Why marking students’ books should be the least of a language teacher’s priorities


1. Introduction

Never, as in this day and age, secondary schools in the UK have made such a big fuss about the importance of marking student books and never has giving feedback been so tiresome and time-consuming for teachers. Based on the intuitively compelling notion – supported by recent research claims by the likes of Hattie – that a more cognitively demanding student involvement in the feedback-handling process significantly enhances learning, Modern Language teachers are now asked in many cases to place marking at the top of their priorities and engage in elaborate corrective approaches.

The trending remedial methodology prescribing a conversation-for-learning approach to marking, whereby the feedback unfolds in the form of a dialogue between corrector and correctee, book-marking has become a very taxing process for both parties but especially for teachers. Chilling horror stories of teachers forced to three to four-hour book-marking marathons per day using 3 different ink-colours or stamps (a different one for each stage in the feedback dialogue) to the detriment of their family life, keep resurfacing on online teacher forums and Facebook pages. SLT’s frequent book checks obviously adding to teacher stress.

This article was written in response to dozens of messages I have been getting from UK-based colleagues distressed by this state of affairs and asking invariably the same question: is the time and effort I put in book marking justified? In the below I intend to answer this question by drawing on thirty years of error-correction research, my personal experience as a learner of 14 languages and teacher of five and, more importantly, neuroscience and common sense. I will also suggest alternative remedial approaches to MFL learner errors which are as or even more effective than the trending methodologies.

2. What L2 error-correction research says

  1. Surveys of students and parents’ opinion have consistently indicated that they want books to be marked (Ferris,1999);
  1. Students often find teacher corrections confusing and unhelpful, hence do not learn much from them (Hedgcock and Lefkowitz, 1998);
  1. Students do not possess effective feedback-handling strategies and have a very superficial attitude to teacher corrections. They simply look at the mark or comments on their work, make a mental note of them but invest very little – if any – cognitive effort in processing teacher corrections (Cohen, 1987; Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990; Conti, 2004). My PhD study (Conti,2001) found that students writing an essay per week and regularly and timely receiving detailed corrective feedback on the latter are clueless as to what the most common errors in their written work are and can only recall about 10% of the errors corrected by the instructor in their latest piece.
  1. Many errors appear to be impervious to error correction (Truscott, 1996). Despite repeated corrections, the vast majority of errors, especially the ones which refer to more complex grammatical points or less salient features (e.g. article, prepositions, word endings) keep re-occurring.
  1. Intensive grammar and editing instruction targeting specific errors has also shown to be largely ineffective (Polio et al, 1998).
  2. Once errors are automatized (or ‘fossilised’ as psycholinguists say) nothing can be done to completely eradicate them (Mukkatesh, 1988). Hence preventing students from automatizing mistakes seems to be more effective than treating them.
  1. An excessive concern with error treatment may affect students’ motivation negatively (James, 1998).
  1. An excessive concern with error treatment can also lead to error avoidance which stifles creativity with the language by inhibiting risk-taking (Krashen, 2000).
  1. Both direct and indirect correction do not impact students’ accuracy more effectively than no correction at all. Indirect correction has negatively impacted students’ motivation in some studies (Semke, 1984, Robb et al, 1986, Kepner, 1991).
  1. In studies in which the writing of students whose essays received only feedback on content was compared to the writing of students whose work was corrected, the former condition had a better impact on certain aspects of their writing proficiency (the no-correction group producing more higher order propositions than the correction group). These studies concluded that error correction may actually damage the development of written proficiency.
  1. Extensive strategy training in self-monitoring and feedback-handling strategies occurring over a long period seems to enhance essay-writing accuracy in the areas of grammar, vocabulary and spelling in university contexts . My study (Conti, 2001), which pioneered a feedback technique aimed at enhancing student involvement in the corrective process (a more elaborate version of what today is referred to as D.I.R.T. = Dedicated Improvement Reflection Time) obtained impressive gains in writing accuracy and even proficiency; however, it required a huge diagnostic effort, many hours of learner training and high levels of expertise on the part of the instructor (I spent countless hours of research and piloting before implementing the program).
  1. Students who are more motivated and have higher levels of self-regulation are more likely to benefit from correction (Conti, 2001; 2004)
  1. For errors to be reduced or eradicated, students need to engage in a conscious and sustained long-term effort (Conti, 2004)
  1. Errors are more likely to be eradicated when they refer to structures our students process frequently both receptively and productively (Loewen, 1998).
  1. Some errors are caused by lack of knowledge. Others by processing inefficiency or cognitive overload (i.e. the brain cannot juggle all the demands of the writing process successfully because they are simply too many and some errors slip through). The latter mistakes are usually self-correctable by the students.
  1. It is useless to correct errors which refer to structures the learners are not developmentally ready to acquire as they do not have the cognitive maturity to internalize them.

3. Should we stop correcting then?

The obvious answer is ‘No’ as students and parents do demand we correct. Moreover, as a language learner I have personally benefitted greatly from correction, so I do know it can work. The above research findings and what we know about how the human brain acquire languages cannot be ignored, though, and should inform our pedagogy.

What the 16 points above tell us is that to simply highlight a few errors and ask students to self-correct or do some research on the erroneously applied grammar rule is not going to enhance accuracy or language acquisition. This is because the acquisition of a grammar item is a complex process that takes months or even years of practice; it does not happen as a sudden revelation resulting from a correction. If the mistakes are made in speaking they will require extensive speaking practice; if they are made in writing, extensive writing practice. Simply telling a student you made mistake ‘X’ and asking them to self-correct it, do research on it, have a conversation with their teacher about it, or even all of the above,  will not be enough; it will only be the beginning phase of a very long process.

Thus, if I correct a student at the beginning of term 1 on item ‘X’ I will have to consistently keep that item in their focal awareness for the months to come, whilst providing spaced practice in the usage of that item week in week out until the end of Term 3. This is because learning a language is about acquiring automaticity in the execution of a specific set of skills which are acquired through masses of extensive (not intensive) practice. Note that I said ‘in the months to come’, not in a one-off remedial lesson

Other subjects, such as the Humanities or the Sciences, are less about automaticity and more about intellectual retention of knowledge and facts, hence they require a different type of corrective intervention. So, whereas in such subjects one can write in a book ‘it is fact X not Y’ and all the students will have to do is memorize that fact, in languages this will not be enough. The acquisition of a given grammar rule will require masses of spaced practice across a wide range of contexts coupled with positive or negative feedback on each and every application of that rule.

In football coaching, one cannot hope to improve a player’s dribbling skills by telling them what they are doing wrong, asking them to think about what they can do to improve and hope that just because they have understood the suggestions they are (a) going to take them on, (b) implement them and (c) act them out often and skilfully enough to automatize them. The player will first need to WANT to heed the advice and then practise it over and over again, even when the coach is not there to support him, and, only when it has worked many times over, he may finally internalize it. This example encapsulates all the challenges that effective error correction poses to teacher and learner alike, i.e.:

(1) the student must understand the correction;

(2) must want to learn from it (intentionality – the most important factor in the success of error correction);

(3) must practise it consistently over a long period of time at spaced intervals;

(4) must receive feedback that tells him/her that s/he is performing it correctly every time.

Can an overworked teacher even remotely hope to be able to successfully take each individual student in the classes s/he teaches through all of the above four stages with every single problematic item they target? Not really, that is why error correction, whether through D.I.R.T. or any other form of error correction is bound to have little impact on students’ proficiency.

And often it is not even an issue of time or resources; the greatest obstacle to the success of error correction relates to the issue of intentionality (the desire to act on one’s problems). The fact that a student engages in a dialog about error and responds effectively to the teacher’s corrective prompts does not mean that s/he will have the desire to eradicate the target mistake(s) which is essential for him/her to succeed. Cognitive engagement without intentionality rarely yields proficiency gains in language acquisition, because without intentionality the learner is unlikely to autonomously seek the opportunities for practice that lead to acquisition.

Not to mention another issue pertaining to the affective impact of an overemphasis on error correction: it skews learning towards remediation, towards ‘fixing’ rather than ‘creating’, towards form rather than content. Obsession with correction usually engenders fear of making mistakes, not a healthy catalyst of language learning.

4. Conclusions and implications for teaching and learning

What are the conclusions to be drawn and most importantly, what is the way forward?

The most important conclusion to be drawn, a huge U-turn from the recommendations I gave in the final chapter of my PhD study 12 years ago, is that book-marking should be kept to the minimum. What is much more important and more impactful in terms of teaching and learning is how the problem areas the teacher identifies in their students’ output inform our future short-, medium- and long-term planning. Thus, on finding that in doing homework ‘X’ or essay ‘Y’ most students made a given set of mistakes, it will be much more effective to focus on those mistakes in whole class activities through extensive practice over the weeks to come (at spaced intervals), rather than writing the same comments and corrections in every student’s book.

Secondly, students of similar linguistic background typically make by and large the same mistakes at various levels of proficiency. Instead of focusing on those mistakes in the remedial phase of teaching (correction) why not concentrating our efforts on pre-empting those errors by teaching the areas they refer to more effectively in the first place. In planning a lesson, for instance, I always try to predict the errors my students are likely to make and devise tactics and support materials to pre-empt or reduce their occurrence. Let us not forget that many of our students’ mistakes are caused by L1 transfer as well as by misleading explanations and/or examples, the materials we use and the translations we provide (e.g. J’ai 16 ans means literally ‘I have 16 years’ but by translating as ‘I am 16’ we lead the students to assume that ‘J’ai’ means ‘I am’). By the same token, scaffolding learning more carefully so as to gradually build up mastery rather than immediately throwing the students in the deep end can prevent many errors; for instance, as I always maintain in my blogs, teachers often go way too quickly from the presentation of a grammar point straight to production, missing out the all-important receptive phase (e.g. reading) which models target structure use in context. Last, but not least, let us ensure that we cover those problematic areas more thoroughly and extensively in our curriculum planning (more recycling and less coverage!).

Thirdly, instead of marking student output a few hours or days after the error has occurred, by focusing on the product, why not marking it as things happen as much as possible, focusing on the process? This approach, known as ‘live marking’ means going around the classroom as students grapple with a new language structure monitoring their output as they read, speak or write and intervene as soon as a serious mistake takes place by asking questions which promote self-correction such as ‘are you sure about this?’ and maybe probe into the causes of that error if it does not disrupt the task-at-hand.

Fourthly, the motivation to take an active and more responsible role in the feedback process can be fostered through L.I.F.T. (learner initiated feedback technique) whereby the students ask the teachers for feedback themselves. E.g., in writing an essay, a student unsure about the use of a grammar structure may ask in the margin of the essay ‘ should I use the perfect tense or the perfect tense continuous here?’.  By so doing, it is the student who is initiating the feedback process. The teacher is merely responding. The fact that the student chooses item ‘X’ himself, as the focus of the teacher’s intervention, may enhance the students’ depth of engagement in the learning of that item.

Personalised editing checklists to be used by the students in the editing phase of their writing prior to handing in their work, may also help enhance learner responsibility and the accuracy of the final product; if applied consistently over a long period of time they might even end up improving their self-monitoring skills – not necessarily written proficiency though.The students make a list of a few mistakes that keep cropping up in their work which they elect to eliminate from their writing. The list may grow as the year progresses, of course. They will then use that list to go through each new assignment when they review their drafts, one item at the time. Useful with exam classes in my experience. Better for the list to include only 5 to 6 items at a time, although more keen and able students may include more. I tend to use editing checklists in synergy with L.I.F.T. (students apply checklist and ask questions in the margin when they have doubts).

There are other strategies that can be implemented to tackle errors that are more effective than the trending dialogic and/or D.I.R.T.-based corrective approaches as they are usually applied in many foreign language classrooms. But I reserve to deal with such tactics in my next blogpost, for reasons of space.

In conclusion, by all means, if you are a teacher on a very light timetable and teach small classes, as I was when I carried out my PhD experiment, do carry on with D.I.R.T. and/or conversing with students in writing in their books using three or different pen colours. It might pay dividends at least with some of your more motivated students.  However, if you are a snowed-under practitioner in a busy state school, you may want to heed my advice and spend more time planning and working out ways to teach more effectively, as that is more likely to advance your students’ learning.

The problem is that school-wide policies are rarely drafted by language experts or educators who understand how language acquisition occurs so you may have to carry on as you are told… For many non-language specialists MFL learning is about memorising grammar rules and vocabulary lists – a purely intellectual endeavour. As current accounts of L2 learning posits, though, language acquisition is not about accruing intellectual knowledge and errors are more often than not the result of ineffective performance linked to working-memory executive function than lack of understanding or knowledge gaps. And performance deficits can only be addressed through practice, not reflection.

As Mark Solomon and Keith Netcher, the facilitators of a very useful workshop on feedback I attended last Friday at my school said, one should only provide feedback if it is likely to have an impact. If not, it is simply a worthless box-ticking endeavour.

Do get hold of the book I co-authored with Steve Smith ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit‘ to find out more about our ideas on error correction and smart book-marking


7 reasons why (traditional) Error Correction does not work


Most secondary school MFL teachers correct their student writers’ mistakes. But does error correction (henceforth EC) ACTUALLY enhance L2-writing proficiency development? A large number of scholars who espouse Cognitive theories of L2-acquisition (e.g. McLaughlin, 1987; Johnson, 1988, 1996), the vast majority of teachers (Applebee, 1984; Zamel, 1985) and most L2-learners (Ferris and Hedgcock, 1998) think so. However, many language educators working in the Nativist paradigm oppose this view. Believing that L2-acquisition is an unconscious process, which cannot be significantly altered by grammar instruction, some of them have even called for a ban on EC from the L2-writing classroom (Krashen, 1984; Leki, 1990; Truscott, 1996). In the absence of conclusive evidence that EC does enhance L2-learner writing proficiency, the debate over whether errors should be corrected or ignored is still ongoing.

In what follows I shall focus on this controversy by listing and succinctly discuss the main reasons why EC, as it is traditionally carried out in MFL classrooms, does not ‘work’, based on the research evidence and the specialised literature I reviewed. But first, let us take a look at what I mean by EC.

1. Main  approaches to Error Correction

In my examination of the L2-writing literature I have identified six approaches to feedback on grammatical, lexical and orthographical accuracy. It must be pointed out that these techniques are not mutually exclusive and very often two or more of them are used synergistically. The approaches identified include:

(1) Indirect Correction

This term, coined by Hendrickson (1978) refers to the practice of alerting the learners to the presence of errors, asking them to identify and self-correct them. The rationale for this approach is based on the observation that a substantial proportion of learner errors are self-correctable if some form of cueing (highlighting, coding, etc.) is used to alert the writers to their presence (Makino, 1993; Lee, 1997; Frantzen and Rissell, 1987).

(2) Direct Correction

In this approach the teacher informs the learners of the presence of an error providing a correct alternative. It is the most widely employed form of EC and the vast majority of the EC studies conducted to-date has investigated its effects.

(3) Rule explanation

In this approach learners are provided with an explanation of the rule broken (where applicable). The explanation usually comes in the form of an annotation. In some approaches, the learner obtains feedback as part of a one-to-one conference (e.g. Process Writing). The aim of this technique is to help the learner restructure his/her cognitive patterns in order to prevent a given mistake from re-occurring.

(4) Peer Feedback

This technique is often used in Process Writing instruction to improve the content and rhetorical features of learner output. Learners usually work in groups, one student reading his/her own or another classmate’s essays while the rest of the group asks for clarifications about the text or makes suggestions as to possible ways of improving it. Peer-feedback focusing only on grammatical and lexical accuracy usually takes the following form: learners are provided with Indirect Correction and are asked to correct the mistakes highlighted/underlined with the help of other students (e.g. Macaro, 2001).

(5) Reformulation

This method, devised by Cohen (1990), involves having a native or near-native L2-speaker re-write the learners’ composition so that the text sounds not only correct but also more native-like. The learner is then asked to compare the two versions in order to identify the differences and notice features in the native-like one, which he may want to incorporate in his/her future production.

(6) Editing Instruction

Some L2-educators have supplemented the above techniques with various forms of Editing Instruction. One approach involves the learners in editing practice using other-writer texts (e.g. essays) containing errors. This technique is often integrated with grammar instruction.  In another approach to Editing Instruction, learners are provided with a teacher-generated checklist of common errors to look out for in editing their written output (Coleman, 1998). Some authors (e.g. Ferris and Hedgcock, 1998) suggest personalizing this process by asking the learners to keep a record of the number and type of mistakes they make in each piece of written work, logging them down in Error Charts. A third approach, Explicit Learner Training (e.g. Conti, 2004) purports to improve students’ performance in any L2-task or skill by modelling editing strategies, which may enhance their L2-processing efficiency. Generally, learners are first made aware of their problems in learning or task-performance; they are then shown a range of strategies that may help them; finally they receive instruction and extensive practice in such strategies.

2. Reasons why Error Correction does not work

2.1 The acquisition of a grammatical structure is a complex and gradual process, not a sudden discovery prompted by teacher correction

In his case against Grammar Correction Truscott (1996) noted that, in spite of being intuitively appealing, the notion that IL development can occur as a result of a mere transfer of information from teacher to learner is flawed for the following reasons. Firstly, most current L2-acquisition theories assert that IL development involves extremely complex learning processes; thus, assuming that a structure may be acquired by ‘learning’ the teacher’s correction presupposes an over simplistic view of L2-acquisition. Secondly, Truscott (1996) cites evidence indicating that there is a pre-determined order in which the human brain acquires L2-structures; this entails that if a student is corrected on a point for which s/he is not ready the correction will simply be wasted.

Research evidence does support Truscott’s assertion that learners do not acquire an L2-item instantaneously as a result of a sudden ‘revelation’ triggered by correction (e.g. Pienemann, 1984). However, as the proponents of the Noticing Hypothesis have asserted, L2-acquisition is often triggered by the awareness of a mismatch between the input and their current IL (Schmidt and Frota, 1986). Thus, EC may play an important role by bringing into learner focal awareness a flawed IL item which would otherwise go completely unnoticed.

Many authors (e.g. Ferris, 1999; Doughty, 1991; James, 1998) believe that EC can contribute to L2-development, based on evidence indicating that Explicit Formal Instruction (EFI) has a positive impact on IL development (Pica, 1985; Ellis, 1990; Fotos, 1993; De Keyser 1994; James, 1998). One important argument they invoke in support of EC is the danger of error automatisation/fossilization. As discussed in the previous blog, in the absence of negative cognitive feedback an erroneous form may become proceduralised according to the power law of practice.

2.2 EC produces intellectual knowledge not useful in editing

Krashen (1981) posited that, although consciously learnt, grammar knowledge cannot be ‘acquired’ (i.e. become available subconsciously), it might still be useful in monitoring L2-output. This notion was refuted by Truscott (1996) who cited three studies in support of his position: Gass (1983), Sorace (1985), Greene and Hecht (1992). In particular, he emphasized the importance of Greene and Hecht’s (1992) finding that ‘students who could not state a rule or who stated a wrong rule for nine common English errors they were asked to correct were nonetheless able to make a proper correction in most cases’ (Truscott, 1996: 349).

Many scholars (e.g. Krashen, 1981, 1984; Ellis, 1990; Johnson, 1996; James, 1998) believe that knowledge acquired through grammar instruction can be useful in the process of monitoring. Ellis (1990), for instance, asserted that grammar teaching can enhance accuracy in careful, planned speech production. I share this view based on my personal experience as an L2-, L3- and L4-writer. Moreover, in a study of learner writing strategies in which I took part as a researcher assistant (Macaro, 2001), I observed that learners did use grammar knowledge successfully to edit.

2.3 Teacher corrections are often inconsistent and unhelpful

Cohen and Robbins (1976), Zamel (1985) and Cohen and Cavalcanti (1990) found that teacher written responses to L2-compositions are often unhelpful because they are difficult to understand (Zamel, 1985; Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990), lack consistency (and are often arbitrary and idiosyncratic (Hedgcock and Lefkowitz, 1992; Zamel, 1985); furthermore, teachers often fail to notice errors (Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990) or misinterpret learner intended meaning providing the wrong correction (Cohen and Robbins, 1976). However, rather than prompting us to stop correcting, these findings simply indicate that some teachers do not practice EC properly.

2.4 L2-learner cognitive response to teacher feedback is not conducive to learning

The issues undermining EC efficacy discussed in 3.3 above are compounded by the problems identified by Cohen (1987), Cohen and Cavalcanti (1990) and Conti (2004) with L2-learner feedback-handling strategies. In their surveys of MFL and EFL students they found that their respondents were very superficial in their approach to teacher corrections. The vast majority simply made a mental note of the corrections and very few incorporated them in their rewrites. Furthermore, many of them did not know how to handle teacher feedback as it was. This, too, is a very serious issue, which has enormous implications for MFL teachers. As I discussed in previous blogs, I believe that the phenomena reported by Cohen (1987), Cohen and Cavalcanti (1990)  and Conti (2004) are the main cause for the ineffectiveness of traditional forms of EC since, as Information Processing theories of learning posit, without ‘deep processing’ no target items of information can be successfully learnt (Eysenck and Keane 1995).

Abolishing EC on the grounds that L2-learners do not pay sufficient attention to it is problematic since a number of surveys have consistently confirmed that learners do want to be corrected (Cohen 1987; Ferris 1995a; Hedgcock & Lefkowitz, 1992; Radecki & Swales, 1988). Thus, the absence of any form of EC could frustrate students to the point that it might interfere with their motivation and confidence in the writing class ‘particularly when grading rubrics and writing proficiency examination results tell them that their language errors could prevent them from achieving their educational and professional goals’ (Ferris, 1999: 8). Thus, instead of doing away with corrections teachers may have to find ways to involve the learners more actively and positively in the feedback-handling process. This is exactly what Conti’s (2004) Self-monitoring Programme purported to do.

2.5 EC can have a detrimental effect on learner motivation

Another criticism is that EC can undermine student motivation (Krashen, 1981; Truscott, 1996). This view rests on the assumption that learning is most effective when students are relaxed and confident and enjoying their learning. The use of correction, it is argued, encourages exactly the opposite condition, causing learners anxiety and stress. Macintyre and Gardner (1994) found a negative correlation between language anxiety and foreign language writing proficiency. James (1998), however, reports finding by Brown (1977) that EC can lead to Facilitative Anxiety, which motivates students to achieve. James (1998) suggests an alternative and equally plausible hypothesis to Krashen’s (1981) Affective Filter Hypothesis:

an optimal level of affect in the form of ‘arousal’ is necessary for

learning to take place. After all, consciousness, awareness and

any form of noticing of language is a sign of taking note, or arousal,

and these are all thought to be beneficial. (James, 1998: 194)

2.6 In spite of many corrections learners will make the same mistakes over and over again

Truscott (1996) makes the point that the phenomenon of the resurgence of errors that have been corrected a great many times constitutes evidence that EC is ineffective. Based on Skill AcquisitionTheory, though, the obvious reply to Truscott is that automatised errors will tend to re-occur unless the corrective treatment does something more than simply informing the learners of the correct rule. In fact, as studies like Makino (1993) and Lee’s (1997) have shown, L2-student writers have the ability to self-correct a large number of their mistakes. However, as discussed in previous blogs, learners often fail to detect such errors due to processing inefficiency or superficial editing.

Thus, what the phenomenon noted by Truscott (1996) tells us is not that EC cannot work, but rather that teachers need to re-train the learners in the use of those structures through extensive practice and/or train them in monitoring those structures more carefully in written and possibly oral production. Johnson (1996) suggests an interesting approach to routinised processing efficiency errors. He suggests that for such mistakes to be eradicated four things are needed:

a. The desire or need to eradicate the mistake. It is likely that a number of mistakes do not get eradicated simply because students know they can get by without eradicating them

b. A model of the correct form being used in the Real Operating Conditions under which the mistake was made

c. A realization by students that their performance was flawed

d. An opportunity to re-practice in Real Operating Conditions

(Johnson 1996: 123)

Traditional approaches mostly cater for point ‘b’ and ‘c’ and occasionally for ‘d’. However, as far as ‘c’ is concerned, the use of selective correction and the superficial attitudes to feedback identified by Cohen (1987) would suggest that often students do not realize all of the instances on which their performance is flawed. The main issue, though, is that most traditional approaches fall short of bringing about learner intentionality to eradicate errors from processing failure which refer to less semantically salient features. This is a serious limitation of most EC techniques because, such errors being less likely to impinge on effective communication, learners may not have enough motivation to do something about them.

2.7 There is no conclusive empirical evidence that EC can be effective

This is the most powerful argument against grammar correction since none of the relatively few studies conducted to-date has provided conclusive evidence that EC can significantly reduce grammatical, lexical and orthographical errors or enhance the development of L2-proficiency. The body of evidence in favour of EC’s effectiveness is still fragmented and not strong enough to make any valid and generalizable claims. What is evident from research is that the advantages one gets from traditional correction practices are not significant enough to justify the effort.

3. Conclusion

As I concluded in my previous post ‘Why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students’ writing (not the traditional way at least)’, traditional forms of error correction, considering the ratio ‘time spent to learning gains’, are ineffective ways of providing feedback. For corrective intervention to work, it must:

– Effectively focus learners on the importance of form and bring it firmly into their focal awareness;

– Enhance the ways in which the learners handle feedback and get them to process teacher corrections ‘deeply’, using approaches that are more conducive to learning;

– Increase their error related self-knowledge (i.e. the knowledge of what their most common errors are);

– Enhance their editing strategies through learner training and extensive practice;

– Personalize remedial learning and engages them in a long-term of self-monitoring process whereby they set out to eradicate the errors they know they make through independent study, extensive practice and careful editing.

Corrective intervention of the kind just outlined can, as my study (Conti,2004) and other research has indicated (e.g. Lalande, 1988; Ferris, 1995; Macaro, 2001), impact writing accuracy. However, it is a laborious and time-consuming process.

8 tips to enhance foreign language learners’ editing skills in essay writing


The following are eight editing strategies that can enhance the accuracy of foreign language learners’ written output. I tested their effectiveness in the context of my PhD study and the results were remarkable. For reasons of space I am only focusing on the strategies themselves and not on the instructional framework I used to model and ‘teach’ them. Teachers may elect to try them separately, or synergistically – which is the way I did.

  1. Raise student awareness of the differences between reading and proof-reading

A fundamental mistake made by students when they edit their essays is to ‘read’ the essay they wrote rather than ‘proof-read’ it. The two processes are different in that ‘reading’ focuses Working Memory’s attentional system on meaning, whereas ‘proof-reading’ focuses it on the surface level of the text (grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, etc.). Hence, when a foreign language learner is proof-reading by reading his/her text aloud or by sub-vocalizing, he/she is less likely to spot surface level errors (e.g grammar or spelling), especially those that are less obvious or less salient.

Consequently, if we want to enhance our students’ editing effectiveness we must raise their awareness of the differences between the two processes. Learners should be trained to focus solely on the ‘mechanics’ of the text when checking surface level accuracy whilst dealing with meaning in separate reviewing sessions.

  1. Task-related metacognitive knowledge

In making our student writers more effective editors, one of the greatest challenges is to enhance their task-related metacognition, which involves, amongst other things, knowing what their most common pitfalls are at all level of the texts, including surface level accuracy.

Higly metacognizant writers know what mistakes they make and before handing in/publishing a written piece they will look out for the mistakes they are more likely to make. For instance, I know that when I type-write an essay I often omit the ‘s’ at the end of words, write ‘of instead of ’or’, occasionally spell ‘than’ ‘then’ and omit copulas (‘is’ or ‘are’). Hence, I always scan my blogs or essays looking for errors with these words before publishing. I also know that I need to go through my drafts several times if I want to spot all of the mistakes.

In my PhD study I found that the vast majority of L2-students lack this kind of self-knowledge. Many of them do think they know the mistakes they make ; but when you ask them to list them, their accounts always differ substantially from reality. The lists they often provide is more likely to include the grammar items they found difficult to learn in lessons rather than the actual mistakes they make in writing. And even when they do get it right they provide very broad categories (e.g. verbs) which are not very helpful when proofreading.

This entails that when editing their essays many L2 students lack an important source of help. Hence, teachers who want to enhance their student’s editing effectiveness may have to bring their most common errors into their focal awareness in as much detail as possible whilst enhancing their knowledge of the grammar rules that those erros refer to.

The technique I used in my PhD study to achieve this was quite complex and laborious ; however, a simpler yet effective way to address this issue would be to ask the students to log their main errors systematically on receiving each essay (not too many) and label them according to the categories they refer to (e.g. word-order, adjectival agreement, irregular adjective) ; count and note down the errors made in each category ; research and explain the rule broken (when they don’t know it) and work out a memory strategy (e.g. a mnemonic) which may help prevent the error or facilitate recall of that rule in the editing of the next essay. If this process is carried out week in week out, it is likely to enhance their awareness of the mistakes they normally make.

  1. Selective monitoring

Selective monitoring entails focusing on one major error category at a time in the editing phases of essay writing. So, one may go through one’s essay the first time looking for noun-to-adjective agreement mistakes ; the second round, focusing on errors with a specific tense ; the third round searching for word order issues, etc.

  1. Looking out for ‘tricky contexts’

Some linguistic contexts pose more challenges to the novice-to-intermediate writer than others and are consequently more likely to cause them to err. For instance, in my PhD study I identified long sentences loaded with adjectives and including more than one tense as contexts where most of my students made several mistakes. But ultimately, any context which requires the learner, in the transcribing phase of sentence production (i.e. when ideas are translated into words), to apply grammar rules and lexis one he/she has not fully automatised is more likely to cause errors ; this is because the challenging structure(s) will absorb most of the attentional resources causing less salient features to go unheeded – unless, that is, one makes a conscious effort to focus on them. Obviously, the more the problematic grammar structures one is required to handle are, the greater the chances to err.

In my study I also found out that when the students write fairly long essays, they are more likely to make mistakes with more challenging sentences and structures towards the end of their piece, possibly because they are more tired, less motivated (e.g. ‘I just want to get over and done with it’) or are running out of time (e.g. when writing under exam constraints).

  1. Focus on word-endings

As already discussed in a previous blog, the anglo-saxon brain is wired to focus on the beginning of words, hence teachers should endeavour to focus their L1 English learners of French or Spanish on word ending accuracy. In the same blog I also explained why agreement mistakes pose challenges to our students’s cognitive processing both during editing and language production.

My old French teacher used a very effective strategy to enhance our chances of spotting and fix this kind of errors ; he made us ‘track down’ for each adjective or verb in our essays the noun or pronoun it referred to by using our pencil/pen ; once identified it, we would check if the ending applied was correct and tick it to show him we had checked it. This was a very effective way to scaffold checking for agreement mistakes ; I often use it during 1 : 1 conferences with less accurate writers and occasionally with groups of motivated novice students, but not with all of my classes, as some learners do find it tedious.

  1. Sense monitoring by back-translation

Back-translation can be useful as an editing technique, when used properly. One of the uses is to check that what one has written makes sense in the students’ mother tongue. In my study, when learners back-translated slowly, word for word, they were more likely to spot word omissions – especially omissions of copula (e.g. ‘is’ or ‘are’)- , wrong use of tenses and, generally, intelligibility issues.

  1. Error Checklists

Error checklists are often used in many MFL classrooms. I have used them myself with varying success. In my study and classroom experience, though, they worked best when the checklists were not entirely imposed by the teacher but included items chosen by the learners themselves based on the error-logging process mentioned in point 2, above. Their ownership of the process, according to my students, seems to enhance their intentionality to eradicate error.

  1. ‘Editing successes’ log

This is a worksheet that the teacher gives the student after looking through the essay and identifying the presence of a number of mistakes across various categories. S/he will then give back the essay to the student alerting him/her to the presence of X number of mistakes in it pertaining to specific categories; the students is then charged with the task of spotting and correcting as many of them  as possible whilst logging each mistake and correction on the worksheet as homework.

In conclusion, these are some of the strategies that teachers may model to their students in an attempt to enhance their ability to effectively edit the surface level accuracy of their essays or narrative writing. For the above strategies to be acquired by the learners it will not be enough to just present them to the students, model their use and give them a one-off practice session. Students need extensive practice in the execution of these strategies and this practice must be scaffolded by reminders to use the strategies and supported by regular teacher feedback. These reminders can be as simple as worksheet or google docs with 5 or 6 key questions that they have to answer very concisely , such as :

  • Have you read through the essay checking meaning only ? How many times ?
  • Have you read through the essay checking grammar accuracy only ? How many times ?
  • Have you checked the following items ?

-noun/pronoun to adjective agreement

– subject to verb agreement


Scaffolding and teacher feedback are the most crucial aspects of the process.

Before teachers even start the editing instruction process, it may be useful to focus the students on the importance of accuracy and provide them with a solid rationale as to why you are modelling the target strategies to them. In strong communicative approaches or in contexts where accuracy is not in the students’ focal awareness, in the initial phases of the training teachers may have to work harder on hammering home why certain categories of mistakes can be particularly detrimental to the effectiveness of communication and may need to be focused on. The ultimate goal ought to be to forge competent autonomous editors able to transfer the above strategies not only from one semantic context to another but also across languages.

Why asking our students to self-correct the errors in their essays is a waste of time…

The Language Gym

images (2)

In this very concise article I will argue that involving our learners in Indirect Error Correction on its own is an absolute waste of valuable teacher and learner time. By Indirect Error Correction (henceforth IEC), I mean highlighting or underlining the errors in our students’ written pieces (with or without error coding), pass the essay back to our students who will make the corrections and pass it back to us for any necessary amendments to be made. In addition, some of us will ask the students to rewrite the whole essay incorporating the corrections.

It sounds like a very time-consuming activity!

The pedagogic rationale behind this approach seems pretty clear: the students get cognitively involved in the correction process. They are not just the passive recipients of the teacher’s correction but they are actually doing something about it. Moreover, by working on their mistakes they will become more aware of…

View original post 1,124 more words

Why asking our students to self-correct the errors in their essays is a waste of time…

images (2)

In this very concise article I will argue that involving our learners in Indirect Error Correction on its own is an absolute waste of valuable teacher and learner time. By Indirect Error Correction (henceforth IEC), I mean highlighting or underlining the errors in our students’ written pieces (with or without error coding), pass the essay back to our students who will make the corrections and pass it back to us for any necessary amendments to be made. In addition, some of us will ask the students to rewrite the whole essay incorporating the corrections.

It sounds like a very time-consuming activity!

The pedagogic rationale behind this approach seems pretty clear: the students get cognitively involved in the correction process. They are not just the passive recipients of the teacher’s correction but they are actually doing something about it. Moreover, by working on their mistakes they will become more aware of their problems and in the long term they will stop making them.

Unfortunately, in actual fact, the learning our students get out of this corrective technique in terms of language acquisition and error reduction do not justify the above effort at all. Several studies, (e.g. Semke, 1984; Robb, Ross and Shortreed, 1986; Ashwell, 2000; Chandler, 2003) have shown that it is not significantly more effective than direct correction or even than no correction at all. Why?

The first reason why it does not significantly enhance acquisition, relates to the distinction between Errors (mistakes due to lack of declarative knowledge) and Mistakes ( inaccuracies due to processing inefficiency, i.e. Working Memory’s failure to cope with the demands of the task – see previous blog post “why our learners make mistakes with preposition, articles….”). Errors (lack of declarative knowledge) are caused by not knowing the rule which governs the language item we got wrong. So, for instance, if I write ‘Ayer voy al cine’ (intended meaning: yesterday I went to the cinema) because I do not know the Preterite in Spanish, I used the present ‘voy’ simply because I do not master (declaratively) the Preterite tense – as my teacher has not taught it to me yet, for instance. However, there might be another reason: I know the preterite tense, but because my brain (my Working Memory) was busy simultaneously trying ‘to sort out’ vocabulary choice, word order, agreement as well planning the content, I chose the wrong tense – but if someone asks me to translate ‘I went’ into Spanish, in isolation, I can do it correctly.

As it is clear, if the teacher highlights the mistake in the first scenario (i.e. the learner does not know the rule) the student will not be able to correct it – unless prompted to find out about the Preterite by the instructor. In the second scenario, the learner might be able to. What am I getting at is that, unless the teacher goes through the essay thoroughly with the students, s/he will never find out what the real reason for the mistake is, which may lead to underlining a mistake the learner will never be able to correct.

Another important implication of the dichotomy Errors vs Mistakes for the ineffectiveness of IEC refers to the surrender value of this corrective practice. If the student has the knowledge to correct the errors pointed out by teacher, s/he is not really learning anything new, right? Someone might argue that s/he will learn not to make that error again, that s/he will pay more attention in the future. Chances are s/he will not because, as it is obvious, self-correcting when you are cued to a mistake is totally different to self-correcting whilst you are proofreading without anyone telling you ‘hey there is a mistake right there’. Especially for beginners whose Working Memory, when they are proof-reading, is loaded with so much information to attend to, that they will not have enough cognitive space to spot every single mistake they made. Especially if under pressure.

In my research, Conti (2001, 2004) I found that students’ ability to self-correct effectively when they are told that a given sentence contains errors, is very low. In my experiments they managed to get less than 30 % right. However, when cued to the word where the errors was, they managed to self-correct more than double that.

To make things worse, past studies have found out that IEC can have a negative impact on students’ motivation in that it causes learner’s anxiety and frustration. Imagine being a weak learner and being given your essay back with lots of errors to self-correct and not having the slightest clue of how to correct half of them…

Another issue with IEC that I identified during my study as well as in my teaching practice refers to what I call the ‘if not X then Y’ correction strategy. This refers to a common scenario where, when cued to the presence of an error the students can self-correct NOT because s/he knows or understand the rule or the context that caused the mistake, but rather because there is only ONE possible change that can be made. Example: If a student writes ‘la chien’ (‘dog’ in French) and the teacher underlines the definite article ‘la’ because the noun ‘chien’ is masculine and should therefore be preceded by the masculine definite article ‘le’, the student will correct because there is no other option, not because he has an internalized mastery of that context. Nor can we assume that by self-correcting this way he will never make the same mistake again, as, in the absence of follow-up (recycling of that information) and depth of processing, this information is likely to be lost after a few hours.

On the other hand, if IEC is only the prelude, the first step in a more complex and, most importantly, long-term approach like the one of Lalande’s (1982) study, the impact of the corrective process can be more beneficial. Lalande (1982) compared the effects of two different types of feedback on the writing of FL German learners: Direct and Indirect error correction. Upon reception of the marked essays the learners were asked to correct their mistakes and re-write the entire essay. For the experimental group, this involved interpreting the codes. As the course progressed, the experimental group learners monitored the frequency and recurrence of error types by referring to Error Awareness Sheets (error charts in which students logged their mistakes). Lalande found that “the combination of error awareness and problem solving techniques had a significant beneficial effect on the development of writing skills” and “effectively prevented students from making more grammatical and orthographic errors.” (Lalande, 1982: 78).

The simple addition to the traditional IEC approach of the extra steps of having to interpret the code and log errors in the Error Awareness Sheets makes the process more valuable from a learning point of view, in that it enhances the learners’ metacognition (self-knowledge) and, consistently keeping a log of their errors causes them to be more sensitized to the issue of accuracy and, possibly, more motivated to eradicate those errors in order to see their error-chart stop growing. In my view, though, even Lalande’s approach is way too laborious and time-consuming for the result obtained.

In conclusion, teachers should not waste so much valuable time – that could be devoted to planning or teaching or to more fruitful feedback activities – on Indirect Error Correction.

Please note that I am not advocatinng doing away with error correction altogether. Not at all – I do believe negative feedback can indeed be useful. I do believe, however, that traditional forms of corrective intervention such as Direct and Indirect Error Correction are too consuming for the very modest results they yield in terms of enhanced proficiency and acquisition.

If you would like to find out more on Error Correction research and what I believe to be the best way forward, read my blog post : “Why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students’ writing (not the traditional way at least)

Why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students’ writing (not the traditional way at least)

Metacognitive enhancement and error correction: a discussion of the shortcomings of traditional error treatment and of the potential benefits of learner training in self-monitoring strategies

Dr Gianfranco Conti

Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur)

Dr Yoko Sato

Hosei University (Tokyo)


This paper evaluates the merits of the most traditional forms of error treatment, Direct and Indirect Error Correction, as applied to L2-writing, highlighting the epistemological, pedagogical and learner-strategy related issues which undermine their efficacy. It also discusses why Explicit Strategy Training in self-monitoring strategies may constitute a more promising alternative in the light of Cognitive theories of L2-learning and of the existing empirical evidence.


Research into the impact of teacher corrective response to L2 writers’ sentence level errors indicates that the most popular approaches, Direct and Indirect Correction (i.e. learner errors are either corrected by the teacher, or marked and left for the learners to self-correct) do not have a significantly enhancing effect on L2 writing accuracy and writing proficiency development (Truscott, 1996; Macaro, 2004). As Macaro (2004: 242) rightly observed,

these results are somewhat dispiriting given the amount of effort

that teachers put into providing feedback to written work. …

the evidence does seem sufficiently strong to question the effort


To make matters worse, other strands of Error Correction (EC) research have identified a number of problems which seriously undermine the efficacy of these techniques. Firstly, teacher feedback is often unhelpful and misleading (Hedgcock and Lefkowitz, 1998). Secondly, learners rarely pay attention to teacher corrections and, when they do, they do it superficially and/or applying ineffective feedback-handling strategies (Cohen, 1987; Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990). Thirdly, too much correction may engender learner anxiety and error avoidance behaviour, both potential inhibitors of L2 learning (James, 1998). Furthermore, there is no consensus as to which feedback techniques are more effective in which context, and whether feedback on surface level error should be administered at the beginning or at the end of the multi-draft process currently so popular in L2 writing instruction.

The reactions to this state of affairs have ranged from proposing a total ban on correction (Truscott, 1996) to exploring innovative approaches which integrate traditional corrective approaches with other error-treatment techniques (Macaro, 2004). In particular, as we shall argue later, a very promising way forward for error treatment methodology seems to be indicated by a handful of Explicit Strategy Training (EST) studies in Self-Monitoring strategies (Ferris, 1995; Conti, 2001; Macaro, 2001). Below, we evaluate the merits of traditional corrective approaches and those of EST by reviewing what we consider to be the most representative empirical studies published in the core literature (see Ferris, 2004 for a fully comprehensive review).

2 Studies investigating the impact of Direct and Indirect Correction (with or without supplemental focus on form instruction) on L2 writing accuracy

2.1 Different forms of EC compared

Semke (1984) investigated the effects of EC on the writing of 114 American university students of L2-German. She divided her sample into four groups, each receiving one of the following types of teacher correction on their journal entries:

1. Comments on content only

2. Comments on errors only

3. Comments on both contents and errors

4. Errors underlined; learner self-correction expected

Using error-free T-units to measure accuracy, Semke found no significant differences among the groups in terms of error reduction. In addition, Group 1 (comments on content only) wrote longer freewrites at post-test and was significantly better than all the others on fluency and on a cloze test. This was interpreted as indicating that learner progress can be enhanced by practice alone and that EC could not just be unhelpful but even harmful. In fact, Semke reported that corrections may affect learner attitude to writing negatively, especially when they are required to make corrections by themselves.

Similarly, Kepner (1991) investigated the impact of different types of feedback on the journal writing of 60 second year university students of L2-Spanish. The sample was divided into two groups, one receiving DC with explanations and the other comments on the content only . The study covered a term and consisted of six pieces of work. Kepner found that the latter group produced significantly more higher order proposition than the former group, with no statistically significant difference in the number of errors made between the two groups.

Robb et al. (1986) studied the effects of EC on the writing of 134 Japanese university EFL learners randomly assigned to the following groups, each receiving a different form of error treatment:

1. Direct correction, indicating the errors and the correct forms;

2. Correction code to point out type and location of errors;

3. Highlighting the locations of errors without any explanation;

4. Marginal tally of the number of errors for each line, with no cueing as to the

typology or location of the errors

Students were required to redraft their compositions, making the appropriate changes. Writing ability was assessed using 19 objective measures, three of which was used to measure accuracy: the ratio of error-free T-units to the total number of T-units, the ratio of error-free T-units to the total number of words and the ratio of words in error-free T-units to the total number of words. At the end of the course, the researchers found no significant differences in students’ writing ability. Thus, they argued that less time-consuming methods of directing students’ attention to surface error may suffice (Robb et al., 1986: 91).

2.2 The effects of DC with supplemental editing instruction

Polio et al. (1998) set out to investigate whether additional editing instruction – the innovative feature of the study – would enhance learners’ ability to reduce errors in revised essays. 65 learners on a university EAP course were randomly assigned to an experimental and a control group who wrote four journal entries each week for seven weeks. Whereas the control group did not receive any feedback, the experimental group was involved in (1) grammar review and editing exercises and (2) revision of the journal entries, both of which were followed by teacher corrective feedback. On each pre- and post-tests, the learners wrote a 30-minute composition which they were asked to improve in 60 minutes two days later. Linguistic accuracy was calculated as a ratio of error-free T-units to the total number of T-units in the composition. The results suggested that the experimental group did not outperform the control group. The researchers conjectured that the validity of their results might have been undermined by the assessment measure used (T-units) and/or the relatively short duration of the treatment. They also hypothesised that the instruction the control group received might have been so effective that the additional practice for the experimental group did not make any difference.

2.3 The impact of selective DC

Other studies had a much narrower focus as they investigated the effects of EC on only a few selected structures. Loewen (1998), for instance, conducted a small-scale investigation of the effects of selective EC on the writing of twelve mixed nationality ESL learners. Loewen divided the learners into two groups, one focusing on the Simple Past and Plural s, and the other on the third person –s and the passive voice. The treatment was provided in the form of Direct Corrections on the seven essays written by both groups. At the end of the semester no significant improvements were observed for either group. Loewen acknowledged that the small sample size and the absence of control groups were important limitations of the study. What might have also affected the results was the infrequent occurrence of three of the four target structures, partly due to the learners’ avoidance, and partly due to the type of expository writing the students engaged in, which did not present many obligatory occasions for the use of those structures.

2.4 The effect of IC on re-drafts

Another set of studies investigated the short-term effects of IC on the accuracy of student rewrites (Fathman and Whalley, 1990; Ashwell, 2000; Chandler, 2003); the students were corrected on their writing and then asked to rewrite the same paper, taking the corrections into consideration. These studies indicate that even when the students are solely focused on form and are told where the mistakes are, they can only correct from 1/3 to1/2 of the errors. The success rate increases to 90% when they are given the actual rule and need only copy – which means that even in the best conditions they still miss 10% of the errors. Not unsurprisingly, Krashen (2005) concludes his review of these studies stating that their findings constitute ‘hardly a compelling case for correction’. Finally, it should be noted that, none of these studies being longitudinal, we do not know whether the error treatment had any long-term impact on the participants’ proficiency development.

3 Why Traditional Approaches to Error Correction do not work

In drawing conclusions from the existing research, one has to bear in mind that EC studies differ greatly across a number of important design and procedural features, such as corrective techniques, learner types, languages, time scale and assessment measures. This makes the comparison across studies difficult thereby impinging on the generalisability of the findings (Ferris, 2004). Moreover, there are major flaws in design and methodology that need to be taken into account. Firstly, the measures of accuracy adopted by many studies, error-free T-units based counts, are not the most effective instruments for detecting error reduction, especially over relatively short periods of time and at lower levels of proficiency. For instance, even if a student goes from producing an average of ten errors per T-unit at pre-test to producing only one error at post-test, the Error-Free T-unit count will not register any improvements whatsoever.

Secondly, the number of written pieces the past studies involved was sometimes far too small to ensure sufficient practice of the problematic items and exposure to the relevant corrective feedback (e.g. in Kepner, 1991) .

Thirdly, several studies were either not transparent as to the inter-rater reliability procedures adopted to validate the error counts (if any) or did not publish the figures (Ferris, 2004). For instance, Robb et al (1986) stated that their reliability score was .87; however, they did not tell us to which of the 19 objective measures they used that score refers. It would appear that the score was the average of all the 19 measures (which included objective measure like number of words, number of clauses and T-units). Thus, we do not know the reliability of the actual coding of the accuracy measures used. The fact is that it is undoubtedly easier to get a high reliability on measures like number of words, number of clauses and T-units; it remains to see if, taken in isolation, the measures-of-accuracy inter-reliability scores would have, by themselves, been sufficiently significant .

Furthermore, very few studies provided information as to the learning background and beliefs of their participants, which may play crucial roles in the success of a corrective approach. A student who has little metalinguistic knowledge may find grammar feedback daunting. On the other hand, someone who feels that Direct Correction with grammar explanations has worked very well for him/her in the past may resist other corrective treatments, especially if he/she knows that they are only temporary measures for an experiment. It should also be noted that when one tests an instructional technique, one is also testing the effectiveness of the teacher who delivered it, his/her rapport with the students (with its enormous implications on motivation) among other things. None of the published EC studies reported on this crucial element of learning. In fact, in reviewing the above research, one cannot help notice the absence of qualitative data about the human factors that may have interacted favourably and unfavourably with the treatment under investigation.

In view of the above limitations, the existing empirical evidence cannot be said to conclusively prove that EC does not work. It does, however, strongly indicate that Direct Correction (with or without rule explanation) and Indirect Correction do not significantly improve L2-writer accuracy. The finding that the combination of Direct Correction (DC) with grammar instruction and peer editing may not work is particularly important given that a host of EFL books and materials promote and/or provide practice in this kind of approach (Ferris, 1999). It is also noteworthy that Indirect Correction (IC) may induce some degree of learner disaffection (Robb et al, 1986).

A number of factors undermine the effectiveness of EC, the most important ones being the following:

1) Learners’ attitude to correction is often superficial and their feedback-handling strategies are poor.

The effectiveness of DC depends largely on two factors: (a) how effective the corrections are in helping the learners restructure their assumptions about a given L2 item and (b) what the learners do with the feedback. As Truscott (1996) noted, numerous studies have revealed that the quality of teacher feedback is often poor. Furthermore, there are findings that learners tend to have a superficial attitude to correction and invest very little cognitive effort in handling teacher feedback, often simply looking briefly at the mistakes and making a mental note of them (Cohen, 1987; Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990; Conti, 2001). IC does partly address this issue by involving the learners more actively in the feedback-handling and editing process through self-correction. However, learners may not be able to correct (Krashen, 2005), may correct wrongly (Conti, 2001), or may be frustrated if asked to self-correct what is well beyond their current grasp of the language. In addition, accurate self-correction could be the results of applying the ‘guessing’ strategy’ “if a given item can only be X or Y and X in this case is wrong, then the correct form must be Y” (Conti, 2005). In such cases the students’ accurate self-correction may fool the teacher into believing that the learners have learnt the target item. More importantly, IC falls short of promoting learning of new structures and of re-learning of existing Interlanguage structures in that it concerns itself mostly with self-correctable mistakes. Thus, it leads at best to raising learners’ awareness of their mistakes and consolidating old material.

The role of the quality of teacher corrections and of students’ feedback-handling is crucial to L2 acquisition. The negative evidence provided by the teacher is often (especially in an FL environment characterised by low L2 input) the only way for students to realise that their usage of a given L2 item is wrong and needs restructuring. This process of “noticing” (Schmidt, 1990) marks the beginning of conscious L2 learning which, according to Skill-Theory , will eventually lead to the acquisition of the noticed item after extensive practice (e.g. Anderson, 2000; Johnson, 1996). However, this can only occur if the teacher’s corrections are clear and learnable (i.e. not beyond the learner’s grasp or level of acquisition) and if the learners pay sufficient attention to and apply any productive feedback-handling strategies (e.g. make a written note of the correction, ask an L2 expert for clarification, do follow-up remedial grammar work). Any form of instruction in order to be effective require the learner to take an active role and deep processing of the target information must take place. As Cohen (1987), Cohen and Cavalcanti (1990) and Conti (2004)’s study have shown, students’ cognitive investment in the corrective process is low and teachers do not seem to demand or even encourage it.

(2) DC and IC on their own are short-term measures which do not involve the learners in a sustained long-term effort to eradicate error.

This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the rate of human forgetting is such that after one week only 80% of whatever the students learn from the corrections would be lost without reinforcement. Thus, without some form of instructional follow-up, the impact of correction is likely to be minimal. Secondly, it should be pointed out that for any language items to be successfully learned, they must be practised with success (i.e. with positive feedback from the environment) on numerous occasions over a long period of time (Anderson, 2000). This implies that a one-off follow-up remedial lesson to address learners’ mistakes has very limited long-term learning potential. After all, two factors are crucial in any kind of learning: frequency of exposure and the amount of attention devoted to the target item/s; thus, for a correction to be learnt, any learners should be exposed to it frequently enough to first notice it, then learn it declaratively, and, finally, proceduralise it. In the case of fossilized items, in particular, the issue is complicated by the fact that de-fossilization is a very lengthy process. Furthermore, it is crucial that learners’ attention is constantly focused on the target item. This may not happen if learners are corrected on a large number of items over a relatively short period of time, and students are not asked or do not decide to prioritise certain items over others. Also, as Loewen (1998) pointed out, this will not happen if the structures targeted by the treatment, are not likely to recur often enough in the type of expository writing the participants are engaging in.

(3) DC and IC do not usually systematically attempt to identify the causes of errors, and tend to offer the same blanket-treatment to all mistakes and to all students.

It is one of the most fundamental assumptions of modern pedagogy that the success of any instructional programme depends largely on the correct identification of the target learners’ needs (Littlewood, 1984). Applied to the area of remedial instruction, this principle translates as follows; error treatment is likely to be more effective if teachers identify accurately the root causes of their learners’ mistakes. For instance, it would not make much sense for an L2 writing instructor to treat self-correctable mistakes caused by processing inefficiency (performance errors) in the same way as he/she treats errors due to lack of knowledge. The former may require training in editing strategies (see below) and a lot of practice; the latter, cognitive restructuring or, if they refer to grammar structure well beyond the learner’s developmental stage, possibly no treatment at all. The possibility that the “failure” of the above reviewed studies may be due to this issue cannot entirely be discounted.

(4) DC and IC rarely attempt to raise learner intentionality and motivation to eradicate error.

In the way DC and IC are usually administered, teachers do not systematically attempt to raise the learner’s intentionality to eradicate their errors. This is an important shortcoming since learner intentionality appears to play an important role in the success of any kind of instruction (Schmidt, 1994). For EC to work, learners must want to eradicate errors. As Johnson (1996) observed, the issue of intentionality is particularly important in the area of mistakes which do not impede communication and which learners may consequently not perceive as important – the so-called ‘minor’ mistakes. Learner perceptions of the importance and gravity of mistakes will depend on a number of factors. One such factor refers to the relevance to their academic success. If, as in the case of UK examination boards, a student can obtain a grade ‘A’ at GCSE having made a relatively high number of such minor mistakes, he/she will not put much effort on eliminating these mistakes. Another important factor will be the bias in corrective feedback consciously or subconsciously conveyed by the teacher to their students. If a teacher applies selective EC which prioritises effective communication over grammatical correctness, the learners may perceive the former as more important than the latter with consequences for the orientation of their intentionality.

Similarly, DC and IC may impact negatively on the motivation of those learners who do not know how to improve on their mistakes. In these writers’ professional experience, the perception of not being able to address one’s learning problems is a common and powerful catalyst of learner anxiety. Thus, whereas in highly self-efficacious learners correction may spark a productive form of arousal and/or facilitative anxiety (James, 1998), in less self-efficacious ones the opposite is often true. A counter-productive form of anxiety sets in and the students often linger in a state of learning inertia and disaffection. This issue is exacerbated when the correction on those problems is recurrent, judgmental and carried out without the due tact and sensitivity (Edge, 1989). Simply reminding learners of their inadequacies or asking them to self-correct what is beyond their ability could only be demotivating and detrimental to learning. As the resultative hypothesis (Skehan, 1989) posits, learners need to feel empowered with effective instruments for overcoming their problems and must experience success in their performance in order to gain confidence and feel motivated.

(6) EC is not traditionally a learner-centred process and does not aim at learner autonomy.

The emphasis on learner–centredness and autonomy is one of the most innovative features of modern L2 pedagogy. Yet, EC is still largely carried out through models of feedback provision whereby the teacher is the exclusive manager of the corrective process. The fact that teachers select the errors to be treated may have negative consequences on the motivation of those learners for whom self-determination is an important personal value. For such learners, an approach whereby the teacher allows the student to make an informed choice as to which errors they want to address may be more beneficial. Another issue with teacher-centredness and lack of learner autonomy relates to self-correctable errors often left in learners’ writing due to poor editing and carelessness. A number of studies have shown that many of the errors in L2 writing are self-correctable if their presence is pointed out by the teacher (e.g. Conti, 2004). As Ferris (1999) noted, L2 students must learn to become self-reliant and effective editors in preparation for their academic and/or professional life when teacher help will no longer be available. Eliminating self-correctable errors also has the practical advantage of allowing the teachers to devote their time to errors which the learners cannot correct by themselves. However, traditional EC does not equip learners with effective editing skills or instruct them to apply more attention and commitment on the editing process.

(7) Traditionally, Error Correction does not explicitly promote the enhancement of error-related metacognition.

Related to the previous point is EC’s failure to systematically develop learners’ awareness of their problematic areas. The effects of heightened learner self-awareness are manifold; the most obvious is that it may prevent specific errors from re-occurring by sparking a process of self-monitoring. This, in turn, may lead to more effective editing (e.g. “If I know that I make a mistake on this item, I will be more careful in using it in the future”) and/or independent learning (“Since I keep making mistakes on this item, I’d better learn more about it”). It may also trigger intentionality by bringing into the learner’s focal awareness the full extent of his/her lack of commitment and/or gaps in his/her mastery of the items (e.g. “So many silly mistakes! I must do something about it!”). Conti (2004) found that student -generated error checklist which included familiar mistakes noted in previous essay played a significant role in reducing self-correctable routinised mistakes due to processing inefficiency, especially those related to function words. These errors, as Johnson (1996) notes, are the most impervious to correction as they usually refer to less semantically salient items which often go unmonitored (Johnson, 1996) and unless brought into learner focal attention will keep going unmonitored until they are fossilized (Conti, 2004).

4 The way forward: Explicit Strategy Training in self-monitoring as an effective alternative

Should we ban EC altogether then, as Truscott (1996) advocated? This has been a thorny issue for the last decade or so and no-one as yet has refuted Truscott’s arguments convincingly. Surveys of student opinion clearly show that students want their errors to be corrected (Ferris, 2004). Authoritative Cognitive theories of L2 acquisition posit the crucial importance of EC as a catalyst of L2-learning (e.g. Byalistock, 1980; McLaughlin, 1987; Anderson, 2000); and there is some research evidence, however scant and controversial, that it can indeed work (Ferris, 2004). It seems that the real issue is not whether to abolish EC or not, but how to find a more effective alternative. As already stated at the beginning of this paper, alternative models of error treatment can already be found in the literature, in a handful of successful Explicit Strategy Training (EST). It should be noted that the remedial approaches adopted in these studies did not do away with EC, but rather integrated it with strategic instruction.

4.1 Rationale for the adoption of Explicit Strategy Training

The rationale behind the adoption of EST is that many of the factors which undermine the effects of EC may be viewed as strategic deficits, more specifically:

(1) the inadequacy of student interaction with teacher-correction maybe viewed as referring to a lack of effective feedback-handling strategies;

(2) the fact that students do not engage in long-term targeting of their errors, as stemming from a deficit in Self-Monitoring strategies;

(3) the recurrence of self-correctable ‘sloppy’ mistakes, as resulting from poor editing strategies;

(4) the lack of learner autonomy in the area of error-treatment, as caused by low levels of self-regulation (i.e. metacognitive strategies);

(5) the lack of declarative knowledge which is at the root of many errors may also be seen as the result of ineffective learning skills;

(6) finally, the disaffection of those learners who feel unable to improve may be seen as relating to the domain of affective strategies (e.g. resilience )

Viewed from this angle, remedial instruction which effectively addresses the above strategic deficits (e.g. Explicit Learner Training), should, at least in theory, have a more beneficial impact on learning than DC and IC.

4.2 Approaches to EST

The existing EST studies share the following features, which were lacking in the traditional forms of EC reviewed above:

(a) Enhancement of learner error-related metacognition

(b) A long-term process of self-monitoring

(c) Modelling of and extensive practice in the use of effective self-correction / editing strategies

(d) Personalisaton of error treatment

(e) Focus on the process rather than the product of writing and learning in general

(f) Synergistic use of various forms of EC

EST programmes typically consist of the following phases (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990; Cohen, 1998; Macaro, 2001):

(1) Pre-test needs assessment: The learners’ needs are assessed, usually through a combination of different instruments (e.g. questionnaires, interviews, think-aloud protocols and other forms of self-reports) in order to strengthen the validity of the data.

(2) Introductory phase: The rationale for the training is given and the target strategies are presented and modelled.

(3) Scaffolding phase: The learners receive extensive practice in the target strategies with the help of “scaffolding”, i.e., activities and materials which remind and encourage the learners to apply the target strategies.

(4) Autonomous phase: The learners are left to their own devices without any intervention on the part of the teacher.

(5) Evaluative phase: The learners’ use of the target strategies and their impact on their performance are verified. Normally the same diagnostic instruments used at pre-test are re-deployed here.

The rationale for adopting EST as an alternative to EC and IC lies in the fact that it addresses the deficits of traditional corrective methodologies that we have identified thus far, namely: (1) it is a learner-centred instructional methodology which has at its core the assessment of learner needs ( i.e. the analysis of the sources of errors in the context of error treatment). These enable the teacher to deliver more personalised, fine-grained instruction for different learners and different types of errors. (2) EST programmes usually include components for attitudinal change and for enhancing self-efficacy and motivation as well as metacognitive awareness (Wenden, 1987; 1991). These would in turn help to develop the learners’ self-regulation and intentionality to act on their learning deficits. (3) EST addresses the strategic deficits which undermine the effects of traditional EC (note 2). (4) being based on Skill Theory, which postulates that acquisition occurs only after extensive practice and numerous instances of feedback from the environment (Anderson, 2000; Johnson, 1996), EST provides/scaffolds extensive contextualised practice of the target strategies through tailor made resources/activities (Macaro, 2001).

Moreover, although empirical research in EST is still scant, some promising results have been yielded in a small number of existing studies in the area of L2 writing.

Lalande’s (1982) study, although the researcher did not refer to the study as an EST experiment, is considered as the oldest of the studies in this area since it involves metacognitive enhancement and strategic instruction. Lalande compared the effects of two different types of feedback on the writing of FL German learners: DC and IC. Upon reception of the marked essays the learners were asked to correct their mistakes and re-write the entire essay. For the experimental group, this involved interpreting the codes. As the course progressed, the experimental group learners monitored the frequency and recurrence of error types by referring to Error Awareness Sheets (error charts in which students logged their mistakes). Lalande found that “the combination of error awareness and problem solving techniques had a significant beneficial effect on the development of writing skills” and “effectively prevented students from making more grammatical and orthographic errors.” (Lalande, 1982: 78)

Ferris (1995) set out to improve 30 ESL writers’ essay accuracy through EST in editing skills which involves a strong metacognitive component (awareness-raising and self-monitoring). The corrective treatment included the following: self-correction, peer feedback, teacher- and learner-generated editing checklists, learners’ error chart, awareness-raising, remedial grammar instruction and exercises, and classroom editing activities. The essays were analysed in terms of five categories of errors: noun, verb, sentence structure, punctuation, miscellaneous. The results showed that nearly all her learners (28/30) made significant progress in reducing the overall percentage of errors in at least some of the five error-categories. However, they were not always successful in reducing their percentages of error in specific categories on which they had been advised to focus. Also, there was considerable variation in error reduction in the targeted categories across both error category and writing context (home or class). These mixed results, Ferris concluded, “show how individual a process editing really is” and that “personalized instruction and guidance in editing may be most effective” (1995a: 52).

Conti (2001) conducted a quasi experimental study involving 20 university students of L2 Italian of intermediate writing proficiency. He compared the accuracy of 250 essays written by two groups (about 10 per participant): one who received EST in feedback handling, error targeting and production monitoring strategies, and the other who received traditional DC. The results showed that the experimental group’s error rate decreased significantly from the first to last essay across all the categories of errors investigated. A comparison with the control group indicated a significant advantage for the independent variable. In fact, increases in error rate were observed for several comparison group learners. Analysis of think-aloud protocols collected during the writing of the last in-class essay revealed that most of the corrections by the experimental group students were through the application of the target strategies, as agreed by two independent inter-coders). The final questionnaires and interviews indicated that the experimental group felt their accuracy had improved substantially due to the training whereas the other group felt their accuracy had either improved slightly or not at all. It is noteworthy that there was no difference in the quality of the content of essays by the two groups as assessed by independent raters.

Macaro (2001) implemented an EST aimed at enhancing the writing skills of three groups of secondary school L2 French students. The training focused on composition and editing strategies using scaffolding techniques similar to Conti (2001). A set of memory, cognitive and metacognitive strategies were modelled and scaffolded over a semester in order to improve learner accuracy in the areas of tenses use, and noun-adjective agreement. The performance of three experimental groups was compared with three control groups who received DC. The results showed a significant advantage for the experimental groups.

It should be noted that with the exception of Macaro (2001), the existing EST studies investigated relatively small samples of students and each study investigated different foreign languages. This obviously undermines the generalisability of the findings. In addition, the comparability of the experimental and control/comparison groups had hardly been established statistically. Furthermore, apart from Conti (2001), none of the above studies calculated inter-rater reliability in analysing errors and strategy use, and this further threatens the validity and reliability of the findings. Nevertheless, the above review suggests the potential of EST as a more effective alternative to traditional EC in treating errors in L2 writing.

5 Conclusions

This paper has attempted to show why EST has the potential to be a more effective alternative to traditional EC. As discussed above, the existing research evidence strongly suggests that traditional EC does not work due to a number of intrinsic and extrinsic flaws. The intrinsic ones related to the epistemological assumptions that learning occurs by simply looking at the teacher correction; the extrinsic ones to the way teachers provide feedback or to the learners’ often superficial interaction with the correction. There are also other reasons for the failure of traditional EC not previously discussed in the literature: 1) lack of the identification of root causes of errors, whether cognitive or strategic, and of the treatment of errors accordingly, 2) insufficient provision of practice of and exposure to problematic items, and 3) lack of active development of learners’ motivation, intentionality and editing skills needed to become effective, self-autonomous writers. On the other hand, EST addresses these deficits. It 1) assesses learners’ deficits that lead to error-making or inadequate feedback-handling, 2) raises learners’ awareness of problematic areas and engages learners in a long-term process of self-monitoring of recurrent errors, 3) provides instruction and extensive practice in strategies that suit learners’ needs and have the potential, if used effectively, to enhance their performance and 4) gradually shifts the responsibility of the error-treatment process to the learners, who become self-reliant writers.

In the absence of a solid body of research, it is difficult to say with certainty that EST will definitely work and which form of EST is effective with what kind of learners. More studies should be carried out testing out the efficacy of the EST instruction with larger samples of students in a variety of contexts using more valid research methods than the existing ones. This state of affairs may deter teachers from adopting it in their classroom practice, especially when EST programmes are not easy to set up and implement as they require a lot more time, effort and know-how than simply correcting or coding learners’ errors. Furthermore, teachers must be trained in the use of needs assessment tools such as questionnaires, interviews and error analysis, and students need to be persuaded that the time and effort they are going to invest in the training are conducive to learning. Nevertheless, EST is worth the effort if one considers its long-term benefits. In fact, after the initial stages of the training where the learners require substantial cognitive and affective support, the students will become more self-reliant, and the teacher’s work will be limited to helping the learners solely with the errors that they cannot cope with. As the students mature linguistically and metacognitively year after year, the need for the teacher to intervene will be reduced even further. To start with, we suggest teachers incorporate in their practice the most important features of EST: 1) personalised error treatment, 2) enhancing the learning outcome of student-interaction with teacher feedback and 3) long-term, repeated instruction on problematic language items.


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