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6 Reasons Not to Correct Errors in Student Writing

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Many teachers will correct errors in student writing. Some teachers do so much correcting, or copyediting, that their students’ papers are riddled with marks to the point that the student writing gets lost visually behind all the corrections. Surely this is the hallmark of a dedicated, hardworking, knowledgeable teacher with high standards, right?

The answer is, almost certainly, no.

Here are 6 reasons why teachers should NOT correct errors in student writing, even final drafts.

1 The student will grow dependent.

If students can come to depend on their teachers to simply “fix” their writing, then students will come to think of writing as something that they do in order for the teacher to tell them what they did wrong. That’s not what writing is about. Writing is about saying something worth having other people read. Yes, avoiding mistakes is part of being a good writer, but it’s a minor part. In fact, all professional writers are given a lot of help from professional copy editors. So why focus so heavily on their errors? Frankly, it’s unfair and it has a serious, negative impact on students’ identities as writers.

2 The student will not learn which errors are typos and which errors are signs of something that they have not yet learned.

Some errors are typographical errors. These are simple mistakes that are missed during a proofreading session. I make typos all the time, especially on social media, and it’s not all that big a deal. People still like and retweet my posts, and I have never received negative feedback as a result. That’s largely because I am a white, male English professor, but that’s my point. My mistakes are forgiven (or not even noticed), while young students’ writing is pounced on like hyenas on a ham steak.

There are other errors, which are actual errors, as Mina Shaughnessy pointed out in her famous book, Errors and Expectations. These are errors that the writer doesn’t realize are errors. For example, a student may not know the difference between your and you’re, or when to use the word affect as a noun and when to use it as a verb. So they need to be taught this lesson in the context of their writing. But if a teacher just corrects EVERYTHING, then students will not notice that some errors are important for them to learn from.

Shaunessy suggests that teachers conduct an “error analysis,” looking at students’ writing to find “patterns of error.” If the student makes the same mistake 3 times in a paper, it’s likely that mistake isn’t a typo, but is a genuine lack of understanding. Shaunessy suggests that THOSE are the errors a teacher should mark. THOSE are the errors that students’ attention should be called to.

3 The student will come to believe that not being wrong is more important than saying something worth saying.

All upper-level writing teachers have seen the kind of student writing that is “correct” in all conventional ways, but that is boring, repetitive, formulaic, and is–ultimately–not worth reading because it doesn’t actually say anything. I remember being a student who produced exactly this kind of prose for years, except when I was writing something that wasn’t just for school. Although such boring, formulaic writing is correct, it is otherwise terrible. And, those who write this way have no idea how to use written language in a manner that will further their own interests and make the change in their lives and their surroundings that they want to make. This is not an accident. Culture seeks to sustain itself. Students never learning how to make change leads to a more static, unchanging status quo.

If you are correcting every error on your students’ papers, you are a tool of the status quo. If that’s what you want to be, then fine. Good for you. But if you do not want to be a tool of the status quo. If you really do want to help your students learn how to make change, then stop correcting their every error. Otherwise, you’re just fooling yourself–and damaging them.

4 The student may come to believe that they and everyone who speaks like them is stupid and not worth listening to.

If students see that everyone of their papers is returned with a sea of circled, underlined, commented upon, copyedited corrections, they will learn that their words and ideas have no value. Even if the teacher makes nice comments about the content, the sea of corrections will flood the student’s identity with doubt. Think about what the overall message is on such a paper: “Some of what you say is good, but the most important thing is that you made 50 errors.” You think that motivates students to give more of themselves to their writing? You think this makes them like to write? You already know the answer to those questions.

5 It is a waste of time because it does almost nothing of value for the student and yet takes a great deal of time from the teacher.

I’ve seen countless teachers spend hours and hours and hours copyediting students’ papers. It does NO GOOD. Countless studies have pointed out that this method does NOT result in students writing fewer errors in later work. And, it assuredly results in two negative effects: 1) Students will write short pieces (because then they will make fewer mistakes); 2) Students will write shorter sentences and use fewer and shorter words (again, because then they will make fewer mistakes). If you want your students to write worse in the future–to be uncreative and risk-averse–then by all means, keep correcting every error. But if you want them to improve as writers, then stop it.

6. The teacher is probably teaching incorrect facts about writing style and usage.

Writing well is hard. Standards of correctness evolve and they are different depending upon where the writing exists. There are multiple general standards for writing, such as the APA, the MLA, The Chicago Manual of Style, the Gregg Style Manual, and more. If you have not announced the style handbook you are using in your class, then you are not setting an appropriate context for your students’ writing. You’re really just making it up as you go along.

Further, copyediting is a very difficult job. Trust me: I was an editor for a national journal for 5 years, and I needed LOTS and LOTS of help from our copyeditors, who had massive amounts of training, education, and experience to do what they do so well. (Theresa Kay is my favorite freelancer!) When I see teachers’ comments on student writing, they often include misinformation about correctness. That’s right: teachers often teach WRONG FACTS about style, usage, and grammar more generally. Again, they are making it up as they go along. Unless you are an expert in copyediting, you should stop trying to do it. Now.

What’s a Better Approach to Error and Teaching Writing?

The Edukention Blog includes lots and lots of posts that answer this question. Here are some posts to read from here. This one on authentic writing. This one on bad “school writing.” This one on trying to grade writing objectively. And, this one on helping students understand the inherent power dynamics involved in writing anything. Also check out the blog called Writers Who Care.

Also, consider adopting a style manual for your students. It doesn’t matter which one. The point is that you are teaching students that “correctness” doesn’t come out of the teacher’s head, but rather it comes as an agreement among professionals in the world outside school. It’s also an agreement that changes over time. Usage rules are neither universal nor unchanging.

For your own education, consider purchasing Bryan A Garner’s Modern American English Usage (now in its 3rd edition). Garner, using software and a huge staff of assistants, scours the Internet and other print sources to learn how language is used in real-world publications. And then, he uses that real-world (aka, empirical) data to make informed decisions about language usage. He’s also a gifted writer with a great sense of humor. The famed author David Foster Wallace was one of his admirers. You don’t have to agree with Garner’s conclusions (after all, they are ultimately his opinion, as are all uses of language), but I rarely disagree with him. His book is really big, but it’s surprisingly affordable. Get it! And tell your students about it, and let them consult it when they have questions. They–and you–will learn a lot from it. Fun fact: It also makes fascinating bathroom reading, as it’s set up like a dictionary with mostly short snippets about thousands of words and concepts. 

Also, remember that Shaunessy’s “error analysis” is also worth doing. That means you flag errors ONLY when they are part of a pattern. Have students keep a list of their own patterns (after you have helped them identify them). If you see those particular errors fade from that student’s writing, then you have proof of the success of your efforts. Congratulations! Honestly, error analysis doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s genuinely valuable for improving students as writers.

Teachers, please stop knocking yourselves out by correcting every error you perceive in your students’ writing. It doesn’t help, it causes harm, and it wastes your time when you have too many important things to do! 

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