Lay or lie? It’s a verb choice that many adults get wrong in their own speech and writing. And so do U.S. students nationwide, according to a recent report of the top grammar and writing errors. Mixing up lay and lie was the top usage error of 2017.
That conclusion is based on the responses of 3 million U.S. students in grades 5 through 12, to more than 1 billion practice questions aimed at improving their grammar and writing. The report was released by NoRedInk, a website that uses adaptive exercises to improve such skills.
Also among the top 10 usage errors: choosing when to use “farther vs. further,” “among vs. between,” and “fewer vs. less.” You can read the full list at the end of this blog.
One in two school districts uses the free version of the platform to enhance its writing curriculum, according to NoRedInk founder and CEO Jeff Scheur. The free version focuses more on sentence-level practice, while the more sophisticated paid version allows students to apply what they learned in the exercises to their own writing and then receive peer feedback.
Scheur created the platform when he was a high school teacher in Chicago to give his students practice with grammar rules that eluded them. (Liana Loewus explores the debate over how best to teach grammar in this Education Week article.) He steered clear of multiple-choice questions, instead allowing students to manipulate sentences by dragging and dropping words and punctuation or by actually typing in their own sentence rewrites whenever possible.
“One way that traditional exercises have failed is that the exercises themselves aren’t authentic,” Scheur said in an interview. “Multiple-choice exercises are easier because they allow students to compare solutions. It’s one thing to identify that a sentence is lacking in one particular area; it’s another to be able to revise it in a way that conveys the author’s point effectively.”
Scheur argues that allowing students to take an active role in editing sentences ultimately helps them to internalize the lessons, which results in better writing all around. If, for instance, students are to learn the difference between the active and passive voice, they will practice rearranging the sentence three ways to emphasize different parts of the sentence.
“The ability not only to select one answer that is correct versus incorrect, but actually manipulate each part of the sentence and change the tense of specific verbs, throw out words that are unnecessary, eliminate prepositional phrases, add words back in,” Scheur said, “that level of freedom in the exercises is what helps students to apply what they learn in the program to their own writing.”
Scheur also thought it important that the subject matter of the practice passages grab young people’s attention. To that end, practice passages can be tailored to students’ interests, whether their tastes run toward sports, Harry Potter, or Justin Bieber. The idea is that students might be inclined to pay a little more attention to the construction of a sentence if it contained a reference to, say, Ryan Gosling, as in the example below.
In the “writing and critical thinking” arena, students had the most trouble eliminating wordiness, according to the report. They also found it difficult to distinguish claims, evidence and reasoning in a piece of writing. You can see how NoRedInk teaches this skill in the screenshot below.
The state with the lowest error rate, 32.7 percent, is North Dakota, followed by Alabama (34.9 percent), New Jersey (35.7 percent), North Carolina and Nebraska (both 36 percent). NoRedInk listed these states’ “superpowers” as progressive tenses (N.D.), apostrophes (Ala.), correcting vague pronouns (N.J.), transition words (N.C.), and distinguishing among the words two, to, and too (Neb.).
Here are a few more findings:
- Only 30 percent of students can identify the subject of a sentence.
- North Dakota students are the best in the nation at using correctly the words “their,” “they’re,” and “there,” just edging out Delaware.
- Only 1 in 3 students can detect wordy or redundant language.
- Using commas to connect clauses with transition words like “however” and “therefore” is one of the most difficult comma rules for students to master. Only 36 percent can do this correctly.
- Will the Common Core Step Up Schools’ Focus on Grammar?
- How Do You Address Frequent Student Grammar Mistakes?
- ‘You Mean I’m Not Done Yet': Using Portfolios to Improve Editing Skills
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.