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How Important is Grammar?

As an English tutor, I often see my students worry a lot about grammar in their writing. Whenever I ask them what improvements they want most, it is typically grammar first. So it seems to be no exaggeration to say that students desire their writing to be completely free of any grammar errors.


But in terms of percentages, I always value grammar to be 20% of my students’ grade in any writing assignment. The reason for this value is because I am always more interested in two others things in students’ writing:

Organization and Clarity


It is a bit of cheating to make the first point both organization and clarity. But the two go hand in hand so often. When I’m teaching my classes, I often stress the importance of making one’s writing as clear and organized as possible. In fact, I tell my students that I much prefer simple writing over something is that is complicated and unfocused. Simple writing, using basic words and sentences, can often score higher with me, due to how I don’t need to any guesswork.


It’s such a small victory for the teacher to simply understand what a student is writing. But this is very much the first step for successful essays and writing assignments. Once I can completely understand what a student is writing, then I am more ready to evaluate other important things, such as writing styles and ideas

Ideas


I also evaluate the students’ ideas heavily when marking essays. For me, it is very important that an essay has something interesting to say. But interesting is not the same as profound or complicated in my view. What I am looking for in this regard is that students show familiarity with a source material, and use that familiarity to make a point. This point can be just about anything, and most of the time it is something I did not anticipate! I always appreciate students using their knowledge of a source material to make interesting points, because this process shows critical thinking and interest in adding more onto the general discussion. Often, students make uninteresting or redundant ideas because they are not familiar with their source materials or afraid to take risks. Which in short, I reward students who are willing to take risks with proposing unique ideas and spend more time with their assigned materials.

But Why Not Grammar?


To me, grammar is something that is never going to be quite perfect with anyone’s writing. In fact, during my years at university, my own essays often had grammar mistakes. But what I learned from my professors’ feedback was these small mistakes did not detract from my marks whatsoever. What they were more interested in was the two elements that I mentioned. My professors were just interested in knowing what I thought of my own reading materials. So I began teaching classes of my own, I wanted to follow in their example and lessen the importance of grammar for my students. This experience resulted in me weighing grammar at 20% of an essay’s total mark.


But I still require some degree of correct grammar in my assignments. After all, making way too many grammar mistakes does make understanding one’s writing more difficult. Which is to say, I am fine with grammar mistakes popping up here and there? But once every sentence becomes filled with spelling errors, incorrect verb tenses, and awkward phrasings, then I note these mistakes for the student’s reference.


So my advice for students who are improving their writing skills is to make sure they know where their priorities are. If students are confident with grammar, then they should definitively move on to strengthen their critical thinking and planning skills. But for the students who are unsure about grammar and worry about the potential mistakes they could make, then I tend to tell them to focus on the grammar that they are familiar with and work from there. There will always be more time to learn new grammar rules, but developing critical thinking and interest in literature is something much more prioritized in my classroom.


-- Carlos

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