These students are victims of the mistaken belief that grammar lessons must come before writing, rather than grammar being something that is best learned through writing. I saw the high cost of this phenomenon first-hand at the urban community college where I taught writing for eight years, an institution where more than 90 percent of students failed to complete a two-year degree within three years. (The national average is only marginally better at roughly 80 percent.) A primary culprit: the required developmental writing classes that focused on traditional grammar instruction. Again and again, I witnessed aspiration gave way to discouragement. In this seven-college system, some 80 percent of the students test into such classes where they can spend up to a year before being asked to write more than a paragraph. Nationally, over half of university and college students in developmental classes drop out before going any further. Essentially, they leave before having begun college.
Happily, there are solutions. Just as we teach children how to ride bikes by putting them on a bicycle, we need to teach students how to write grammatically by letting them write. Once students get ideas they care about onto the page, they are ready for instruction—including grammar instruction—that will help communicate those ideas. We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones. Often, surprisingly little formal grammar instruction is needed. Researcher Marcia Hurlow has shown that many errors “disappear” from student writing when students focus on their ideas and stop “trying to ‘sound correct.’”
There are also less immediately apparent costs to having generations of learners who associate writing only with correctness. Invariably, when people learn that I teach writing, they offer their “grammar confessions.” Sheepishly, they tell me that they “never really learned grammar,” and sadly, it also often comes out that they avoid writing. I have interviewed an executive who locked herself in her office and called her son when she had to write reports, and I have had parents describe writing their child’s paper because the kid was paralyzed with writing anxiety. I have even had people tell me that they passed up job opportunities because they required writing.
Schools that have shifted from traditional “stand-alone” grammar to teaching grammar through writing offer concrete proof that such approaches work. They are moving more students more quickly into college-level courses than previously thought possible. One of these is a program at Arizona State in which students who test below college-level in their writing ability immediately begin writing college essays. More than 88 percent of these students pass freshman English—a pass rate that is higher than that for students who enter the university as college-level writers. At the Community College of Baltimore, a program in which developmental writing students get additional support while taking college-level writing classes has reduced the time these students spend in developmental courses while more than doubling the number who pass freshman composition. More than 60 colleges and universities are now experimenting with programs modeled on this approach.