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Helping Students Improve Sentence-level Skills

For many instructors without experience in incorporating writing or speaking into their classes, an assumption is that students’ sentence-level skills will need to be the focus of instruction. Such a focus can instill dread on the part of the less-experienced instructor, who thinks, “But I’m not a writing teacher!”

Fortunately, students’ grasp of sentence-level skills will often be more than adequate for the task at hand. And it does not require a degree in English or Rhetoric/Composition to help students improve. Instead, a focus on several principles can help:

Correcting/editing should come late in the composing process
Studies of inexperienced student writers have consistently shown that a block to success is too much concern with correctness before students have figured out what they want to write or say and how they want to structure that message. Correctness is certainly important, but it also should not be the over-whelming focus for students.

Mechanical errors might be an indication of handling complex ideas
Many sentence-level problems are not the result of a writer’s carelessness or lack of understanding about correctness; instead, all of us will often write confusing sentences when we’re trying to convey ideas that are particularly complex or only partially formed in our minds, or we’re writing in ways that we’re really not familiar with. Few writers get it right the first time, but many have the capability to correct their sentence-level problems with instruction and revision. Most important is to view errors not as manifestations of carelessness or sloth or stupidity but instead as stages in any communicator’s development.

Error analysis is essential
All writers and speakers have a particular logic behind an error or an explanation as to why they made that particular (incorrect) choice. For instructors, uncovering that “logic of error” is key as it is the only way to intervene and help students correct the root of the problem. Thus, simply editing or correcting students’ errors offers little instruction; instead, take the opportunity to ask students why they made the error or what assumptions or beliefs they were operating under (and we have seen students applying many incorrect “rules” about English grammar or usage many years after first learning them).

Look for patterns of error
At first glance, some students’ papers might seem simply riddled with errors and offer a discouraging view of student performance. However, most writers will make certain kinds of errors repeatedly; thus, helping students learn to correct three or four types of errors will result in a drastic improvement in their overall performance.

Offer effective editing strategies

Some students’ errors will simply be from a lack of strategic knowledge about editing. Effective editors use several techniques:

  • Edit in several passes with a different focus each time (e.g., use of commas, subject-verb agreement, sentence length)
  • Read out loud to “hear” errors.
  • Seek out feedback from others who have more distance from the text and can edit more easily.
  • Build sufficient time into the composing process to make sure editing happens.