Grammar and the Facilitative Approach
The facilitative approach to teaching writing may not at first seem conducive to the teaching of grammar. After all, when a tutor sees blatant and consistent errors in a text, what is she supposed to do? Ask questions about the error, or give good, solid directions as to how to fix the error? The answer is not as simple as you might think.
Simply "fixing" error in a writer's text doesn't do the writer any good. The tutor, after all, is applying her own knowledge rather than instructing the writer. To make the matter more troublesome, instruction in grammar, for some reason that has evaded English teachers, doesn't seem to "stick" with students. Remember how many times you were taught the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, and their accompanying punctuation rules? Can you tell me the rule now?
As tutors, you will be facing this problem with nearly every writer that you see. How can you explain a grammar rule so that the writer will understand it, remember it, and employ it correctly the next time he writes a paper?
We can offer no solution to this problem that will work 100% of the time. What we can offer is a way of looking at grammar that will help you to make it more relevant to the writing and thinking processes.
First of all, it is easier to see why grammar is important when you understand the idea that, in written expression, form and content are not two separate entities. When you alter the form of expression, you alter (sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically) its content. Similarly, an error in form might reveal that there is something wrong with the content. Consider, for example, a vague antecedent reference: the sentence contains two or three "its", but it isn't clear to what, exactly, these "its" refer. Perhaps this is an error of form only: the writer was careless, and didn't bother to fill in the blank for the reader. But perhaps the problem is deeper than this: perhaps the writer is not sure herself what "it" is. And perhaps this is the problem with the entire paper.
By understanding that problems with grammar may reveal problems with thinking and content, the tutor can approach grammar in a way that is more meaningful to the writer, and to that particular paper. In other words, you can discuss antecedent references with writers until their eyes glaze over and their stomachs rumble, and still have very little success. However, if you can tie a grammar error to a more general tendency in the student's writing or thinking habits, then he will be more apt to understand the error, and to avoid it next time he writes.
Remember: grammatical errors are often connected to errors in thinking. When you read an essay, keep one eye on error - not simply noting it, but looking for categories of error. Are there several antecedent problems? Fragment problems? And so on. And do these categories fit into some larger category of error? For example, if antecedent references are unclear, and most of the fragments don't have subjects, then you might guess that the writer is having trouble naming her topic. You're then on alert: do these errors suggest that the writer does not yet have a clear idea about what she is trying to say? Addressing error in terms of the more critical thinking problems may prove effective in teaching both grammar and the process of writing to students who have serious writing problems.