In the 1980s, when I was first teaching “composition” to advanced, academically-oriented ESL students, I was surprised by the number of elementary errors in their work. Even students whose English was generally good made many mistakes with articles, with third-person s-morphemes, with the passive voice — and with basic sentence punctuation. I tried, in correcting writing assignments and in classroom discussions, to teach my students how to avoid such errors, but nothing seemed to help.
As a result of this experience, I came to suspect that there was something wrong with the way I had been thinking about the relation between grammar and composition. My view of the matter had been, roughly, this: A grammatical topic is taught in grammar classes; students are given exercises of one sort or another to consolidate their understanding; these exercises are corrected, questions are answered, etc. Then that topic is left behind, perhaps to be reviewed at a later date, and a new one is taken up.
After a topic has been dealt with, according to my original view of things, students were expected to put their new knowledge into practice in both their speaking and their writing. They were not expected to avoid all mistakes of course, but the idea was that with practice and correction the errors — the elementary ones at least — would eventually be eliminated. That was not, however, how things turned out; what really happened was that the errors continued to occur at more or less the same rate until the end of the course and the students went on to another level — or out into the real world. As a result of this frustrating experience I came to feel a different approach was needed if progress was to be made with solving the problem of grammatically inaccurate writing.
I could see no point in endlessly repeated classroom discussions about the passive voice or the correct use of periods. Nor was anything likely to be accomplished by writing the same long comment over and over again on writing assignments. The problem was not that students didn’t understand, but that they weren’t implementing their understanding. What they required, it seemed was a lot more practice — practice of a sort that would teach them to look at their own work with an informed and critical eye. And that thought led me to the idea of exploiting (continues)