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]( for 14-days. The 20 errors are listed in numerous places.

Writing mechanics build feeling of mastery

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.

graph of student errors

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