ERROR CORRECTION IN
DonNTU, DonNMU, Donetsk, Ukraine
touches upon the problem of error correction in students` writing. Writing is an essential
part of our students` curriculum and the question how to correct, when and
which mistakes exactly worries all teachers. Not correcting errors promotes
fossilization. It is important to decide whether the errors are ‘performance’
or ‘competence’ related. We should also consider the learners` current stage of
development and their readiness for correction. Helping students to develop
their writing skills and improve their accuracy we have to find the ways to
respond more effectively to their needs.
Writing is one of the
basic skills for ESL students. Writing is an essential part of our students` curriculum
(compositions, business papers, business reports, business correspondence,
course papers and finally thesis). Moreover, our students often participate in
different programs and certificate exams for which writing an essay is the
accuracy and proficiency in writing is an especially difficult problem as many
students suffer from “I cannot write English syndrome” which inhibits progress
in developing writing skills. Researchers say that the problem is caused not by
the writing task itself, but the anticipation of evaluation of this writing by
No wonder the question how
to correct, when and which mistakes exactly worries us a lot and the answer is
not likely to be easily found. On the one hand, it is very simple. Certainly to
correct. But on the other, it brings about a lot of other issues related to
error correction in writing.
What is the purpose of error correction and
for whom. It gives a lot of provoking thoughts. “Do we really give ‘effective’
feedback to students?’ ‘Do they really enjoy and learn from the feedback?’
Seeing the paper full of red letters may discourage the student and s/he can
lose interest in writing though a lot of mistakes may be beyond the student`s
knowledge at this time but learnable. The type of error correction focused
on grammar issues should be given by the way how it functions with other parts
of the sentence, within paragraph, or even the whole writing. Students are
in the class because they want to learn something. Even if they do not
understand what is written in the text, they will learn how the words are interrelated with each other and function. It is the way of
learning beyond their current developmental stage.
correction in L2 writing is a source of great concern. Teachers who regularly
provide grammar-oriented feedback know that it is one of the most
time-consuming and exhausting jobs. We also know that time and energy we spend
sometimes does not pay off in long-term improvement. Don`t we have to agree
that grammar correction does not work and we`d better spend our in-class and
out-of-class time focusing on other issues?
There are different approaches to the
problem in question. Some researchers think it`s not worth doing. All mistakes
will eventually iron themselves out. Unfortunately the experience does not
confirm. There is the “let
them find their own errors” school of thought (mostly for high-level students).
It is certainly important that they make corrections themselves, if they can.
We can underline their sentence when there is a “language’ mistake (vocabulary,
grammar, syntax, etc.). It may be a decent compromise. But
the students keep asking for corrections.
Not correcting errors promotes
fossilization; students want feedback on their errors and are frustrated when
they do not get any. Correcting every mistake students make is an enormous
amount of work. But the idea of correcting some mistakes is likely to send them
the message that the uncorrected mistakes are not really mistakes.
As far as the idea of
fossilization is concerned, we should keep in mind the learner's current stage
of development. If the error concerns a structure far in advance of the
learner's current stage in the language, correcting it will probably have no
benefit, and may just demotivate the learner, making them feel overwhelmed. In
other words we have to be aware of the learner`s being ready for correction.
There are more
and less effective ways to approach error correction in L2 writing.
error correction – selective, prioritized and clear – can and does help
student writers in improving their accuracy (if not 100%, but the majority of
It`s also important
to decide whether the errors are ‘performance’ or ‘competence’ related. The
former the students are usually able to correct themselves if they are pointed
out. The latter needs to be retaught. We may be wasting time by correcting
errors if the students do not understand why.
Many of the
errors are treatable (subject-verb agreement, missing articles, verb forms) –
for these there are rules to consult; the others are not (word choice, sentence
structure, missing words, unnecessary words, word order). It is for the
teachers to think how to effectively provide feedback on these different types
of language forms and structures. It is essential for teachers to commit
themselves to selective error feedback, to a strategy to build students`
awareness and knowledge of their most serious and frequent grammar problems.
Often there is not enough
time to address every mistake in a student`s paper. When the paper contains the
same consistent mistakes, e.g. articles usage we can mark the first one and
then explain the grammatical concept; then point out the similar mistake and
ask the student to make correction, suggest that s/he make the rest of the
corrections pertaining to that particular problem and move to something else in
We have to
explain students that all mistakes are not the same. There are so called
“global” errors, which interfere with the reader`s ability to understand the
text, and “local” errors, which do not. The wrong verb tense or the wrong
sentence connector can change the meaning and should be corrected. In contrast,
local errors would be things like using a gerund instead of an infinitive
(except the cases where both are correct and there is a difference in meaning),
forgetting the indefinite article with singular countable nouns, or using the
wrong preposition (again where meaning is not affected).
How and when
to correct? At low- level classes the teacher should correct the students`
writing and even have them to rewrite if not all, then at least part of
assignments. Such method will help them improve their writing. But at higher
level most students should be able to identify their own errors and correct
them. They also should be able to correct errors indicated to them by teachers
or other students. It helps develop their editing skills. For this purpose we
may offer exercises on common errors, choosing the correct form, editing texts,
checking the papers of their group-mates.
In case of
error correction in L2 writing there are reasons why teachers should continue
correcting errors: surveys of students` opinions show that they do place
importance on receiving effective error correction feedback from their teachers
(they say it discourages them, undermines their motivation and confidence in
writing assignments if they do not receive any). What is important is that
students become more self-sufficient in editing their own writing and the
absence of any feedback or strategy training will ensure that many students
will never take seriously the need to improve their editing skills and they will
not have the knowledge and strategy to edit even when they do realize its
Not to discourage our
students with correction we have to keep in mind that “good writing” consists
of much more than good grammar. Organization, coherence, word choice, proper
support of ideas and arguments, originality, overall effectiveness of the
writing – theses have a much greater “weight” in the reader`s eyes than perfect
grammar. (holistic assessment, esp. for business students` writing, similar to
what is done in TOEFL). But
can we assume that other assessors will do the same assessing our students`
writing in other environment?
There is one
more issue concerning assessment of students` writing. When students make a
mistake, does it get counted every time the student makes the same mistake
(e.g. missing “the” in front of The last time) or is it counted as one
error? It is a crucial issue for students especially those who are trying to
enter academic programs for which essays are important. If, e.g. a student leaves
the third person singular S off a verb, is that one error or several different
errors? We have to think of the consistency in errors. In other words,
if a student sometimes makes a certain type of mistake but does not always,
is that better or worse that if the student simply never gets it right
in a piece of writing?
correction principles that make sense and seem to work best are to overtly
correct only those errors which:
1. seem to be at risk of fossilizing;
2. hinder communication to the degree of obscuring
obscuring/transforming the speaker's social
intent: e.g., make the speaker
sound rude when s/he is not trying to be so);
3. socially stigmatize the speaker (lower-class forms, etc.).
Let`s keep our experience
and intuition in mind, listen to our students and consider their needs in
deciding if, when and how to provide error feedback and correction to L2
student writers. The issue of helping students to develop their writing skills
and improve their accuracy is too important and we have to find the ways to
respond more thoughtfully and effectively to our students` needs.