Error Samples and Basic Writing

Shaughnessy argues that teachers are the answer to students’ writing issues. As an Adult Education Instructor, I could not agree more. Learners in this program are tested per every 40 hours of instruction, so there is a statistical component to ensuring that instructors are teaching and that their methods are effective. Now, some learners enter into the program with very high functioning levels in RLA and writing with little grammatical errors while other native English speakers find it difficult to compose basic sentences.

In-class hand written assignments and prompts allow the students the opportunity to write freely, make errors, and gain direct feedback on that piece of writing. There can be a conversation in response to their writing, a highlighting of errors, comment on structure and logic, but not a harping down on the fact that subjects and verbs must agree, spelling matters, or syntax is powerful.

After each assignment, the students writing improves. Paragraphs become longer, their thoughts are expressed in more vivid language, and they try to utilize concepts we’ve gone over in response to their last papers in an effort to prove to themselves and me, I suppose, that they are learning and actively growing from one week to the next. But as Shaughnessy points out, “good” writing does not equate to “correct” writing all of the time (8).

Shaughnessy also points out that basic writing students prefer the vernacular to standard American English because they associate more pleasurable experiences with speaking to peers (10). I find that some of my students tend to write how they speak when they replace standard words for dialectical preference. For instance, sometimes they might replace “did” for “done” in the sentence “…what I done to get where I was…” or starting off a sentence with “Like how you…” as if they were speaking aloud to explain something to a friend. There has to be a teaching of the balance between learning and knowing the rules, and when you can break them based on your showcase of skill throughout the entire writing piece and maybe then a quoted vernacular idiom isn’t SO bad later in the assignment if it is absolutely necessary to get the point across.

My fellow classmate, Jane Bear, made mention of how the error examples Shaughnessy shared became a little irritating to read after awhile. I can understand that feeling, although I haven’t had the exact feeling, I am reminded of the overwhelming feelings that arise for a brief moment after I read 15- 20 papers and only 2 to 4 of them are almost error free. I re-read each paper and make sure I’m responding in a way that allows them to see the error, I offer guidance on what to focus on during their individual study hour, and what is already working in their writing as encouragement. Alas, the rewards come around after the next assignment and they work harder, and feel proud to have “fixed” some nagging mistake. It’s a learning process for all of us.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. Oxford, 1977. Print.


2 thoughts on “Error Samples and Basic Writing

  1. I like that you had a different reaction to the examples. It seems like the nature of your job made you react that way. How do you see BW relating to what you do? How do you feel about the testing every 40 hours? I’m so curious since I’ve never done that kind of job in education.


    1. I recognize that my students are somewhat of a sample of the demographic Shaughnessy writes about and taught herself. Although the classes are made up of a much more diverse group of students than what she collects data on, (i.e. an equal amount of black and white students), they still require instruction on grammar at a basic and complex level. I like the idea of testing every 40 hours because it shows growth measured in actual numbers. However, it can be a little frustrating for the students although I’m talking about a short survey test every few weeks on a specific topic or two. The test is only to measure the change in educational functioning level to sort of let us know to ‘move on’ to more complex subjects in mathematics, ELA, or chemistry/biology, etc…


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