Thursday, May 2, 2013

Mina Shaughnessy on error

Anyone who has read, say, a comma-free student essay (comma-free for fear that using commas might mean making mistakes), will see the wisdom in Mina P. Shaughnessy’s observations about error. From Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing (1977):

The discovery by a student that he can do something he thought he couldn’t releases the energy to do it. Students who make many errors feel helpless about correcting them. Error has them in its power, forcing them to hide or bluff or feign indifference but never to attack. The teacher must encourage an aggressive attitude toward error and then provide a strategy for its defeat, one that allows the student to count his victories as he goes and thereby grow in confidence. . . .

The alternative course of ignoring error for fear of inhibiting the writer even more or of assuming that errors will wear off as the student writes more is finally giving error more power than it is due. The “mystery” of error is what most intimidates students — the worry that errors just “happen” without a person’s knowing how or when — and while we have already noted that some errors can be expected to persist even after instruction, most of them finally come under the control of the writer once he has learned to look at them analytically during the proofreading stage of composition. Freedom from error is finally a matter of understanding error, not of getting special dispensations to err simply because writing formal English is thought to be beyond the capabilities or interests of certain students.
Shaughnessy is sometimes criticized as reducing students to their errors, or patterns of error. I can’t agree with that criticism: understanding patterns of error is what makes it possible to move beyond them.

[A new habit for the end of a semester: pulling out a handful of books I haven’t looked at in years.]

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