Written Corrective Feedback: The Parameters and the Opinions
Wayne E. Arnold, US
Wayne E. Arnold is a fifth year Ph.D. student at the Department of English of University of Louisiana at Lafayette, USA, with a focus of study in modern American literary studies as well as TESOL. His experience ranges from teaching in Japan, Africa, and the Kingdom of Tonga as well as teaching composition for six years in the university setting. Scholarly interests revolve around culture and its relation to language development as well as literature as learning aid in the second language classroom. E-mail: email@example.com
Background and Krashen’s Monitor Model
The grammar debate
Concern for lasting grammatical improvement
Defining the types of error feedback
Types of correctable linguistic error categories
Teacher expectations on feedback
Student expectations on feedback
The grammar correction debate surrounding the second-language classroom is far from merely a straightforward matter of “to grade, or not to grade”—research has shown that negative feedback from teachers on student writing assignments directly affects students; the debate enquires whether students are affected positively or negatively. In most accounts, a research based answer concerning corrective feedback is far from unambiguous. By surveying overarching themes rather than specific quantitative statistics, an understanding of some of the parameters of testing can be considered. This paper intends to make available to teachers some of the scholarly literature detailing corrective feedback: how it is perceived and analyzed. By concisely presenting the field research, teachers will hopefully come away with an awareness of the implications which grammar correction holds for the classroom of second-language learners.
On certain occasions, when I receive a stack of papers from my ESL students the first thing I tend to think is, “there goes my weekend.” Seldom is this thought, “how exactly should I be grading these?” in my mind. Grading papers for meeting the assignment’s objectives is important, but what should teachers do with the inescapable grammatical errors all learners of a second language make in the course of their writing? If a teacher concerned about this issue glances at the titles in the literature published on this subject it will quickly become apparent that there is a rather heated debate. It is not just a simple matter of “to grade, or not to grade” grammatical errors. Since research has shown that negative feedback on student writing assignments directly affects students, the debate asks whether students are affected positively or negatively. What follows is not a solution to the problem; rather, it is an attempt to provide readers working in the field of foreign language education with an overview of the debate by explicating some of the important elements of corrective feedback: how it is perceived and measured in the field of scholarly literature. Students and teachers alike have their own opinions, whether cultural- or experience-based; therefore, to enhance the productivity of the learning environment this perhaps often overlooked aspect between teachers and students requires evaluation.
Perhaps one place to begin discussing the importance of corrective grammar feedback is with the questions surrounding the instruction of grammar. The most influential voice in the area of grammar instruction may be Stephen Krashen, who’s Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning (1981) proposed that grammar instruction was not useful and recommended avoiding direct grammar correction. In establishing the ground work for his Monitor Theory—a theory that claims learners monitor their new second language production through their primary learned system—Krashen stresses “natural communication” for language learning in which “[e]rror correction and explicit teaching of rules are not relevant to language acquisition” (Krashen, 1981: 1). In this work, and previous publications, Krashen is reacting to the audiolingual method which drew heavy attention to its focus on grammatical structure. In his next publication, Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (1982), Krashen further develops his Monitor Model; in terms of grammar correction, Krashen argues that only under certain conditions can error correction be beneficial: specifically, that the error correction be applied only to “Monitor-users” (Krashen, 1982: 119).
I begin with Krashen because he emphasizes that if error correction does occur, it should be done under his parameters, or, not at all. Indeed, at a much later date Krashen (2004) links grammar correction with his larger focus of grammar instruction: “The correction controversy is closely related to the grammar controversy. As I understand it, correction helps us fine-tune and adjust our consciously learned grammar rules” (Krashen, 2004: 3). Yet, Krashen “has been strongly challenged as a theorist” (Mings, 1993: 172), and other researchers have attacked his entire Monitor Theory, calling it a “bad theory” (Gregg, 1984: 95). These points aside, it is also important to note that Krashen does not perform specific research in the grammar correction field as some of the other important names in the debate of corrective feedback. He is, however, a figure who deserves notice since his work actively influenced the literature surrounding the corrective feedback debate.
In the 1996 June issue of Language Learning, National Tsing Hua University professor John Truscott published “The Case Against Grammar Correction in L2 Classes.” While Truscott’s position was not necessarily a new stance, it was a firm and dogmatic attack against the application or encouragement of any form of grammar correction in the L2 classroom. Truscott’s article became, and still is, one of the more often quoted arguments in the ongoing issue of grammar correction. His position is simply stated but theoretically complex in terms of application. In the introduction, Truscott makes clear the intentions of his research: “[this] paper argues that grammar correction in L2 writing classes should be abandoned, for the following reasons: (a) Substantial research shows it to be ineffective and none shows it to be helpful in any interesting sense; (b) for both theoretical and practical reasons, one can expect it to be ineffective; and (c) it has harmful effects” (Truscott, 1996: 327). It is clear that Truscott’s stance not only infringes upon a possible intuitional belief held by many teachers that grammar correction should be applied, but he goes further, stating that it is actually harmful for students to receive such instructor correction. Reaction to the position presented by Truscott would obviously be very harsh and swift in its attempt to rebuff such claims against grammar correction.
To give an example of how Truscott’s argument conflicted with what seems to be the general flow of grammar correction fifteen years ago, R. Schulz’s 1996 article clearly states the reverse of Truscott’s assertions. Schulz notes, “Increasing evidence […] indicates that grammatical awareness and corrective feedback can indeed promote L2 acquisition, at least for specific structures and for certain types of learners” (Shulz, 1996: 344). Schulz’s words indirectly call attention to Truscott’s conclusions, placing him at the extreme outskirts of the grammar correction viewpoints.
It was not long before teacher-researchers started inundating journals with their own conclusions and almost all of which referenced Truscott in either a positive or a negative light. In the past five years alone, theoretical linguistic issues which were only gradually entering the dialogue in the 1970s and 80s, have now initiated a variety of applications in field work within the classroom. This does not mean, however, that there has been much advancement toward conclusive decision on this complex topic. Added to the complexity is also the terminology. Grammar correction encompasses many levels and forms of correction (argued below); this being the case, it is essential to keep in mind that the term “grammar correction” does not denote all correction of all errors.
Three of the more prolific supporters of the benefits of grammar correction are Dana R. Ferris, Rod Ellis, and John Bitchener. Ferris has openly acknowledged disagreement with Truscott; between 1996 and 1999, Ferris and Truscott debated at conferences and in journal articles. Ferris’s stance is much more palatable when compared to Truscott’s since, “in the absence of compelling evidence in either direction, predictions from the existing evidence can arguably justify the continued investigation of the issue and the continued use of error feedback in the classroom while we pursue these questions empirically” (Ferris, 2004: 55). This debate has continued for this extended period simply because, when studying the research collected thus far, Ferris notes, “we are virtually at Square One” (Ferris, 2004: 49). On the need for continued research, Truscott and Ferris can agree; nevertheless, it is the conditions and parameters of the research direction that has turned out to be a burr in the side of the grammatical correction debate. In order to provide useful input for teachers, researchers (or actual teachers) need to establish parameters which are replicable even within the environment of ever-changing student learners.
Before addressing the ongoing research projects in corrective feedback, I would like to provide clarification on Truscott and fellow supporters’ position on the ineffectiveness of grammar correction. Gray (2004), in The Internet TESL Journal has concisely presented four issues (referencing Truscott) which the grammar correction detractors find to be pivotal in their argument:
The first reason why writing class grammar feedback doesn't work is that it treats only the surface appearance of grammar and not with the way language develops […]. Secondly, learning grammar in a second language is a complex and gradual process which occurs both developmentally and hierarchically (some items are acquired before others). […]. The third reason for the ineffectiveness of grammar correction involves the practicalities associated with teachers [sic] comments and students understanding of these comments. Research has shown that corrections made by second language writing teachers are frequently arbitrary, not consistent, and greatly dependent upon the age and amount of time the teacher has with L2 students. […]. Finally, students generally only make a mental note of the corrections they have understood, and if they have to rewrite their papers, regularly do not incorporate these corrections into their work.
These four points reveal some of the more underlying drawbacks of grammatical correction. Researchers and teachers adhering to these points also seem to depend on Chomsky’s proposal of Universal Grammar. Language is acquired in a particular order and if this order is disrupted by negative feedback, research may suggest that these corrections are in turn harmful, rather than helpful, towards forward progress. Gray’s third point draws attention to the fallibility of language teachers: remarkably, much of the research conducted on grammar correction pays scant attention to this perturbing aspect of making errors while correcting errors. Truscott (1999) claims that teachers either fail to consistently correct the recurring grammatical error in student performance or give feedback that conflicts with the student’s understanding, resulting in the potentially harmful influences of negative feedback.
One of Truscott’s primary thrusts against corrective feedback methods is its apparent inability to benefit the student over a prolonged period of time. Time is broken into two categories: the short term and the long term. Longitude becomes one of the measuring factors in determining the lasting educational gains of negative feedback, as Ellis (1998) underscores. How long does the new knowledge—or better yet, the knowledge newly corrected—remain with the L2 student? Most test periods span the length of a university semester, or roughly 12 weeks. Truscott (2007) argues for solely considering studies which utilize a longer period of time, and he believes that there is “a strong bias in the debate in favor of studies that examine changes in writing ability over a period of months. One-shot treatments, in particular, have generally gotten little respect in this literature (…)” (Truscott, 2007: 257). The “one-shot” type of grammar measurement is, for Truscott, a faulty form of determining the benefit of grammar correction “not just because of its short-term nature, but mainly because it offers no measurable changes in students’ ability to write accurately, i.e. their learning” (Truscott, 2007: 257). This stance, nevertheless, is contested as some studies confirm that there are measurable grammatical improvements in the “one-shot” method of selected grammatical structures. Additionally, teachers interested in implementing “one-shot” grammar studies in their classrooms may analyze the way students apply error analysis in the short term.
In much of the current literature embracing previous studies with similar testing patterns, the authors always incorporate the length of time in which the referenced study took place. For instance, when including the research results from Ferris and Roberts (2001) and Lee (1997), Chandler (2003) clarifies for readers that “Neither of these studies measured the effect of these treatments on the accuracy of student writing over time” (Chandler, 2003: 270). Or, in other cases, researchers admit the faults in their own study and acknowledge, for example, that “[t]he findings of the study, however, are limited by the small sample size and short treatment time” (Liu, 2008: 76). Ferris (2004), conversely, seems more accepting of the shorter length “one-shot” studies. Ferris argues that while some critics have dismissed these tests because of their longitudinal need, “it can be argued that the cognitive investment of editing one’s text after receiving error feedback is likely a necessary, or at least helpful, step on the road to longer term improvement in accuracy” (Ferris, 2004: 54). Going a step further, Ferris argues for the value of providing details concerning “immediate, post-treatment student performance as well as delayed effects (i.e. retesting the subjects a month or two after the treatment)” (Ferris, 2004: 54).
Bitchener (2009) has applied these concerns about time in his more recent research during a ten-month study of ESL students. There various factors which Bitchener considers in this research, including limiting the focus of grammatical corrections to merely two grammatical usage issues common to L2 students. Yet, Bitchener’s core goal seems to be directed toward long term accuracy in measurement of improvement: “[a]ccuracy was measured over a ten-month period by means of a pre-test post-test (a pre-test after one week; an immediate post-test following the corrective feedback treatment after two weeks; three delayed post-tests after two, six, and ten months)” (Bitchener, 2009: 205). Bitchener did record grammatical advancement over the course of this ten-month study. His particular approach of focusing on “two functional error categories,” including the referential article ‘a’ and the definite article ‘the’ as well as direct error correction of varying levels, allowed him to analyze his students’ improvement over this longer period of time to gain a better understanding of the actual progress in learning. In reference to the longitude, Bitchener concludes, “the provision of written corrective feedback on a single occasion had a significant effect, enabling the learners to use the targeted function with greater accuracy over a ten-month period” (Bitchener, 2009: 209). Bitchener and Knoch (2010) further develop the case for the short term advancements which students make. Instead of multiple feedback sessions, Bitchener and Knoch focus on high level L2 writers and again target specific grammatical errors—this time with just one feedback session. The results are heartening for composition instructors since the time required by teachers to implement successful steps to irradiate grammatical errors from student writing can be accomplished in short periods of time. While these particular studies do suggest that long-term knowledge remains with the L2 student, the parameters within the test are subject to critique.
Thus far, I have placed grammar correction, negative feedback and corrective feedback as a large encompassing category. While these terms are overlapping, what they are actually representing is much more complex than just “feedback” on a paper. Much research in the past decade has attempted to analyze the advantages and weaknesses inherent to different styles of feedback. Method of feedback is a key consideration for instructors because there is an emotional connection between students and their work. Studying freshman ESL composition classes, Leki (1991) notes that “[r]esearch on foreign language students and native speaker writing includes evidence that at least some students experience strong emotional responses to error correction” (Leki, 1991: 204). Supporting evidence is include through research which reveals ESL students’ reactions to negative feedback, such as: blaming the teacher, focusing on just the grade, taking personal offense, and even tearing up the paper after seeing the grade (Leki, 1991: 204). Teachers must be sensitive to student reactions to feedback, and also be conscious that educationally related cultural differences may exist between teacher and student; student reactions are an indispensable factor in the decision of which form of—and to what extent—error feedback is implemented if grammar correction is applied.
An in-depth analysis of the diverse styles of feedback and research findings can be found in Bitchener et al. (2005), and Sheen (2007); both studies incorporate selected error treatment with the application of focused written feedback. There are a range of variant styles of feedback (and a mixture of overlapping terminology) which have been tested for corrective feedback, including: coded and uncoded, direct vs. indirect, direct vs. metalinguistic, and focused and unfocused. These different and varying levels of feedback strategies are described as follows: coded occurs when the teacher marks the error with a code (for instance, CS refers to comma splice); uncoded error correction requires the editor to just highlight (with a highlighter or underlining with a pen) the error without providing specific identification of what type of error has occurred; direct feedback is similar to coded feedback in that it does tell the student what type of error has occurred, but it also provides the corrected form for the student; indirect is again similar to uncoded which just notifies the student that there is some error within the sentence structure; metalinguistic provides the student with the correct grammar usage in an example as well as the grammatical rule for the particular error; focused and unfocused are yet again terms which overlap with coded and uncoded, but perhaps at times not using the actual grammatical codes which students may have to look up. Essentially, it appears that the argument boils down to three possibilities: no error correction at all, uncoded/unfocused/indirect correction, or coded/focused/direct feedback.
Linked with these three issues is also the disagreement suggesting that only certain types of linguistic error correction benefits students—creating a complex mix of what type of error correction to use and upon what type of grammatical errors to then apply corrective feedback. Notwithstanding, a little more needs to be said about the indirect vs. direct feedback and, for the rest of this discussion, I will limit my terminology to simply direct and indirect corrective feedback. Ferris and Roberts (2001) posit that indirect feedback is the more effective because it “helps students to make progress in accuracy over time more than direct feedback does […] or at least equally as well.” Ferris and Roberts are aware that lower level L2 students may not benefit from this type of feedback, however the supporting research is lacking in this area. The concluding observations of this study show that with the parameters of selective grammar correction, “there were no significant differences in editing success between the group that received coded feedback and the group that simply had errors underlined” (Ferris & Roberts, 2001: 176). These findings, Ferris and Roberts suggest, show an innate ability in students to correct their highlighted mistakes without the need of direct linguistic explanations. This is further supported in Weihong and Yuanxing (2010) who show that students are able to improve self-editing skills after receiving corrective feedback.
Sheen (2007) reveals slightly different results because, as with many of these tests, the parameters are different. Sheen’s emphasis is to see which style of feedback is most helpful to students. One parameter difference from Ferris and Roberts (2001) is that Sheen focuses on just one target structure; the ‘article’ was chosen because of its nonsalient features in English grammar and also because it is not always directly taught in classrooms. Another significant parameter difference for Sheen is the type of feedback provided; instead of the direct/indirect type of feedback, Sheen utilized the direct-only feedback and direct metalinguistic feedback approaches over a four week period. The findings of this study lead Sheen to refute Truscott (1996) and the claim that grammar correction is harmful. As a possible solution to Truscott, Sheen suggests that “One reason that previous studies of written CF have failed to demonstrate any effect on students’ accuracy in subsequent writing may simply be that the linguistic feedback was not sufficiently focused and intensive. The study reported in this article points to the importance of a selective approach to correcting students’ written work” (Sheen, 2007: 278). Because students showed measurable and beneficial improvement with focused grammar correction, the conclusion is “that focused linguistic CF is more effective when it incorporates both provision of the correct form and metalinguistic explanation” (Sheen, 2007: 278). Overall, both Sheen and Ferris are documenting that, in their particular studies, focused corrective feedback enabled the language teacher to see an improvement in student performance for at least the short-term. By narrowing down the teachers’ range of correctional focus for student work, Sheen and Ferris are potentially providing an alternative to one of Truscott’s claims against error correction which argues that “it is extremely difficult for a busy teacher to be consistent and systematic, especially if dealing with many students and with many different mistakes” (Truscott, 1996: 351).
If anything, the debate which has been going on now for more than three decades has at least made it apparent that the original parameters of testing were far too broad to be able to succinctly examine data findings. For example, Kepner (1991) concludes that corrective feedback does not work. Over the course of twelve weeks, journal entries written by students were provided with either “error-corrections” or “message-related comments” (Kepner, 1991: 305), or metalinguistic explanation, on their work. Kepner also undertook in the same study the task of trying to calculate the level of grammatical accuracy as well as level of thinking. The error analysis consisted of “total error counts and the total higher-level statement counts” (Kepner, 1991: 309) which, after analyzing this overwhelming amount of data brings about the conclusion that written feedback has no clear and beneficial effect. These results, published five years before Truscott (1996), reveal a similar outcome, however, because the study attempted to encompass so many aspects in student improvement, the conclusion seems a bit overbearing:
Therefore it may be concluded that the error-corrections written feedback type is not helpful for either the following outcomes: it does not help (to a significant degree) student L2 writers of either verbal-ability classification to avoid surface-level errors, and it certainly does not facilitate (to a significant degree) the production of higher-level writing by L2 student writers receiving that feedback consistently. (Kenper, 1991: 310)
On the other hand, some have demonstrated that corrective focus on predetermined or statistically recurring linguistic issues in the language classroom seem to provide, in some conditions, a measurable improvement among students. Still other argue that there are only certain and definable grammatical errors that can be changed through corrective feedback.
One of the issues of debate concerns the type of errors most important for teachers to focus on, but even more so, the discussion seems to be specifically revolving around types of errors which have shown a potential for students to actually improve upon. Bitchener et al. (2005), from their student pool, compiled a list of grammatical errors occurring with the most frequency. They found that the top five errors likely to occur were: prepositions, past simple, definite articles, present simple, and indefinite articles. From these, they selected the top three to perform their selected corrective feedback. In addition, the types of improvable grammatical errors appear to fall into two categories introduced by Ferris (1999): treatable and untreatable. The parameters of these two categories of errors entail:
a distinction between ‘‘treatable’’ and ‘‘untreatable’’ errors, suggesting that the former (verb tense and form, subject-verb agreement, article usage, plural and possessive noun endings, and sentence fragments) occur in a rule-governed way, and so learners can be pointed to a grammar book or set of rules to resolve the error, while the latter (word choice errors, with the possible exception of some pronoun and preposition uses, and unidiomatic sentence structure, resulting from problems to do with word order and missing or unnecessary words) are idiosyncratic and so require learners to utilize acquired knowledge of the language to correct the error. (Bitchener et al., 2005: 194)
Theories for treatable/untreatable errors seem to be limited to researchers who are in accordance with Ferris’s thought process. Bitchener (2005) discusses two issues related to Ferris’s proposition. First, there is need of further evaluation of the treatable and untreatable linguistic error categories. Perhaps the principle difficulty to consider is whether such a classification is useful in the grammar correction debate. Secondly,
[f]rom an independent learning perspective, the distinction appears to have some value. Error types that are rule-governed have the potential to be corrected by students who are willing and know how to make use of grammar texts, companions and dictionaries. On the other hand, error types that are idiosyncratic, idiomatic and not rule-governed, such as most lexical errors, are less likely to be treated successfully when such materials are used independently. (Bitchener, 2005: 5)
The self-motivation of the student as well as the student’s aptitude in using grammar resources plays a key component in the correction of treatable errors. The concept of treatable/untreatable is still in the theoretical stage. There is insufficient evidence from teachers who are researching this topic in order to support or disprove its validity; however, continued classroom evaluation of these concepts may shed light on the defining principles of student error types.
The issue of which selected grammatical errors to choose is one that Ferris and Truscott have some overlapping agreement, theoretically more so than in application. Ferris and Roberts (2001) acknowledge Truscott’s criticism that diverse linguistic categories get treated as equally equivalent in grammatical understanding. Lexical, syntactical, and morphological categories should and do “represent separate domains of knowledge that are acquired through different stages and processes;” furthermore, “when specific categories of written error were targeted for feedback and analysis, there were significantly different rates of student achievement and progress across error types” (Ferris & Roberts, 2001: 166).
Truscott (2001) ventures to discuss the possibility that there may be facets of corrective feedback which demonstrate that the theoretical potential for certain grammatical errors may be correctable through feedback. However, Truscott clarifies that he is not claiming that such practices are beneficial for L2 students, but rather that, if they do prove to be so—through more research—a teacher must then go about selecting which errors to correct. Regardless of potential future discoverable benefits, Truscott is unyielding in his belief that feedback may prove to be more damaging than useful, postulating “[c]aution is required, as certain crucial questions lie outside the scope of this investigation. In particular, I have not shown that any given error type can be successfully corrected, just that correction is relatively promising with certain types” (Truscott, 2001: 105-06). Truscott avoids using Ferris’s terminology of “treatable” and “untreatable” and instead prefers to refer to the “correctability” of the error. However, what he presents as his case clearly coincides with Ferris: “The issue is how promising correction is for each type of error—the correctability of that type. I will argue that the most correctable errors are those that involve simple problems in relatively discrete items. Least correctable are those stemming from problems in a complex system, particularly the syntactic system” (Truscott, 2001: 94). Truscott is allowing for the possibility that some errors are rectifiable, and if that is the case, future research should be directed toward providing instructors with assistance in determining which correctable errors to target.
Of the many variables within the realm of language instruction, including corrective feedback, are the ever changing and highly sensitive anticipations of teacher/student responsibilities. And while I have been touching on this throughout, some specific elements need elucidation. Teacher expectation is perhaps a more complex issue due to new pupils entering the class each semester. Likewise, students coming under the tutelage of a new teacher bring with them expectations and methods of learning carried on from previous educational experiences. One of the appealing results revealed in the research surrounding teacher opinion and L2 student expectations on corrective feedback is how widely their perspectives vary. Furthermore, the literature suggests that what students expect from a teacher is not always advantageous.
Brown (2009) posits the research question, “How closely do a teacher’s beliefs about specific teaching approaches align with those of his or her students?” Brown’s extensive survey involved 49 foreign language teachers and roughly 1,600 L2 students. Eliminating much of his in-depth research, we will focus on the core positions in his conclusion. In terms of grammar instruction, the teachers “appeared to value communicative approaches to L2 pedagogy, where information exchange takes precedence over discrete-point grammar practice” (Brown, 2009: 53); this stance on communicative approaches, however, exhibits a key aspect in the grammar correction issue because, “Teachers may need to help students understand some empirically proven principles of L2 learning (e.g., the importance of output, interaction, and negotiation of meaning) to justify exercises without a grammar focus or assignments graded for communicative effectiveness rather than for grammatical accuracy” (Brown, 2009: 53-54). The communicative approach has long since become the preferred method (Ellis & Fotos, 1991) but teachers have perhaps too greatly neglected grammar instruction. If teachers are going to maneuver away from explicit grammar correction, there needs to be more classroom communication concerning the purpose of other activities replacing grammar instruction and grammar feedback.
Discussion of specific pedagogical expectations of both teacher and student is a significant point which Brown repeatedly stresses. The results of Brown’s study elucidate that “teacher participants seemed more hesitant about explicit correction and grammar instruction than their students were;” also, “Teachers who value accuracy in production but choose to adopt less overt or obtrusive strategies in correcting grammar mistakes may end up with disillusioned students whose unrealistic expectations are not met” (Brown, 2009: 56). Interestingly, Brown posits that “It appeared that the teachers’ responses were guided by what the field at large might consider appropriate of communicative classrooms” (Brown, 2009: 54), suggesting that the “ideal” was not overlapping very thoroughly with classroom reality. Brown’s study confirms Schulz’s findings from 1996, recording a very wide discrepancy between teacher and student expectations on corrective grammar instruction. Opinions on questions in Schulz’s study, which probe the topic of corrective feedback in written work, varied as high as 45 percentage points between student and teacher. Schulz, like Brown, believes that “The more negative stance taken by responding ESL teachers could be due to their different instructional context, […]. Or it could be due to the fact that the responding ESL teachers are more attuned to the latest trends in L2 acquisition theories and methodology” (Shultz, 1996: 347). Schulz concludes by noting that if student involvement in the educational process is to be valued, then teachers should consider the input of learners’ opinions; this is also echoed by researchers who feel that teachers need to questions their students to determine which type of corrective feedback would be most desired. Bitchener and Knoch (2010) argue that if corrective feedback is to be implemented into the classroom, feedback involving this should first be elicited from the students. A sort of negotiation between teachers and students will help highlight areas in which students feel they need improvement; furthermore, teachers can implement specific activities focusing on new targets throughout the school semester.
Perhaps not surprisingly, more research seems to be conducted on student rather than teacher expectations. To return to Brown (2009), “beginning-level students maintain unrealistic expectations and narrowly defined perspectives about L2 learning” (2009: 48); this in turn may adversely affect their perceptions of teacher feedback on grammar correction—or, at a minimum, how quickly they advance to be higher level students. Schulz (1996) has shown that “With few exceptions…students hold more favorable attitudes toward formal grammar study than do the teachers as a group” (Shultz, 1996: 345). This positive attitude towards grammar instruction also carries over into student ideals relating to grammar correction: “responses indicate that students are surprisingly positive toward negative feedback” (Shultz, 1996: 346). These results create a conundrum for teachers evaluating corrective feedback, especially in light of other research such as Leki’s (1991), discussed earlier. So, as teachers we much decide how to deal with student expectations and the apparent results of mediocre (if not harmful, as Truscott would argue) changes in applied grammatical correction to students’ work. Other research has shown that student background plays a role in grammar correction: “learners’ perceptions about what constitutes useful feedback vary considerably according to the educational context and students’ level of literacy…” (Hedgcock and Lefkowitz, 1996: 295). Even though students do request feedback, their application of this feedback is not always apparent or discernible.
As often noted, extensive research is needed to create a course of action; yet, more current studies are shedding some directional light. Loewen, et al. (2009), probe into the constructs of L2 learners’ belief about the role of grammar instruction and correction. Polling 724 students from varying L2 foreign language courses, they discovered that participants generated two distinct categories for grammatical instruction and grammatical correction (Loewen, et al., 2009: 101). Students were inclined to view grammar correction favorably. One aspect of this study is that it disclosed a distinction between the ESL student and the L2 student. For instance, ESL students were more interested in fluency and comprehension, whereas L2 students studying varying target languages appeared to favor more grammatical instruction and correction. This study suggests that this may be related to previous grammatical instruction in other L2 classes and also reveals that correction and expectation are closely linked.
One particular study has associated the lack of clear evidence in grammatical corrective feedback to classroom motivation and “[t]he general hypothesis underlying this study is that for the classroom as a whole, error correction does not make a significant difference, but that it has significant positive or negative impact on individual students” (Dekeyser, 1993: 504). The motivation level of the student becomes linked with the desire for corrective feedback; if a student wishes to improve in the class, i.e. get better grades, they feel that grammatical correction is one method of insuring enhanced performance, and vice versa for students with low motivation levels (Dekeyser, 1993: 505). Ferris (2004) also supports similar claims: “from an affective standpoint, students’ strongly held opinions about this issue may influence their success or lack thereof in the L2 writing class. Thus, the existing research on student views predicts that the presence of error feedback may be beneficial and its absence may be harmful” (Ferris, 2004: 55). Much caution is stressed when approaching grammar correction and students’ expectations. The potential for positive or negative influence on student achievement is, on the micro-level, hard to determine and perhaps even harder to manage; on the macro-level, as many of the studies mentioned here have demonstrated, it is unclear how to go about a precise method of incorporating corrective feedback that meets the needs of an entire classroom of diverse language students.
By most accounts, the research based answer to corrective feedback is far from undeniably secured; in fact, if we were to agree with Ferris, the research is just evolving. The prime issues for the teacher-researcher seems to be the multitude of parameters, including time, types of feedback, types of errors, student and teacher expectations, and perhaps the most organic of all, the learning environment of each classroom. If tests can be replicated to the exact specifications and the answers shown to be confirmable, then there may be some headway made. What I have presented here is an attempt at an unbiased approach to viewing the debate as it stands right now. By examining the overarching themes rather than specific quantitative statistics, I perceive that some of the parameters of testing can be better recognized. The instructors who follow Truscott will not soon be in harmony with Ferris and Bitchener and their supporters. As both sides of the dispute agree, more research is necessary; however, it ought to be research which is accurately documented and easily replicated in order to generate an unambiguous and definable answer in the realm of corrective feedback within the classroom.
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