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 tennis or 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