So your students are writing fairly long essays in the target language, but there are lots of mistakes in them, mistakes they often can self-correct when you point them out to them. A lot of mistakes are recurrent ones; they relate to things that you have ‘taught’ them over and over again in lessons and through your feedback and you have spent a lot of time drilling in; things like forgetting to make adjectives and nouns agree; wrong conjugations of verbs; omission or overuse of the definite article; wrong word order; omission of plural endings.
You are frustrated because you feel they should master them by now.
Other mistakes refer to function words, such as prepositions and conjunctions, things you may have not have emphasized enough and in true earnest are not massively important – but still annoy you.
So what is the way forward?
Before attempting to answer this question, let me remind you of the way the brain of an average student who has been taught grammar explicitly and vocabulary through single words processes language as s/he writes:
1- The proposition is created
2- The words that convey that idea are activated and retrieved from Long Term Memory
3- The words are then temporarily held in Working Memory for processing
4- Whilst in Working Memory the words are assembled together in the correct syntactic order and grammar rules are applied
5- The product of the previous phase is physically translated into graphemes
The above described process is quite cumbersome when it doesn’t occur automatically and the brain has to use every little bit of Working Memory’s very limited resources in order to execute each and every process involved.
Let us remember that WM can only process four items at any one time. If the students are used to handling single words – not chunks – in their language production, that means 1 item = 1 word. This means that if the sentence the student is holding in WM in phase 4 is longer than four words the brain will have issues in monitoring the accuracy of the whole sentence.
For instance: take a French intermediate student having to translate the sentence ‘Yesterday she did not go out with her friends’. Whereas an expert speaker will not have to consciously apply any of the many grammar rules that underlie the production of this sentence, the intermediate learner will have to devote conscious attention to each and every step and take many micro-decision, i.e. Which tense? Is this a verb requiring the auxiliary ETRE or AVOIR? Where does the negative particle ‘pas’ go? Etc. all these decisions will compromise the speed of execution; and to make things worse, due to the limitations of WM’s span, the items towards the end of the sentence are likely to end up receiving less attention and monitoring and therefore to be more vulnerable to error. Add to this that words decay from Working memory in a few seconds…
Another set of items that is more likely to receive less attention and hence will be more vulnerable to error will be those linguistic features whose contribution to the understanding of the sentence is less crucial; such items include function words, e.g. determiners, conjunctions, prepositions, etc. but also the execution of adjectival agreement, pluralization of nouns and verb conjugations. In other words, the brain will only focus on what is crucial for the expression of meaning – a sort of survival mechanism.
The whole issue is exacerbated by the fact that in the case of English learners of French, Spanish and other highly inflected languages, there is little transfer from the first to the target language in terms of the micro-skills involved in the execution and monitoring of agreement and verb conjugations – as in English you do not make nouns and adjective agree in gender and verbs are not highly inflected (i.e. conjugation are much simpler).
What is the solution then?
In answering this question the starting point will inevitably be another question: are your students actually ready to write extensively , considering the processing limitations just discussed? Have you ensured that your students:
- have received masses of practice in producing language under time constraints?
- have been taught to produce language in chunks rather than single words?
- have routinized verb formation under time constraints in context? Not simply being able to produce verbs in isolation?
- have ‘formal accuracy’ firmly in their focal attention as they speak and write? – this is very important if you aim at high levels of formal accuracy. Bear in mind that they will only pay attention to form if you make a big issue out of it in every aspect of your teaching, from pronunciation to spelling, from word endings to sentence order. Way to often, the only time teachers really focus on accuracy is in their corrective feedback – that is a serious shortcoming.
- have automatized at least the most basic forms of agreement?
- can spell? – a students who is not confident with spelling, will have to focus attentional capacity on this level of production, which will eat into their WM’s processing capacity
- have processed the language (grammar structures and lexis) that you expect them to produce in their essays extensively, through masses of exposure to comprehensible (95 % accessible without dictionary) input and productive practice under time constraints?
If the above pre-requisites have not been fulfilled, it is highly likely that your students are simply not ready to write that long essay – at least not as accurately as you expect them to. Chances are they are already doing a good enough job as it is considering their level of proficiency and the training in essay-writing they have received.
After all, they can only put down on paper what you taught them, right?
Hoping that your corrective feedback is going to do the trick is naïve to say the least. Yes, it will increase their awareness of what mistakes they make and maybe will sensitize them to the issue of accuracy; but only very few of your students will massively improve as a result of your corrections or reflection on corrections.
Correction may only work when it becomes remediation, i.e. sustained long-term instruction which targets the problematic items through extensive exposure and skill – not knowledge- based practice.
In my next post I will deal with the strategies that you may want to implement to tackle the deficits in your students’ writing. In the meantime, do consider the question in this post’s title: Are they really truly ready to write that essay or am I pushing them way beyond the boundaries of their processing – not necessarily knowledge – capacity. Is asking your students to produce fairly long essays at the stage they are at in their proficiency development a productive way to foster their development as writers? Is it likely to erode their self-efficacy and motivation?
You might reply that exams are getting closer, only a few months away and you have no choice. Well, in that case, you may have to change the way you teach your students and prepare them for that task.
To start with, ditch single words lists and teach high-frequency chunks; increase the focus on formal accuracy; practise reading and listening for modelling (e.g. through narrow-reading tasks) rather than quizzing purposes (i.e. provides tons of comprehensible input in the aural and written texts you give your students); provide tons of practice in agreement, conjugation and function words usage through micro-writing tasks; give them a lot of text reconstruction tasks (like the ones you can find on the great Textivate website).
More on this and other strategies in my next post on writing.