Proofreading practice activity

ProofreadingI recently tried out a simple proofreading activity in my class that turned out to be fairly effective.

A legal writing assignment was due today. However, before collecting it, I asked students to trade with a partner and proofread their partner’s paper. Their instructions were to circle or make a small mark by any errors but not make the correction themselves. After they were done, I asked them to trade with another person. Once this was done, everyone got their own paper back and had time to review and make hand-edited corrections on the paper to be submitted to me.

The students seemed to really enjoy the process, and it led to some good questions and discussions. I think part of the reason the activity worked well was because, psychologically, it’s always easier to look for mistakes in someone else’s paper than in your own. Trading papers freed their minds to look for errors in a more aggressive way.

Additionally, by merely marking the error without fixing it, the students had a chance to engage in critical thinking about their language, to notice and try to figure out the corrections on their own. And if they weren’t able to figure it out, then they had a chance to engage in discussion of the grammar/spelling/word choice issue. Also, talking out loud about vocabulary, spelling, and other language issues is often more helpful for absorbing those points than a professor’s comments made in red ink mixed in with other red ink comments. Plus, comments coming from a fellow classmate, I think, felt less intimidating.

An incidental benefit I noticed from the second swap of papers is that the second reviewer had the chance to see the first reviewer’s marks. This served as a sort of test or puzzle where the second reviewer had to evaluate each mark and decide if it was appropriate or not. In some cases, they had to struggle to figure out for themselves why it was even marked.

Amidst the post-proofreading discussion were two questions that I thought were particularly interesting:

The first revolved around a conflict between two students as to whether the indefinite article “a” should be used in the sentence: “Yogurt is a solid.” It was actually the stronger student who suggested taking it out (“Yogurt is solid”), while the weaker student stuck to his guns. I confirmed that while both ways are grammatically correct, taking out “a” changes the meaning and feel of the sentence, from explaining that yogurt is an example of the category of solid to describing how yogurt looks or feels. That resulted in a nice a-ha moment for both students.

The second question bumped up against a wonderful gray line in the world of grammar.

“If any of these things is/are on the ground….”

Which is correct, “is” or “are”? Students on both sides of the issue made good points, and I was finally able to reveal to them that both are in fact correct (at least, if you’re into descriptive grammar rather than prescriptive grammar), thanks to the proximity principle. “Any” is the head noun, which would normally dictate that “is” is the correct verb form. However, often in sentences like this, native speakers will use “are” because of the proximity of the plural noun “things” to the verb. I then suggested that if we roamed the halls of St. John’s Law School and surveyed 100 law students, there would likely be a relatively even breakdown. Or, at least sufficient numbers of each option to be able to say that neither is incorrect. (Though I further theorized that the survey might lean towards “is” for writing and towards “are” for speaking.”)

Overall, I think this process may be more effective than, or at least supportive of, all of my red-ink corrective feedback in helping students to notice and improve the language in their writing, and I plan to continue to make use of it. It’s also a fun way to build a habit of proofreading. Plus, it gets students to focus on aspects of language that might typically be viewed as mundane but have a significant impact on the way one’s writing is viewed by others.

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