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!