Grading “Grammar”

When I was talking to my brother, who teaches a writing intensive course at American University’s law school, about my recent post about checklists for student papers, he mentioned a rule that they have: if your paper has a certain number of grammar mistakes, it is returned to you and you must edit and resubmit it within 24 hours.  A “grammar mistake” is defined for them as a problem that an 8th grader would be able to identify.

This seemed like a potential solution to a problem I had on my mind.  When I was reading John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning into the Classroom, he describes five different kinds of grammar:

  1. internalized ideas about word order and inflection of words shared by native speakers (i.e. word order, syntax, and morphology).
  2. Scientific attempts to understand Grammar 1 (i.e. morphology charts), but this may not help gain greater understanding of Grammar 1.
  3. Etiquette grammar, such as avoiding “ain’t” and “brung” that may be social or dialectical markers.
  4. Definitions of parts of speech, kinds of clauses, and phrases.  Bean says this is often associated with 8th grade and may be used to justify grammar 3.
  5. Stylistic grammar that focuses on writing and rhetorical strategies like wordiness, weak words or lack, of emphasis.  For English, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is the most popular rulebook here.

Bean goes on to say that schools enforce “standard English” (i.e. elite, academic English) which often means Grammars 3-5.  This disadvantages people who were not raised as part of the middle-class or upper-class, who may not have had English as a first language, or who chose to resist these rules out of pride, defiance, or social identity.  Because they do not use Grammars 3-5, they may have limited financial success or be shut out of some social circles.  Bean goes on to talk about reasons for errors in student papers, including inattentive editing.  He says that we underestimate students’ knowledge of Grammars 3-5.  Students are able to correct mistakes when they read their papers aloud or produce another draft of the paper, and the number of errors increases with the cognitive difficulty of the assignment.  If we accept that students understand “proper English grammar,” he suggests several more fruitful ways to grade or respond to students’ errors:

  • Emphasize how errors limit the rhetorical effectiveness of their papers.
  • Encourage students to “revise” their papers more than to “edit” them.  You can do this by commenting on the ideas in drafts rather than on the typos or subject-verb-agreement.
  • Encourage students to find and fix their own errors, such as through the rule at American University’s law school.

While these ideas are great for dealing with the problem of emphasizing Grammars 3-5 for students’ papers, what about for translating Latin?  We require our students to translate Latin into “standard, proper, idiomatic English” (usually, Grammars 3-5); but what about the student who doesn’t have English as a second language? or the student whose social or cultural English dialect is different from the academic English dialect?  What are ways that we can help them, or at least not penalize them as much?

  • On the first day, ask if English is everyone’s first language.  As part of a first day survey, we can ask “What are your second language(s), including English, if applicable?” We could also ask them to write complete sentences in response to our questions on this survey.  Based on their answers, we can determine how well our students know Grammars 3-5.  If one student does not use academic, standard English in their writing, should we adjust how we grade that particular student?  (N.B. I currently grade translations subjectively as it is, assigning letter grades based on overall quality).
  • Grade translations based on English Grammars 1-2.  Sometimes we can determine what misunderstanding students had with a sentence, sometimes we can’t.  If we can find the underlying misunderstanding, is the difference between the student’s translation and our translation a matter of Grammars 3-5? If so, does that deserve to earn fewer points?
  • Teach English Grammars 3-5 as we teach Latin. Many students enjoy Latin because they are improving their English too.  Indeed, to teach some Latin constructions, such as the passive voice or indirect statement, we need to teach the English counterpart first so that students understand the concept and how to translate it.  While we teach new concepts, we can emphasize and consistently review the “proper English” translation of things.  For example, one of my students did not use an academic dialect of English, and finally he asked me to review with the class the translation of every verb tense (when we were reviewing tenses anyways).  Not only was this a helpful exercise for everyone, but it helped teach him the “proper English” for translations that had been preventing him from earning more points.  Furthermore, some of our native English-speakers may not fully understand the difference between the continuous aspect of the imperfect tense and the completed aspect of the perfect tense.  They will also appreciate consistent, frequent reviewing that the imperfect is translated as “He was selling apples” and the perfect as “He sold apples.”
  • Talk to students, other foreign language teachers, and ELL teachers about how to better grade these students.  I wish I had talked to the student who I mentioned in the last bullet point, explained these different levels of Grammar to him, explained why they are hurting his grade, and talked about how we could improve the situation (both on his end and on my end).  I think this would have helped increase his satisfaction with the class, his grade, and his social need to learn “proper English” for success in other classes.  Similar conversations with other foreign language and ELL teachers may offer other insights on how to grade translations and such.

As this last point suggests, I most certainly don’t have all the best ways to respond to this class of social phenomena and I would love to hear your ideas about it too.  I do think it is good to be aware of the issue and its potential effects on our students’ grades and futures, especially if we want to encourage diversity.

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