The Elements of Writing Confidence: English curriculum should emphasize grammar, style

Gone are the days of sentence diagramming, organically structured essays and high school term papers. Students who know about the subjunctive mood, present continuous tense or nominative case likely learned them from studying foreign languages or grammar books. This trend in education to leave grammar pedagogy behind is reflected in Gunn’s English classes, which focus on literary discussion centered around student opinions and participation. While this use of class time makes students strong critical thinkers, Gunn’s English curriculum should work to better support writing skills in terms of grammar, style and practice so that students have more confidence in their writing.

Gunn English classes vary greatly in the ways and extents to which they cover grammar and usage. Only some classes feature it prominently in their curriculum, leading to a disparity in these key skills. Since the correct employment of grammar and mechanics and understanding of usage is foundational to good writing, students could benefit from broader and more consistent instruction on grammar and mechanics.

Incorrect grammar can profoundly change the meaning of a sentence. Take, for example, the often-used comparison of “let’s eat Grandma” and “let’s eat, Grandma.” One proposes eating Grandma while the other invites her to mealtime. Correct grammar and mechanics go beyond creating sensical sentences: Knowing how best to order words and when to use certain punctuation marks allows students to get their ideas across in the most effective way possible. Substituting a period for a semicolon, for example, allows students to relate two ideas more closely; using a colon conveys a sense of drama and anticipation. Even the absence of a hyphen can change the meaning of a phrase, turning the orange-juice seller (who sells orange juice) into an orange juice seller (who is orange and sells juice of an undetermined variety).

Without being able to order their thoughts clearly and choose the right words with style—both of which require a handle on grammar and mechanics—students communicate their thoughts less precisely and effectively.

These details empower a piece of writing. They give it nuance. They help readers interpret students’ writing the way it was intended. And despite the proliferation of grammar-checking tools available, these resources are not always reliable and may suggest edits not in line with students’ intentions. The use of these tools also represents a form of outsourcing in which students replace learning grammar with using external tools.

Correct grammar and mechanics becomes ever more crucial when the difference is a question of credibility. A cover letter with glaring grammatical errors, for instance, significantly undermines the perceived ability of the applicant. Students can be much more confident in their work outside of school—application materials, resumes, reports—when they are certain it adheres to basic English conventions, focusing their attention on polishing the content instead.

Another factor that could bolster students’ confidence in writing is more instruction on how best to structure arguments. Students should learn how to organize their thoughts so that they follow in the most logical order, and how to reason their way through an argument. Sometimes, this necessitates writing within a more natural organizational structure, as opposed to the five-paragraph essay (which is rarely, if ever, used in post-secondary education or in writing-heavy jobs). Shifting the emphasis from five-paragraph essays, which provide a useful but restrictive breakdown, could better prepare students to tackle college and real-life writing.

One reason for this limited grammatical and organizational instruction is that class time is often spent on discussions breaking down reading or student perspectives, helping students build their critical-analysis skills. While these skills matter, their utility is limited by what students can express on paper. Students analyze ideas and literary works to be able to share those thoughts with others. Without being able to order their thoughts clearly and choose the right words with style—both of which require a handle on grammar and mechanics—students communicate their thoughts less precisely and effectively. Their intended meaning may be lost to readers.

Along with more detailed writing instruction, English teachers can incorporate more opportunities to practice writing. Given the reduced number of times each class meets per week, where teachers could have assigned four to five assessments per semester on the older schedule, they now can only assign an average of two to three, along with smaller assignments. Limited by the three-classes-a-week schedule and by the new homework policies’ preventing teachers from assigning homework due on Monday, teachers often hesitate to assign writing practice, instead sticking to reading and discussion preparation.

Still, teachers can dedicate more class time to short writing exercises—separate from work time for assessments—or assign prompts graded on completion to bolster students’ writing practices. With more frequent, sustained practice, students are more likely to be confident in their writing and to develop style, going beyond simple, conventional English to a “distinction, excellence, originality and character in any form of artistic or literary expression,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Confidence and style are closely linked skills: With practice and experimentation in different ways of expressing the same thought, students grow to be more confident in their writing choices and develop a stronger voice. That voice is what makes writing compelling.

Confidence and style are closely linked skills: With practice and experimentation in different ways of expressing the same thought, students grow to be more confident in their writing choices and develop a stronger voice.

The current curriculum does support students’ English skills in important ways. Its flexibility, giving teachers extensive agency over content and teaching methods, allows students to learn varied skills, engage in wide-ranging activities and examine topics through diametric lenses. The focus on discussions, in large or small groups, puts students in control of their learning and in personal connection with the topic—they develop an original interpretation by synthesizing their lived experiences with their own and others’ insights from the source material. Most of all, teachers are passionate about what they teach and ready to dedicate time to help students individually, promoting a love of English literature and writing. Still, according to a survey from The Oracle with 104 responses, only 26.0% of students felt prepared or very prepared for college writing, while 39.4% of students felt the same levels of preparedness for college mathematics.

These numbers may point to an overemphasis on STEM classes, but more importantly, they should nudge the English curriculum toward small but meaningful changes: more complex analysis of grammar and conventional usage, more instruction on advancing a cogent argument in a less restrictive structure and more opportunities to write and develop style. These are the paths to elevate writing confidence.