Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence

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