A former ESL Writing student of mine was quite surprised by her English Comp class. She told me that her instructor isn’t concerned about the grammar in his students’ essays. At the same time, a common complaint by academic instructors heard around the campus at that college was that their (American) students had many grammar mistakes in their academic papers. In fact, the grammar skills of the students coming out of the English Comp classes were so weak that the Business Department decided to offer business writing courses that would deal with these grammar issues.
I decided to pursue this further by interviewing several English Comp instructors. In response to my question, “Why don’t you work with grammar in your courses,” I heard this, “Focusing on grammar will stifle students’ ability to write.” In a college newspaper, an instructor explained, “An exaggerated focus on grammar stops the development of engaging and complex ideas.”
That sounds like a straw man argument. Yes, if an instructor assigns a paper and tells students that they would write one draft and that their grade would be based on the quality of grammar in their paper, then students might overly focus on that rather than their ideas. But what professional instructor would do that?
Most instructors would agree that, in the early drafts of a paper, students shouldn’t be concerned about their grammar. The purpose of a first draft is to formulate and organize ideas.
When a writer seems stifled, I imagine that it’s mostly because they are trying to explain a complex idea and are searching for the best way to express it. In this case, knowledge of grammar can actually be liberating rather than stifling. As a writer in the March 2005 issue of the English Journal said, helping students understand “grammar rules provides students with tools for building complex thoughts and expressing themselves more elaborately…. Complex sentence structures and complex thoughts are mutually dependent.”
After they have completed their first (and perhaps second draft) in which they have focused on their ideas, they can give careful attention to their grammar if they have the tools to do that. At that point in the writing process, there shouldn’t be a concern about grammar having a stifling effect.
I imagine that most of us professionals will, before submit a paper, document or even an email, read through it to double check our grammar, applying our knowledge of grammar rules. I doubt that this attention to grammar before completing the task has any negative impact on our ability to formulate our ideas.
For a discussion about encouraging good editing without interfering with idea development, see Saving Mental Energy: Give Two Grades on Essays