Red ink and the OK Corral

Thomas Leverett, 3-09

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As I write this it is about two weeks before a discussion I proposed for TESOL on the state of the research on error correction in esl/efl writing, and about thirteen years since controversy first broke out on the subject, although I could be mistaken about the timeline. The controversy is based on the assertion, most prominently put forward by Truscott, that grammatical correction on esl/efl writing is not only useless, but also counterproductive: it makes students concentrate on the wrong thing (grammar, which will improve on its own time anyway); it undermines their confidence; it takes time away from better things that the teacher could be doing, etc. The debate over error correction has been heated and at times erupted in verbal battles at the TESOL Convention itself; such battles have become legend in the field and represent an ongoing drama that gives the Writing Interest Section a name; thus, I was attracted to it, and decided to jump right in. But I had another reason: I genuinely wanted to know what people had to say about it, what experience and research had to offer, and where the debate was going, if anywhere. So I write this today, knowing little more than when I started, and looking forward to the discussion.

It's very difficult to run a pure study, in the sense that most students are getting steady feedback in English whether a particular paper or set of them is marked up with grammatical corrections or not; students in a pure writing situation could show difference depending on whether their grammar is corrected, but then, what do they do with the corrected grammar? I haven't seen a study that shows exactly how to lead students through clear steps to acquisition. It is clearly true that the steady pace of acquisition is somewhat separated from the day-to-day events anyway, so that, even if we should stress a particular point to students on any particular day, we could likely see students incorporate that point temporarily, on command or just because it is prominent in their minds, but this doesn't necessarily mean it will improve their writing permanently; more likely, we will be revisiting the point again and again until the day that, having forgotten to stress it, the students prove that they were willing all along, just not ready, for the change; they change it themselves, without our being involved. So Truscott has a point: if the error correction has no apparent value, or immediate effect, then it should be discarded for all its obvious flaws.

Truscott's challenge at least provoked a raft of studies that showed how certain kinds of correction could direct students' attention to certain points, well enough that certain structures, measured by themselves, could be proven to be affected. It was as if his detractors were determined to prove that all that error correction must be good for something. But this was fairly obvious anyway, and Truscott's followers surely could easily argue that in the course of these studies we changed some structures, but only temporarily, much as we do in a grammar class before a grammar quiz. Beyond that, I am still waiting to hear conclusive proof from anyone showing any permanent change or "improvement"in writing. However, as a teacher of mostly writing (at least for the last half-decade or so), and one who has had a careful eye on my students' acquisition, I've gradually evolved my own philosophy, and I've come to see that it's a little unorthodox, in terms of the field and where it stands, so I am writing this in order to explain and justify it, as well as explore the alternative philosophies and their differences, and clarify them in my own mind. I feel that in over twenty years of teaching I've seen enough acquisition, and lack of it, to know how grammatical correction is involved and what role it plays if any, and I plan to at least show where I've been and how I came to believing what I do.

As a beginning writing teacher I wanted it all: to improve students' grammar and teach the basics of western organizational writing at the same time. At the time it was common to use correction guides (mine came from the back of the famous Azar book) on the understanding that students would see a code, say "4" (representing verb problem), and in the course of fixing it themselves would get insight into their own learning, hopefully magnified by seeing the variety and distribution of numbers on their sheet. A student with a profusion of 8's, for example, clearly had a spelling problem, and could by seeing a large number of 8's remind himself/herself to make a system to deal with this problem. I immediately noticed several things; first, they often misinterpreted the numbers, or, if capable of making a poorly or wrongly formed verb on the first draft, would misconstruct another on the second. Thus a system of relying on them was ultimately more work and more attention to the grammar, if I valued a finished product that was error-free. Second, students cared far more about the grammatical errors than about organizational factors, which they either didn't take seriously, or were not able to really comprehend given the difference in cultures and level of language required to understand my comments. Thus using second and third drafts to get them to write more in the style that I would have liked turned out to be an exercise in my providing them with what I liked, rather than teaching them by walking through the process, and this wasn't very satisfying.

Over the years I expanded the amount I expected of them, for many reasons. First, I noticed that there was a disconnect between their writing and their expectation that it was ever to be used for any real communicative purpose, so I set out to change that right away; I had them write more informally, I published what they wrote, and made sure that they would at least read each other's. In those days we made a program newsletter, and I remember calling upon the work of Peter Elbow and Marie Wilson Nelson to justify volumes of informal writing for communicative purposes, on the assumption that their confidence was key; their ability write to communicate and their awareness of their audience were the two most important considerations for even formal work. When weblogs came along I had them put it all on weblogs; this often meant I would line-edit more of what they wrote, on the assumption that when making it totally public, they would want it to be as error-free as possible. I understood even then the fine line between error and grammatically unique, and was as tolerant as I could be in interpretation.

But in the course of doing this I noticed several things: first, they often asked about what I did, and I felt that these were the moments they were learning; the pressure was off to do anything at this point besides clean it up and publish it; yet they looked carefully at what they wrote versus how I would say it, and seemed to devour the difference. I thought often of Nelson's At the Point of Need, wondering if I was seeing them at that point (Nelson maintained that true improvement came from their reaching for a new structure that they needed strongly for a communicative purpose; thus she advocated communicative tasks like the ones I set up, designed to make them need to communicate, and use the new grammar as a tool to that end).

Not that their systems changed immediately; like Truscott, I noticed that disconnect, and was aware that I could not change any given grammatical issue overnight. But I did feel that they learned from the comparison of what they had written and my red ink, so to speak; that the learning that came from that comparison was a key element in that process, though it didn't finish it, and they instinctively knew when they were ready to learn any given thing. Rather than lose faith in grammatical correction, I gained faith in it; I kept devaluing it, as if it were one of the least important things we did; I encouraged questions and answered them completely to the best of my knowledge; and I continued to value whatever they wrote for its content and communicative purpose, almost overlooking the grammatical issues entirely as I did so, except when the grading rubric required that I give it some kind of score. My attitude at this point was that the more I could show them the difference between what they said and what I interpreted, the more I could encourage or push their own personal growth.

At the higher levels I noticed several other patterns with regard to grammatical accuracy. One was that students were well aware that they didn't make perfect grammar, and were very sensitive of the stigma that would be put on them as they moved on into academic classes. Yet at the same time they continued to be skeptical that such things as thesis statements, topic sentences, etc., had any consistent value or potential use in their future. In each new class they seemed to start out without any of the organizational basics, regardless of what they had been taught already, and yet they seemed to see my job mostly as knowing the grammar, believing all else to be temporal or up to the given teacher, and sure to change as they moved on. In such a climate I began more and more to see topic sentences, thesis statements, etc. as cultural impositions myself, and began to make sure I had writing that was free of even those. Why not just communicate with their friends, without worrying about cultural frameworks or structure? Why not learn the western essay style when they needed a western essay? I found, anyway, that they found it much easier to understand western expectations when they had several different kinds of writing under their belt, and could see how each would look with different styles applied to them. And, continual reading of their classmates' work ensured that they had plenty to compare it to. I found that the organizational details were much like the grammatical ones: they acquired them when they were ready; they could change them under pressure from grading or passing, but, left on their own, would do whatever their particular stage of development allowed and made them comfortable with, often falling back on native language discourse patterns, perhaps because they just weren't comfortable with ours.

With large amounts of writing, my time of course became more scarce; I often graded fluency exercises quite simply, but line-edited them for grammatical mistakes anyway. I was intimately familiar with what they produced day in and day out, and was able to notice if and when they actually acquired any particular structure; I also noticed when anything they wrote appeared to come from somewhere else. I was fairly confident that the grammatical correction was important to them and an important part of their process, but that it didn't influence directly what they would produce the following day. I was willing to continue it because the benefits in terms of their confidence, gotten from having produced something and used it successfully to communicate, where great enough to justify their temporary setback in seeing red ink spilled on whatever they wrote. Until your grammar gets better, I'd tell them, you'll need editing. It'll get better on its own; this may help or it may not, I told them. And finally, I let go of the corrections too: if they wanted to "fix" it, fine; if they didn't, that was ok too. In some cases they were surprised that I had taken so much time with the details of what they had written (error correction being out of style with their previous writing teachers, perhaps); maybe they corrected their writing just to please me, or in return for the time I had put into their work. I had stopped worrying about grammatical perfection as a requirement for that kind of assignment, and even for the more serious ones; if they followed through all the way, and made everything grammatical before the end or before publication, so much the better, but, if I left them entirely alone, I could watch their own natural process better, and watch how they dealt with corrections in different kinds of environments. In some cases they had no corrections required at all, and I was able to watch whether they had any qualms about producing and publishing work that wasn't corrected at all; many clearly didn't. Finally, I listened carefully to what they said about the correction; I certainly didn't want to deflate their confidence (as Truscott might argue) or focus their attention unnecessarily on the trivial.

It has been said that although students want grammatical corrections, and in fact demand them, that doesn't mean that that is what is good for them, or even that it is a valuable use of a teacher's time. I disagree on both counts. I know that it is good for them, though I don't know I'm the only one or even the best one to provide it for them. I know that they learn from it because I watch them learn from it. But I also know it is valuable as a use of my time, because I learn more about how they produce things, and I have a constant reminder of the ambiguities caused by their using grammar that to a native speaker would be unclear or clearly wrong. I always found it necessary to correct their sentences one by one before I looked at their organization; with grammatical mistakes I found too many possibilities to put sentences into paragraphs and really tackle their organization anyway. With a careful eye on exact words they use to put a sentence together, I feel that I have a better overall picture of what I need to know: their confidence level, their general sentence structure, their patterns of paragraph construction. Thus, I've found myself virtually an unrepentant grammatical corrector; but I treat this correction as almost an afterthought; I don't ever begrudge it to them, and offer it as part of the time I would put into their paper anyway. It works. They learn a lot; they produce and publish; the results are public. 3-09


Leverett, T. (2008, Mar.). Line editing as a way of life, from Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Writing IS, Demonstration, TESOL 2008, NYC.

Nelson, M. W. (1991). At the Point of Need: Teaching basic and ESL writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Available at Amazon.

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, 46:2, pp. 327-369.

Note: this was moved here from in 2011.

working paper: part of a larger, unfinished work.