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Writing Across the Curriculum

Handling Surface Error in Student Writing

Real revision involves re-engagement and re-consideration of the problem at hand; therefore, it is addressed in another section. However, it is also important for students to move forward in their capacity to use the conventions of Standard Written English and to become better editors of their own work. Knowing when and how to intervene in order to address errors in grammar, syntax, and spelling is a challenge.

Correcting every single error risks overwhelming the student, distracts the student from larger global issues, and conveys the impression that “good writing” is simply writing that is free of mistakes. This is particularly dangerous when students are confronted with complicated ideas and compelled to think in new ways. Writing assignments that push students forward intellectually often gives rise to more errors on the surface level, and we certainly don’t want to discourage exploration and risk-taking. Still, there are ways to support students who consistently produce error-filled papers and to give them the tools to become more skilled writers of academic prose.

Identify patterns of errors

Rather than correct each paper as you read, hold off on writing comments until you have read the paper through one time. This will make it easier to respond on the level of content. If there are significant grammatical and syntactical errors, identify one or two patterns of error. Point out that error in a comment, give an example, and explain how to correct it. You may want to challenge students to eliminate one error at a time by penalizing subsequent essays in which students continue to make the same type of mistake. Here it is important to pick your battle. Decide which errors bother you the most and focus on those. These are ingrained habits and it is impossible to “fix” everything in one semester!

Example of a response to a pattern of error in a student paper

Restrict corrections to one paragraph

One problem with correcting every single error in a student paper is that it puts you in the role of editor. Ultimately, we want students to become better editors of their own work. To make students responsible for their own editing, correct only one paragraph of an essay and require students to make analogous changes to the rest. This compels students to look at your corrections carefully and to apply them.

Provide models of academic prose

One way to support students as they learn to write in an academic setting is to demystify academic language. Identify examples of effective sentences or paragraphs from student writing and share these with the class. Spend some time in class looking at an example of writing in your discipline and noticing what the writer does. Are there certain conventions at work that make this a successful piece of writing? Does the writer use certain phrases or terms? Be clear about your expectations for student writing. For beginning writers, it might even make sense to give them a list of some generic opening sentences or a list of phrases commonly used in academic prose.

Bring in examples of common errors

If you notice students making the same types of mistakes, it may make more sense to address these collectively rather than individually. Identify and copy examples of these errors from student work and spend some time going over them in class. A good way to address these is to put students in groups to work on correcting the sentences together. Ask for volunteers to put their corrections on the board and to talk about what they did and why.

Vary your strategies throughout the semester

Since you are trying to reduce students’ dependence on you as an editor and proofreader, try varying your approach to surface error throughout the semester. After you have identified, corrected, and explained a pattern of error in an early paper, simply circle the error the next time and require students to make the correction on their own. The next time, you could do even less, signifying that an error exists by making a check mark in the margin without pointing to the specific error.

Require students to read their papers aloud to their peers

Experienced and novice writers alike find it easier to identify errors when they read their work aloud. Help students make this a part of their writing process by requiring them to read their papers to one another in small peer review groups. Ask each student to bring two copies of his/her paper to class. Have each student read the paper to a partner while the partner reads quietly. Student writers should make a note of mistakes they missed, and the listening partners should notice when the student is reading something that is not down on the page. Have students make corrections that align the written text with the oral reading, even if this means that they turn in a marked up paper. This will let students know that it is better to turn in a corrected paper, than one that looks neat but has errors.

Suggestions for further reading

  • John Bean, “Chapter 4: Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness.”
  • John Butler, “Remedial Writers: The Teacher’s Job as Corrector of Papers”
  • Patrick Hartwell, “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar”
  • Richard Haswell, “Minimal Marking”
  • Ilona Leki, Understanding ESL Writers: A Guide for Teachers
  • Mina Shaughnessy, Errors and Expectations

Please see our Readings page for full citations.