Common Core-inspired grammar fallacies, and why we need paper graders

I was just talking with an AI professor at a Halloween party, and he told me that he now requires his students to run all their papers through Grammarly before turning them in.

That reminded me of this old Out In Left Field post; it also made me wonder to what extent we can all learn from the feedback–imperfect though it is–provided by automated editors like Grammarly.

Common Core-inspired grammar fallacies, and why we need paper graders

An article in a February issue of Edweek, Will the Common Core Step Up Schools’ Focus on Grammar?, repeats the false choice I blogged about earlier between isolated grammar lessons and unstructured reading and writing assignments:

Determining the best approach for teaching grammar and semantics is now once again a critical conversation topic. Should teachers dedicate time to stand-alone grammar lessons and tasks—diagramming sentences, for instance, or memorizing the differences between adjectives and adverbs? Or can students learn the language system through broad writing and reading?

Later on in the piece, however, author Liana Heitin acknowledges that the Common Core, at least accordingly to some interpretations, has taken a middle ground, appearing to embrace what I’ve called “applied syntax”:

The standards do, however, focus more on grammar application than most previous state standards, some say—which could encourage more authentic grammar work.

On the other hand, the standards (and their professional interpreters) still fall for Fallacy II: failing to factor out those aspects of grammar that native English speakers already know:

the grammar skills in the content standards don’t differ too much from most previous state standards… For instance, they ask students to ‘use an apostrophe to form contractions’ and ‘form and use regular and irregular verbs’—benchmarks that shouldn’t much surprise teachers. 

“Whereas before it was OK for a kid to identify nouns, now, it’s that they actually have to be able to use them and use them correctly,” said [one teacher].

Native English speakers do need to learn written conventions like when to use an apostrophe; they don’t need to learn how to conjugate English verbs and how to use English nouns. The latter skills belong in Common Core Standards for ESL, not Common Core Standards for ELA.

However willing teachers are to teach native speakers how to conjugate verbs and use nouns, Liana Heitin and the teacher she quotes have reservations about embedding grammar instruction in the feedback-on-multiple-writing-drafts approach I suggested earlier:

The realities of classroom management can make teaching grammar through writing tough as well. “Ideally, you wouldn’t have to teach [basic grammar skills] in isolation—you’d be having students writing a paper and then correcting it,” said Meghan Everette, a 3rd grade teacher…. “But it doesn’t really work out that way.”  

“Young students need a lot of direction in learning new skills, she said. And managing that kind of individualized task with 20 or 30 students is just too time consuming.”

Yes, as I noted earlier, marking up a stack of student papers is one of the most tedious teaching tasks out there. And yet, teachers used to do that regularly. If that’s too much to ask of today’s teachers, then let’s try something similar to the classroom teacher vs. classroom management labor-division I suggested in my last post. In addition to classroom teachers, let’s hire paper graders—akin to those we find in large college classes. Again, we can safely offset the cost of the added personnel by increasing average class size.

Not all of the student self-correction process needs to be labor-intensive for teachers. Many errors needn’t be explicitly pointed out in order for students to fix them. Sometimes it’s just a matter of requiring students to actually re-read, and proofread, their papers—something that fewer and fewer seem to be in the habit of doing.

Teachers can also motivate careful revisions with minimal time expenditure by harnessing the tremendous editorial power of the Word Limit. As anyone who has faced one of these can tell you, cutting out words without sacrificing content generally involves drastically improving your prose. So why not ask students to reduce their word count, say, by 50%, without eliminating any content, from penultimate to final draft?

2 thoughts on “Common Core-inspired grammar fallacies, and why we need paper graders

  1. There is a problem with your final paragraph: you are assuming that the students have something to communicate and so they would work hard to avoid “eliminating any content”. If they have nothing they want to say, they’ll have no trouble with cutting half the words without doing any work at all.

    Furthermore, once they realize that they’ll be called on to cut half their draft, they’ll simply puff up the drafts with crap that can be easily cut, making the drafts even more painful to look at than they are now.


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