, you can mark and label an error every time it occurs, referring students to a grammar or handbook.  You can mark error the first time it occurs, name it, and ask the student to find and correct other instances in the paper. Some professors circle errors but don't name them, requiring the student to investigate and solve the problem in on her own.  Whichever mark you decide to make, consider both your student's level of competency and the lesson you're trying to teach.  A student may need to have errors named for him early on, but as the term goes on you may decide to circle the error and let the student name it and correct it.  Always consider which method is most effective at this particular point in a student's education. 
  • Look for patterns of error. Determining that a student or group of students consistently have trouble with commas (for instance) can help you see where and how to best focus your attention.  Perhaps you need to work with a student during office hours; perhaps the problem is common enough that you can discuss it in a five-minute grammar lesson (see below).  
  • Prioritize error. Finally, when addressing papers especially troubled by grammatical problems, a professor will want to prioritize the errors. Students can be overwhelmed by too much direction or editing—sometimes the most effective approach is to choose one or two types of error per paper to address.

Talking About Grammar in Class

Even though teaching writing at Dartmouth does not require instructors to do formal lessons in grammar, some instructors note that their students are making the same mistakes, and so they elect to do short grammar lessons.

The most effective way of handling grammar instruction is to hold a five-minute grammar lesson. Take a few minutes at the beginning of class to address a particular grammatical issue. For instance, if students are misusing semi-colons, show them the correct usage, then use examples from their papers to illustrate the error and to discuss how to correct it.

Another way of teaching grammar in class is to include this discussion as part of a writing workshop. In other words, every time you workshop a paper, paragraph, or sentence, ask your students, "Is this grammatical?" If it's not, ask students to locate grammar errors and to explain them to the writer.

Yet another way of teaching grammar is to use peer groups. You can ask students to find and correct errors in a particularly troubled paper, using a handbook and working out the grammar rules together.

Pet Peeves

Different instructors have different pet peeves when it comes to grammar. While we generally feel that being peevish can interfere with writing instruction, we admit to having some pet peeves of our own.  Feel free to send us yours.

  1. Vague or unclear use of pronouns
  2. There are/it is constructions
  3. "Hopefully" and "irregardless"
  4. "Between you and I"
  5. Comma splice
  6. Apostrophe abuse
  7. Agreement errors
  8. Run-on sentences
  9. Dangling, misplaced modifier
  10. Persistent punctuation problems.  

Handbook Suggestions

Dartmouth has no commonly used grammar handbook. Handbooks that are popular among, and recommended by, our faculty include (in alphabetical order, by author):

  1. Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference
  2. Jim Heffernan and John Lincoln's Writing, A College Handbook
  3. Andrea Lundsford's St. Martin's Handbook
  4. Joseph Williams' Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace