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From teacher to teacher

Students often find it difficult to spot mistakes in their own or others' writing. The error analyses on this part of the web site* have been included, therefore, as a source of information to them on the mistakes typically made by school-age learners at varying levels of English proficiency.

Teachers can, of course, identify the errors their students have made, but to what extent should they make the students aware of them - and in what way should this be done?

These are the thorny questions at the heart of research into the efficacy of error correction. There is presently no definitive advice that the teacher can apply. As Fathman and Whalley (1990) point out:

" .. there is little agreement among teachers or researchers about how teachers should respond to student writing."

My own position on this issue is that the identification of all the mistakes in a piece of written work is senseless, and can be counterproductive. It sends the message to students that a piece of writing can only be good if it contains no mistakes, or, conversely, that a piece of writing with no mistakes must be good. It implies that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs and it counteracts the important lesson that language cannot be produced or learned without making mistakes.

I want to encourage my students to write in English from the first day. I don't want to discourage them by returning their efforts covered in the inevitable red ink. It is clear, therefore, that I do not alert students to all or even most of the mistakes such as those that I have identified in the error analysis pages of this website.

However, studies have shown that, in certain circumstances, students can learn from having writing problems identified to them. The key is to know which student, at any given stage of his or her language development, will benefit from which kind of feedback on which kind of error. There are no easy answers - effective, useful error correction requires principled, case-by-case decisions.

* The texts that are the basis for investigation in the Language Analysis index are authentic texts written by ESL students. In the Grammar Quizzes index there is a link to Error Correction exercises. These are texts written by the webmaster to include a number of deliberate grammar mistakes for students to find and correct.

As noted above, error correction is a complex issue with some widely conflicting interpretations of research studies. Interested teachers are recommended to refer to the sources listed below:

Cohen, A. D., & Cavalcanti, M. C. "Feedback on compositions: Teacher and student verbal reports." In Second Language Writing: Research Insights for the Classroom. Ed. B.Kroll. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 155-77.
Fathman, A. K., & Whalley, E. "Teacher response to student writing: Focus on form versus content." In Second Language Writing: Research Insights for the Classroom. Ed. B. Kroll.Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 178-90.
Ferris, D. "Response to student writing: Implications for second language students." Erlbaum, 2003.
Truscott, John. "The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes." Language Learning 46:2 (1996):327-69.
Zamel, V. "Responding to student writing." TESOL Quarterly 19 (1985): 79-101.

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