The “Systematicity” of Student Writing Errors

One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed over my years of teaching is the “systematicity” of developmental writers’ errors.

The idea that developmental writers who make errors are doing so in an attempt to “get it right” was first put forth in a ground-breaking study by Mina Shaughnessy called Errors and Expectations, which came out in 1977. In the book, Shaugnessy argued that composition teachers ought to view errors made by “basic writers” (as they were then called) in a more positive light, since these errors occur as the writers try to incorporate improperly internalized “rules” that they believe are standard. Now, since many developmental writers often haven’t had the exposure to print that more sophisticated writers have had, they frequently aren’t as facile with these conventions that our more experienced student writers take for granted.

To understand this idea, think of a child trying to get the verb system in English right. She regularizes all regular verbs—forming the past tense by adding ed to them. When, however, she tries this with the irregular verb “swum,” she gets “swimmed,” which seems perfectly logical to her—and it is, according to the system of regular verbs she is trying to master. As she reads and speaks and becomes more familiar with English, she’ll realize that there are exceptions (called irregular verbs) to the regular verb system.

Years ago when I was working in a writing center, I was reading a paper by a student who probably wasn’t a developmental writer. She was writing a philosophy paper for a professor and, as far as I could tell, she was on target in most of her arguments. In other words, content wasn’t the problem in her paper—in fact, not much was wrong with her paper. However, I discovered a few things she might want to address, including several past participles that had the ed left off of them. I mentioned this in passing, assuming it was basically a “typo” in longhand (yes, it was that long ago!).

After I pointed out a few things she could change, and gave her a chance to try to try her hand at them, she was still apprehensive: She’d heard this professor was a stickler for grammar, and she wondered whether the paper was in the “right tense.” Then it hit me why her past participles were missing their past tense markers: In her earnestness to avoid switching tense (most of the paper was written in the present tense), she was even dropping the past tense marker from non-finite verbs (or verbals, more accurately), out of concern. Here she was making errors with the best of intentions!

David Bartholomae, in “The Study of Error,” asks us as developmental writing teachers to put into error analysis the same hermeneutic ingenuity we put into deciphering literature:

The teacher who is unable to make sense out of a seemingly bizarre piece of student writing is often the same teacher who can give an elaborate explanation of the “meaning” of a story by Donald Barthelme or a poem by E.E. Cummings. If we learn to treat the language of basic writing as language and assume, as we often do when writers violate our expectations in more conventional ways, that the unconventional features in their writing are evidence of intention and that they are, therefore, meaningful, then we can chart systematic choices, individual strategies, and characteristic processes of thought.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that many errors are made with the best of intentions, as students—not as familiar with the conventions of written prose as many of our more proficient writers are—try to apply what they think are “rules.” Perhaps we should try approaching student error in teaching developmental writing more as a Northrop Frye, than as a Mrs. Grundy.

Matt Birkenhauer teaches English at Northern Kentucky University. This article first appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of the Kentucky Association for Developmental Education newsletter.