Five things I do when I correct my students’ essays

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My Ph.D study,Conti (2004), (as cited in Macaro,2004 and 2005, Ko Yin Sun, 2009, Goonshooly, 2012, Barjesteh, 2014, Cohen and Macaro, 2014, etc.) has provided me with great insight into the strengths and limitations of error correction. The following is a very concise list of what I believe to be the most important strategies to deploy in the error treatment of surface level errors in foreign language writing.

0. Caveat

Please note, this is something teachers can afford to do when they have a relatively light timetable or with specific students who are particularly problematic and need a lot of attention. I wouldn’t recommend this approach with every single class and student of yours as it is very time-consuming. In language instructions the focus should be on teaching not on fixing.

1.Focus on the most important issues

No point in focusing on every single error you find in your students’ writing when you are giving individual feedback on their essays. There is only so much attention a student can invest in the remedial learning process. Select only a few errors (3 to 5) at a time using the following criteria

  1. Errors that can be treated – no point in focusing an absolute beginner learner on mistakes involving the use of the pluperfect … Only treat errors for which the learner is developmentally ready;
  2. Errors that seriously impact understanding – these errors are the most important to deal with as they mislead the reader;
  3. Errors that keep recurring and seem impervious to correction – these errors need a lot of attention because once an error is fossilized it is very difficult to eradicate. Since these errors require a lot of work, try and prioritize the ones which, in your professional judgement, are more important (e.g. the ones that mighty penalize a student in a forthcoming exam);
  4. Errors that the learner would like to eradicate – it is my belief, controversial amongst some colleagues, that the learner should have a say as to what they should address in their remedial learning process. The rationale for this is that since s/he is going to be main the agent in this process, the fact that s/he chooses which errors to target may enhance their intentionality to eradicate error.

Do not address, in individual feedback, errors that are common to most of the class, as they can be the focus of a series of remedial lessons for the class as a whole

2. Find out what the root causes of error REALLY are

One common mistake teachers make in the corrective process, is to give all errors the same blanket treatment (be it direct/indirect correction with or without explanation or editing instruction) as if they were all caused by the same cognitive process(es). A bit like some doctors do, by giving a broad spectrum antibiotic for any kind of infection.

Errors can be caused by either (a) a declarative knowledge failure (the learner does not know the rule) or (b) a Procedural knowledge failure (the learner does know the rule and can self-correct, but did not apply it correctly or forgot to apply it in a given context because of processing inefficiency issues – e.g. cognitive overload, interference, etc.). It is important to identify the correct source of error before dismissing it as a ‘careless’ mistakes. There is usually more to an error than meets the eye.

In my study I used a number of research tools to investigate my subjects’ errors and the best one was definitely asking the students to edit the essays they wrote under think-aloud protocol conditions (i.e. they verbalized their thoughts as they attempted to correct). The knowledge I gained from that process was crucial to the success of my error treatment experiment.

3.‘Make it personal’

In my opinion, like any other type of instruction, error correction is greatly enhanced by making it as personal as possible a process, especially when we are dealing with weaker and/or less confident learners. One-to-one conferences are the best way to start the never-ending dialogue between teacher and student that the corrective process should really become. Using the page or the audio track as an interface between the student and the teacher makes the process much more distant and impersonal; the human contact, on the other hand, especially in the presence of judiciously gauged motivational feedback can do wonders for student’s self-efficacy and intentionality.

Let us not forget that the teacher’s role in the success of any remedial learning is crucial just as it is in any other kind of instruction. I often use the analogy of the person who wants to lose/gain weight in the gym. If you look at the rates of people who carry on training after the first three-four sessions, those with a personal trainer/life coach are less likely to drop out by a whopping 50 %! Why? Because a lot of us need encouragement, reminders, praise and, sometimes, a good telling-off…

When embarking on the remediation process, the teacher needs to take on a role alike the one of a ‘personal trainer’ since, as I shall explain below, errors are not eradicated in one go, it may take months or in certain cases, when an error is fossilized, even years. S/he will have to remind, prod, encourage, push the learner to keep working on the target mistakes.

It goes without saying that like every personal trainer the corrector must be inspiring and empathetic both emotionally and cognitively with the correctee.

4.Ensure there is a serious and sustained cognitive investment on the learner’s part

Several studies including mine have identified lack of student cognitive/personal investment in the error treatment as a major determinant of the failure of corrective interventions. Student writers do not look at the teacher’s corrective feedback and when they do they are superficial and do not follow it up. Teachers often do the same. They do a one-off remedial lesson on finding masses of students making the same mistake, then they move on. What I learnt in the course of my investigation is that for error to be eradicated (as mentioned above) both teachers and students must work hard. The students must put a lot of effort in the process at many levels: research, self-study, writing practice, self-monitoring and introspection.

Scaffolding the feedback-handling process in order to involve the student actively in the process is crucial, in this respect. Feedback-handling activities that students may be asked to perform on receiving feedback include: explaining the teacher correction; hypothesizing why the mistakes was made; describing what the rule that was broken is; producing student-generated examples of that rule across various contexts; produce a mini-lesson to deliver to a group of peers,ect.).

In my study, all of my informants reported drawing great benefits from such activities as they enhanced their self-knowledge as to the mistakes they were more likely to make to a point that they reported looking for those mistakes without much thinking before handing in their written pieces.

Another ingenious way of involving the students in the corrective process is to ask the students to step in before the essay is even completed and the feedback given. How? By asking them to annotate on margin whilst writing the essay any doubt they may have about the deployment of a grammar structure or lexical item. I use this technique a lot and it pays great dividends. This technique, that I call LIFT (Learner Initiated Feedback Technique) is dealt with in greater detail in a dedicated post of mine on this blog (here: ‘L.I.F.T. – an effective writing-proficiency and metacognition enhancer’).

5.Provide extensive practice

Many interventionist studies which involved editing instruction have failed whilst others have succeeded in enhancing grammar and/or lexical accuracy based on their duration and intensity. As already hinted above, learners need extensive practice to eradicate the target errors. Why? Because in learners’ Interlanguage system the wrong and correct representations of a grammar rule that has not been fully or correctly learnt coexist and often have equal weight (or, when the wrong form is fossilized, this will have greater weight). This entails that when the brain needs to apply that specific grammar structure the correct and the incorrect representation will both compete for retrieval. Extensive practice (highly monitored at the beginning) is required for the correct representation of the rule to acquire greater weight until it has become so strong in terms of memory trace to win the retrieval ‘competition’.

The extensive practice envisaged should occur:

  1. across a wide range of semantic contexts;
  2. in syntactically simple sentences to start with, moving gradually to more complex and longer chunks of text;
  3. in highly monitored performances (such as non-timed essays/translations) to start with and at a later stage, in the context of less monitored ones (such as timed essays or oral conversation).

Teachers are very busy people and one cannot always do all of the above as well as they would like to. However, these strategies can make a serious difference, in my personal experience, when applied to error treatment consistently. I suggest, if one does not have the time to do all of the above with every single student one teaches, to implement these strategies at least with the most needy of our learners, or with the ones that currently, in you opinion, are not gaining much benefit from your corrective feedback.

I deal with the issue of correction much more extensively in a research-based article of mine (‘Why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students’ writing (not the traditional way at least’) : 

More on this topic in the book I co-authored with Steve Smith : ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ available on http://www.amazon.co.uk and http://www.amazon.com. 

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