The Devil’s in the Details: Giving Feedback on Issues of Grammar and Correctness

The Devil’s in the Details: Giving Feedback on Issues of Grammar and Correctness

In this “I Wish I Knew” digest, PWR instructors tackle how to give feedback to students struggling with sentence-level errors. Giving written feedback is a challenging exercise in and of itself, but one PWR instructor wants to know more about how to make in-line comments about sentence-level feedback less overwhelming:

Q: I wish I knew how other PWR instructors handled in-line comments on drafts from students who struggle to write coherent sentences. Their grammar is all over the place, word choice issues are obscuring what they want to say, and it's hard for you (and the student) to see the forest for the trees. What does your marginalia look like in these situations?

First, Donna Hunter answers this question with some broad advice:

When there are big grammar issues, I'll mark a few instances and maybe even rework a sentence and then ask the student to watch for similar errors throughout, but I won't mark each one. In the end comments I'll typically copy a problematic sentence, explain the issue, mark the errors and offer a possible correction. We will typically address it in our conference, too.

Some other instructors offered some examples of how they actually write their marginalia to students struggling with sentence-level errors. Erica Cirillo-McCarthy suggests toggling between non-directive and directive comments, modeling how both function:

Example of non-directive feedback: “This word is acting as the noun in the sentence, but is that what you intended? It seems that X could/should be the noun too....when working with complex ideas, research has shown that writers often lose clarity. We get so caught up in the ideas that we don't pay attention to the sentence structure. But we have the opportunity, through revision, to go back to our text and ensure that these really complex ideas are as clear as possible. Therefore, if you were to revise this sentence into a simple sentence with a clear subject and a clear verb, what would you do?”

Example of directive feedback: “If you placed this concept/word/idea in the noun position as such: (my revision of sentence) see how that more clearly conveys this claim? In revision we have the opportunity to ensure our complex claims are as accessible as possible to our readers. See if you can apply this revision strategy to other sentences.”

Alyssa O’Brien combines Erica’s directive and non-directive approaches in her example of marginalia that she provides:

I often type a bubble comment with a question ("Do you mean xyz?") in order to raise the issue of confusion/coherence.  I'll put in some alternatives then invite (ask) the student to come meet with me. For example, this would be my marginalia: 

When you write, "Their grammar is all over the place," Do you mean that a student's writing has grammar errors?  Or that the student struggles with grammar?  The phrase "all over the place" is an idiom that confuses me since I can't tell your exact meaning.  But I like the idea!  Let's meet to go over your writing in these sentences so that you can strengthen and sharpen your prose in order to be more persuasive to your readers. [Some version of that]

There is a lot of literature in rhetoric and composition on approaches to giving sentence-level feedback! If you’d like to learn more about approaches to offering sentence-level feedback to student-writers, check out the following articles: