The number of serious mechanical errors most students make routinely is small. Even students who seem to make all sorts of errors can profit from learning to focus on eliminating a handful of them.
Serious mechanical problems often result from misunderstanding some concept that underlies several rules. If they can master one grammar concept, students can often solve several mechanical errors.
If students can be induced to master a small number of serious errors and to edit their own writing to eliminate those errors, students’ work will appear more polished.
Even when eliminating habitual errors produces only modest improvement to students’ written output, the psychological benefit to students of mastering a few of their routine errors can be immense.
Instead of requiring students to master “correct punctuation” or “comma rules,” require students to master between three and five individual rules in a school year.
(For high school and college students, I use Connors and Lunsford‘s classic list of student errors for my master list; younger students may need rules such as “begin each sentence with a capital letter.”)
There’s nothing fuzzy about a rule. Someone who understands a rule can determine whether it was or was not correctly applied.
For example, if you understand the rule that an introductory element before a sentence is set off from the sentence by a comma, you can look at a sentence and tell:
- Is there an introductory element ahead of the sentence?
- Is the introductory element set off from the sentence by a comma?
Because correct use of individual rules is countable, students don’t have to wonder if they are doing better. If the number of times they failed to set of an introductory element with a comma declines from five errors per 400 words to two errors per 400 words, students know they are making progress.
I usually require students to graph their errors. Students who struggle with the mechanical aspects of writing find great satisfaction in seeing the graph of errors tip toward zero.
The post based on material in The Writing Teacher’s ABCs, © 2015 Linda G. Aragoni