Are Writing Deficiencies Creating a Lost Generation of Business Writers?

November 9, 2007

By Quible, Zane K Griffin, Frances

ABSTRACT. Business professionals and instructors often view writing skills as one of the most important qualifications that employees should possess. However, many business employees, including recent college graduates, have serious writing deficiencies, especially in their ability to use standard English. As a result, American businesses spend billions of dollars annually to remediate these writing deficiencies (College Board, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges, 2004). In this article, the authors examine possible reasons for these deficiencies and offer evidence that a modified context-based approach, the glossing approach, and consistent error marking can reduce the number of sentence-level errors students make. Keywords: context-based approach, grammar, punctuation, rules-based approach, writing deficiencies

Copyright (c) 2007 Heldref Publications

That many employers in the United States are dissatisfied with their employees’ writing skills is not a surprise to individuals who frequently peruse the professional literature in nearly any academic field or discipline (Gray, Emerson, & MacKay, 2005; Wise, 2005). Although the expressions of dismay are frequent and often strong, educators have done little to rectify the situation.

Costs of Employees’ Poor Writing Skills

Deficiencies in employees’ writing skills have tangible and intangible costs. In 2004, the National Commission on Writing (NCW) published the results of a study for which it had collected cost data from 64 of 120 large American corporations that were affiliated with the Business Roundtable and that employed nearly 8 million people. According to the report, American firms may spend as much as $3.1 billion annually to remediate their employees’ writing deficiencies (College Board, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges, 2004).

The intangible costs of employees’ deficient writing skills are (a) image degradation for both employees and employers; (b) negative impact on productivity when employees must reread, perhaps several times, poorly written material to decipher the intended meaning; and (c) the outcome when an incorrect decision is made because of poorly or ineffectively written material.

Employers in the public sector have reported similar writing deficiencies among their employees. A 2005 NCW publication summarized feedback from the human resources divisions for 49 of the 50 states:

Writing is considered an even more important job requirement for the states’ nearly 2.7 million employees than it is for the private- sector employees studied in the Commission’s previous survey of leading U.S. businesses. Still, despite the high value that state employers put on writing skills, a significant number of their employees do not meet states’ expectations. (College Board, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges, 2005, p. 3)

Employers have consistently ranked oral and written communication skills as among the most important, if not the most important, qualifications their employees should possess (Gray et al., 2005; Kelly & Gaedeke, 1990; McDaniel & White, 1993). Given the importance of communication skills to job success and the communication deficiencies of employees, the frustration expressed by American businesses is understandable. The following statement from the 2004 NCW report articulates the dissatisfaction of American employers: “The skills of new college graduates are deplorable-across the board: spelling, grammar, sentence structure. . . . I can’t believe people come out of college now not knowing what a sentence is” (College Board, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges, 2004, p. 14).

The Role of Grammar Instruction in Writing Classes

Educators have frequently debated how grammar is best taught. According to Doniger (2003), whether teaching grammar has a beneficial effect, no effect, or even a harmful effect on students’ writing has been a controversial topic for at least 4 decades. Historically, teachers have taught grammar using a rules-based approach, also known as traditional school grammar (Hillocks & Smith, 2003), two prominent characteristics of which are teaching parts of speech and sentence diagramming.

Beginning in the 1960s, an abundance of research data showed the ineffectiveness of the rules-based approach (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, & Schoer, 1963; Elley, Barham, Lamb, & Wyllie, 1975; Harris, 1962; Hillocks, 1986; Noguchi, 1991). According to Hillocks, school officials who require that traditional school grammar be taught are doing their students a “gross disservice” (p. 248). Over the years, Hillocks has repeated his thoughts and has cited the works of others whose thinking parallels his: “Research over a period of 100 years has consistently shown that the teaching of traditional school grammar (TSG) has had little or no effect on students, particularly on their writing” (Hillocks & Smith, 2003, p. 721).

Opposition to using the repetitive drills and grammar or punctuation exercises characteristic of the rules-based approach was so strong that in 1985, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) board of directors passed a position statement that is still posted on the NCTE Web page and states,

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises [is] not supported by theory and research [and] is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing . . . and that the NCTE urge [sic] the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction. (NCTE, 1985, p. 1)

The NCTE (2006) affirmed its position regarding the use of grammar drills in a news release stating that most English teachers do not see themselves as “grammar police” (p. 1) patrolling for sentence-level deficiencies in their students’ writing.

As the rules-based approach fell out of favor, the context-based approach, strongly advocated by Weaver (1996, 1998), became the preferred means of teaching grammar and punctuation. Rather than using the repetitive grammar or punctuation drills characteristic of TSG, the context-based approach focuses grammar instruction on what students are reading and writing (i.e., formal grammar instruction is centered on the text created by students). Although most of the grammar instruction is likely based on the errors found in the students’ writing, some grammar and punctuation instruction also may focus on error-free constructions. In this context-based approach, as Weaver (1996) pointed out, the grammar instruction that the students receive varies from school to school, class to class, and student to student, and teachers generally offer such instruction at the time of need. Thus, subject-verb agreement may not be discussed until one or more students make a subject-verb agreement error, and the sentences in which such errors were made will be the focus of the instruction. In using the context-based approach, teachers present grammar and punctuation rules, but the application of the approach is based on text created or read by students-not on isolated grammar exercises.

Weaver (1996) cited several studies that show the advantages of the contextbased approach, including studies by Calkins (1986), DiStefano and Killion (1984), Harris (1962), Kolln (1981), McQuade (1980), Noguchi (1991), and O’Hare (1973). In each study, the researchers found that students who learned language conventions in the context of their writing generally made fewer mechanical errors in their writing than did students who studied the language conventions in isolation-a characteristic of TSG.

Although the context-based approach has many proponents, it is not without opposition. Sams (2003) indicated that the grammar-in- context approach has an inherent flaw because

it treats grammar as an isolated set of rules, thereby considering the written product under review as the only relevant context for grammar instruction. It completely ignores the context from which the rules derive, the language system itself. Quite simply, students have no background knowledge about grammar, no vocabulary, no concepts, no context, no means for understanding teachers’ explanations of rules or their application. Thus, someone who attempts to teach grammar in context, is, in effect, attempting to teach grammar in a vacuum. (p. 63)

Although teaching grammar and punctuation in the context of writing, as advocated by Weaver (1996), has been promoted as an effective alternative to the rules-based approach, our observations correlate to those of the employers interviewed by the NCW: Students’ writing skills are no more- and may be less-effective than they were 15 to 20 years ago. Johansen and Shaw (2003) have a possible explanation for this observation: Some English teachers decided not to teach grammar at all when research findings showed the ineffectiveness of the TSG approach and recommended the use of the context-based approach.

Perhaps one difficulty in this discussion is the definition of writing as Hillocks and the NCTE use the term. In his published work, rarely does Hillocks (1996) mention correctness as a characteristic of good writing. The NCTE (2006) statement also seems to focus on other aspects of good writing in its reference to grammar as being an important writing resource. However, the comments in the two NCW reports (College Board, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges, 2004, 2005) place correctness at the sentence level at the forefront. If educators distinguish between teaching correct grammar and mechanics and teaching writing, perhaps they can start to address the problem. Ironically, according to Baron (2003), college professors were recently reported in a study undertaken by the publishers of the American College Test (ACT) as indicating that grammar is the most important skill for students entering college, but high school teachers consider it to be the least important skill. According to the same study, the discrepancy between college expectations and high school instruction may explain why nearly 20% of students entering college take a remedial writing course. Although teaching correct grammar and mechanics certainly does not constitute teaching writing, we argue that for business writing, correctness is a critical characteristic of effective written communication. Doniger (2003) wrote that the opposition to teaching TSG may be weakening because “recently, the armor of the anti- grammar instruction stance has shown chinks and dents” (p. 101). Hudson (2001) concurred:

The pendulum seems to be on the return swing. It would be naive to think that the pendulum is driven by academic research-indeed, there has been very little research on grammar and writing since the flurry in the 60s and 70s. . . . However, the result is that there is now much more enthusiasm in some educational circles for the idea that conscious grammar (resulting from formal teaching) could have the useful benefit of improving writing. (p. 1)

Hudson (2001) reported that in the United Kingdom, the government has introduced two directives: the National Literacy Strategy in 1997 and the National Curriculum for English in 1999. These directives advocate reintroducing the teaching of grammar into all primary and secondary state-run schools in the United Kingdom.

The instructors who teach writing courses, including written business communication courses, are challenged to develop new approaches to help students remediate their sentence-level errors. These courses are likely the last writing-oriented courses that the students take before receiving their undergraduate degree. Given the disparity between the ineffective writing skills of those entering the workforce and the level of writing skills American employers require of their employees, the instructors educating future business employees cannot ignore the disconnect. If instructors continue to ignore it, the consequences will likely be as frustrating to the instructors as their products are frustrating to those who hire them. If the status quo is allowed to continue, government intervention becomes a much stronger likelihood, as has occurred in the United Kingdom.


Researchers have posed a number of alternatives to the rules- based approach. However, unless these alternatives help students overcome their sentence-level deficiencies, the writing weaknesses of employees as identified in the two NCW reports will continue frustrate employers.

Hillocks and Smith (2003), who are strong opponents of the TSG approach, recommended the sentence-combining technique as an alternative to the context approach. When using the sentence- combining technique, instructors give students a series of short sentences in a set (from two to as many as eight or nine) and ask students to use all of the ideas in these sentences to create a new, more structurally complex sentence. According to Cooper (1975), “no other single teaching approach has ever consistently been shown to have a beneficial effect on syntactic maturity and writing quality” (p. 72). However, when considering the errors in the sentences students create, Jackson (1982) found that sentence-combining practice did not reduce errors among basic writers. Hayes (1984) indicated that sentence combining has the same level of effectiveness in reducing mechanical errors as TSG instruction.

We believe that a modified sentencecombining technique in which sentencelevel errors are identified and the rules governing the correction of these errors are explained is a viable option. Illustration of the modified sentence-combining strategy is:

Directions: Using the ideas presented in the following sentences, combine them into one compound sentence.

John is my brother.

He is the oldest of the three boys in my family.

He lives in New York City.

He plans to visit me this weekend.

Student’s sentence: My older brother John lives in New York City, he is going to visit me this weekend.

Instructor’s notations on student’s paper: Superlative adjective error (“older” should be “oldest”); comma-splice error (change comma to semicolon or insert “and”); and parallel structure error (“he is going to. . .” should be “he plans to. . .”)

Note: In an actual situation, the codes of the errors reflecting these three deficiencies would be placed at the location of each error. For example, “sup. adj” may be written at the location of the first error, “CS” may be written at the location of the second error, and “PS” may be written at the location of the third error.

We believe that students’ sentencelevel errors should always be marked as part of grading their work. If English teachers do not see themselves as grammar police and therefore do not mark grammar and punctuation errors, students remain unaware of the magnitude of their writing insufficiency and have no way of knowing what types of deficiencies need to be corrected. The result is that they continue to make the same sentencelevel errors. The instructors who teach in other business disciplines also can assist by marking sentence- level errors in their students’ written work. They also can consider writing quality, including correctness, as one of the components in determining grades on students’ written work. This can be facilitated when an academic unit (e.g., department or college) adopts a uniform error-code list or writing style handbook that all instructional personnel use when grading their students’ work. Thus, if a student’s paper contains a comma splice, the instructor records the code for the splice on the student’s paper at the location of the error and provides a correction.

Some researchers show that requiring students to correct certain marked errors is helpful. Johansen and Shaw (2003) advocated this with their glossing approach, which uses the following five steps: (a) the teacher evaluates students’ writing and marks their sentence- level errors; (b) the teacher highlights the errors that he or she wants students to further consider; (c) the teacher returns the students’ work, asking them to correct all errors; (d) each student receives a summary sheet on which he or she writes the grammar rules that pertain to the highlighted errors on his or her piece of writing; and (e) each student resubmits the corrected composition and the summary sheet.

Feng and Powers (2005) recommended error-based grammar instruction that analyzes the grammar errors students make and creates minilessons that focus on these errors. During follow-up writing, the instructors continue to analyze the nature of students’ sentence-level errors and provide additional remediation where needed.

Sams (2003) suggested the use of sentence diagramming to teach grammar fundamentals and presented a questioning process to help students differentiate among various words and their use within sentences. According to Sams, this system works because in linguistic structures, each word within a sentence answers a question about another word, and using the questioning process helps students determine the proper relationships between words.

Quible (2004) studied the use of an error-labeling technique in eliminating sentence-level errors that students in business writing courses often make. In his study, students were asked to identify and label errors in writing samples. He found a strong correlation between error labeling and error correction, suggesting that the error-labeling technique is an effective approach in helping students eradicate sentence-level errors involving grammar and punctuation.

Quible (2006) also studied the impact on error eradication of remediation exercises containing grammar and punctuation deficiencies. These remediation exercises (short narratives), most of which were 100-120 words long, were created to focus on certain errors often found in students’ writing; for example, an exercise may include several sentences that contain subject-verb and pronoun- antecedent disagreement. Students were asked to identify the errors by their label and subsequently correct them. By the end of the semester, the students who completed the remediation exercises made significantly fewer sentence-level errors than did their counterparts who did not complete the remediation exercises.

Quible (2007) reported that the use of strategies is a useful technique in helping students master basic grammar and punctuation concepts. Strategies avoid the use of parts-of-speech labels and grammar and punctuation rules. In their place, students work with easy-tolearn and easily remembered strategies. An illustration of rules approach versus strategies approach is:

Rule: “Who” is correctly used when it functions as a subject in the sentence; “whom” is correctly used when it functions as an object.

Strategy: On the one hand, when you can correctly substitute “he” (or “she” or “they”) in a sentence when deciding whether to use “who” or “whom,” then “who,” not “whom,” is the correct choice. On the other hand, when you can correctly substitute “him” (or “her” or “them”) in a sentence when deciding whether to use “who” or “whom,” then “whom,” not “who,” is the correct choice. Application:

Sentence: The person (who/whom) sells the most cars will earn a trip to Cancun.

Strategy: “Him (or her) sells the most cars” or “he (or she) sells the most cars.” Choose “who.”

Sentence: (Who/whom) did you ask to give the keynote address?

Strategy: “Did you ask he/she/they” or “Did you ask him/her/ them?” Choose “whom.”


Focusing instruction on grammar and punctuation rules is a necessary part of teaching written communication skills. Researchers have shown that the ability of students to eliminate their sentence- level errors improved when instruction was combined with other approaches (e.g., in-context writing, sentence combining, glossing, error labeling). Without such instruction, businesses will continue to suffer the high costs of a lost generation of employees whose writing is plagued with sentence-level deficiencies.


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Dr. Zane K. Quible’s interests are business writing and business pedagogy.

Dr. Frances Griffin’s interests are business writing and cross- cultural business communication.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Zane K. Quible, Professor, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078.

E-mail: zquible@okstate.edu

Copyright Heldref Publications Sep/Oct 2007

(c) 2007 Journal of Education for Business. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

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