Teaching About Usage, Grammar, and Style

You have a stack of papers to read, comment on, and grade. It’s understandable that you want to read clearly written sentences and follow a logical organization of ideas. Yet, sometimes the meaning of a sentence you are reading isn't clear, words are misspelled, or punctuation is misplaced. We have some advice on how to approach teaching grammar, punctuation, and usage that will help your students improve these aspects of their writing.

It helps first to consider what research in writing studies, and our experiences in teaching writing, tell us about teaching style and usage.

Often, our concerns are about usage, rather than grammar.

Most writers consistently compose grammatical sentences in that their sentences follow the standard Subject-Verb-Object form. The problem is that writers may compose sentences or use phrases/words that are not appropriate or precise in a particular academic context. It is helpful to remember that their language choices may be appropriate for other writing or speech contexts. We learn usage conventions from the language in our community. Consequently, the more students read the kind of writing you want them to produce, the more they will learn the usage and style conventions of academic writing. In order to make their reading productive, it’s important to address not only the content of what they read, but also to take some time to help them understand the style of what they’ve read—to point to word choice, turns of phrase, ways of organizing, and citation practices that they should aspire to. Even two or three minutes taken each class session to point to a stylistic convention you want students to adopt can be effective. Research in writing studies supports the idea that students learn to use language effectively and accurately through reading a wide range of materials, discussing those readings, and practicing their writing and receiving feedback on that writing.

The most effective way to teach students about grammar, punctuation, and usage is within the context of their writing.

Grammar/punctuation/usage instruction that is separate from a student’s writing has shown to be largely ineffective. For example, grammar drills/worksheets have been shown primarily to improve students’ ability to do drills and complete worksheets. Focusing your grammar/punctuation/usage instruction on your students’ writing will allow you to point out patterns of error or confusing use of language that you see in each individual’s writing. This does not necessarily require marking every error; in fact pointing out a general pattern to students is more effective. Identifying such patterns won’t immediately correct all of a writer’s problems, however. Error is a part of writing. As students – and all writers - write about new, more complicated ideas, learn new genres of writing, or attempt to construct more complex sentences, they tend to make errors.  Sometimes this is due simply to the complexity of what they are trying write. In other instances, they may be applying familiar “rules” and strategies to a new situation where those rules or strategies don’t work as well. As students become more adept at new genre conventions, errors often decrease.

One-to-one teaching is the most effective way to help a student improve his or her writing.

We find that helping students improve their writing requires a dialogue between the teacher and the student because simply marking errors on the page won’t help students learn how to use written language more appropriately or effectively. For example, when faced with a confusing sentence or passage, it’s often helpful to ask writers what they meant to say or to explain to those writers how your interpreted the passage or sentence. The writer knows things about the text that no one else does. While this may not always be possible in large classes, in smaller classes it can make significant improvements in student writing

Strategies for teaching students about usage and style

When possible, allow students to complete assignments over a longer period of time and in more manageable chunks.

Students often need time to understand the genre they are writing in and understand the material they are writing about; they also need time for editing. Requiring students to write multiple drafts and to work with an assignment in manageable pieces with specific assigned tasks for each piece will give them time they need to produce better writing. Sequencing assignments in this way also helps with issues of learning discipline-specific genres as well as avoiding plagiarism. Also, such an approach offers you time to comment on drafts and have conversations with students to make sure they are on the right track with their writing.

Be selective in the number and type of markings you make on a draft.

Research shows that a paper covered in red corrections can overwhelm writers. We recommend prioritizing your comments by focusing on usage errors that are most common in the piece and most affect on the clarity of the piece. One proven strategy is to make one or two instances of an error, explaining what the error is and how the error can be fixed, then tell the student you are leaving some instances of errors unmarked and giving the writer the responsibility of learning how to edit the piece. Students do not learn about usage and style by simply making corrections that have been marked for them. Such learning happens when students have to work through such issues in the context of their own writing. We have links to handouts and other materials below if you would like to have explanations and examples of common errors.

Consider error as moment for learning, rather than simply correction.

For writers to improve their abilities to write well in different genres and compose sentences that have complex meanings and graceful style, they have to try out new ways of writing, which in turn will lead to them making errors. Writers afraid of error will avoid taking risks in their writing and will stick to familiar, safe approaches to writing. These same writers will also sometimes face difficulties finishing projects simply because they over-edit. To help writers avoid some of these issues, you can ask them to write drafts and receive feedback on those drafts either from you, a group of peers in class, and/or a University Writing Center consultant.  Giving writers the opportunity to write drafts lowers the stakes for them and allows them to experiment with what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Provide writers with editing strategies.

As a faculty member, you have clearly had success as a writer and have advice from your writing life to share with students. Share your writing tips with your students. You may have a way of explaining a familiar concept that will make more sense to that student than any other time that they’ve heard about that concept. In particular, offer them advice for how you approach editing and managing writing time.

We have several strategies that we use or suggest using.

  • Read writing aloud – either alone or to a peer - to recognize problems of clarity and repetition.
  • Edit for one type of error at a time. When writers read a draft and look for every single, possible error, they have a tendency to miss errors that they would otherwise commonly notice.
  • Read a piece of writing from the end to the beginning in order to focus on spelling, clarity, and word choice.
  • Seek out feedback from other knowledgeable, attentive writers.  That is where the University Writing Center can help.

Useful Resources on the University Writing Center website include:

“Common Writing Situations” identify and offer advice about common questions and situations writers.

We have many handouts and some videos on style, usage, and other writing issues.

Other useful resources include

“Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar” Laura Micciche

Constance Weaver's 12 Principles for Teaching Grammar – Richard Nordquist

Approaches to Teaching Grammar and Mechanics – University of Minnesota

Grammar Resources for Students – Purdue University