Do you “ding” students for errors?

by Andrea R. Olinger

If you ding, don’t, or are still debating your policy, check out Anne Curzan’s recent column for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog. A linguist at the University of Michigan, Curzan notes that a significant number of her students report having points deducted for grammatical errors, and she talks about why this policy, while well intentioned, is problematic.

First, there’s little agreement over what constitutes an error (e.g., hopefully instead of it is hoped that? use of third person plural pronouns when the referent is traditionally seen as singular, as in Everyone is entitled to their own opinion?).

Second, she argues, “much of what gets called ‘grammatical error’ is not error, linguistically speaking, and it’s not always about grammar per se.” Falling into this category are the use of other dialects of English, “stylistic infelicities” like lack of parallel structure, and evidence of language change (e.g., on accident is replacing by accident among younger speakers).

At the end, Curzan describes how she does address language and punctuation in students’ writing. She doesn’t ignore them; in fact, she declares that “[i]t is my job to notice them and alert students to their presence, as they hone their mastery of standard edited English.” But she doesn’t “ding.” Her strategies include circling or underlining, not crossing out; making notes in the margin about other language choices the student could make at that particular point; requiring students’ to revise or respond to written comments about the language; and grading for content instead of language.

Curzan’s arguments gel with what we discuss in our WAC workshop on Working with ESL Student Writers (see, for instance, our handout on Working with Error). As Curzan implies, these strategies can be used with all students, not just ESL writers.

What are your thoughts on Curzan’s position? Have you yourself been, er, dinged by an instructor when you were a student? Let us know in the comments.

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