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.

5 thoughts on “7 reasons why (traditional) Error Correction does not work

  1. It is unfortunate that articles like this appear too rarely. Error correction is one of the many areas of language learning is misunderstood and misused in “mainstream” language classes.

    As you say we need to focus more on the need to for learners to become more mindful about their learning and what they are learning. Intellectual understanding is just one part of that. There is FAR more to being reflective, as one can see when one is learning to drive a car. The whole of us is involved, from our emotions to our sensitivity to our eyes, ears etc etc. That is what we need to engender in our classes.
    Once that happens, the laboriousness that you talk about can be replaced by a sense of consuming passion, much the same as when we are involved in learning to play video games. Then the notion of effort disappears.

  2. I have found joint attention frames to be useful contexts for error correction. When the student is invested in the message, and wants me to “get it”, that person can be very flexible with respect to finding the optimal form. My usual question is, “How have you heard (or read) others who express a similar idea?”

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