“Have you READ their writing?” Resisting the Obsession with Mechanical Correctness

Listening to teachers complain about student writing is exhausting. They can’t write; they don’t know where to use commas; they don’t capitalize every i; their spelling is atrocious. When this sort of narrative pops up in mainstream discourse, it’s often to complain about education’s failure to prepare kids for the workforce and to provide a platform for ‘back in my day, teachers made us diagram sentences/memorize parts of speech/etc.’ bloviating.

When these sentiments appear inside a school, they take on a slightly different tenor. Behind every complaint about a kid’s writing seems to be an underlying message about the failure of that child’s previous language arts teacher(s). It’s as if the teacher is throwing their hands up and proclaiming ‘Look at the mess I inherited! What am I supposed to do? How can I teach my content when these kids don’t even understand the basics!’

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, this nagging is counterproductive and can build resentment among teachers. Schools have more than enough finger-pointing as it is; engaging in ego-driven grandstanding serves no one.

To the teachers who regularly engage in this sort of carping, please stop. If you don’t like what your students are producing, then address it in the classroom. Regardless of content or grade, helping children learn to read, write, speak, and think is everyone’s responsibility. These complaints also elevate surface features (spelling, grammar, basic syntax) above all else.

The notion that mechanical perfection is the goal of writing instruction is deleterious to good teaching. It reinforces a deficit view of student writing by focusing on what a child did wrong. It trains us to approach student writing as something to be endured, some sort of gauntlet all language arts teachers must go through. It also encourages teachers and students to see writing as a series of levels to be mastered. Writing doesn’t care about scope and sequence documents or district-wide vertical alignment. It grows in fits and starts, evolving through recursive spirals of progress and regress.

Historically, evidence shows that teachers have been complaining about student writing since the first American universities. In The Rise and Fall of English, Robert Scholes examines primary documents such as university syllabi and commencement speeches to conclude that

English teachers have not found any method to ensure that graduates of their courses would use what were considered to be correct grammar and spelling. A number of conclusions can be drawn from this situation. One is that the good old days when students wrote “correctly” never existed. A second conclusion might well be that two hundred years of failure are sufficient to demonstrate that what Bronson called beggarly matters (spelling, grammar, capitalization, punctuation) are both impossible to teach and not really necessary for success in life. (p. 6)

This isn’t all to say that mechanical correctness doesn’t matter. The above notion that grammar and spelling are not “necessary for success in life” should be followed by “for certain people.” I’m reminded of an anecdote from Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. Emdin recounts a conversation with a white teacher about the role of appearance. The teacher doesn’t understand why her students of color seem so focused on fashion and style. What do these things matter? After all, she says, she comes to school every morning in casual dress. Emdin replies that the ability to be treated professionally regardless of dress is a luxury many people of color can’t necessarily afford.

So of course grammar and spelling matter. Certain errors like nonstandard verb forms and incorrect subject/verb agreement can carry serious connotations of race and class. The legacy of mechanical correctness is steeped in racism, xenophobia, and class anxiety (for more on this, check out Mechanical Correctness and Ritual in the Late Nineteenth-Century Composition Classroom by Richard Boyd and The Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Grammar Teaching by William Woods). As teachers, we have the responsibility to help students understand the intersections of power and literacy. But this doesn’t mean chastising students for every mistake they make in their writing. Nor does it mean requiring every student draft to be mechanically perfect.

My go-to authority for how to treat errors in student writing is Constance Weaver. She urges us to see errors as a necessary component of growth. The following chart, taken from her Teaching Grammar in Context, sums up what a more compassionate and purposeful approach towards errors might look like.

Along with the solid tips outlined above, remember that students should focus on superficial edits using their own writing, on a topic they care about, during the final stages of the writing process.

If nothing else, stop complaining about student writing. It’s counter-productive to our mission and makes an already exhausting job that much more draining. If you’re not enjoying yourself, neither are they.

Originally published at mrandersonwrites.wordpress.com on April 13, 2017.

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