I’ve narrowed the list of style and grammar concepts I teach down to an amount I can cover in one semester. These are the skills I believe will make the biggest difference in their writing—the ones that, if mishandled, will immediately catch the eye of anyone who reads their writing, whether in school or at work.
Here are the skills I’ve chosen to teach:
- Recognizing awkward sentences
- Improving awkward sentences
- Delete unnecessary words
- Be specific and concrete
- Avoid pretentious language
- Expand a sentence: tell more
- Avoid clichés
- Use formal diction when appropriate
- The basics: parts of speech, parts of a sentence
- Simple sentences vs. fragments
- Complex sentences and their uses
- Consistent verb tense
- Subject-verb agreement
- Pronoun problems
- How to punctuate quotations
- Colon, semi-colon, dash
- How to punctuate however
- It’s vs. its, who’s vs. whose, their/there/they’re, you’re/your
- that vs. who, then vs. than, affect vs. effect, etc.
You may have noticed some omissions: active vs. passive voice, comma splice, dangling modifiers, faulty parallelism, etc. It’s not that these aren’t important; it’s that I’m already cramming more into the class than most students can absorb and retain. If your students are more advanced, you can eliminate some of the more basic concepts and substitute the ones I’ve omitted.
Or, if a student repeatedly makes a specific mistake that you won’t be covering, you can direct him/her to an explanation online.
Tinkering with the Syllabus
Every semester, I reconsider the skills my students need to work on. What’s the best use of our class time, based on recent student work?
The list of skills above represents my most recent plan; for the coming semester, I want to try something slightly different:
- Fewer in-class lessons on grammar and sentence structure. I’m not sure that my students desperately need to spend class time on these basics. (One exception: I’m keeping the lesson on Consistent Verb Tense, because that’s a problem for almost all of them.) I plan to have them read handouts on these topics for homework and do interactive exercises. We’ll see if the change detracts from the quality of their work; I predict that it won’t.
- More practice recognizing and revising awkward sentences. We’ll start with simple, obvious problems, and gradually work our way up to more subtle ones.
- A new lesson. I’d like to teach them to use Strong Verbs and Active Verbs as much as possible, and to avoid overusing the verb To Be.
If these changes result in significantly better results, I’ll revise the syllabus above to reflect the new plan.
Here’s the basic structure I use when designing a lesson:
- Introduce the skill in an engaging way:
- with mentor sentences, show what it looks like when the skill is used well
- show students what happens when you don’t use the skill correctly or well
- let them deduce the rules themselves, in small groups, based on mentor sentences
- use pop culture references in some of these mentor sentences, and add images that will make them laugh
- Teach a short lesson.
- Let them try the skill themselves, first by revising sentences that use the skill badly, then by writing sentences of their own…
- …all together, as a class.
- …in small groups
- Have them post their work online and look at the results together. Praise the successes. Point out a few that “just missed,” and how they could be improved.
- For homework, assign them to write a few sentences using the skill.
- Two or three times during the semester, circle back and ask them to work on sentences using the skill.
The underlying principle: students need to actively think about and use each new concept you teach. The more active they are, the better. They won’t learn to write well by listening to a lecture. (But you already knew that.) And circling back to skills you taught earlier in the semester will help solidify those skills, which might otherwise be lost. (But you already knew that, too.)
Be aware that you won’t see much progress at first. For most students, improvement won’t be evident until the end of the semester. And remember, the gains may be small for many of them. Be patient, and compare their final work with the first writing they submitted to you. The difference should encourage you.
I believe that interactive exercises can help students strengthen their grasp of basic grammar skills. By assigning a small amount of interactive homework, you can reinforce the lessons you taught in class. I’m not aware of any research on the effectiveness of this approach, but I hope that someone will study it and publicize the results. Meanwhile, you can be a pioneer! Interactive exercises already exist online, covering most of the skills on my list. Ideally, instructors would have access to reports on their students’ performance … and you can get that kind of report if you sign up with Quill.org, a nonprofit that offers grammar lessons and exercises at no cost to teachers. These lessons are aimed at K-12 students, but some community college instructors use Quill’s middle school curriculum to teach grammar concepts that their students never learned. Explore the site: you may find that it includes skills you’d like your students to master.