Error Feedback in L2 Writing

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