Bending Without Breaking: Error Correction in a Culturally-Sensitive World

I’ve become accustomed to taking a hatchet to my own writing. I’m a severe editor of my own bad stuff, but that has never bothered me. I keep at it, trying to arrive at what I want to say.

Fifteen odd years of editing and re-editing of my own work (and that of others) has helped me build a semblance of emotional elasticity. But, how am I to communicate this elasticity to the handful of internationally-trained adult English language learners who are now under my guidance? They don’t have the luxury of time. There is no socio-cultural kryptonite that can shield them when their written errors are brought into the light of day. Not even the mellowing of age or the achievement of social status can safeguard them from the confidence-gutting experience that is part and parcel of pointing out their morphological, syntactical and semantic mistakes.

On the best of days, I find error correction to be a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, I feel a responsibility to tell adult learners exactly where their written errors are,  on the other hand, too much truth isn’t always a good thing. It undermines motivation and learning. I often find myself wondering if I should hide the reality of their errors with vague language like “please spell check before submitting your paper next time.” But then I wonder if this type of compassion is useful. It seems a bit patronizing. And, then, of course, there’s the question of whether this softening of the truth does more harm than good to the teaching profession. The well-known sandwich approach is a good model to follow with intermediate learners, but my experience has proven that it is far too transparent for advanced English language learners. They see right through the good-bad-good formula, and occasionally ridicule the process. Furthermore, the method does not address the reality that sometimes it is not possible to find two pieces of praise strong enough to lessen the sting of correction.

I may never come to terms with this Catch-22 situation, but it seems to me that if adult ELLs are given a choice about receiving error feedback on their written work, they may feel less discomfort. I think it is important to ask adult English language learners if they want to be corrected. If they do not, then perhaps a casual one-on-one conversation about their writing may be sufficient. If they do want feedback, then it seems reasonable to suggest that they ought to be given the option of deciding how much correction they want. Do they want all errors to be highlighted or just the most egregious ones? Do they welcome editorial suggestions and perhaps the occasional re-write of a sentence? Second, for those learners who want constructive criticism, mechanisms need to be firmly in place before essays and written work is submitted. I have found that quantifying and tracking a learner’s written errors with the use of tables, charts and graphs is both 100% truthful and less emotionally damaging. Numerical error quantification offers a more detached, quasi-scientific analysis. The process is more time-intensive, but well worth it in terms of addressing student writing and not their worth.

What are your thoughts and experience on correcting student writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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2 thoughts on “Bending Without Breaking: Error Correction in a Culturally-Sensitive World”

  1. Your blog post tackles a very important topic in the ESL world. I think that for us as ESL instructors, trying to overcome the problem of error correction can be quite daunting. Language acquisition differs from other subjects in many ways. Most importantly the student of a second language has to abandon all the learning identity he/she once had in their native language and acquire a whole new persona, so to speak. This can severely damage one’s self-efficacy, and the blow can be hard to overcome. Error correction, if handled poorly, will only contribute to low motivation, self-efficacy, and overall student output.

    As for solutions to overcome this problem, there probably isn’t a definitive answer. However, I recently watched an interesting Ted Talk by Eduardo Brinceno entitled “How to Get Better at Things You Care about.” The talk is mostly centered around ideas of self-regulated learning, but the main takeaway would be how students can benefit from two different zones of learning: the Learning Zone and Performance Zone. The Learning Zone not only allows, but encourages errors as an excellent source of learning and deeper analysis in order to improve one’s output in the Performance Zone. We can apply these concepts with error correction because errors are how students can learn. If we encourage mistakes during writing as a process (as opposed to identifying errors in a summative assessment), over several drafts, students can see gradual improvement over time and witness how their own increased effort can help achieve improved results.

    Personally, I try my best to incorporate as many drafts from my students as possible so that they can continue to workshop and refine their ideas. This also gives me a chance to identify the majority of errors across multiple iterations without a severe drop in self-efficacy or motivation. Ideally, with each new draft comes fewer and fewer errors, and it allows time to deliver feedback on their work throughout the process. It’s definitely a balancing act to begin the process, but after the first assignment is issued, my students actually look forward to seeing their mistakes and looking for ways they can improve.

    I oftentimes have Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus in the back of my head yelling “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” If you can encourage effort, then hopefully the mistakes will be a welcome addition to any classroom as part of the writing process.

    1. Hello Marc, Thank you for taking the time to read my reflection and for offering various resources to support my learning journey. I watched Eduardo Briceño’s TED Talk today, and it was very helpful. I particularly enjoyed his emphasis on the importance of low-stakes situations when working in the Learning Zone.

      Briceño’s idea called to mind an article that I had read not long ago by Lauren Vanett and Donna Jurich entitled, “The Missing Link: Connecting Journal Writing to Academic Writing”. In it, the authors explained how they integrated personal journal entries into their curriculum which encouraged students to create a rapport with the process of writing. Vanett and Jurich observed that learners became more invested in their writing when they were writing about their own experiences and when they had more creative control over the final product. Writing personal journal entries seems to be an activity that would fall within Briceño’s growth-minded Learning Zone: journaling is a daily, low-stakes writing practice where learners can express their individuality, experiment with English-language syntax, and explore new vocabulary, rhetorical techniques and writing genres. This can be an activity where mistakes are welcome because they can be used to promote observation, reflection and adjustment – over time, of course.

      I’m not certain if the integration of guided journal writing in the classroom will enhance grammatical accuracy on more formal academic writing tasks, but at the very least, I think it will go a long way towards strengthening teacher-learner cultural understanding. This insight may also make written corrective feedback easier.

      Thanks again for taking the time to post your thoughts. Cheers, Elaine

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