Responding to students’ writing

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

I have called this post responding to writing, rather than error correction on writing, as I believe that there is a lot more to responding to written work than simply correcting errors.

To begin with, it is very important to respond to the content of the writing as well as the form. Otherwise we risk being like this teacher:

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

When we assess a piece of writing there are various questions we could ask:

  • Is the content interesting and/or appropriate to the task?
  • Is there a clear sense of audience (who the writer is writing to or for) and is this reflected in the language chosen?
  • Are the ideas well organised? Is there a sense of ‘flow’?
  • Does the writer use paragraphs and connectives well to help get their message across?
  • Does the writer use a good range of vocabulary in an appropriate and flexible way?
  • Can the writer structure sentences accurately, and with variety and flexibility?
  • Is spelling and punctuation accurate, adding to clarity?

It is, I think, important that we look at the questions further up the list, as well as picking out discrete errors with word choice, agreement, spelling and so on. Equally, it is important that learners are thinking about all of these areas as they write and rewrite.

Yet most feedback from teachers still tends to focus on error correction. Why? Could it be that it is actually a lot easier for teachers to give feedback in this way?

When students give peer feedback on each other’s work there is also a strong tendency to concentrate on discrete items, such as grammar and spelling, rather than looking at the whole. I suspect that this is both because it is easier, and because this is what has been modelled time and time again by teachers.

In fact, some would argue that focusing on these discrete items (by teachers or students) is not only just part of the whole picture, but may even be pretty much a waste of time. Truscott famously argued that ‘grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned’

Of course, other academics, such as   Ferris (2006)  disagree, but it is true to say that no-one (as far as I know) has yet come up with any hard evidence that grammar correction makes any dramatic difference. This post by Jeff McQuillan, on The Backseat Linguist reviews several studies which purported to show the positive impact of correction and concludes that, considering the huge amount of time and effort expended, the difference made was not really very significant. McQuillan also cites a study showing (no surprise here) that extensive reading had a much more noticeable beneficial effect.

Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a correction code to mark work from time to time. It can be a helpful way of focusing on accuracy, and perhaps has the added benefit of encouraging learners to proof-read their work more carefully.

However, I also think it shouldn’t become the default position when responding to students’ work.

In some very interesting comments on my post about process writing, Simon Marshall and Brian Morrison (@ButeBob) make alternative suggestions:

  • Using the Microsoft comments function to rewrite a small section of the text in a more fluent and/or appropriate way.
  • Focusing on what is successful about the writing- such as more complex or sophisticated language.
  • Pushing/encouraging students to try and make ‘safe’ language a little more sophisticated.

To these I would add:

  • Where possible, conferencing with students about their writing, rather than (or as well as) giving written feedback. This makes it easier (and actually less time consuming) to explain why something is wrong and what could be used instead.
  • If conferencing isn’t possible, try using the comments function not to reformulate, but to provide metalinguistic comments- explaining as you would face to face. You are unlikely to have time to do this in detail for all your students,  but even selecting a few key aspects to comment on could be very helpful.
  • Reformulating (as Simon suggests), rather than correcting. As well as using the comments box, you could reformulate a certain section of each essay, such as the introduction in an IELTS Part 1 essay. Or you could choose an essay (perhaps from a previous group, and anonymous) and rewrite the whole thing, asking students to then make comparisons between the two versions.
  • Deciding (perhaps with the students) whether to focus on paragraphing, linking, vocabulary, grammar, accuracy, range etc,  rather than trying to cover everything.
  • Correcting grammar mistakes or using a correction code, but choosing to focus on just ONE area (such as articles). This should help to make the point more salient, and thus students should notice and retain more.
  • Using models to help students learn about the different features of different genres, so that they can start to use them themselves (this fits in with McQuillan’s point about extensive reading)

And finally, bear in mind that in all likelihood, different approaches and methods will suit different learners, so it may be a good idea to provide a variety of ways of responding and correcting.


Filed under Writing

24 Responses to Responding to students’ writing

  1. Pingback: Responding to students' writing | Dalhousie ESL Programs |

  2. Phil Davies

    İf the purpose of the writing task is purely as part of an overall language programme to include all the skills then the corrective methodology has a relevance and is valid for checking the work and progress of the students. İf the student is learning script writing or creative writing or some other specialist writing activity or test, such as for İELTS then more specialist reading , correction and instruction are necessary along with strategies for written test essays. Purpose and audience are always the considerations that should determine both the teaching and corrective measures for each written submission.

    • Thanks for commenting, Phil.
      Yes, of course, you’re right that as well as individuals responding better to certain types of feedback, the method of feedback is also context dependent. Having said that, I think, whatever the context, if you’re simply focusing on grammatical or lexical accuracy, you aren’t teaching the skill of writing as such, you’re using writing as a means to an end…but perhaps I’ve misunderstood what you meant by ‘the corrective methodology’?

  3. As usual a great blog and full of useful points…as Ts we tend to ‘correct’ and focus on the grammar/vocab/linking devices etc especially when we have 15 writings to mark……our ss would benefit much more on a feedback session discussing the target audience or purpose or writing which we can’t always explain in the ‘margin’….I have a mature university graduate who writes great essays but cannot transfer these skills to write an exciting article as she is too formal and cannot ‘picture’ the reader This cannot be corrected by my needs to be discussed and she needs to ‘feel’ what is required by the exam board. Great points for thought regarding our correction, so called techniques!

  4. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for bringing up a subject that I’m constantly wrestling with. I have a lot of students who actually dig having their grammar corrected. They seem to feel somehow cheated if I don’t take a red pen to their paper. But I agree with you. I would like (and try) to spend most of my one-on-one time with students exploring ways that can stretch their language skills, be more eloquent, and write with a sense that it actually matters, not simply because they have to.

    Thanks for another bag full of ideas. Carrot cake is on the way.


    • Thanks, Kevin. I guess errors are nicely quantifiable and getholdofable, the other stuff is a bit harder to pin down- but worth the effort, I agree.
      Looking forward to the carrot cake- feeling a bit peckish 🙂

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  8. Hello,
    As I read through the post and comments, there seemed to me as if we are missing an essential piece when teaching writing in a foreign language.

    What are we really asking students to do?
    -Grammar correction using a code is helpful for accuracy. But is that all we want?
    -Is the writing related to the context or topic we are studying with the students? Then it’s great for practicing vocabulary and grammar in action.
    -Are we interested in sharing students’ ideas? Then we need to go beyond the grammar and conference about their ideas, thoughts and beliefs they are sharing besides thinking about who their audience is.
    -Or…is it cultural?
    Writing in English is very structured: paragraph structure, sentence structure, essay structure…and many cultures that come from an oral tradition instead of a written tradition do not share that sense of structure.

    So, remember, writing in a foreign language could be … cultural.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. You’re absolutely right, the cultural aspect is another facet to consider, and not just for those with an oral tradition, I think. This is part of the reason why some dialogue with students about their writing can be so helpful I think, don’t you?

  9. When I studied a foreign language (Spanish) I hated when the professor didn`t correct all my written grammar mistakes. I attributed it to laziness and my Spanish suffered on account of not getting enough feedback. I was already able to read Spanish well and could write well in English. However, I agree that too many mistakes isn`t really helpful for the student. I am a strong proponent of “focused” grammar correction.

    I think it depends on the students. A content-focus approach would be more appropriate for students who are still learning to write: younger learners or those who never learned to write a good argument in their native language. But I don`t think that content and grammar are really separable. Thanks for the ideas,

    • Thanks for commenting. I agree, I think it does depend on the students, and on the context, but just wanted to make the point that error correction shouldn’t be our only or default approach. I also agree that when we do choose to do it, having a focus in very helpful.
      I would tend to want a teacher to correct all my mistakes- but I wonder whether language teachers naturally tend to be more systematic and accuracy focused?

  10. This is a really great post! Thanks, Rachael. I think that the points you made are really important. In a sense, I have a hard time seeing how grammar should be eliminated from a second language/foreign language writing course. This is really one of the best ways for students to produce output to show what they have been processing in their brains. If we don’t work with them on it, then we are missing a crucial step for their own learning process. However, that being said, it’s true that if they also have a grammar class, that is where the input needs to be stressed and the errors that occur in writing should be addressed in the input sessions.

    I think that another difficulty with providing feedback in writing is that correcting grammar is objective, and easy, as you said. But, when we try to correct their ideas or style, then essentially we are correcting our students and their own creativity. I know that I don’t mind people pointing out my own typos and writing errors, but if they don’t appreciate my ideas or styles, that hurts a lot more. That’s where we need to really step in and realize that as a class, this is a ground for the students to 1) be open and vulnerable, they can make mistakes, and they should know that we are still there to support them, but also 2) this is where they need to be corrected. The classroom is the place where their flaws in logic or thinking, or their poor compilation of ideas needs to be addressed so that they can see that they have been successful in the class that they have put so much time into.

    Anyways, I am getting ready to start teaching a writing class tomorrow, and I will be keeping your points in mind! Thanks for the great post!!

    • Thanks for the comment. You make some good points. Incidentally, I don’t think work on grammar should be eliminated from writing either. It’s got to be an important factor- but it isn’t the whole picture, is it?
      I completely agree that correcting style and content is much more face-threatening, and that is very likely another reason why we (and peer students) tend to avoid it. And you’re also absolutely right that that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but that we need to think carefully about it it should be handled.
      Enjoy your writing class 🙂

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  14. I think it depends on the purpose of the class. I teach IELTS and students don’t need to worry about whether the content is interesting! A lot of what they need is good grammar, cohesiveness in writing (which also requires using the signals in a grammatically correct way) and vocabulary.

    I spend a lot of time correcting errors, sad to say. I’m not sure if it works because I can’t expect them to change so quickly. But I can’t imagine not focusing on errors!

    • Thanks very much for reading and commenting. You are, of course, absolutely right that what you choose to focus on will vary according to the type of writing students need to produce. Most of the time this will probably include a focus on accuracy. However, even for IELTS preparation, teachers could perhaps experiment with focusing on the other areas sometimes. For example, coherence is very important too, and many of the essays I mark as an examiner are hard to follow and irrelevant in parts. Choosing to narrow the focus, rather than trying to give feedback on everything at once can, I think, make these points more salient for learners. I certainly wouldn’t advocate never focusing on grammatical accuracy, just that it isn’t the be-all and end-all of what makes a good piece of writing.

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