Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing / Edition 2

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More About This Textbook


Treatment of Error offers a realistic, well-reasoned account of what teachers of multilingual writers need to know about error and how to put what they know to use. As in the first edition, Ferris again persuasively addresses the fundamental error treatment questions that plague novice and expert writing specialists alike: What types of errors should teachers respond to? When should we respond to them? What are the most efficacious ways of responding to them? And ultimately, what role should error treatment play in the teaching of the process of writing?

The second edition improves upon the first by exploring changes in the field since 2002, such as the growing diversity in what is called “L2 writers,” the blurring boundaries between “native” and “non-native” speakers of English, the influence of genre studies and corpus linguistics on the teaching of writing, and the need the move beyond “error” to “second language development” in terms of approaching students and their texts. It also explores what teacher preparation programs need to do to train teachers to treat student error.

The second edition features
 *  an updating of the literature in all chapters
 *  a new chapter on academic language development
 *  a postscript on how to integrate error treatment/language development suggestions in Chapters 4-6 into a writing class syllabus
 * the addition of discussion/analysis questions at the end of each chapter, plus suggested readings, to make the book more useful in pedagogy or teacher development workshops

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472034765
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 9/21/2011
  • Series: The Michigan Series on Teaching Multilingual Writers
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 1,023,307
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing

By Dana Ferris

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2002 Dana Ferris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472088165

Why Is Error Treatment Necessary for L2 Writers?

Over the short but eventful history of teaching composition to L2 writers, teachers' and theorists' views of the importance of grammar, error correction, and accuracy have undergone several shifts. Writing for L2 students was, until the 1970s, primarily perceived as language practice, designed to help students manipulate grammatical forms or utilize newly learned vocabulary items (Ferris and Hedgcock 1998; Johns 1990; Raimes 1991; Silva 1990). Writing in L2 classes typically consisted of "controlled" or "guided" composition activities in which students, for instance, would write a paragraph about "what I did yesterday" in order to practice the use of the past tense or would change the nouns in an already constructed paragraph from singular to plural forms. Because of the influence of behavioral psychology and structural linguistics on second language teaching, teachers gave a great deal of attention to students' accuracy or lack thereof, constantly correcting all errors so that no bad habits would form. In addition, teachers carefully taught students grammatical forms and rules assumed to be problematic because of contrasts with students' native languages. Thus, error correction and grammar instruction were major, perhaps even the primary, components of writing instruction in L2 classes.

In the 1970s, native-English-speaking composition practitioners and theorists began to focus on writers themselves and on the processes they used to construct texts. This led to a major paradigm shift that had great implications for both L1 and L2 writing classes in the United States. Rather than emphasizing correct forms for essays, paragraphs, and sentences, teachers and students were encouraged to focus on discovering ideas, drafting, revising, working collaboratively, and sharing successes. Though process-approach advocates gave lip service to the continued importance of accuracy in students' finished products, attention to grammar was left to the end of the process (or the "editing" phase). Generally, it was assumed that if students were engaged in writing about topics they had chosen themselves and were empowered to make decisions about the shaping and polishing of their own texts, final products would improve as a natural consequence of a more enlightened process. Since both teachers and students found it more stimulating and less tedious to focus on ideas than on accuracy, composition instruction entered a period of "benign neglect" of errors and grammar teaching.

As process pedagogy entered L2 writing classes, some scholars almost immediately began to express concerns about the neglect of accuracy issues and its effects on ESL writers. An early piece entitled "Meanwhile, Back in the Real World . . ." (Eskey 1983) reminded us that the ability to correct errors is crucial in many settings and that students' accuracy will not magically improve all by itself. Similar concerns were raised by Horowitz (1986), who also pointed out the limitations of the process approach for teaching ESL writers to function in real academic settings. Other scholars began to note the inherent differences between L1 and L2 writers and to suggest that pedagogical suggestions designed for native speakers needed to be critically reevaluated in light of these distinctions (e.g., Leki 1990; Silva 1988, 1993; Zhang 1995). One of the inescapable differences between L1 and L2 student writers is that the nonnative speakers make errors related both to negative transfer from their L1s and to incomplete acquisition of the L2. Though L1 student writing is obviously not error free, the errors made are different in quantity and nature. Because L2 students, in addition to being developing writers, are still in the process of acquiring the L2 lexicon and morphological and syntactic systems, they need distinct and additional intervention from their writing teachers to make up these deficits and develop strategies for finding, correcting, and avoiding errors.

Second Language Acquisition and Its Implications for Error Correction

As most L2 teachers and learners are only too aware, second language acquisition (SLA) takes time and occurs in stages. Though SLA research is not conclusive as to specific orders and stages of acquisition, several generalizations have emerged.

* It takes a significant amount of time to acquire an L2, and even more when the learner is attempting to use the language for academic purposes.

* Depending on learner characteristics, most notably age of first exposure to the L2, some acquirers may never attain native like control of various aspects of the L2.

* SLA occurs in stages. Vocabulary, morphology, phonology, and syntax may all represent separately occurring stages of acquisition.

* As learners go through various stages of acquisition of different elements of the L2, they will make errors reflective of their SLA processes. These errors may be caused by inappropriate transference of L1 patterns and/or by incomplete knowledge of the L2. Written errors made by adult L2 acquirers are therefore often quite different from those made by native speakers.

These insights from SLA research have several practical implications for teachers of L2 writers. First, it is unrealistic to expect that L2 writers' production will be error free or that, even when it is, it will "sound" like that of native English speakers. Second, since SLA takes time, we should not expect students' accuracy to improve overnight. Third, and most important for the purposes of this book, L2 student writers need: (a) a focus on different linguistic issues or error patterns than native speakers do; (b) feedback or error correction that is tailored to their linguistic knowledge and experience; and (c) instruction that is sensitive to their unique linguistic deficits and needs for strategy training.

The remaining chapters of this volume will focus on these pedagogical issues. Chapters 2 and 3 address the types of errors L2 writers most typically make and how those are distinct from the error patterns of native-English-speaking student writers as well as what L2 writing teachers need to know about grammar in order to address their students' particular needs. Chapter 4 looks in detail at error feedback and how teachers can most effectively communicate with students about their errors. Chapter 5 deals with the types of grammar and editing instruction that will most benefit ESL writers.

Objections to Error Correction in L2 Writing Classes

As already noted, the advent of the process approach in L1 and L2 writing instruction in the 1970s and 1980s led to a decreased focus on student error. Since then, a number of scholars have questioned the appropriateness of this trend, some conservatively noting that L2 writers may be distinct enough from L1 writers to merit different pedagogical strategies (e.g., Leki 1990; Nelson and Carson 1998; Silva 1993; Zhang 1995) and others taking stronger stances, arguing that noninterventionist teacher strategies have been "cruelly unfair to diverse students" (Johns 1995, 182) or have produced adults with years of U.S. English education, even at the college/ university level, who cannot function in either academic or workplace settings (Scarcella 1996). The resulting renewed interest in error correction, grammar instruction, and editing-strategy training for L2 student writers can be observed in the publication of "how-to" articles and books for teachers (e.g., Bates, Lane, and Lange 1993; Ferris 1995c; Ferris and Hedgcock 1998; Frodesen 1991; Reid 1998b) as well as editing handbooks for ESL student writers (e.g., Ascher 1993; Fox 1992; Lane and Lange 1999; Raimes 1992) and chapters in mainstream composition textbooks on ESL editing issues.

In addition, a number of researchers over the past ten years have examined the effects of error correction and/or editing instruction on student revision and improvement in accuracy (e.g., Fathman and Whalley 1990; Ferris 1995a, 1997; Polio, Fleck, and Leder 1998).

Despite--or perhaps because of--this renewed interest in grammar for ESL writers, an article published in Language Learning in 1996 by John Truscott argues for the abolishment of grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Truscott claims that there is no convincing research evidence that error correction ever helps student writers, that error correction as typically practiced overlooks SLA insights about how different aspects of language are acquired, and that practical problems related to teachers' and students' ability and willingness to give and receive error correction make it a futile endeavor. He concludes that error correction is not only useless to student writers but that it is actually harmful in that it diverts time and energy away from more productive aspects of writing instruction. Truscott's review essay, published in one of the leading L2 journals, has aroused a good deal of debate both in conference presentations and in published work to date (Ellis 1998; Ferris 1999a; Ferris and Hedgcock 1998; Truscott 1999).

In my own response to Truscott (Ferris 1999a), I argue that his conclusions are premature, primarily because the body of research evidence he cites is inadequate and inconsistent in its methodology and subject characteristics, and that further research on error correction is necessary before final recommendations can be made to ESL writing teachers. While it may be fair to say that "those who claim editing instruction or corrective feedback is useful have the burden of demonstrating such effectiveness" (Polio, Fleck, and Leder 1998, 60), there are nonetheless several compelling reasons for teachers not only to continue the practice of giving error feedback and providing editing-strategy training but to seek ways to improve the effectiveness of these practices.

The first reason is that several research studies (including Polio, Fleck, and Leder 1998) have demonstrated that error feedback can help students to improve their accuracy in the short term, in other words, on revisions of the same essay or on targeted patterns of error over the course of a semester (Fathman and Whalley 1990; Ferris 1995c, 1997; Lalande 1982).

In a recently completed study (Ferris et al. 2000), it was found that 92 ESL student writers were able to successfully correct errors during revision after receiving teacher feedback. Of over 5,700 errors marked and coded, nearly 85 percent of them were corrected effectively by students during revision. Truscott (1996) and Polio, Fleck, and Leder (1998) correctly point out that there is little evidence that error feedback helps students improve their accuracy over the long term and that if students do show improvement, this may possibly be attributed to other factors such as additional writing practice and exposure to the L2. Indeed, it is challenging to measure long-term improvement in students' written accuracy and to attribute such development, if found, solely to teacher feedback. Nonetheless, it certainly may be argued that long-term development is unlikely without observable short-term improvement, at least in the ability to attend to and correct errors when pointed out by teachers. Thus, this small but growing research base, while it does not answer all theoretical questions related to error correction, should not be ignored as meaningless, either.

Second, as noted by a number of researchers, students value teacher feedback on their errors and think that it helps them to improve their writing (Cohen 1987; Cohen and Cavalcanti 1990; Ferris 1995b; Ferris et al. 2000; Ferris and Roberts 2001; Leki 1991; Radecki and Swales 1988). Truscott anticipates this argument and responds that "students believe in correction . . . but that does not mean that teachers should give it to them" (1996, 359) and that teachers should, rather than giving into this student desire, help students adjust to the absence of grammar correction. However, given the unquestioned (even by Truscott) strength of student demand for error correction, the possible harm to student motivation and confidence in their instructors may far outweigh any possible "damage" that could come to them from providing error feedback. Most ESL writing instructors know that were they to refuse to give any error feedback or grammar instruction, it would cause a great rift between them and their students. This potential negative outcome is not one that may be dismissed lightly or overcome easily (Brice and Newman 2000).

Finally, instructors need to work at finding the best ways to help their students become "independent self-editors" of their own work (Bates, Lane, and Lange 1993; Ferris 1995c). This is because accuracy is important in the real world to which student writers go. Both anecdotal and research evidence suggests that at least in some settings, university professors and employers find ESL errors distracting and stigmatizing (Hendrickson 1980; Janopolous 1992; Santos 1988; Scarcella 1996; Vann, Lorenz, and Meyer 1991; Vann, Meyer, and Lorenz 1984). Student writers' lexical, morphological, and syntactic accuracy is important because a lack of accuracy may both interfere with the comprehensibility of their message (or ideas) and mark them as inadequate users of the language. Writing instructors surely have some responsibility to arm their students with the knowledge, strategies, and resources they will need to function effectively outside of the ESL writing classroom. Though research may still be inconclusive as to the best ways to accomplish these goals, it seems clear that if L2 writing teachers abdicate this responsibility altogether, students are unlikely to make progress in editing skills and overall accuracy.

Thus, while it is important to acknowledge that the research database on error correction and grammar instruction is incomplete (as it is in many, if not most, areas of ESL teaching!) and that scholars have raised objections to the practice of error correction in ESL writing classes, this book proceeds on the assumption that most teachers--and certainly their students!--nonetheless believe in the potential for error correction, grammar instruction, and editing-strategy training to have positive effects on student writers' overall development. The remainder of this book is devoted, therefore, to identifying ways in which teachers can prepare themselves and their students to focus on accuracy in writing most effectively.


Excerpted from Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing by Dana Ferris Copyright © 2002 by Dana Ferris. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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