UW Graduate School

February 25, 2016

Gratuitous to Grade Grammar?

I’m a TA for a graduate-level course, and many of the students are not native English speakers. I am grading assignments with significant grammatical errors: incorrect tenses, wrong plurals, missing articles, etc. I’m struggling with the tension between not unfairly penalizing students, since English isn’t their first language, but also holding them to a high standard for academic writing, given that they are getting a graduate degree. How have other TAs or instructors handled this? —Grammar Nerd

(This week’s answer is courtesy of Katie Malcolm, Instructional Consultant, Center for Teaching and Learning.)

Thank you for asking—this is a question we hear often in the Center for Teaching and Learning. Although we recommend that TAs check with their supervisors to see if their departments have specific policies about this, the TAs we have worked with over the years and our own teaching experiences have given us some helpful perspectives. When thinking about how to fairly assess my own international and multilingual students’ writing, I ask myself two questions: 1) What are my goals for the assignment? What do I need to prioritize? and 2) How can I communicate these goals to my students in ways that will help them succeed?

1. First, I think about what is important to prioritize for my students in each assignment, given my realistic learning outcomes for a 10-week course. What is the primary goal I want students to achieve through each writing assignment?

In my own assignments, my first priority is for students to develop and sustain a logical argument in conversation with relevant research. If students’ errors leave me unable to understand their argument, I can’t assess it meaningfully, and—whether English is their first, second, or fifth language—I will ask them to edit and revise the assignment in order to receive credit.

Because my primary goal is not for students to write as though English were their first language, if incorrect verb tenses or missing articles do not detract from my ability to understand a student’s point, I tend to overlook or “read through” them, or point out a couple of occurrences in the margins and then make a note of these patterns in my end comments. (Showing students the patterns of their errors helps them learn how to avoid these kinds of errors in the future). Just as students need time and practice to develop fluency in their pronunciation and speaking, they also need time to develop fluency in academic, discipline-specific English writing.

2. Once I have articulated my expectations for students’ writing, I clearly communicate these expectations to students in several ways:

  • At the same time that I introduce an assignment, I share the assignment grading criteria, usually in the form of a rubric. When writing style is an important aspect of the assignment (as it often is), I make sure that it is part of the grading criteria and weighted appropriately.

  • I assign multiple drafts so that students know that I do not want them to start a paper the night before it’s due (often a major culprit of unedited papers). I’ll ask students to bring an early draft to class for peer review, or to bring a draft to my office hours, and/or to visit the Odegaard Writing and Resource Center (OWRC) to get feedback on their writing early in the process.

  • I share writing resources with my students, including information about OWRC, which has drop-in hours for graduate student writers in the Allen Library. There are also a number of great online resources on proofreading that may be helpful to students, such as the Purdue OWL’s “Finding common errors” page and their pages dedicated to multilingual writers. UNC also has some helpful editing resources.

Again, thanks for asking this great question — if you would like to talk more about this or other aspects of your teaching, please don’t hesitate to contact us at thectl@uw.edu.

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