Teaching good English to global citizens

Most people say good English means using

  • Correct grammar.
  • Correct punctuation.
  • Correct usage.
  • Correct spelling (of words in written work).
However, most people would be hard-pressed to identify precisely which rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage must be followed in writing and speaking or which words must be spelled correctly for the writing to be in “good English.”
Many times correctness is more a matter of appropriateness than of compliance with a grammar rules.  If the audience readily understands the message and is not offended by the language in which it is presented, that message is correct enough.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, it is hard to know what is appropriate language. 
Many times an audience is global rather than local. 
Many times writers/speakers do not know in advance who will be in their audience.
Many audiences do not know how to access—or do not have access to—references to help them interpret non-standard language such as abbreviations, idioms, and jargon.
In a global economy, our students will have to work with many people who will not understand the breezy, informal, idiomatic, and often sloppy language use that characterizes American culture.
We must hold ourselves and our students to a higher standard of correctness, much closer to textbook rules, than we might have demanded in their speech and writing 10 years ago.
Fortunately, we do not have to teach (or know) all the rules for comma placement. We need to know and teach those rules that, if violated, are most likely to impede communication of a message.
We have to teach fewer rules of “good English” but teach them far more thoroughly to equip students to live in a global society.
Research into the writing people do reveals a high concentration of a very few errors.
Most of those repeated errors are violations of rules taught in elementary school, such as confusing its and it’s or failing to mark the boundaries of a sentence with a capital letter and closing punctuation.

Recommended rule sets

With my students, I use the five standard English rules taught in elementary school and the 20 rules on Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list as the 25 rules of good English.
We must teach those few rules thoroughly, until they are as much a part of our students’ mental processes as their elbows are parts of their bodies.

©2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni. This material appeared at EzineArticles.com,  Aug. 29, 2008— June 15, 2012.

Comma splices: Grammar’s Siamese twins

Earlier this week, I published at my PenPrompts blog a writing prompt template to use to get students to define some class concept concretely.

We English teachers are particularly poor at identifying concepts whose meanings:

  • Are obsolete outside English class
  • We ourselves don’t really understand

I once overheard a retired English teacher telling someone about failing the exam her college required of all prospective teachers.

The teacher, whom I will call Susan, said the exam included an essay question. Susan said the graders failed her for having comma splices. They made her retake the exam.

The person to whom Susan was telling her story asked, “What’s a comma splice?”

Susan said, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s using lots of commas or something.”

After more than two decades teaching English, Susan had never learned:

  • The function of a comma is to separate grammatical elements.
  • To splice means to join elements by overlapping them.

A comma splice joins two sentences with a device for separating grammatical elements.

That is unnatural.

It’s weird.

Comma splices are grammatical freaks.

Comma splices are the Siamese twins of grammar. 

conjoint twins are metaphor for comma splices

Old photo of Siamese Twins

You can prevent your students from falling into creating grammatical freaks.

First, when you use a 12th century grammatical term, explain it for students or use a 21st century term instead of the textbook term—even if you have to invent a term.

Then have students explain the term by writing an original sentence and explaining which word(s) in their sentences performs the grammatical function you are trying to teach them.

When you use informal writing to provide informal assessment of students’ knowledge, they will soon teach you which terms mean something different to them than they do to English teachers.

Students’ misunderstandings should also teach you what to say instead of using the misunderstood term.

Thanks to students’ misunderstandings, I taught myself to say “grammatical subject of the sentence” and to distinguish it from “the conversational subject of the sentence.”

To sum up:

  • Use terms students understand.
  • Use informal writing to find out what students misunderstand.
  • Don’t let students go though life creating grammatical freaks.

Teach self-editing via informal writing

The typical English class grammar exercise contains a single error for students to correct. The typical written assignment by an English class student, however, often contains multiple errors.
Rather than having students do single-error exercises, it’s more realistic—and far more effective—to have them

  • edit real-life examples of writing, and
  • describe the impression that poorly written work leaves on them.
I like to use short, informal writing sessions—usually less than five minutes—to provide those experiences.
There’s never a dearth of examples of writing that shouldn’t have appeared in public without editing, and they are free.
Here’s an example of how I use informal writing in lieu of single-error exercises.

The informal writing session

These two sentences appeared in the high school principal’s column of a school district newsletter:

(Display and read aloud.)

To help all of us and to benefit our state aide as it relates to student attendance, please make every effort to first get your child to school, and second follow the school procedures when they need to be absent. Proper procedures include notifying the Attendance Office of any absence with a phone call, but as important, is following up with a signed note explaining the absence.

In no more than three sentences, identify what you believe are the three most serious problems with that passage. Be as specific as possible.  You have one minute to write. (Time students as they write.)
Now that you’ve identified the problems, your task is to fix them.

(Display and read aloud.)

Do whatever you think will best accomplish these four tasks:

  • Target the information to the intended audience.
  • Make the text easier to understand.
  • Eliminate any spelling errors.
  • Eliminate any grammar errors.

You will have three minutes to do your revision.

Formative evaluation

Sometimes I use the informal writing to get students’ attention before teaching some topic that’s suggested by the errors in the writing. In such cases, I might have students write informally a couple more times during the class period, responding to information I present.
Alternatively, I might take five minutes to have the class discuss their observations orally before going on to a different topic for the day.
Either way, I always collect informal writing and use it for formative evaluation.
© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Pronoun reference: Analyze these sentences

I was reading a history of World War I and came across two sentences that I had to read three times: Twice to figure out the pronoun reference and a third time to figure out whether the pronoun reference is correct.

The two sentences could be turned into a good informal writing prompt about pronoun references.  Give students 30-60 seconds to respond to this prompt:

“Meanwhile, General Sir Ian Hamilton had been given the command of the MEF by Kitchener on 12 March. The next day, he crossed the English Channel to France and took a train to Marseilles, where he boarded a destroyer which brought him to the island of Tenedos on 17 March.”

The grammatical rule for pronoun reference is that a pronoun refers to the last preceding noun. Does the pronoun he in the second sentence follow that rule?  Explain your reasoning in no more than three sentences.

Follow up with this 30-60 second writing prompt:

Rewrite the first sentence so that there’s no doubt to whom he in the second sentence refers.

Using grammatical terms, identify what’s different about your rewritten sentence and the original sentence.

The he in the original second sentence is Hamilton.  The first sentence is written in passive voice.  Apparently Jenny MacLeod or her editor made the pronoun he in the second sentence refer to what would have been the last preceding pronoun if the first sentence had been written in active voice. I don’t know whether that’s normal practice in Britain, or just an oddity.

 

If you put the sentence in normal, active voice order (subject, verb, object), the two sentences would read:

 

“Meanwhile, on March 12 Kitchener had given General Sir Ian Hamilton command of the MEF. The next day, he crossed the English Channel to France and took a train to Marseilles, where he boarded a destroyer which brought him to the island of Tenedos on 17 March.”

 

You could use this set of informal writing prompts to introduce or review information about active/passive voice or pronoun referents or as a quick exercise in editing for clarity.

The quoted sentences are from Gallipoli by Jenny MacLeod, which is part of the Great Battles series published by Oxford University Press.

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

What’s wrong with this sentence?

Instead of using publisher-created "grammar" exercises with my students, I collect items I find in print in ads, newsletters, signs, etc., and have students identify the errors in the items and suggest corrections. 

Such "found" exercises are much more realistic than the ones publishers create. Unlike the grammar exercises, the real-world examples often have more than one error, just as students’ own writing often does. 

Also, a found example doesn’t come with directions telling students what type of error to look for any more than students’ own writing does.

And since I give credit (or, if you prefer, assign blame) to the sources, students readily understand how written errors negatively affect public perception of the writers. 

The found items make great informal writing prompts because they are short, often funny, and always unpredictable.

The highlight box below gives an example of a 2-minute informal writing prompt using found materials.

Here’s a sentence I plucked from the package of a ream of paper:

The perfect everyday multipurpose paper guaranteed for any printer, copier, and fax machines.

Repair that sentence. Then explain, preferably using appropriate ELA terminology, what the errors were that you corrected.

Good English for a global audience

Most people say good English means using:

  • Correct grammar.
  • Correct punctuation.
  • Correct usage.
  • Correct spelling (of words in written work).

However, most people would be hard-pressed to identify precisely which rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage must be followed in writing and speaking or which words must be spelled correctly for the writing to be "good English."

Many times correctness is more a matter of appropriateness than of compliance with a grammar rules: If the audience readily understands the message and are not offended by the language in which it is presented, that message is correct enough.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, it is hard to know what is appropriate.

Many times an audience is global rather than local.

Many times writers/speakers do not know who their audience is.

Many audiences do not know how to access—or do not have access to—references to help them interpret non-standard language such as abbreviations, idioms, and jargon.

In a global economy, our students will have to work with many people who will not understand the breezy, informal, idiomatic, and often sloppy language use that characterizes American culture.

Living in a global society, we must hold ourselves and our students to a higher standard of correctness, much closer to textbook rules, than we might have demanded in their speech and writing 10 years ago.

Fortunately, we do not have to teach (or know) all the rules for comma placement. We do need to know and teach those rules that, if violated, are most likely to impede communication of a message.

Research into the writing people do reveals a high concentration of a very few errors. (See Connors and Lunsford, Lunsford and Lunsford, for example.) Most writers’ repeated errors are violations of rules taught in elementary school, such as confusing its and it’s or failing to mark the boundaries of a sentence with a capital letter and closing punctuation.

We must teach those few rules thoroughly, until they are as much a part of our students’ mental processes as their elbows are parts of their bodies.

Bottom line: To equip students to live in a global society, we can teach fewer rules of "good English" but must teach those few far more thoroughly than ever before.

© 2008 Linda G. Aragoni This information previously appeared at Ezine Articles.

Individual mastery plans: my best weird idea

As many people have pointed out, I do a lot of really weird stuff when I teach writing.

Sometimes the stuff I do becomes mainstream after a few decades: I began flipping my classroom during my first college teaching job back in 1970; I began doing backward design six years later as I wrote instructional materials General Electric’s Field Engineering School.

My best weird idea

One of my best ideas is a method of attacking the written errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are harder to get rid of than Lady MacBeth’s spots.

You know the ones I mean. They are intransigent errors such as:

  • Using it’s when its is called for.
  • Failing to put a comma after an introductory element in a sentence.
  • Writing unintentional fragments.
  • Using commas to splice sentences together.

They are often errors that happen because the writer was concentrating on getting ideas down, not thinking about the appearance of the text.

Or they may happen because the writer’s brain makes his fingers write the most familiar spelling of a homonym set rather than the less common spelling.

Such things are mistakes.

Let’s stop treating them as if they were tragic flaws.

Teach students to deal with them as editing issuesmistakes they can correct before anybody else sees them.

Individual Mastery Plans defined

I call my method Individual Mastery Plans. They are a bit like special education IEPs.

The IMPs identify each individual student’s habitual and serious errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling (GPS) — including homonym errors—and lay out a plan so the individual student can focus on his or her most serious habitual errors.

The goal of an IMP is for students to produce  clean first drafts, rather than error-free final drafts, because a large proportion of writing today is done with only one draft. Clean first draft is a journalist’s term for writing that’s been edited to contain very few serious GPS errors.

My procedure is to identify for each student a list of their most frequent serious errors and then turn responsibility for editing their own work for those errors over to the students. For courses of less than 12 weeks, I usually have students work on eliminating three errors. For year-long courses, I raise the number to five.

How I set up IMPs

I use Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list of the 20 most common errors in student writing as a tool for establishing students’ baseline performance. Early in a course, as students submit written work, every time I see an occurrence of only those 20 conveniently numbered errors  I put its number in brackets after the error.

I don’t correct errors or identify them other than by the bracketed number.

I use word processing software to tell me the word count, and I use find and replace to put each bracketed number into blue type. That process tells me how many errors of a particular type were in the document.

I make sure each student has access to the Connors and Lunsford list in multiple places;  I also provide highly-specific resources  so students can turn in their text or go online directly to the exact paragraph(s) where the rule governing error [13] is discussed.

When I return written work anytime throughout the course, I require each student to graph the type and frequency of their errors. Some students really like graphing their progress.

After students have written enough to give us a picture of their most frequent errors at course entry, I negotiate an IMP with each student based on that student’s graph.

Examples of IMPs

Here’s a sample IMP for Josh who has a real problem with commas:

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Missing comma in a series
  • Missing comma(s) with nonessential (nonrestrictive) element
  • Unnecessary comma(s) with restrictive element

Here’s a sample IMP for Caitlin who has a problem with sentence boundaries and distinguishing its from it’s.

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Comma splice
  • Run-together sentences
  • It’s/its confusion

You’ll notice the IMPs specify a numerical error limit.  Depending on how long the course is, I set my error limit at no more than 1 or 2 IMP errors per 500 words written in class in an hour on a writing prompt the students did not know in advance.

IMPs and the grade cap

If students exceed the error limit set in their IMP, I impose a grade cap. Typically a student who exceeds the limit cannot get a grade higher than C, regardless of the quality of the writing. The grade cap policy eliminates a lot of sloppy papers.

Once the baseline is established, when I grade papers I flag only errors on a student’s IMP plan, and stop flagging when the error limit is reached.

Having fewer errors to flag when I grade papers saves me a lot of time over the course of a year. It makes no difference to Caitlin’s grade if she had 3 or 30 comma splices in 500 words, but seeing 30 comma splices flagged might well make Caitlin give up trying to master comma splices.

Value of IMPs

Setting up a system for establishing and using IMPs take a bit  of work, but it is a good investment.

IMPs make students responsible for applying their learning to their writing.

Students who historically have not been successful in a writing classroom find reassurance in having an aspect of writing that they can measure and control. Having the same number of errors to work on as the class genius has is good for a weaker students’ self-images, and mastering their IMP items is wonderful for their self-esteem.

An IMP is the only method I’ve found that works for such things as eliminating homonym errors and getting students not to use possessive apostrophes when the context requires only a plural. Those are errors that publisher-created exercises can’t touch.


Other blog posts about IMPs are here and here.

Competition adds bit of fun to eliminating errors

Although it’s only May, it is not too early to plan a major push to get rid of some persistent writing mechanics errors next school year.

Instead of the usual test-prep methods of working on grammar, punctuation, and spelling, try drilling down into the problems students actually have when they write.

Organize a contest to see which students can do the best job of eliminating habitual writing mechanics errors from their own writing. A contest can be done within a class but it’s far more interesting if the competition is between classes or between grades.

chart of top 20 errors in student writing with associated  resources
The most-common student errors and resources for mastering them.

Before the school year starts, pick a specific number of errors that all contestants will attempt to eliminate by a specific spring date. I recommend using between three and five errors as your standard across all classes and all grades. Such small numbers won’t scare students, but even small reduction in habitual serious errors have significant impact on students’ written work.

Also before school starts, identify a restricted list of specific errors to work on. I suggest the 20 errors identified by Connors and Lunsford in their “Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research” as a starting point. Depending on your students, you might need to add other items such as “A sentence begins with a capital letter” or “Texting abbreviation used instead of full spelling.” If you add items, be sure to keep the same syntax on all items.

Before announcing the contest, teachers must establish baseline performance in a 10 to 20 day period for each student in each of their classes class participating in the contest. Establishing a baseline requires multiple writing samples; a single sample won’t work. Having students write individual sentences won’t work either. Students must write at least full paragraphs so teachers can tell what errors students make when they compose.

After baseline performance has been established for each student, teachers can introduce the contest to students.

If the contest rules specify eliminating three serious, habitual errors in the year, then using the writing in which the teacher has flagged the errors from the master list that Josh made, teacher and student together identify that Josh’s three most frequent serious errors. Those three errors become the only errors that affect the writing mechanics aspect of Josh’s grade for the year.

Through the year, each time students write, teachers focus students’ attention on whether they have corrected any instances of the errors on their personal mastery plans before submitting their work. (Note, please, students don’t need to write error-free; they need only to edit their work to eliminate their habitual serious errors.)

This procedure lets diverse groups compete (sixth graders vs. sophomores, for example) without favoring one over the other. Each student is personally responsible for eliminating the same number of habitual serious errors regardless of which particular errors plague the student.

For 10-20 days after the contest end date, do to a post-test by counting the errors in all student work again.

The class that comes closest to reducing the number of errors in their written work to zero is the winner.


Connors, Robert J. and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research.” *College Composition and Communication* Vol. 39, No. 4 (1988), pp. 395-409. Web. JSTOR. 23 Dec. 2014. Access to the original study is restricted by paywalls but as of 23 Dec. 2014, by selecting *read online free* at JSTOR, teachers could get free [access to it](http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/357695) for 14-days. The 20 errors are listed in numerous places.