• An Effective Technique for Analyzing Students’ Grammar Skills in a Writing Context

Cover counting subordinators

Here is typical exchange that I’ve often heard between teachers who were evaluating a student’s writing together.

Dialog revised shot

It’s relatively easy to evaluate the content in students’ writing. We can usually agree about how well it is organized, how clear the ideas are presented and how deep the support is. The challenge comes when trying to gage the students’ level of grammar in a writing context. It involves more than just counting grammar mistakes. We need to consider a couple of aspects, and one of them is the seriousness of the errors. For example, look at these two sentences:

(Student A) One day, a young bride 1 name Jane packed her stuff and tried to leave her hotel.

(Student B) One day, a young bride packed her stuff, 1 she tried to leave her hotel.

They both have one error, but it would be a mistake to assume that they are at the same level. Student A’s mistake could easily be just an editing error. On the other hand, Student B’s is a run-on and could indicate that the student is still struggling with sentence boundaries.

When analyzing grammar mistakes, we also need to consider the complexity of the students’ sentence style.

(Student A) That day was the first day of Jane’s and her groom, Tom’s, honeymoon. After they had spended one night together, she started to have questions. (Two grammar mistakes)

(Student B) That was the first day of her honeymoon. She had some question about her new husband. (One grammar mistakes)

If we just count grammar mistakes, we would say that Student B’s grammar was better. And we might mistakenly place Student B at a higher level than A or permit B to pass a level but make Student A repeat it.

However, through a closer analysis of the types of mistakes and of the sophistication of the sentence styles, we could feel totally justified placing Student A at a higher level or promoting A and having B repeat. Student A uses subordination while Student B uses a simple Subject + Verb pattern.

To give us a user-friendly way to analyze students’ grammar on a writing task, I found these four categories very effective at determining students’ levels.

REV 4 categories

1 Subordinators are words like after, because, if, when, who, which. Students who use these are better able to show how ideas are connected and are able to write more deeply. (For more about the importance of subordination, see• Is the Hokey Pokey Really What It’s All About? No, Subordination Is. (Part 1)

2 Compound sentences include words like and, but, so, or. Higher-levels students use these.  Lower-level students will have more simple sentences.

 3 Common errors are often editing mistakes. The student probably knows the grammar rule but failed to apply it. They can be ones that don’t cause confusion. Preposition mistakes often will fall in this category. (See  • The Grammar Aspect with Most Mistakes by Language Learners: Prepositions ) (By the way, for this category, we don’t count spelling mistakes or a mistake that was repeatedly made.)

4 More serious errors are ones like run-ons, comma splices, fragments, and ones that caused confusion.

If we analyze just those sentences that Students A and B above wrote, this is how they look in the chart.

REV Student A B analysis chart

We can clearly see that Student A is the better writer (grammatically) even though he had more errors.

Needless to say, we don’t only consider students’ grammar and writing style when deciding whether they should pass a level or where they should be placed if they are new. Content plays an important role in these. (See • Saving Mental Energy: Give Two Grades on Essays )  But for this posting, we’ll only look at grammar/style assessment.

To see how accurate this approach is, I analyzed students who were properly placed in various levels. Here is a sample of what I found:

REV multi level analysis chart

You can see that there is no exact formula for deciding the proper level. However, this chart can give us a snap-shot of what the relative strengths and weaknesses are for individual students and provide a starting point for making an assessment of their writing skills. This can be especially helpful when a student’s writing level seems to be borderline between two levels.

You don’t have to literally count to use this approach.

By being aware of these four aspects as you read an essay, it’s possible to quite easily determine a student’s proper level for placement or promotion purposes.  Needless to say, as I mentioned above, you will, of course, also want to consider the students’ content and organization.

For postings about collaborating with colleagues when placing new students and when deciding promotions at the end of a term, see

• “Read-Aloud” Method for Collaborating with Colleagues to Assess ESL Students’ Writing Level

 • User-Friendly Writing Panel Process: Time and Energy Efficient And Effective 

 • This Process Contains Huge Benefits For Writing Teachers, Students and Programs.

David Kehe

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