The Evolution of the Common Error

by Jeff Tolley


   Times don’t change much in the world of editing and grading student papers. Over two decades ago when I took the vow of poverty and invested my soul in the institutional world of doling out red ink from the business end of a roller ball, students were making the same basic grammar mistakes they make now. Back then (or am I supposed to say “Back in the day”?), access to word-processing programs and grammar checkers was limited, and the spell check program on the computer was about as deep as computer-based editing went. Teaching students how to write and the way they learn have become much different endeavors.

   The evolution of the Internet and the proliferation of personal technology have made the world a much smaller and more intimate place, and they have made research, writing, editing, and submission a mostly painless process. So user friendly have our devices become that students can and should be held responsible for checking their own work, because of the vast array of tools they have to make it happen. I’m a reluctant believer that learning key concepts and remembering information aren’t important societal expectations today; our phones are smart for us. Instead of being masters of content, we have become masters of process and protocol. Learning, formal and informal, has changed that much.

   To illustrate that point, understand that English teachers don’t directly teach grammar anymore. Technology corrects usage and mechanics for us after the fact, an unkind truth that galls many a traditional English teacher, including me. The teacher-student personal interaction that used to allow the multi-step collaborative process of identifying errors in mechanics and usage, revising with the teacher or a peer editor, and re-writing a paper has largely been replaced by interactive “smartware”.

   I was the instructor who started at page one of the grammar workbook and spent about half a ninety minute class period each week walking students through the different parts of speech and their appropriate usage. The latest edition of Strunk and White was the most important hardback in my arsenal. By the end of the first semester in ninth grade ELA, students had a functional knowledge of grammar and we were diagramming sentences.

   Times change, don’t they? Sure, but the teenage experimentation with language has become more sophisticated with each generation, and linguistic time is not standing still. Students go through phases in their use of language, and it’s important that they do because that simple act shows that the teenage generation continues to drive our evolution of language and the development of new words. Perhaps the most relevant issue in the classroom is that students indeed drive our language, but they have somewhere missed out on the mastery of traditional grammar. This is important, because while they are contributing positively to diction, they are failing to be caretakers of the rules which standardize comprehension.

   One of the most important teenage linguistic contributions (for better or worse) happened when texting became the rage and composing academic papers in text speak (r u kdng me?) became an overnight thing. This is significant because it showed solid evidence that students, being more than robots, had the willingness to take chances with writing, however misguided they were.

   It’s not so far removed from a teacher complaining benignly years ago (or even last week) about  lower case “i” being dotted with a little heart, and that held the same disdain as my number-one pet peeve does for me: The different incarnations of “because”, have been “cuz”, “b/c”, “acuz”, and even “focuzzle” in my classroom.

   There, their, they’re; to, too, two; wear, were, where. Random use of exclamation points. not capitalizing the first letter of a sentence or names of people or places. The wretched overuse of “very” (look up Twain’s “very” quote). We’re way beyond the impropriety of starting a sentence with a conjunction, which in my mind pales to students referring to historical figures by their first names. “George was the first president of our country.” “Mark wrote Huggleberrie Flynn during a time when he was fascinated with the Deep South.” It takes hard work to be that careless, but students are finding fewer excuses for less-than-impressive skills.

   We educators have given technology a sideways hug in our age of technological awe. It’s not enough of a display of compassion to be misconstrued as complete acceptance, but enough to demonstrate that tech is meaningful and has value. I remember a time in my youth when my parents involved themselves in my proofreading and editing and re-writing. That kind of responsibility has changed, and we who get our exercise walking laps around the classroom need to put the practice of the traits of writing squarely on the shoulders of the students. It’s their paper, therefore it is their responsibility to make sure the expectations are met. We, fellow teachers, still have to nurture good habits in our students, but our methodology has changed dramatically because those who develop technology have listened and caught up with what we needed them to do. Yes, we wished for it and we have it. The key is likely to develop a relationship between our existing curricula and the evolving means to deliver it.

  When the kids are done writing the assignment, squeeze in some time for self-editing so they can read it over before submitting it, but also embrace the practice of electronic editing. Make sure they’re good at it, because their future will demand it. A whole lot, an impressive majority I’ll say, of the writing done in this and most other societies is done electronically. An editor friend shared with me a couple years ago that he edits with a pen in his hand every year only a handful of pieces.

   My tenth graders hold pens and pencils a lot less because they have a cart full of Chromebooks with which they complete their assignments in the classroom, and I have to admit I’m pretty fond of digital grading instead of grading words on processed trees. After a period of re-calibration, I found that it’s faster, the briefcase is a lot less full, and I don’t have to contend with sloppy handwriting. But I digress.

   The point is that since we have access to the technology and professional development opportunities are plentiful, students should have every opportunity we can give them to master Google Classroom, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Kami, and so many of the other products that are made available to us. Students are like their teachers in many ways, and I enjoy learning from the more technologically savvy kids. The ones who are tech-challenged appreciate their peers who can teach them, and at the very least they have the experience of realizing that the teacher isn’t an expert on everything and doesn’t have to be. As students pick up a degree of proficiency, I can show for my evaluative purposes that they have demonstrated growth through correcting their own paper before it made it to my desktop (there’s a word that’s evolved over the last thirty or so years).

   For the more important work that demands a higher degree of perfection in syntax, one that will be viewed by the boss or professor or teacher (or the public eye, worst of all), turn to some of the better products out there. Grammarly, Quill, Hemingway, Pro Writing Aid and several others are viable tools for improving grammar and syntax, and most programs of this type offer basic services at no charge. I have yet to see one not offer a free trial.

   Be cautious, though. While the programs will point out the obvious errors, including pieces of writing that encroach on plagiarism, nothing beats good practices and personal diligence. Students should do more than just glance at their work after the proofreading software is done with it. They still need to read.

   I urge my young writers to read out loud so they can hear their own voices. Being so far outside of their comfort zones, they balk until picking up simple mistakes and rough syntax becomes easy for them. For those who are more confident, I ask them to read aloud to a classmate or a sibling or (this kills them) a parent.

   As writers become more technically proficient, whether in academic or creative writing, I urge them to read backwards. Not start at the end and read each word in succession to the beginning, but to read the last paragraph first then the second to last, etcetera, until they have read to the introduction of the piece. This exercise is particularly effective for parallel structure and continuity.

   Good habits are important, and as technology continues to evolve so will the practice of students picking up proper usage and syntax as a simple byproduct of collaboration. We are widely accepting tech in the classroom as a long-term addition that enhances our instruction.

   All the more reason to take technology up on its offer to proofread and scan and make suggestions for improvement. I’m waiting for instruction to come full circle, and for those of us in the classroom to teach the basic elements of grammar again, but the realist in me knows it’s going to be a long wait.



Jeff Tolley is an English Language Arts teacher in New Mexico, and he is the author of the novel Azalea Springs. His next novel, Healing the Dead, is in the works.

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