Error Feedback: Practice

If all I had to go on was the research on Error Correction in L2 Writing, I wouldn't do it. There's simply insufficient evidence to justify such an investment of time and effort.

However, research on learning, expertise, and motivation has garnered an impressive amount of empirical evidence for the positive effects of feedback that meets certain criteria. Before making suggestions on how to structure grammar feedback, let me summarize criteria on learning and motivation for guiding that feedback.


  1. Learning occurs sequentially through three stages of declarative, procedural, and automatic knowledge.
  2. Acquiring expertise in any field, including a second language, requires extensive practice.
  3. Practice is made effective through
    • accurate diagnosis of the task/rules,
    • examples and understandable explanations for the task/rules, and
    • feedback based on the examples and explanations.
  4. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.
  5. Learning occurs best when re-iterated at intervals.


  1. Motivation is important because it encourages persistance on task.
  2. Motivation is promoted by
    • clear goals,
    • autonomy,
    • tasks that challenge one's competence without unduly frustrating, and
    • feedback that is immediate and informational.

Grammar Feedback Guidelines

Correctable Grammar

Grammar feedback in L2 writing should target only those items that are rule-governed and for which examples and clear explanations can be found. Subject-verb agreement is one such rule. Style is not.

Structure of Feedback

Dana Ferris (2003) breaks feedback into direct (the teacher giving the answer) and indirect (which ranges from merely noting the location of an error to using editing symbols to more explicit directions, such as use “future tense here.”). She says that direct feedback is preferred for beginning students, while indirect feedback seems to have better effects for intermediate and advanced students, likely because students must think about the errors and engage in self-editing (Ferris, 2003).

To some degree, if students think about an error, they're constructing declarative knowledge. But are they diagnosing the rule accurately and time-effectively? It would be better to first have the rules accompanied by examples and explanations that they continue to refer to. No doubt, Ferris and most instructors refer students to their grammar textbooks, but I'm thinking that students should construct their own textbooks to use grammar feedback more effectively.

Grammar notebooks: Students should maintain grammar notebooks with these examples and explanations, adding to the notebooks as new rules, examples, and explanations are covered. Extra space or pages should be available for students for revision. For instance, if an error was a case of misunderstanding, perhaps the explanation for the rule in their notebook should be revised. Or, if a rule doesn't seem to fit neatly into rules, examples, or understandings previously given, then students can revise the rule, create a new rule, make new examples, or write new understandings. In this way, students can acquire the requisite declarative knowledge, and the notebook becomes a textbook emerging out of, contributing to, and individualized to their own learning.

Goal logs: Students can keep a goal log, in which they set grammar goals and track their improvement over time. Seeing improvement is motivation, and seeing the same error repeatedly can help students target that error, review and revise their grammar notebooks accordingly, and determine strategies for reducing its occurrence.

Program-embedded feedback: Notebooks and goal logs should be used across courses in a program to provide the continuity and repetition needed of reading, writing, and revising understanding across different contexts to proceduralize grammar.

Frequency of Feedback

One problem with learning to write is that unlike sports, chess, and video games, feedback does not occur immediately or even often. Up until now, in my own classes, I generally only give grammar feedback on their major paper assignments, which means they get grammar feedback at the most every 2-3 weeks, and even that occurs several days after the paper is turned in.

If time allows, consider having students write for 5-10 minutes every class and then checking their work or perhaps checking their classmates' work. But instead of having them check for all errors, have them check for one specific error according to class needs. On days with less time, consider using a student example, perhaps from another class. Re-iteration of rules, or anything else, at spaced intervals is crucial for learning. This sort of task would work well for homework, too.

Note that while I grade the grammar component on a major paper assignment, I do not grade it on other assignments. Although the reality check of a grade is a given in most educational institutions, most feedback should be informational rather than evaluative. Otherwise, intrinsic motivation can be dampened.

Grammar Instruction

General lessons on grammar do not fit the criteria above. However, Ferris (2003; cf. Hinkel, 2004) suggests that mini-lessons may be useful if they have the following characteristics:

  1. Mini-lessons should be brief and narrowly focused …
  2. Instruction should focus on major areas of student need, rather than minor fine-tuning.
  3. Lessons should include (minimally) text-analysis activities so that students can examine the target constructions in authentic contexts and application activities so that they can apply newly covered concepts to their own writing.
  4. Instruction should also include strategy training to help students learn to avoid errors and to self-edit their work. (p. 157)

An example of a single task incorporating these guidelines and the criteria above would be one centering on the reporting of an interview (adapted from Hinkel, 2002). A mini-lesson could look at grammatical structures in interviews, such as tenses and reporting verbs. Examples would be given along with understanble explanations. Students would then analyze interviews in newspapers or magazines, focusing on tenses and reporting verbs and comparing to their examples. Next, they would interview someone and write a report of the interview. Finally, students would compare how they used tenses and reporting verbs to the grammatical findings of their earlier analyses and examples in their grammar notebooks.

The key diffferences in the original task and this one is (1) establishing declarative knowledge appropriately and (2) integrating feedback into the task via students' grammar notebooks. Many tasks in textbooks and elsewhere can be reframed to incorporate the learning and motivation criteria above.


Feedback is crucial for learning any activity, including languages. There are “no magic bullets” to accelerate learning. Rather, appropriate feedback helps students spend “effective time on task,” thus eliminating wasted time and effort.

Disclaimer: Because these suggestions are the recent result of my reviewing these theories and considering their application to error feedback, I haven't implemented them yet. This summer I intend to work on reframing the way I provide feedback and implement my new understanding in the fall semester. After doing so, I hope to provide some feedback here on how it went.

Call for feedback: If you have tried any of these approaches or others based on these theories, email me and let me know how it went, both successfully and unsuccessfully, and I'll post your experiences here.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography