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2nd International Conference 2008

International Languages Teacher Training Institute

TO CORRECT OR NOT TO CORRECT: IS THAT THE QUESTION?*


Kho Chung Wei
B. Ed. TESL Year 4
International Languages Teacher Training Institute, Kuala Lumpur
It has been well-documented that second language teachers spend hours correcting
students writing in one form or another. However, there is still a sense of uncertainty
about how best to provide such corrective feedback. Some educators even propose
to abandon the whole practice of grammar correction. Despite the fact that many
studies have been done in this field, the debate continues between those who
believe in the merits of grammar correction and those who do not. This paper sought
to review the studies central to the grammar correction debate from a theoretical
perspective with the hope of resolving this issue. For this paper, twelve key studies
were reviewed. Grounded in relevant language teaching and learning theories, some
implications for the second language writing classes were drawn. Among the
implications is that grammar correction alone does not improve accuracy in writing.
To be effective, perhaps it should be supplemented with self-editing and comments
on content.

Introduction
It is Saturday midnight, Akademi Fantasia has just ended, and throughout the block the last
lights flick off all but one that is. A single orange light blooms in the darkness. It is the
English teacher, weary-eyed, cramped of leg, hand, and brain, sifting listlessly, but doggedly
through piles of essays, circling, correcting, marking, grading, commenting, and worrying
about what he has just written. Will my students understand and be able to effectively use my
feedback? Will they learn from my feedback for future writing? What if they have difficulty?
How will I know? Have my feedback help them to become better writers? What if my
feedback has alienated them from writing? What shall I do? How can I finish marking before
my students bug me for their essays? The fifth cup of coffee grows cold and bitter. Just one
more essay. And then one more. And then-

(Adapted from Goldstein, 2004, p. 63)


Providing feedback to student writing has played a central role in language
classrooms in the past and at present. It is almost a truism that the language
teachers spend a great deal of time sifting through, marking, grading, commenting
and responding to students essays and on top of this list, for the second language
teachers, correcting grammatical errors. It has been well documented that most
second language (L2) teachers and their students place a high value on grammar
correction (e.g. Lee, 2004; Radecki & Swales, 1988); and by virtue of this, nearly all
of them will do it in one form or another.
Despite the prevalence of grammar correction in responding to L2 student
writing, there is still a sense of uncertainty about how best to provide it as alluded to
in the preamble above. For instance, teachers are faced with the options of marking
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Developments in the
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2nd International Conference 2008


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all errors or some errors, modelling the correct forms or merely indicating their
locations and/or categories, using larger or smaller categories, and including any
follow-up activities or merely returning the marked scripts to students (Ferris, 2002).
Writers (e.g. Elbow, 2000) in this area have recommended guidelines that teachers
ought to follow, yet research is still ambivalent about the effects of the various ways
that it can be done. In fact, currently the whole practice of grammar correction is
under attack!
There is an ongoing debate, since a decade ago, about whether or not
teachers should correct grammatical errors in student writing. Although some
researchers and theorists (e.g. Semke, 1984) have disagreed with the practice of
grammar correction before then, it was Truscott (1996) who instigated the debate
when he rejected virtually all arguments favouring the practice of grammar correction
in his controversial review essay, claiming:
...that correction is harmful rather than simply ineffective-[and] that no valid
reasons have been offered for continuing the practice in spite of these
overwhelming problems-Thus, for the foreseeable future my conclusion
stands: Grammar correction has no place in writing classes and should be
abandoned (pp. 360-361).
He argues that grammar correction, as it is currently being practiced, works against
the learners developmental sequences of acquisition; results in nothing more than
pseudolearning; and is heavily flawed with practical problems such as the quality of
the correction and the students motivation to learn from the correction. In building
up his case, he also reviewed a number of studies on grammar correction to show
evidence against grammar correction (p. 329) and nonevidence for grammar
correction (p. 338). This review is reiterated and updated in a recent meta-analysis
to show that research evidence points strongly to the ineffectiveness of correction
(Truscott, 2007).
Truscotts (1996) claim however is premature considering that most of the
findings he has cited are potentially confounded by uncontrolled extraneous
variables such as the presence of other classroom activities (Gunette, 2007).
Furthermore, as Ferris (1999) has noted in her response to his essay, Truscott
appears to have overstated research findings that support his argument and
conveniently dismissed the studies which contradict him as nonevidence. For
instance, Truscott (2004) responded to a study (Chandler, 2003, 2004) that has
reported the positive effects of grammar correction by suggesting that the findings
are necessarily speculative-[and] that my own conjectures are the more plausible
of the two (p. 340).

Developments in the
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While there are some (e.g. Krashen, 2004) who would agree with Truscott
(1996, 1999, 2004, 2007), there are also many other researchers who would argue
in favour of grammar correction based on reasons such as the prevention of
fossilization (Higgs & Clifford, 1982) and the development of the ability to self-edit
(Ferris, 1999). Almost all however, except perhaps for Truscott, would agree that the
existing research base in the area is too inconsistent to allow for any conclusions to
be drawn. For instance, Ferris (2004) and Gunette (2007), who have reviewed
most of his counter-evidence and nonevidence for grammar correction from
different perspectives, have reached the conclusion that the evidence is inconclusive
as to whether teachers should correct grammatical errors.
This paper seeks to review the key studies central to the grammar correction
debate from a theoretical perspective. Key studies in this paper is operationally
defined as the studies that have been reviewed by Truscott (1996, 2007), Ferris
(2004) and Gunette (2007) or at least by two of them. Grounded in relevant
language teaching and learning theories, some implications for L2 writing classes
are also drawn.
Background to the Review of Key Grammar Correction Studies
In the literature, the term grammar correction is often used interchangeably
with other terms such as error correction (Ferris & Hedgcock, 1998), treatment of
error (Ferris, 2002), teacher correction (Cohen & Robbins, 1976) and corrective
feedback (Russell & Spada, 2006). Although there are subtle differences between
the terms (cf. Ferris, 1999; Truscott, 2004), they are treated as virtually synonymous
with grammar correction in this paper as long as they deal with the correction of
grammatical errors for the purpose of improving a students ability to write
accurately (Truscott, 1996, p. 329).
In the key studies reviewed in this paper, the grammatical errors may be
restricted to a few categories such as verbs and punctuation (Sheppard, 1992) or
may encompass almost everything from paragraphing to spelling (Chandler, 2003).
Although Truscott (2004) has rightly pointed out that some of these corrections such
as the clarity of meaning do not deal with grammatical errors, this paper will treat
them as whatever the original researchers claim them to be since it is almost
impossible to separate them out in a review such as this. Furthermore, it is assumed
that the measures used as indicators of the effects of the treatments are reliable and
valid. However, the effects of potentially confounding extraneous variables such as
the instructional activities supplementing the treatments are duly noted. Similarly, the
different treatments are described using common terminology across the studies so
as to ensure that they are somewhat comparable. To avoid drawing spurious
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conclusions, the findings are considered in terms of their statistical significance


rather than what the original researchers or other reviewers have concluded.
There are twelve key studies central to the grammar correction debate as
defined in this paper, and all of them are experimental research comparing two to
four treatment groups (Ashwell, 2000; Chandler, 2003; Fathman & Whalley, 1990;
Fazio, 2001; Ferris & Roberts, 2001; Frantzen, 1995; Kepner, 1991; Lalande, 1982;
Polio, Fleck, & Leder, 1998; Robb, Ross, & Shortreed, 1986; Semke, 1984;
Sheppard, 1992). The participants in most studies were college and university
students enrolled in language classes ranging from beginners to high-intermediates.
The treatments ranged from no feedback to direct correction where the corrected
forms are modelled for all grammatical errors marked. Half of them also included
feedback on content. A common outcome measure of the treatment effects in all of
the studies was accuracy, typically expressed as a ratio between the number of
errors made and the length of the writing. Some of the studies also measured the
fluency and the quality of the writing and other language-related measures such as
proficiency and grammatical knowledge. In the following review, I will discuss the
effects of the treatments on the outcome measures drawing on relevant theories in
second language teaching and learning.
Review of the Key Grammar Correction Studies from a Theoretical Perspective
To abandon or not to abandon: Is that the question?
If Truscotts conclusion about abandoning grammar correction is justified,
treatment groups that did not receive any forms of grammar correction would have
equal or more gains in the outcomes measured than those who were corrected.
There are two approaches to this treatment: 1) no feedback (Ashwell, 2000;
Fathman & Whalley, 1990; Ferris & Roberts, 2001; Polio, Fleck, & Leder, 1998); and
2) comments on aspects apart from the grammar, namely the content, message or
meaning (Fathman & Whalley, 1990; Fazio, 2001; Kepner, 1991; Semke, 1984).
Among the studies with a no feedback group, only Polio, Fleck, and Leder
(1998) reported that the grammar correction group did not differ significantly from the
no feedback group in terms of accuracy over time and from the original essay to the
revised essay. Similarly, Fazio (2001), Kepner (1991), and Semke (1984) did not
find any significant differences in accuracy over time between the grammar
correction and the comment on content groups. Instead, Kepner and Semke found
that their comment groups wrote significantly longer essays (i.e. more fluent) than
the grammar correction groups over time. This result was partially replicated in
Fathman and Whalleys (1990) study which found that the comment group had
written more words in the revised essays than the grammar correction and the mixed
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groups. What is more interesting is that the no feedback group wrote the longest
essays. This suggests that students tend to write less when given feedback, perhaps
because they are trying to incorporate the feedback given into their subsequent
writing. Not giving any feedback to students however would do them a disservice as
indicated in Ashwells (2000) study. His no feedback group not only did not gain in
the content scores of the revised essays but also deteriorated significantly in
accuracy. This is not surprising considering that Fathman and Whalley, and Ferris
and Roberts (2001) have also found significant differences in accuracy favouring the
grammar correction groups.
Based on the review of the studies comparing the effects of grammar
correction with no grammar correction, it can be concluded tentatively that: 1)
grammar correction generally improves accuracy in the revised essays; 2) grammar
correction does not appear to improve accuracy over time; 3) any feedback given
may decrease fluency as measured by the length of the essays; and 4) no feedback
is not an option (cf. Gunette, 2007). Grammar correction therefore still has its
merits at least in helping students improve their accuracy when revising essays.
Considering that revision is central to the writing process and that grammar
correction can help in revision, abandoning grammar correction would have done a
great disservice to students who may need help in revising their essays.
The role of grammar correction in the writing process
The effectiveness of grammar correction in helping students write better
revised essays has been documented by various researchers such as Freedman
(1987), Sommers (1982) and even Truscott (1996) when he was reviewing Fathman
and Whalleys (1990) study. Considering that revising essays is a function of
process writing, it can be hypothesised that grammar correction is most useful when
it is provided as an intervention before students revise their essays for grammatical
errors, namely the editing stage (Sitko, 1998).
Among the key studies, only Ashwell (2000) examines this hypothesis by
comparing the three different orders that grammar correction can be provided in a
three-draft essay, namely after, before or together with the feedback on content. He
found that accuracy improved significantly from draft to draft whenever grammar
correction was given in between them and deteriorated significantly when it was not
provided. This is not surprising considering that grammar correction helps to improve
accuracy in revising essays. This also suggests that students revise their essays on
the basis of teacher feedback as is contended by Beason (1993). What was
surprising was that regardless of when the content feedback was given, the quality
of the content tended to improve significantly between the first and the second draft.
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This seems to reflect the revision stage of the writing process model (Hayes &
Flower, 1980) where writers re-examine what they have written to see how
effectively they have conveyed their meanings to the readers. Since students tend to
revise their essays for grammatical errors based on the grammar correction received
and tend to revise globally in the second draft, it would be more useful to provide
students with content feedback after the initial draft and with grammar correction
before the final draft.
From a process writing approach then, teachers need to ensure that the types
of feedback provided are aligned with the different stages of the writing process. The
goal is to construct process-oriented writing instruction that will affect students
performance for instance through systematic teaching of problem-solving skills
connected with the writing process (Seow, 2002). In terms of grammar correction in
writing, this can be achieved by developing students self-editing skills to enable
them to produce more accurate texts in the long run.
How to improve accuracy in student writing in the long run: That is the question
Since the goal of grammar correction as implied in the process approach is to
develop students self-editing skills, it is expected that when students are required to
revise their writing for grammatical errors that have been marked, they would
improve on their accuracy over time. Frantzen (1995) however found no significant
difference in the accuracy gains between the grammar correction group with revision
and the group without. However, students who were required to correct their
grammatical errors performed significantly better in a discrete point test than the
other group, indicating that they have acquired the grammatical knowledge but
encounter difficulties applying it in their writing (cf. Brindley, 2001). In a partial
replication, Chandler (2003) has found that the revision group has a significantly
higher accuracy gain than the non-revision group. This suggests that students who
are required to edit their writing may improve on their accuracy over time or at least
gain some grammatical knowledge.
From the perspective of second language acquisition, the combined effects of
grammar correction and revision on the mastery of grammatical knowledge and
accuracy as noted above are not surprising. Richards (2002) in his model of second
language learning and use for instance has noted that output is more likely to
facilitate acquisition when the learners are pushed, that is, required to reshape their
utterances and to use the target language more coherently and accurately (p. 44).
In terms of student writing, making revision compulsory essentially pushed
students to reshape their writing and to use the target language more accurately in
their written work. Central to this is the role of negative or corrective feedback which
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shows students that what they have produced is incorrect, and thus helps them to
notice the gap between their own deviant productions and grammatically correct
productions (Ellis, 1998, p. 52). This is what grammar correction hopes to achieve.
Extending from Gasss (1988) model of second language acquisition, the
students writing, which is an output, necessitates a feedback loop one of which is
teacher feedback in the form of grammar correction. In revising their writing,
students would incorporate the teacher feedback as alluded to earlier and try to
correct their own errors. Such attempts however are not always successful even
under optimal conditions (Krashen, 2004) nor do they demonstrate that students
have learned the grammatically correct productions (Ellis, 1998). As Ellis has
pointed out, this can only be demonstrated by finding out whether the students avoid
making the same error in subsequent writing. This means that the effect of grammar
correction on the accuracy of students revised essays is short-lived, and does not
necessarily translate into accuracy gains in the long run. This perhaps explains why
all the longitudinal studies (Polio, Fleck, & Leder, 1998; Fazio, 2001; Kepner, 1991;
Semke, 1984; Sheppard, 1992) did not find any significant difference between the
grammar correction group and the non-grammar correction group but those which
examined its effects on revised essays (Ashwell, 2000; Fathman & Whalley, 1990;
Ferris & Roberts, 2001) did.
The issue is further obfuscated when all of the longitudinal studies except
Polio, Fleck, and Leder (1998) contrasted their grammar correction groups with a
content feedback group. As Lyster and Ranta (1997) has noted, clarification request
which is often included as comments on content, message and meaning is also a
type of corrective feedback that can push students towards noticing the gap
between the errors they made and the grammatically correct forms. This perhaps
explains why Sheppard (1992) found that his content feedback group which was
provided with comments such as I dont know what you mean here (p. 105)
outperformed the correction group in accuracy on punctuation.
The remaining three studies (Chandler, 2003; Lalande, 1982; Robb, Ross, &
Shortreed, 1986) that have not been discussed thus far investigated the effects of
different types of grammar correction on accuracy. Only Chandlers study shows
significant differences between the different types of treatment. Using a partially
balanced incomplete block design, it was found that direct correction (correct forms
modelled for all errors located) is significantly more effective than indirect correction
in improving the accuracy of revised essays. This is not surprising since the teacher
in effect has already edited the essays for them in direct correction. What is
surprising is that the accuracy of their subsequent writing improved significantly after
they were provided with direct correction and uncoded correction (errors located but
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not identified) in the previous writing. Their writing however deteriorates following the
two forms of coded correction (errors identified but may or may not be located). This
suggests that uncoded correction perhaps is more effective in improving accuracy
across different essays than coded correction. The choice of uncoded rather than
direct correction also precluded them from merely rewriting their essays during the
revision stage. This recommendation however is premature considering that the
other two key studies did not report any significant findings. In fact, most of the
conclusions drawn from these studies cannot be considered as evidence to support
or to abandon the practice of grammar correction, merely conjectures as Truscott
(2004) would put it.
Some Implications for the Second Language Teachers
Based on the review of the key studies central to the grammar correction
debate, it can be concluded that:
grammar correction generally improves accuracy in the revised essays
the types of feedback provided would need to be aligned with the different
stages of the writing process, i.e. content feedback followed by grammar
correction
grammar correction perhaps is best supplemented with editing and content
feedback
uncoded correction is perhaps more effective than coded correction and
direct correction
grammar correction alone does not appear to improve accuracy in the long
run
any feedback given may decrease fluency as measured by the length of the
essay
no feedback is not an option
Underpinning these conclusions are the relevant language teaching and learning
theories such as the process writing approach and second language acquisition
theories.
As they are grounded in current theoretical perspectives to teaching writing
and the processes of second language acquisition, the conclusions drawn are
generally applicable to the L2 writing classes. For instance, it is recommended that
teachers provide grammar correction only after the students have revised their
content, namely during the editing stage. However, they must be careful not to
abandon feedback on content during the process. They would also need to provide
ample opportunities for students to engage in the feedback provided, such as
through self-correction of the grammatical errors highlighted. This means that
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teachers may need to consider underlining or circling or any other means of


indicating the specific location of the errors without indicating the types of errors
made (e.g. subject-verb agreement) as well as to resist the temptation of giving
away the grammatically correct forms. Whether or not this technique of dealing with
students grammatical errors can help to improve their accuracy in writing, and
hence their development as writers, is still open to question. As Ferris (2004) and
Gunette (2007) have noted, the research base is indeed still inconclusive.
As such, the conclusions drawn are merely conjectures albeit plausible
ones. Although there may be some objections to the validity of these conclusions,
they are nevertheless some valid points of consideration for teachers who have a
desire to help their students improve the accuracy of their writing or for the
researchers who aspire to answer the big question (Ferris, 2004, p. 50) Does
grammar correction help L2 student writers? and subsequently, the issue of
whether or not L2 teachers should provide (or abandon) grammar correction. The
question of whether or not this is the right question to ask remains unanswered. Only
when this is answered may the research base in grammar correction progress
beyond its current state, and only then may any findings be truly applicable to the L2
classrooms.

This paper is based on an assignment completed as part of LING316 (Second Language Teaching and Learning) at
Macquarie University. The writer has received help and feedback from the unit convenor, Ms Jean Brick.

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