Beyond Bad Grammar

Alberta's writing instructors reveal the beauty of language, one conversation at a time.

By Christina Grant

In high school, I avoided trickily spelled words such as “believe.” I also ran on instinct for essay structure and was so alarmed at the thought of dangling participles that I resolutely avoided looking into the matter. In college, I was a BA Honours English student and never took a grammar or dedicated composition course at the post-secondary level. They weren’t required (though Computing Science 101 was). At both levels of schooling, my instructors appeared to assume that my peers and I knew what we were doing. They were wrong.

“I don’t know what I don’t know,” wailed one of my classmates during a break in a fourth-year college English class. “It’s absolutely debilitating.” She went into a paroxysm every time she handed in a paper because of worries about grammar. I still share her concerns, but for different reasons. I’m now a writing instructor at MacEwan College. The “problem” remains. The challenge to help “fix” it is mine.

Words equate with “power” because of their ability to persuade, says Aritha van Herk, professor of English at the University of Calgary and an award-winning novelist. “The more articulate students are, the more likely they are to succeed at everything they do,” she says. Since she started teaching in 1977, she’s noticed “a slow, but very marked, erosion” in her first-year students’ grammar and eloquence, adding that many of them are now “functionally illiterate and inarticulate.” 

Her colleague Dr. Doug Brent, associate dean of the faculty of communication and culture and former director of the U of C-wide Writing Program, reports “a shift in attention span” in today’s students. “The academic tradition of deep contemplation of problems and patiently pursuing the answer is becoming a harder sell,” he says. 

Educators have also observed a decline in students’ world knowledge—best gained through active curiosity, paying attention to everything and, above all, reading widely. There’s evidently a lot more at stake than punctuation. “A lot of us have this gut feeling of a cultural ‘slipping-away’, ” says Dr. Jack Robinson, chair of the English department at MacEwan. He warns of public discourse collapsing under increasingly imprecise thought, and worse, of a lack of concern about it. “There is immense apathy; we need to do everything we can to fight it.”sions, symbols, and literary, classical and Biblical references. For him, it’s about quality of life. Exploring great literature and ideas through time, he says, is nothing less than “soul-building.” He adds: “What really wounds me are the great silences in the class when I make references to writers of the past, or to composers such as Beethoven or Mozart; when I mention Michelangelo’s statue of David and nobody knows what I’m talking about.” Ted Blodgett, preeminent poet and U of A professor emeritus, is unequivocal: “We’re losing minds, intelligence, vision, imagination, curiosity.”

Writing instructor Jen Abel works one on one with a student at the University of Calgary Effective Writing Centre.

Writing instructor Jen Abel works one on one with a student at the University of Calgary Effective Writing Centre. (James May)

Since publicly positioning himself as a grammar expert, Edmonton Journal columnist Alan Rutkowski says that some friends have stopped sending him “long, chatty e-mails.” Evidently, we care what we “sound like” in writing and in speech. We know that it’s human nature to judge and classify according to first impressions—and right after looks comes language.

In a sample of 15 English 101 students’ writing, I encounter an avalanche of spelling errors. These include: “seperated,” “begining,” “adverbe,” “vagely,” “un-necessary,” “positition” and “Shakespear.” Also, “societies” for society’s, “ones” for one’s, “thinks” for things and “non-important” for unimportant. One student writes: “It seems as though by indicating that he/she learns by going where he has to go, that he/she truly believes that if he discovers new things it will be already plotted out for him that he would discover it, but it is responsibility to take in the necessary information.” This seems to be an example of what Blodgett calls “muddle-headed” thinking. “[Students] write like they talk,” he maintains. “They don’t differentiate between writing and speaking.”

Indeed, when it comes to grammar, many students seem to be working in the dark. They say such things as, “I just did it by how it sounded,” “I’ve heard the term but didn’t know what it meant,” and “I didn’t know the rule itself but I had an idea of where the commas should go.” 

One instructor tells me it’s as if her students write with a “comma shaker” in hand, sprinkling their writing with “a little of this and a little of that.” Robinson describes the opposite phenomenon: student punctuation paralysis. He explicitly teaches proper usage of the apostrophe, yet rarely sees them in essays. “Students have no idea,” he says, “so they give up, unwilling to place them anywhere.”

But isn’t language always evolving? Of course, agrees van Herk, who calls English “amazingly chameleonic.” She and others say they’re not alarmed by a so-called “disintegration” of English, but rather by how the use of it is deteriorating. One instructor describes seeing apostrophes pop up in the oddest places—such as on verbs. She thinks that such widespread misuse foretells extinction, declaring: “The language is trying to get rid of [the apostrophe].” I linger on the image of the behemoth “language” twisting and shuddering in an attempt to shake off apostrophes clinging to its back like barnacles. 

Everyone thinks they know why English skills are declining: too much TV and not enough reading; a “me” generation concerned only with personally relevant ideas; a media age of increasingly smaller bytes encouraging equally truncated thinking; the rise of amputated and acronymed text-messaging and the fall of letters. One theme recurs: inadequate language instruction from kindergarten through Grade 12. 

However, nobody I spoke to, to a person, blames Alberta’s K–12 teachers. One instructor insists that teachers are merely acting upon institutional and political priorities. Science and math are seen as “the payoff courses,” and the study of language usage in writing has faded into the wings. 

Others say an obsession with self-esteem is part of the problem. We all want children to feel good about themselves, but Blodgett says too much linguistic coddling is spawning college students who “don’t think there are right and wrong answers” in matters of English structure. “They’ve been taught that they are right or less right.”

In a 1971 Edmonton Journal article entitled “Don’t Squelch Creativity: Forget Grammar,” Dr. Arthur C. Kratzmann, professor and dean of the faculty of education of the University of Saskatchewan, declared: “Evaluation of form must be secondary [to] content and communication.” Correcting students’ grammar and spelling, he warned, will “scar” their ideas. Legions of teachers undoubtedly followed his advice.

The consensus is that K–12 teachers are overloaded. They must deliver sessions on bullying, 30 minutes a day of physical education, programs for special-needs children and much more. It’s all important, but, as one primary teacher says, “something has to go.” Systematic grammar instruction and individualized writing coaching have become the stuff of dreams.

Dr. David Slomp believes the problem lies deeper than grammar, and thus the solution is not more grammar instruction (though that would help) but a whole “new conversation” about the acquisition of language skills at all levels. He’s a post-doctoral fellow in the departments of both English and film studies and secondary education at the U of A, and soon to be professor of language and literacy education at the University of Ottawa. Recently, he studied how the Alberta Grade 12 English diploma exam influences how teachers teach writing. “The exam reinforces skill sets and mindsets that limit rather than promote students’ growth and development as writers,” he says, adding that the Grade 3, 6 and 9 achievement tests share similar design flaws. “The Grade 3 test very explicitly states to students in its introductory prompts that they need to write their ‘best first copy’.” This “polished first draft” mentality, Slomp says, is antithetical to the way successful real-life writers write: through multiple drafts that reflect progressively more lucid thinking—along with gradually improved grammar and spelling. “There’s no point in fixing students’ grammar,” he insists, “if there is only surface-level thought in students’ ideas.”

The problem, he says, is rooted in an incomplete switch from a product-oriented pedagogy which stresses correct form, to a process-oriented approach that emphasizes the development of ideas. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Slomp explains, there was an upheaval in how to teach writing. Teaching grammar out of context (picturesquely called “drill and kill”) was criticized, but no replacement method was proposed. “We’re caught between paradigms,” Slomp concludes.

Slomp advocates a workshop approach to writing instruction. All educators, he says, must work to convince students “that first ideas are not best ideas,” and show them the value of multiple drafts. Small classes taught by instructors who understand composition pedagogy help achieve these ends.

Grant suggests academic (guerrilla) strategies, such as, instead of marking essays with a pencil, having students come to the instructor’s office to read their papers aloud. “A great deal then becomes obvious,” he says.

“I deal with it one on one,” says Brent. “When I’m teaching a writing seminar, I see each student in my office twice during the term. This does more good than the hours I spend writing comments in the margins of their papers.” He also encourages students’ self-discovery and minimizes lecture time in his classes. In an ideal world, Brent says he’d make it a requirement that all university students take seminar-style, inquiry-based, writing-rich courses throughout their degree program. “Everybody,” he says, “every year.”

But, some will argue, how realistic—or even desirable—is a society in which everyone is highly literate? “Functional literacy is the ability to read and write and get by,” says van Herk. “If Canadians are satisfied with that basic level of skill, then so be it—we’ll enjoy a relatively limited ability to express ourselves.” She concedes that while “specialized” literary skills aren’t needed by the masses, something more than basic skills are. “A level of articulation that makes for interesting conversation, an exchange of ideas and an ability to think beyond the immediate surface of an issue… We should expect [this] of every citizen.” 


She cautions that if changes in language “divide people rather than enable communication,” as they might if standard English usage continues to falter, we should be concerned about losing proficiency with “one of the tools that make us uniquely human.” Nonetheless, van Herk is optimistic. “Once they’re given the tools to improve their English,” she says, young people “can and do.” She offers her students “practical solutions,” urging them to “look at their vernacular and colloquialisms” and consider how these have “invaded” their language.  

Small classes and time-consuming individual coaching and re-marking of papers mean greater costs. Authorities—including political powers—must be convinced of the value. 

“Functional literacy is the ability to read and write and get by,” says van Herk. “If Canadians are satisfied with that basic level of skill, then so be itwe’ll enjoy a relatively limited ability to express ourselves.”

Grant calls for a revival of the once-hallowed university halls. “We should consider our responsibility to young people,” he urges. “Do we give them what they want, satisfy their latest whims, or do we set sail for Olympian heights, saying this is what is important for one’s education?”

The U of C, Grant MacEwan College and the U of A have acknowledged that, as the U of A Writing Task Force’s 2006 report argues, “writing is at the heart of great universities.” They’re taking action to improve student writing, either ramping up existing programs or creating new ones. 

According to Brent, the U of C is in the throes of strategic transformation, rethinking core competencies such as writing, critical thinking and problem solving. It launched its Effective Writing program in 1977, and in 1999 started a pilot “Information Literacy” project—an institution-wide, curriculum-based initiative that goes well beyond “hit and run” library tours. One of its goals was to reduce the number of students who leave the arts and sciences program (as many as 20 per cent) after their first year. A recently developed Writers Block Workshop series—the brainchild of Effective Writing program director Jo-Anne Andre—has become popular, and a free writing centre now helps some 3,000 students a year improve their organizational and writing skills through as many one-on-one 30-minute sessions as they need.

Over in the communication and culture faculty, Brent is proud of the first-year seminar courses which started in 2002. Offered under the banner of General Studies 201, these classes of 25 students feature both interactive inquiry and help in navigating the university environment. Concentrated writing instruction is part of the package. “It’s a good start,” Brent says. Statistics show improvements in GPAs and lower attrition rates among the 250 or so students who sign up each semester. “You can’t solve a problem only by throwing money into it,” Brent says. “But you sure can make it worse by starving it.” 

MacEwan is also embracing the challenge. This fall, a brand new, online, self-guided grammar tutorial will be available, and the college’s six-credit English 101 course—a standard offering taken by most students in all programs—has been split in two: one part writing, one part literary engagement and analysis. The newly minted three-credit first part, Robinson explains, “will focus on reading arguments carefully and constructing arguments with attention to structure, purpose, audience, style and usage.” And finally, MacEwan’s English department is hiring a PhD in writing studies to coordinate writing courses and implement new initiatives.

The U of A is one of the most active institutions in Canada in rethinking and redesigning undergraduate writing instruction. It struck a Writing Task Force three years ago to re-envision the institution’s approach. When the WTF disbanded this spring, the U of A appointed Dr. Betsy Sargent (one of the WTF’s co-chairs and a professor of composition and rhetoric) as the director of Writing Initiatives (WI), which carries on the work of the WTF. And to further power up the WI program, it hired three writing studies scholars. Dr. Beth Virtanen, PhD in rhetoric and technical communication, is now director of the Centre for Writers; Dr. Roger Graves, formerly director of the program in Writing, Rhetoric & Professional Communication at the University of Western Ontario, is founding director of the Writing across the Curriculum program; and Dr. Heather Graves, an expert on the rhetoric of science as well as professional and technical writing, is a new associate professor of composition and rhetoric. All are tenured senior positions, demonstrating the university’s commitment to the long-term viability of this initiative. 

The U of A has also launched a three-credit Faculty of Arts course based on a new approach to teaching introductory writing. Called Writing Studies 101: Exploring Writing, it asks students to familiarize themselves with recent research and theory in the field of writing studies and reflect on their own writing processes. As a result, Sargent says, “students develop a deeper understanding of the connection between writing and thinking and gain more control over their writing.”

During its lifespan, the Writing Task Force garnered considerable campus-wide faculty support for its goals. It brought in several internationally known writing studies experts to speak to and run workshops for hundreds of faculty members from numerous disciplines. “They were transformative,” Sargent says of the workshops, noting that many professors “incorporated what they learned into their own teaching.” She notes that maintaining wide faculty support will be critical to the continued success of the new campus-wide writing initiatives—though she acknowledges that support will never be universal. “It takes more time to read student writing than to administer a multiple choice test that can be marked by a Scantron machine,” she says. And this, she points out, “takes valuable time from one’s own research and scholarship.” 

However, Sargent is confident that once instructors experience working with only 25 students in active, feedback-heavy, process-oriented, writing-intensive courses, they’ll be hooked. “They’ll feel in much closer touch with their students,” she predicts. “They’ll see what’s confusing [students] and how their minds are working… It’s a lot of fun to be doing that.”

On the horizon are both Writing Intensive and Writing in the Discipline courses that will carry a maximum 25 students per instructor. A graduate program in Writing Studies is also proposed, but Sargent notes that this will be the hardest part of the plan to realize. “Approving courses is a slow, careful process at the U of A—as it should be,” she notes. “Things must be thought through from multiple perspectives.”

George Orwell, who always emphasized the complex relationship between writing and thinking, would surely approve of these instructors’—and programs’—aspirations. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” he wrote: “[English] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

In their own ways, the U of C, MacEwan and the U of A are all attempting, as the 2006 and 2008 U of A Task Force Reports advise, to “build a rich writing culture” like that which exists at top universities such as Toronto, British Columbia and Harvard. Under the title, “Why Writing Matters,” the 2006 report states: “Writing is a complex form of active learning and discovery—of figuring out what we know and think, of uncovering ambiguity and alternative perspectives, of exploring difficult subject matter in any discipline and then sharing those explorations imaginatively and persuasively with others.”

Teaching students to write well, then, is really about enhancing the way we, as a culture, think about and understand the world and then share our insights. Beyond his desire to teach grammar and process, Dr. Grant says he feels a tremendous sense of responsibility to beginning post-secondary students “to expose them to good writing and great literature. Part of our job is to blow their minds to possibilities and beauty they didn’t know about before.” 

Yes, I say, one small literary epiphany at a time. 

Christina Grant is a long-time journalist and playwright, and short-time instructor. She lives in Edmonton. 


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