By Paul T. Corrigan, Ph.D.
Originally appearing digitally on The Writing Campus.
Errors in writing may irk and confuse readers, imply ignorance or negligence on behalf of the author, and have unintended consequences in the real world. For these reasons, many teachers feel compelled to try to “cure” students’ writing of errors, often by prescribing heavy doses of red ink. I am grateful for the thankless efforts these teachers make to help students become clearer, more accurate writers. But I bear bad news. There is no cure for errors in student writing. We need to be absolutely clear on this. Short of not writing, students will continue to err, no matter what we do.
But—let me hasten to add—this bad news is also the good news. When we abandon the notion that there is or should be a way to stop students from misspelling words and misplacing commas, we can move past the frustration we may feel and the frustration-based teaching strategies we may resort to upon encountering the thousandth error in a stack of student writing. When we accept with Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsfordthat “mistakes are a fact of life” and “a necessary accompaniment to learning,” we can adopt a balanced, developmental approach to promoting accuracy and precision in student writing.
For just such an approach, I propose the following principles and practices for thinking about and working with errors in student writing for teachers of writing, both in composition and in the disciplines. These recommendations stem from my experience teaching writing, from conversations I’ve had with others who use or teach writing in their courses, and from a good bit of reading on writing pedagogy. (For those wanting to read further on handling error, I particularly suggest Nancy Sommers’s fine book Responding to Student Writers, John Bean’s excellent chapter on “Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness,” and Joseph M. Williams’s classic essay, “The Phenomenology of Error.”)
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