March

From the previous posts on learning theory (here and here), two crucial points were:

  1. Acquiring expertise in any field, including language, requires extensive practice.
  2. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.

You have to be motivated to practice extensively. Videogamers are and do. They can spend 50-100 hours on a game. Imagine a student spending 50-100 hours writing an essay! In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine ... [is] its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. ... Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve.

These principles of expertise and competence are also seen in two theories of motivation: self-determination theory and flow.

In self-determiantion theory, motivation is driven by three needs:

  1. autonomy,
  2. social relatedness, and
  3. competence, including informational (not evaluative) feedback on competence, that is, feedback that supports autonomy in learning as opposed to controlling it.

Flow is a state in which one is fully engaged in the task at hand (see this review of Csikszentmihaly's book Finding Flow). Another post noted that flow occurs under certain conditions, three of which are:

  1. clear goals
  2. immediate feedback
  3. tasks that challenge (without unduly frustrating) one's skills

These needs and conditions are an integral part of video games. But have they been in providing error feedback?

Probably not as directly as in other arenas. Just look at the condition of "immediate feedback." In my own first-year composition classes, error feedback is given mostly on essay drafts, which I receive every 2-3 weeks and return in 2-7 days. Can you imagine a basketball coach giving feedback only every few weeks and then a few days after the practice in question?

Although it's not as easy to incorporate these motivation principles into error feedback, I have a few ideas I'll discuss in the next post.

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



What does one say? Where does one begin? You probably have heard that Kathy Sierra did not go to ETech due to death threat comments, along with "disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs" against her. And as she noted, these posts included ones by "prominent bloggers." She wrote:

I do not want to be part of a culture--the Blogosphere--where this is considered acceptable. Where the price for being a blogger is kevlar-coated skin and daughters who are tough enough to not have their "widdy biddy sensibilities offended" when they see their own mother Photoshopped into nothing more than an objectified sexual orifice, possibly suffocated as part of some sexual fetish. (And of course all coming on the heels of more explicit threats)

I agree. I don't want to be part of such a culture, either. I prefer to read blogs like Kathy's, blogs that are positive and helpful. We cannot undo what has been done. But we can follow her advice:

If you want to do something about it--do not tolerate the kind of abuse that includes threats or even suggestions of violence (especially sexual violence). Do not put these people on a pedestal. Do not let them get away with calling this "social commentary", "protected speech", or simply "criticism". I would never be for censoring speech--these people can say all the misogynistic, vile, tasteless things they like--but we must preserve that line where words and images become threats of violence. Freedom of speech--however distasteful and rude the speech may be, is crucial. But when those words contain threats of harm or death, they can destroy a life.

Updates:

Chris Locke's response to Kathy Sierra's initial post.
Kathy Sierra and Chris Locke: "Coordinated Statements on the Recent Events"
Nancy White: Hate, Threats and the Culture of Love
Kim Cameron: One very sad story
Mitch Ratcliffe: Identity rape and mob mentality
Tim Reilly: Call for a Blogger's Code of Conduct
Richard Koman (Silicon Valley Watcher), About that Code of Conduct (a response to Tim Reilly)
Richard Koman (Silicon Valley Watcher), Blogger Guidelines and a Call for Censure (a follow-up response to Tim Reilly)
Fractals of Change, Anonymous Cowards and Infamous Scribblers (an interesting post noting the "uncivil" and "pseudonym[ous]" discourse of the U.S. founding fathers)
Jeff Jarvis (BuzzMachine), No Twinkie Badgers Here



As noted in the previous post on theory in error feedback, the research on expertise and ACT-R Theory suggest that learning a language is similar to learning other activities like chess, music, and math. In this post, we'll look at Skill Acquisition Theory (SAT), which is based upon the work in ACT-R.

Robert DeKeyser (2007) has a good overview of Skill Acquisition Theory. (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) As he notes, development has three stages: declarative, procedural, and automatic (from ACT-R Theory). Declarative knowledge refers to explicit knowledge about a topic, as in "knowing" and talking about grammar rules. Procedural knowledge is implicit knowledge that refers to behavior, such as speaking or writing a language. Of course, there are different levels of proficiency in using a language, and thus automaticity is not an "all-or-nothing affair". Automaticity occurs toward the endpoint of extensive practice, toward the point at which one has become completely fluent in a language. From the perspective of SAT, the sequence of these stages is crucial, as is the appropriate "combination of abstract rules and concrete examples" at the declarative stage.

According to DeKeyser, Skill Acquisition Theory does not explain all of language learning and apparently is most effective at beginner levels. He states that SAT works best with

  1. high-aptitutde adult learners engaged in
  2. the learning of simple structures at
  3. fairly early stages of learning
  4. in instructional contexts

It seems obvious that young children will not respond as well as adults to the use of declarative knowledge as their ability to understand rules and explanations is more limited. Conversely, as rules become more complex, they may become too difficult to understand in the form of declarative knowledge. Thus, it's possible that learning (or acquiriing) complex rules may rely more upon implicit processes. Anderson and Schunn (pdf) say something similar:

As knowledge domains become more advanced, their underlying cognitive structure tends to become more obscure. Thus, while it may remain easy to provide feedback on what the final answer is, it becomes difficult to provide feedback on the individual mental steps that lead to the final answer. Teachers often are unaware, at an explicit level, of what this knowledge is and do not know how to teach it to children.

Anderson and Schunn are pointing to the need to diagnose a task and break it down into its components in order to provide effective feedback. When we can't componentialize a task, then feedback becomes considerably less effective. Basically, we can only say then, "No, that's not right" or "Yes, that's it."

Thus, with respect to error correction, we need

  • rules that are not obscure,
  • examples of the rules, and
  • understandable explanations of those rules.

The ability to use declarative knowledge in the learning process does not accelerate acquisition. Rather, it eliminates wasted time and effort.

Before turning to practical suggestions for error correction, I'll look at motivation in my next post.

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



When the evidence for error feedback is "scant", mostly what we have to go on is theory. Those who oppose error correction would likely assume a nativist framework that includes:

  1. Language acquisition (whether first or second language) differs from general learning processes.
  2. Language acquisition and general learning processes do not interact.
  3. The process of language acquisition cannot be accelerated.

Without reviewing the research, let me say that there are those, even in L1 studies, that assert that language acquistion results from general learning processes (e.g., Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain"). And alternative theories also exist in second language acqusition, such as Skill Acquistion Theory and Associate-Cognitive CREED (Construction-based, Rational, Exemplar-driven, Emergent, and Dialectic). (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) So, why would anyone want to take a nativist position? There are more than a few reasons. The main one seems to be the poverty of the stimulus, but in part, one reason seems to be that language acquisition is seen as inexplicably complex while other learning endeavors seem simple in comparison. I would like to suggest that the comparisons being made are simple, but not the objects, or processes, being compared.

I've mentioned Philip Ross's article "The Expert Mind" (in Scientific American, see also my post) on more than one occasion, but it's worthwhile to return to it often. It states,

The preponderance of evidence is that experts are made, not born.

Although not innate, expertise takes time to develop. In general, it takes "takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field." Thus, although it doesn't take much to learn how to move the pieces in chess, becoming a grandmaster of strategy, however, takes at least a decade of intense practice. Similarly, although it doesn't take much to learn a few basic grammar rules and a small vocabulary, becoming fluent in another language--that is, acquiring the "grandmaster status" of a native speaker--takes at least 10 years of intense practice, too.

If the amount of time to acquire expertise is similar between chess, music, art, math, and language, that suggests for learning a language,

  1. the crucial element is practice rather than some language module
  2. the process cannot be accelerated.

Because the process cannot be accelerated, it may matter little whether one takes an nativist or general learning process approach to language acquistion. Note, however, that all practice is not equal. From the article,

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

The case of enthusiasts practicing without advancing is reminiscent of fossilization, and the "effortful study" reminds me of Krashen's i+1 principle for input. One difference is "point[ing] up weakenesses for future study," a "monitor" approach that Krashen would say does not contribute to language acquisition.

Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) make similar assertions:

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

However, they qualify that to mean "effective time on task." Once again, not all practice is equal. In the case of ACT-R Theory, "effective time on task" is promoted through

  • the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  • accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  • feedback

It seems that research on expertise and ACT-R Theory would support some form of error correction. Because Skill Acquistion Theory, which draws upon ACT-R and similar theories, focuses on SLA, in my next post, I'll look at it in a little more detail.

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



My earlier post Error Feedback in L2 Writing looked at Truscott's position (pdf) not to correct grammar at all.

Is Truscott right? Should we abandon grammar correction in our writing classes? One reason he gives is that the research does not support correcting grammar. Even Dana Ferris (1999), responding to Truscott, admitted that the evidence supporting error response was "scant." But she added that that was not the same as saying that it doesn't help students. She mentioned a few studies not mentioned by Truscott that do support error correction, stating,

This rush, or stampede, to judgment is especially egregious in Truscott’s review essay. Based on limited, dated, incomplete, and inconclusive evidence, he argues for eliminating a pedagogical practice that is not only highly valued by students, but on which many thoughtful teachers spend a great deal of time and mental energy because they feel that helping students to improve the accuracy of their writing is vitally important. Had Truscott used his review to ask some pointed questions about error correction and to identify some of the problems raised by the available research, he would have done teachers and scholars a valuable service. But because he went further and offered sweeping conclusions, he has potentially put students at risk--that their teachers, teacher educators, or researchers will accept his claims uncritically and adjust their practices accordingly, to the possible detriment of students’ development as writers.

I find this position less than satisfactory. If the evidence is "scant," according to someone who supports error correction, then which way to turn is little more than a coin toss. If it has little or no effect, why would anyone want to do, as Ferris puts it, "time-consuming and mostly tedious" work? Ferris adds,

I also find that the time and energy I spend sometimes does not pay off in long-term student improvement.

Although Ferris qualifies that statement with "sometimes," such a statement coming from her, a major proponent of error feedback, is discouraging. Even so, I figured if there were any research supporting error correction it would be found in Ferris's (2003) Response to student writing, which contains an excellent review of the literature on error feedback. However, either my library has misplaced it or someone decided the library didn't need it as much as they did. So, I looked at Laurel Reinking's (Linguist List 16.111) friendly review of the book. But even she had to conclude,

Although Ferris provides an insightful analysis of each study presented, because, as she complains, "the results of the ... studies ... have been conflicting and not always well designed or clearly described ..." (p. 67), her conclusion does not support the efficacy of error correction.

Not much support here. So, I turned to one of Ferris's more recent articles "The 'grammar correction' debate in L2 writing." In this article, she summarized her position:

  1. the research base on the ‘‘big question’’—does error feedback help L2 student writers?—is inadequate;
  2. the previous studies on error correction are fundamentally incomparable because of inconsistencies in design; and
  3. existing research predicts (but certainly does not conclusively prove) positive effects for written error correction.

In other words, the best we can say is that some research hints that error feedback may be helpful. Ferris concludes that what she has done is to

critique most or all of the previous research and essentially argue that we need to start from scratch. Obviously, it could be years, even decades, before we have trustworthy empirical answers to some of the questions we need to consider—so what do we (teachers and teacher educators) do in the meantime?

As Ferris herself notes, we teachers don't have "decades" to wait. We have to teach now. One possibility is to consider other theories outside of the SLA and SLW boxes in order to re-frame the error correction issue. So, more on theory in the next post.

References:

Ferris, D. (1999). The case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes: A response to Truscott (1996). Journal of Second Language Writing 8, 1-11.

Ferris, D. (2003). Response to student writing: Implications for second language students. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ferris, D. (2004). The "grammar correction" debate in L2 writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime...?) Journal of Second Language Writing 13, 49-62.

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



curiosity

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University School of Law has a comic book called "Bound by Law" (via TL Infobits) that can be read online or downloaded. From the website:

Bound by Law translates law into plain English and abstract ideas into ‘visual metaphors.’ So the comic's heroine, Akiko, brandishes a laser gun as she fends off a cyclopean 'Rights Monster' - all the while learning copyright law basics, including the line between fair use and copyright infringement.” -Brandt Goldstein, The Wall Street Journal online



Collectanea, a blog on copyright issues, has just launched and is sponsored by the Center for Intellectual Property (CIP) at the University of Maryland University College. According to the CIP:

The Center for Intellectual Property and Copyright in the Digital Environment provides resources and information for the higher education community in the areas of intellectual property, copyright, and the emerging digital environment.

This should be of interest to those who use blogs and wikis in their classes as the notions of copyrght and intellectual property grow murkier in digital environments.



The Second Language Writing Interest Section has a lot going on at the TESOL 2007 Convention in Seattle. Here are a few highlights.

1. Featured second language writing academic sessions:

Shifting Boundaries in ESL/EFL Writing Instruction by Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock.
Sheraton Grand Ballroom D
Thursday, March 22, 2007
8:30-10:20 a.m.

This presentation will invite participants to consider how shifting perspectives on ESL/EFL writing processes influence classroom instruction. After reviewing three dimensions of change—conceptualizations of novice writers, writers’ texts, and contexts for writing—the presenters will invite participants to discuss how evolving frames of reference affect their practice.

Responding to Students when Teaching with Technology by Maggie Sokolik and Paige Ware.
Sheraton Grand Ballroom D
Thursday, March 22, 2007
10:20 - 11:15 a.m.

This session focuses on student and instructor attitudes toward the use of technology in different writing classes: post-secondary writing courses, ESL adolescent and ESL community college online mentoring projects, and international online exchanges. Based on our research findings, we will address teaching strategies for balancing fluency, accuracy, and complexity.

2. Interest Section Intersections:

Second Language Writing / Material Writers IS Intersection:

Using Corpus Findings to Develop L2 Writing Materials by Gena Bennett, Pat Byrd, Jan Frodesen, Diane Schmitt, and Norbert Schmitt
Conference Center Room 609
Friday, March 23
9:30-11:15 a.m.

This intersection explores how current corpus findings can inform writing teachers and materials developers. Presenters demonstrate strategies for designing corpus research and analyzing findings to choose activity foci, generate activity templates, highlight frequent vocabulary and structures in use in particular genres or registers, and augment existing textbook exercises.

Higher Education / Second Language Writing IS Intersection:

Appropriate Writing Support for International Graduate Students by Sharon L. Cavusgil, Lynn Goldstein, Robert Kohls, Talinn Phillips, and Silvia Spence
Convention Center Room 310
Friday, March 23
2:00-3:45 p.m.

International graduate students at US universities come from a variety of linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds and enroll in a variety of degree-specific programs. Presenters will examine issues surrounding how to provide both general-academic and discipline-specific support, in various contexts, to such a diverse group of students.

3. SPECIAL EVENT:

An Evening with the Second Language Writing IS:
Answering the Needs of Second Language Writers & Their Teachers
Sheraton Grand Ballroom B
Thursday, March 22
6:00-8:00 p.m.

Talk about hot topics in second language writing and visit with the experts:

Dwight Atkinson, Diane Belcher, Joel Bloch, Suresh Canagarajah, Christine Pearson Casanave, Ulla Connor, Deborah Crusan, Dana Ferris, Lynn Goldstein, John Hedgcock, Alan Hirvela, Ann M. Johns,Jessie Moore Kapper, Ryuko Kubota, Ilona Leki, Jun Liu, Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, Joy Reid, Dudley Reynolds, Tony Silva, Christine Tardy, Margi Wald, Sara Cushing Weigle, And Many More!

All TESOLers, be sure to visit the SLWIS booth Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday (12-3 p.m.). We will feature guest appearances by renowned SLW scholars. And also attend the SLWIS meetings open to all:

SLWIS Open Meeting
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
5:00 - 7:00 pm
211 Seattle Convention Center

SLWIS Planning Meeting
Thursday, March 22, 2007
12:00 - 1:00 pm
211 Seattle Convention Center

Make your voice heard! And become a part of what will take place at TESOL 2008 in New York City and throughout the year!



Do you ever wonder how your English language learners (ELLs) to improve their grammar? For myself, when I look at their papers in first-year composition, I'm struck by the number of errors in grammar, not simply problems of prepositions and the articles a and the, but problems of subject-verb agreement, incorrect use of verb tenses, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and many more.

Language learning is a long, arduous process, and it's not realistic to expect that ELLs will become nativelike in less than 10 years, much less the one semester I have them in my course. Just consider that Ulla Connor, a leading scholar in contrastive rhetoric and professor of English at Indiana University, stated in her book Contrastive Rhetoric (1996) that she still “tends to use [articles and prepositions] inappropriately” 20 years after receiving her doctorate and teaching in the U.S. (p. 4).

So, how can we help our students improve their grammar? Or can we? Some believe that we can't. Innatists, such as Krashen, hold that language acquisition differs from language learning, that the two have no interface, and so grammar instruction does not aid language "acquisition," only "learning." Still, even Krashen (2004) admits that some grammar knowledge can be useful for advanced learners in editing. This makes sense as writing, unlike speaking, allows time for monitoring. How to help advanced learners acquire this knowledge remains problematic, however.

Another anti-grammar-correction proponent is John Truscott. His (in)famous article "The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes" (pdf) reviewed the literature on error feedback and asserted:

Do not correct grammar.

Truscott's main reasons for abandoning grammar correction included:

  1. Research has not shown grammar correction to be effective.
  2. Language acquisition is a gradual process that cannot be accelerated through the "transfer" of grammar knowledge.
  3. The time students spend on understanding grammar correction and applying it could be spent more productively on other activities, such as improving organization and logic.
  4. Teachers may do a poor job of recognizing and correcting errors.

Truscott's position is controversial, of course. So, we'll look at the reasons and positions on error correction in more detail over a series of posts, with the next post on the paucity of evidence.

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