Cracking the code: one way to correct students’ writing

This post started out as a response to another blogger’s recent post about reformulation as one way of correcting writing, but as I started to write my comment underneath it, I found I couldn’t stop!  (I’ve always found the issue of error correction very interesting and infinitely debatable.)  So, rather than clutter up his blog post with an overwhelmingly long comment of my own, I thought I’d post my thoughts here. 
The blogger in question (26 Letters) makes reference to articles by Myers and Kusuyama on reformulation as a technique for ‘composition instruction’.  Before I continue, I should acknowledge that I haven’t thoroughly read these papers, although they look very interesting, particularly for making students’ work sound more natural, rather than necessarily ‘correcting’ what they’ve written.
What prompted me to write this post wasn’t the suggestion of reformulation in itself, but rather the various criticisms in the aforementioned blog post of using a correction code to mark students’ writing.  I’ve heard such criticisms before, but I thought it was worth addressing them here, as I’ve found using correction codes to be beneficial to, and appreciated by, many students, and I don’t think the technique should be dismissed too quickly.
Criticism #1: It takes too much time to teach students what all the symbols mean.
My response: I’ve used this system many times with many students, and it doesn’t take long to teach them what the symbols mean.  From experience, I’d put it at 15 minutes’ class time, maximum.  In any case, I consider this an investment, as the students can use it again in future without the need for re-explanations.
Criticism #2: Few students are conscientious enough to bother working out all the little symbols and submitting a second draft to the teacher.

My response: I can’t deny that, left to their own devices, many students might just ignore the teacher’s corrective symbols and not re-draft their work; but this criticism doesn’t do justice to conscientious teachers’ efforts to really develop their students’ writing skills.  The use of a correction code by the teacher could just be the start of the process.  If a teacher has set a writing task as homework, then marks it with a correction code and returns it to the student, the next piece of homework could be to… hand in the re-draft!  (I agree that the students’ work shouldn’t just be left to vanish into the ether after being handed back.)  Assuming the students generally do the homework they are set, this would reduce the likelihood of them just filing away their first attempts and forgetting about them.  I don’t pretend that all students are this diligent, but I’ve found in the past that most of my students appreciated the opportunity to get several ‘stages’ of feedback from the teacher and were ultimately happier with the end result, seeing that their continued effort had paid off.

Criticism #3: Pointing out students’ errors to them and eliciting self-correction can be incredibly time-consuming and difficult for them.
My response: Who ever said learning was quick and easy?  Yes, guiding students to correct their language problems themselves is often slower and more difficult than just crossing something out and fixing it for them; but correction codes, along with other means of eliciting self-correction, encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning and development, rather than relying on the teacher to fix all their problems.
And a couple of other thoughts on the issue, thrown in for good measure:
1. Teachers should dedicate class time not only to writing, but to re-writing.
Time permitting, lesson time can be dedicated to having students revise their (and each other’s) written work, using the teacher’s code, along with other resources they might not have access to at home (such as learner dictionaries, grammar books, other learners, etc.).  This makes in-class writing activities more student-centred and promotes long-term learner autonomy.  It also means the teacher, as well as the students, is less likely to just stuff initial attempts at writing tasks into a folder and forget about them.  Editing and re-drafting in class shows students that their teacher really expects them to take the time to revisit, revise and re-draft their written work.  This is one of the things skilled writers do, along with planning before they write, etc.; and it wouldn’t be fair to suggest to students that they can get away with doing less and still expect fantastic results.
2. Whose work ends up in the students’ writing portfolio?
This was one thing I reacted to particularly strongly on the aforementioned blog post.  If a learner writes a text once, submits it to the teacher (who reformulates it), then copies out the entire thing again with the teacher’s amendments and finally slots this ‘clean copy’ into his/her portfolio, whose work does this final version reflect?  This is just my personal feeling, but as a learner, I would rather have a final draft of a text that reflected my own time and effort (plus some of the teacher’s, of course) than a document which I’d just copied from the teacher’s corrections, without needing/bothering to think about why those changes were necessary.
The blogger who unwittingly prompted me to write about all this does acknowledge in his post that reformulation is just one way to address errors in students’ written work, and that it is a pragmatic solution given how little time we often have with students.  Equally, I don’t suggest that correction codes work for everybody – teachers or students.  I would never suggest that teachers force certain techniques/methods/activities on their learners without consideration of their needs and wants, or the time/resources available.
However, I have known many students, in many different classes, of different levels, ages and nationalities, to appreciate working on their writing in this way.  It requires time and effort from them and from me, but in the end, my students have appreciated not being allowed to get away with just stuffing their marked writing into their books/bags and forgetting about it.  As they say, there is no substitute for hard work!
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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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