Author: Eli Briasco, EAL Specialist
Chances are, if you’ve been teaching English for a while, you’ve provided plenty of feedback to your learners on the accuracy of their writing. Prior to undertaking action research on this practice, it was evident from my observations of colleagues that there were multiple approaches and attitudes towards written corrective feedback. Some teachers were selective in how they corrected errors, while others corrected all errors, which can of course be an extremely time- and effort-consuming task. Some used correction codes, while others didn’t.
Given that all English language teachers in my context at the time were required to provide regular corrective feedback, I wanted to find out more about how and why teachers decided on which approach to use. I wanted to discover whether teachers felt that the time and effort they expended correcting errors was worth it. I also wanted to find out from students what their corrective feedback preferences were, and what they did with their marked compositions on receiving them from their teachers. Ultimately, by carrying out research on written corrective feedback, I wanted to be able to make more informed decisions about the methods I adopted, and be able to provide similarly informed advice to my colleagues on the topic.
Before I summarise the process and findings of my research, it is important to provide a few definitions for some of the terms that I will use throughout this article.
Bitchener (2008) explains that written corrective feedback (WCF) can be classified as either direct or indirect. Direct WCF is “the provision of the correct linguistic form or structure above or near the linguistic error” and it may involve “the crossing out of an unnecessary word / phrase / morpheme, the insertion of a missing phrase / word / morpheme, or the provision of the correct form or structure” (p. 105). On the other hand, indirect WCF simply makes students aware that they have made an error in some way. This could be done by circling or underlining the error, or through the use of a correction code that indicates different types of errors made. Bitchener (p.105) points out that this approach provides students with the opportunity to “resolve and correct the problem that has been brought to their attention.”
Hartshorn and Evans (2015) explain that WCF can also be focussed (whereby only selected error types are targeted) or comprehensive (which targets many or all of the errors occurring in a student’s piece of writing).
I chose to take a mixed methods approach to my research. This involved an initial survey of local secondary English teachers; the responses to this informed the design of questions for a series of semi-structured interviews with a selection of the teachers who responded to the survey. I then interviewed a focus group consisting of local students in their final year of high school about their impressions and experiences of WCF. As Creswell (2013) highlights, the core assumption of a mixed methods inquiry is that the combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches in mixed methods research provides a more complete understanding of a research problem than either approach alone.
One of the easier conclusions to draw from my research was that the teachers I surveyed placed a high value on written corrective feedback. Focussed WCF was favoured by more teachers than comprehensive WCF, and indirect WCF was more popular than direct WCF. However, many teachers highlighted the need to consider the ability and maturity level of students before choosing an approach.
A number of teachers expressed feelings that direct WCF was a better option with less proficient students, raising similar concerns to Chandler (2003) and van Beuningen et al. (2012) that these students may lack confidence in their ability to self-correct. In the past, researchers such as Lalande (1982) have argued that indirect WCF is preferable, because it requires reflection and problem-solving activity on the part of the learner, leading to more long-term growth in writing or self-monitoring ability. However, it is important to note that Lalande’s study was conducted at a university. More mature, motivated students are more likely to use their initiative and take the necessary steps to ensure that they make accurate corrections when presented with indirect WCF than younger, less proficient (and sometimes less motivated) students.
In his interview, one teacher justified his preference for focussed WCF by explaining that he felt his less proficient students were more likely to engage with his feedback if it was limited to targeted corrections accompanied by concise, constructive comments. He felt that any more than that might overwhelm them. This view aligns with Hendrickson’s (1980), who suggested that too much error correction might affect students’ confidence to experiment with the language.
Perhaps the most surprising statistic to emerge from my research was that, although teachers regularly provided indirect written corrective feedback to their students, only around 25% of them required students to subsequently write and re-submit second drafts.
All of the students involved in my focus group believed that written corrective feedback was beneficial for their learning. They all stated a preference for direct, comprehensive WCF. The main reason students provided for this preference was that they simply wanted to be made aware of all of the errors they made – a desire shared by students in several previous studies. It should be noted that all of the students involved in my research were high-achievers with a relatively high level of English proficiency. Their essays were therefore unlikely to contain many errors, and any correction of these was unlikely to negatively impact on their confidence or motivation. Less proficient students, on the other hand, may not share the same sentiments as these students, which several of the focus group members acknowledged.
There was a general feeling amongst the students I interviewed that the responsibility for error correction should lie with the teacher. This was despite the efforts of their teachers to have the students assume more responsibility for their learning.
Interestingly, although the students had expressed a desire to receive error correction, they unanimously agreed that comments at the bottom of their written work were more valuable than corrections.
The data collected over the course of my study indicated that secondary English language teachers and students alike place a high value on written corrective feedback. Analysis of teacher responses revealed that some teachers give a lot of thought to the needs of their students, and will often choose the way in which they provide WCF based on the perceived needs of their respective classes. Teachers might, for example, provide direct, focussed WCF to less proficient students to increase the likelihood that key messages are comprehended. Much of the reading that I did on this topic supported this approach. I therefore concluded that an evolving approach to the provision of written corrective feedback may be the best one.
A worrying trend that emerged from my study was the lack of follow-up on corrected first drafts by teachers. Consequently, the students who did not have the opportunity to re-submit their writing were not receiving many of the benefits that the proponents of indirect written corrective feedback promote. If the main reason for regularly bypassing these steps in the process is the time it takes for second drafts to be written and marked, then a more efficient solution should be sought. Nation’s (2009) suggestion that students write their corrections on the original draft rather than re-writing their work in its entirety would save students and teachers time, while ensuring that students have a chance to benefit from the entire indirect WCF process.
What seems clear is that, for any written corrective feedback to be effective, teachers need to carefully consider the attitudes, levels of proficiency and maturity of their students before selecting an approach. As Halimi (2008) and Seker & Dincer (2014) noted, if teachers disregard the opinions of their students and apply a ‘top down’ approach, there is a risk that they will fail to engage students actively in their learning. Those teachers who are not already doing so would therefore be wise to foster cooperative learning environments where students’ needs and expectations are taken into consideration, and where the benefits of chosen techniques are explained to students. If the benefits will only be truly realised if students engage sufficiently with the feedback they receive, then teachers need to insist that this occurs and provide the necessary support required.
Much of the research conducted globally on written corrective feedback has taken place in higher learning institutions with more mature and more motivated students. It seems difficult to draw generalisable conclusions when developmental readiness appears to be a major influencer on students’ uptake of feedback, so this could be an area for further study.
Bitchener, J., (2008). Evidence in support of written corrective feedback. Journal of Second Language Writing 17(2), 102-118.
Chandler, J. (2003). The efficacy of various kinds of error feedback for improvement in the accuracy and fluency of L2 student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing 12(3), 267-296.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Los Angeles: Sage
Halimi, S. S. (2008). Indonesian teachers’ and students’ preferences for error correction. Wacana: Jurnal Ilmu Pengetahuan Budaya 10(1), 50-71.
Hartshorn, K. J., & Evans, N. W. (2015). The effects of dynamic written corrective feedback: A 30-week study. Journal of Response to Writing 1(2), 6-34.
Hendrickson, J. M. (1980). The treatment of error in written work. Modern Language Journal 64(2), 216-221.
Lalande, J. F. (1982). Reducing composition errors: An experiment. The Modern Language Journal 66(2), 140-149.
Nation, I. S. P. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL reading and writing. New York and London: Routledge.
Seker, M., & Dincer, A. (2014). An insight to students’ perceptions on teacher feedback in second language writing classes. English Language Teaching 7(2), 73.
Van Beuningen, C. G., De Jong, N. H., & Kuiken, F. (2012), Evidence on the effectiveness of comprehensive error correction in second language writing. Language Learning 62(1), 1-41.