Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Teaching Grammar

For the past two years, I've been teaching a developmental writing course. Oh, let's just call it what it is--a remedial grammar course. The twist on this course is that students take it *after* they've completed their two required writing courses, and pedagogically, I find this approach to be interesting. The students at our university tend to be career oriented, and they don't really "find" themselves as students until they get motivated to pursue a career. And as we all know, I think, once they become involved in a career, working, they start to understand just how important communication skills are. Letting the students work through this first before coming to a grammar class is, I think, a smart move. Starting off students in their first term with a remedial non-credit course can be discouraging.

Most of us learn communication, writing, and grammar through exposure to the language--speaking and writing in it. My 5 year old makes grammar mistakes all the time, but by the time he is 18, I am sure he won't say "I goed outside today, Mommy!" Yes, I correct him (most of the time), but he will learn the right way to say that sentence mainly by hearing and reading it presented correctly.

Today's students, as we all know, seem to be reading and writing less often. But they *do* often know proper grammar. I sit down with students all the time and go over their writing with them, and most of the time, the most egregious errors are ones they can correct themselves--and they do, right in front of me.

So, what's happening?

The students who come into my grammar classes often perceive themselves as bad writers, and I think many of them fear they will not be able to graduate (they have to attain a particular level of writing skill in order to graduate, assessed through a handwritten essay written in two hours). They think their problems are insurmountable.

It's my job to take a different approach. I take advantage of the workshop approach to work as individually as possible with students and figure out what they know and what they don't know. I deal with what they don't know, but then I have to deal with what they aready know but forget to do while writing. This is crucial! Then I try to help them figure out why they do what they do.

Most of the time, it's laziness, pure and simple! Or they have low expectations of themselves. Or they just haven't trained themselves to see details in written language; they're not close readers. I cannot turn these students into writers at the level of A students at an Ivy League college, but I can get them to correct basic grammar errors. What I do is use behavior modification techniques, individualized as much as possible for each student.

For example, I have a student whose first language is Korean. Like many students who speak/write Korean as a first language, he has many difficulties with plural forms, verb forms, and articles. Articles are tricky, so I won't deal with that now. Verb forms require a lot of practice, but again, as I went over more and more writing with the student, I could see what he tended to do wrong and why. What I discovered with T is that he was confusing present perfect and present progressive tenses. Now, this makes sense, in a way. Both tenses involve something that is currently happening. But T kept wanting to make everything into the present progressive tense. The first thing I advised him was to use simple present (and past) whenever he was unsure. Now, we certainly found exceptions, but this trick was helping him simplify his sentence constructions. He also kept wanting to use passive voice constructions (i.e., "As an employer, Disney is being appealed because of its great health benefits"). I explained passive constructions and what they mean. (So often, students are taught that passive voice is wrong.)

When we found a sentence that was especially perplexing for him, we came up with a "model" sentence, a sentence in the same pattern. Then I suggested he memorize the sentence and when he came upon something similar, he could call upon that sentence in his head to remember how to structure the sentence he was working on.

Another example of this is the construction "one of the best movies of the year is Spiderman 3." T kept dropping the "s" on movies because he thought that because he was using "one," the word should not be plural. I went over this construction again and again with him, and we settled on a similar construction as the one above for his "model." And in his most recent essay, he used the structure in a different context, i.e., "one of the advantages of X is Y." I was SO happy!

I do the same kind of thing with sentence structure. If students tend to use commas to try to connect two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb such as "however," I remind them to read through their papers to find the word "however," then I give them a few tricks to figure out if it's connecting two independent clauses.

The thing is that when we tell students to proofread their papers, internally they groan. They become overwhelmed by the prospect of re-reading every single word. And in fact, with computers, they can benefit from spellcheck to find many of those simple errors. But they need to understand that in an essay that is 20 sentences long, it is likely that 15-18 of those sentences are not run-ons or comma splices. They need to figure out why they fuse some sentences and not others, and they are more motivated when they have shortcuts to help them skip over the perfectly fine sentences and find and focus on the sentences that are troublesome.

Now, this approach doesn't address the needs of all students. Some are still struggling with basic communication skills, and some make egregious errors in every sentence. But it does work with many students. The other benefit is that once they see how they can identify and improve some aspects of their essays, they become motivated to catch the other errors. They realize that they *can* change their behaviors, and that, together with the knowledge that they will be needing to enter the working world and communicate effectively, gives them that extra boost in confidence and energy to improve.

I am so excited by the improvement I've seen in T this summer. He is such a smart, hard-working kid, and I'm glad to see him take control of his writing. He has big dreams, and I'd like to see him achieve them.

1 comment:

Lilian said...

Hmmm, interesting. I think our sons have the same age (give or take), since Kelvin was also 5 in 2007.