Here is a paper I wrote for a college course regarding English as a Second Language:
Teacher Written Feedback in ESL College Students’ Writing
by Ipatia Apostolides
Our world is turning into a global village, and more and more foreign students are entering colleges and universities in the USA and attending writing programs. These foreign students are labeled “English as a Second Language” (ESL or L2) students. Although many of these students have already taken English courses in their countries before arriving to the US (Lawrick 2013), writing in a second language can still be challenging. Producing polished papers without errors are goals that the majority of writing instructors aim for in most universities and colleges. This standard of error free writing carries into the job market, where employers often expect candidates applying for the job to have polished resumes, and be able to write. However, the method to attain this “error free” writing goal varies.
One method used to minimize errors on written works is teacher written feedback, where the teacher corrects the grammar in the students’ submitted works, and the student revises their work based on the teacher’s corrections. Usually this process goes through a couple of drafts, before the final paper is written. That is not the only type of feedback that ESL college students have received for their papers. Oral responses, peer feedback, and computer-assisted feedback have also been incorporated in correcting grammar errors, yet teacher written feedback continues to play a central role in most ESL classes (Hyland, Hyland, 2006). Therefore, this paper will focus primarily on teacher written feedback and its effectiveness in improving ESL college students’ writing, by exploring the research conducted in this field, as well as the findings on teacher and student perspectives. It will also briefly touch upon computer-assisted feedback, which plays an important part in colleges’ and universities’ distance writing programs.
Types of Written Grammar Feedback
According to Dana Ferris, there are different types of written grammar feedback. Direct feedback is when the instructor crosses out an incorrect word or phrase and writes the correct word or form above it or near it. Indirect feedback is when the teacher makes a mark but does not give the correct answer, putting the responsibility on the student to correct it. Deciding when to use which feedback depends on the teacher (Ferris 2006). This is not the only type of grammar feedback measured in the research on this topic, as other feedback, like underlining and describing, are also used (Chandler 2003).
Research on Teacher Written Grammar Feedback
A considerable amount of research has been done in the last two decades on grammar correction in college and university writing classes, analyzing the different types of teacher grammar correction feedback and their effectiveness on ESL or L2 college students’ writing abilities. However, this was not always the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, feedback research on ESL writing was relatively new, and it was being misunderstood and vague (Hyland and Hyland 2006).
A seminal paper by Truscott in 1996 challenged the concept that grammar correction was effective for ESL students, and this propelled a flurry of research and papers on this topic. Two camps were formed as a result over time. One camp believed that grammar correction was not effective in improving ESL students’ writing, while the other camp believed that it was effective.
Researchers Against Grammar Correction
John Truscott, a psychologist with a specialization in language, questioned whether correcting the grammar of ESL students helped to improve their writing, and this began a multitude of responses and research on this topic. Truscott argued against using grammar correction in L2 writing classes, citing research evidence (Hendrickson, 1978; Leki, 1990; Cohen and Robbins, 1976; Sheppard, 1992) that showed that grammar correction was ineffective, and research evidence (Semke, 1984) that it even had significant harmful effects. This was not a new concept, as he noted that there was much evidence that grammar correction of L1 students’ writing was also not effective. Truscott noted that the various arguments for continuing grammar correction for L2 students all lacked merit. He recommended that L2 teachers focus their skills on the content of writing rather than on grading grammatical errors (Truscott, 1996).
Ronald Gray, from the Beijing Language and Culture University, also has taken a stand against grammar correction, supporting Truscott’s view. Gray believes that the time spent on grammar feedback takes away from more important elements of writing, like content. Also, Gray notes that learning a second language is a “complex and gradual” process and does not develop in a linear fashion, and that it treats only the surface appearance and not the way the language evolves. He also cites research by Zamel (Zamel 1995), that suggests that the teacher written feedback was not consistent and often vague, resulting in ESL students misreading their corrections. Gray offers this suggestion “The quickest and most effective solution would be for writing instructors to simply stop making grammar corrections” (Gray 2004).
Another researcher against grammar correction is Marjolijn Verspoor, Assistant Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. According to Verspoor and her cohorts, Lowie and de Bot, the learning of linguistics is a complex, dynamic system and requires the processing of input, and a willingness to learn from that input. Although their paper does not deal directly with teacher written feedback, the “language as being a dynamic system approach,” through a linguists’ viewpoint, may explain why there is so much variation in student response to correction feedback. This complex process of learning continually interacts with internal and external forces and does not follow a linear path (Verspoor etal 2008), and if a student is not ready for a correction, it will not be effective.
Researchers for Grammar Correction
At the TESOL convention in 1998, Dana Ferris, an English Professor at California State University, gave a rebuttal to Truscott’s anti-grammar feedback stance, stating that Truscott had not included the research that showed positive results of grammar correction. This paper was later published in The Journal of Second Language in 1999. Truscott’s response To Ferris’ rebuttal was solicited by that journal, and he replied to that paper in a 1999 article, reiterating his conclusions. One thing that they did agree upon, though, was that more research was needed in this area, and that is what Ferris set about doing (Ferris 2004).
In her 2004 published paper, Ferris had compiled all the research that had been conducted pertaining to this issue. She found that there were many variables that didn’t allow for the research to be comparable. For example, four research studies published from 1984 to 1991 collected data on teacher feedback ranging from a period of one quarter to a period of an academic year. Just this variation in time period alone precluded the studies from being compared. Also, only one study had a control group, while the other three had none, and the type of error feedback varied for each study. As a result, Ferris argued that there was a need for more controlled longitudinal studies on error feedback, and more consistent research. She concluded that the current research predicted but did not determine that feedback gave positive effects on students’ writing (Ferris 2004).
Another researcher contesting Truscott’s argument against corrective grammar feedback was Jean Chandler. In a 2003 paper, Chandler conducted a study where ESL students wrote an autobiographical paper. In this study, he had an experimental group that had their papers corrected by the teachers and a control group that did not have their papers corrected. When the students that had their work corrected did not revise their papers, their new writing did not improve over the semester. However, if students revised their works based on the teacher feedback, their subsequent papers were more accurate. A second study was also done by Chandler a year later with different students and was included in his 2003 paper. Different students received different feedback responses. What was useful were the examples Chandler gave of the four corrective responses that were used by the teachers: direct correction, underline and describe, describe, and underline.
Here is one example of a direct correction grading done on an ESL student work taken from Chandler’s 2003 article:
Direct Correction Response (Fig. 4 )
“I am from Saudi Arabia but I am American. My father had to there for five years that I also went there with him,” she said very slowly. I understood a few words, father, American, five years and I. I had to guess for whole time. I said that I didn’t understand at first time but I didn’t understand the most of things she said that I just moved my head like I knew what she was saying (Chandler 282).
The results of this study showed that treatment of direct correction and underlining resulted in more accurate writing in the next writing assignment. This was compared to treatments where the teacher underlined and described the errors, or just described them, and they had the opposite effects in the next writing assignments (Chandler 2003).
In 2006, Dana Ferris published a paper on a study she did where 146 essay papers of L2 students were corrected, and found that 80% of the students made effective revisions. When they analyzed the teacher markings, though, they noticed that their marking strategies varied, and yet direct feedback produced the most correct responses in 88% of the L2 students in the study (Ferris 2006). These variations by the teachers suggests that in real-life writing classrooms, ESL students receive a variety of teaching strategies that are not consistent, and therefore make it difficult for researchers to measure and compare their effectiveness.
Another study on grammar feedback was conducted by Liu, in 2008 at a southwestern university. There, 12 first-year ESL students were divided into two groups of six students, Group A and Group B. Data were collected from the two drafts of the first essay and the first draft of the second essay. Three categories of errors were marked: morphological, semantic, and syntactic. Group A received direct feedback, where their errors were underlined and corrected, while Group B received indirect feedback where their errors were underlined only. Then they revised their works. Group A had more reductions in their subsequent grammar errors as compared to Group B. The final results showed that direct feedback worked best for morphological errors (simple past tense and definite article), while no effect was found in semantic errors (prepositions) (Liu 2008).
Teacher and Students’ Perspectives on Grammar Feedback
Is it enough to study corrective feedback, or should researchers also look at the interaction between teacher and student? This question has been addressed by Dana Ferris and other researchers.
In a 2011 survey that Ferris sent to two 4- year universities and six 2-year community colleges, she received 129 responses from local writing instructors. Her focus was on teacher perspectives, and from the 129 respondents, 82% taught mainstream classes, while 9% taught ESL classes, and 9% taught mainstream and ESL courses. Ferris found out that only 22% of the respondents had taken specific courses to train them for ESL teaching. Many teachers were not aware of the needs of their ESL students. Also, most of the teachers focused on grammar feedback, and many were not trained properly to teach ESL students. The findings suggested that there was much variation in teacher feedback in college writing courses, thus the writing experiences of the ESL students were dramatically different. (Ferris 2011).
Ken Hyland and Fiona Hyland, in a comprehensive 2006 paper on grammar feedback, point out that in the 1980s and 1990s, feedback research was in its infancies, and feedback was being misunderstood and vague. They mention that even though Truscott in 1996 advocated against grammar correction, teachers continued to correct errors because they wanted to help improve the students as writers and to justify the grades they were given. The authors also noted that research on student preferences showed that students consistently expected teachers to comment on their works, and that they were frustrated if this did not happen. The authors believe that the interaction between the teacher and student plays a role in the feedback given, where the teacher tailors their feedback based on the students’ backgrounds, needs and preferences. (Hyland and Hyland 2006).
Alternative Modes of Grammar Feedback
As computers are increasingly being used in the classrooms, they are also beginning to infiltrate into the ESL classroom. Can computers replace the teacher in computer feedback? Can students self-correct their errors based on computer feedback? It is a topic that is being researched.
Sullivan and Pratt, in 1996, designed a study where ESL students were divided into two groups. One group received the traditional oral teaching, while the other group received computer-assisted teaching. The writing scores between the two classes were significantly different. The mean score of the oral class dropped significantly after fifteen weeks, while the mean writing score of the computer-assisted class rose significantly during this time frame. An example was given when the teacher in the oral class asked the class several questions and was met by silence, whereas when the computer-assisted class received questions from the teacher through the computer, four students responded with answers (Sullivan and Pratt, 1996). This shows that the computer-assisted students were more active in participating in class, and because their mode of communication was the written word, they had more opportunities to engage what they had learned through their writing.
Hyland and Hayland noted that computer conferencing and computer-mediated feedback helped L2 students achieve language learning, motivation, confidence, and autonomy (Hyland and Hyland 2006).
Truscott’s challenging paper in 1996, that grammar correction did not improve ESL college students’ writing, began two decades of research on that topic. Literature research conducted in this paper showed that ESL students’ writing improved the most from teacher direct feedback. This is not a conclusive finding, as variables continue to plague the researchers, like the teacher’s varying strategies in grading, and the lack of training to ensure consistent results in ESL student’s learning.
Yet until more research is done, the direct feedback method is the most successful method in improving ESL student writing; it is when the teacher crosses out the incorrect word and puts the correct word above it. For it to be effective, though, revision needs to take place soon after the correction, otherwise it does not work. Other types of teacher grammar feedback was also explored, like underlining, and underlining and described, but more research is needed in that area.
The important distinction that made the direct feedback method work, was that the ESL student needed to understand what the correction was on their paper. When the teacher put the correct word on top of the incorrect word, this was clear to the student, and they were able to learn from it. When there was no correct answer, however, the student was left to their own devices to figure out what the teacher was trying to tell them. So clear communication that occurs in direct feedback, between the teacher and student, is an important factor for learning to take place. When direct feedback is followed by the ESL student actually revising their paper, with subsequent drafts having fewer errors, then this confirms that learning has taken place.
Research also showed that teacher perspectives varied when it came to teaching composition to ESL college students. Unless composition teachers were trained specifically for these types of students, variation in their strategies would continue to produce inconsistent results, both in the classroom and in the research studies. The ESL college students that were involved in these research studies at the US college and universities, were a heterogeneous group, with different cultural backgrounds and education. Several ESL college students had already taken English in their countries, and this needed to be taken into consideration when writing teachers had them in their classrooms. Research showed that ESL students had expectations of their teachers, and expected them to grade and correct their errors, and if this was not done, they became frustrated.
Alternative modes of grammar feedback like computer-assisted feedback was briefly covered in this paper, and has shown promising results in ESL college writing classrooms. Although this is a topic for another paper, it was included here to show that computers are becoming an integral part of ESL writing students’ classroom.
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