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How useful is it to correct written errors?

I was prompted to write this blog after reading two research-based blogs about correcting students' written errors. The first, typically provocative in its title,  is one by Gianfranco Conti here. the second, in response to Gianfranco's post is here by Russell Mayne on the blog Evidence based EFL. I recommend both blogs.

The introduction of Gianfranco's blog post (one of a number he has written on error correction) puts the issue of error correction into context:

"Most secondary school MFL teachers correct their student writers’ mistakes. But does error correction ACTUALLY enhance L2-writing proficiency development? A large number of scholars who espouse Cognitive theories of L2-acquisition (e.g. McLaughlin, 1987; Johnson, 1988, 1996), the vast majority of teachers (Applebee, 1984; Zamel, 1985) and most L2-learners (Ferris and Hedgcock, 1998) think so. However, many language educators working in the Nativist paradigm oppose this view. Believing that L2-acquisition is an unconscious process, which cannot be significantly altered by grammar instruction, some of them have even called for a ban on EC from the L2-writing classroom (Krashen, 1984; Leki, 1990; Truscott, 1996). In the absence of conclusive evidence that EC does enhance L2-learner writing proficiency, the debate over whether errors should be corrected or ignored is still ongoing."

Gianfranco then lists a number of reasons why traditional error correction is ineffective and concludes by suggesting some ways to make error correction more effective:

"– Effectively focus learners on the importance of form and bring it firmly into their focal awareness;
– Enhance the ways in which the learners handle feedback and get them to process teacher corrections ‘deeply’, using approaches that are more conducive to learning;
– Increase their error related self-knowledge (i.e. the knowledge of what their most common errors are);
– Enhance their editing strategies through learner training and extensive practice;
– Personalize remedial learning and engages them in a long-term of self-monitoring process whereby they set out to eradicate the errors they know they make through independent study, extensive practice and careful editing."

In essence I think I could summarise Gianfranco's view by saying that teachers over-value error correction, could do it better and spend too long on it compared with more useful activities.

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Russell Maynes's blog entitled "Try this, it works! Written error correction" takes issue with Gianfranco's position. Russell's main criticism is that Gianfranco's selection of research is a bit out of date. He goes on to quote more recent research, e.g. Ellis and Shintani, 2014, which suggests that error correction is effective, especially when it is "direct" (i.e. you correct the error and put in the right version too - as opposed to just circling or underlining the error, know as "indirect correction").
Russell reports: 'recent studies report a clear advantage for direct forms of feedback.' (Bitchener and Ferris, 2012).

Russell continues by summarising some research on the value of using codes when correcting, using "focused" or "unfocused" correction (i.e. choosing one type of error to focus on such as verb ending, or correcting all errors) and Gianfranco's point that error correction may demotivate students. In sum Russell's reading of the research takes a more positive view of error correction.
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I would like to add a few points of my own, purely based on my own experience and feelings on the matter.

Firstly, I am sure that this area, like many others in second language acquisition research, is difficult to research and that studies will report conflicting findings. The field is young and only quasi-scientific. Error correction is just one intervention teachers use to further the progress of their students, so it is hard to isolate it for experimental purposes.

In addition, I would hypothesise that the effectiveness of error correction depends to some degree on the relationship the teacher has with the class. With some teachers a class may well respond to error correction more usefully than with others. Further, whatever the relationship, a teacher who insists on error correction being followed up is likely to see the correction being more productive. Following up could include focusing on problem structures in subsequent tasks or insisting that errors be written out.

Next, error correction, although it probably demotivates some students, is seen by most if not all as a sign that the teacher cares about the work the students are doing. At this point I need to return to a point I often make which is that one of the main aims of marking is to ensure that students have done their work and that you care about that fact. If you don't mark/check and correct the students may well put less time and care into their work. A key point for me is not the error correction, but the fact that the students have done the work carefully in the first place. So error correction has an important psychological element which is impossible to measure.

Theoretically, while I accept that many errors are developmental and are ironed out over time with comprehensible input à la Truscott, I have seen with my own eyes over many years how corrections improve students' subsequent accuracy. Students often do respond to correction and put things right. If we do not correct we cannot rely on input to improve accuracy (time restrictions mean there is not enough input). There is a danger that errors become "fossilised", i.e. don't go away (itself a controversial area in the research!).

In sum, my feeling is that error correction can be useful when done in the right way (e.g. following Gianfranco's suggestions above) with a particular class or individual, but that, yes, teachers probably spend too long on the task. A common approach to save time and, arguably, correct more effectively is to read students' work speedily (maybe correct lightly) and then devote some lesson time to whole class feedback and re-teaching of common problem areas. A teacher's time is limited and time spent meticulously correcting written work may be better spent preparing great lessons.

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