The other day, TM brought home a stack of grading. As it was sitting on the kitchen table, I glanced at the top paper, as one does. It was written by a student who passed my Comp II class last year (with a C, as I recall). I read a couple of lines.
This guy has some writing problems. For reals. Grammar, spelling, even spell-check; we're talking "the"/"they" and "be"/"by" errors, not to mention your run-of-the-mill run-ons, frags, and subject-verb agreement problems.
Now, I wouldn't be surprised if this particular student had a learning disability--not because of anything else in his performance, but because I do remember that he really struggled with precisely those kinds of very basic issues. (Dyslexia? I don't know.) But I remember, too, that he was very engaged in class, had always done the homework and spoke up frequently, offered interesting insights into nearly every discussion, worked hard, revised often, researched energetically, and had great ideas for his papers. I remember that he knew he had writing problems and struggled to improve. And this, of course, is how he got a C when his writing itself was so poor: he did everything that I asked him to. He completed the assignments and developed the skills (thesis statement, citation, research, revision) that I taught him.
What I didn't do was teach him grammar. Or spelling. How, then, could I fail him for the course?
Comp is not a grammar course. We say this up front, on Day 1, and on our syllabi. We declare that we expect our students to come in with the basic skills that they need to write sentences, and that we expect them to seek additional help as they need it. Now, of course I do some grammar teaching--things like dangling modifiers and pronoun-antecedent agreement, the scourge of my life--but we do not teach subject-verb agreement, and frankly I don't know how to teach basic grammar. Besides, most of our students at least mostly don't need that. But the fact of the matter is that many of our students do need basic spelling and grammar help.
So where does that leave us? Passing students who cannot write sentences, that's where.
Now, I could, of course, fail these students (and I seem to get at least one a semester--one who actually works hard enough to pass the other tasks that we assign, anyway). But there are two problems with that. First, it seems totally wrong to fail a student for something that I am not teaching him, and that I will not teach him (because of course I figure out his problem right away, and try what I can, and send him to the writing lab, but I don't spend the semester teaching him how to spell. How do you even teach spelling??). And second, another semester of comp would do him no good, as far as I can tell. He's learning the things that we teach in comp (insofar as one can, without the basics).
What we need is a developmental or remedial course. But we don't have one, and we don't have any way to screen students for one, and we don't have anybody to teach one.
I don't know what to do.
I'm not teaching comp this semester, but I had a student who (nearly) fit this description last semester, too (he was less...accomplished in the higher-order areas than the first student I mentioned), and he got a D because he did improve a great deal and learn a lot about citations, theses, research, etc. But he can't write.
What should we do? What do you do?