In our previous column (TLT issue 41.2), (Writer’s) Blocked in Beppu wrote to us with a request for advice on how to get started with teaching academic writing:
...I’ve never actually had the chance to teach writing skills. I’m feeling kind of lost, so I’m hoping you can help me out! What are some best practices for teaching academic writing to Japanese university students?
Given the large size of this topic, we decided to spread our answer into two parts. Whereas last issue we provided a broad overview of the teaching process for academic writing, in this column we’ll offer up some general advice for how to correct errors and assess writing skills. This is still a huge topic, but we hope to at least get you pointed in the right direction.
When giving corrective feedback on academic writing to students, there are a few key things to keep in mind. First, know that how you correct errors can help students improve the cohesion, coherence, and comprehension of their compositions. In addition, your corrections help teach proper form of academic structure and prose in longer compositions. Through your attentive comments, students learn how to introduce their topics, support their points, and provide adequate analysis. In addition, you can do a lot to help your learners avoid plagiarism.
Different Ways to Provide Corrective Feedback
There are different ways to go about correcting writing mistakes. No one way is best; it will depend on student levels, your teaching style, and the amount of time available. One question to ask yourself is how far you want to go with corrections. For example, you could take out your red pen and just completely fix each mistake, or you could fix none of them and just provide hints as to where mistakes are by adding some red circles or coded marks to their papers. In the former approach, you are doing a lot of the work for the students, so you’ll need to have another way to hold them accountable for learning these points, some of which they’ll not have learned yet. One way to do that is to conduct a writing test that requires each student to memorize their final corrected version and reproduce it for the exam (Munby & Zemach, 2015), a technique we’ll outline in more detail below.
Another way to provide corrective feedback is to not actually correct any mistakes at all — just provide hints where mistakes are via a system of coded marks, such as (WW) wrong word, (SP) spelling, (VW) vague word, (A) article, or (SS) sentence structure. Students then re-write their essays and hopefully attend to their errors. This approach is good in that it forces students to suss out problems and learn in the process, but beware—you may have to live with less-than-perfect papers in the end. It wouldn’t be practical to keep going until perfection is reached. But if you’re okay with this, then that will work fine. You can find error correction codes in the back of many academic writing textbooks. We suggest starting there and gradually developing your own approach and style.
A third way to conduct error correction is to work down the middle—correct some mistakes, perhaps the most egregious ones, but also do some hinting, maybe on errors you know are well within their ability to comprehend (or vice versa!). Especially for these sorts of careless mistakes, just a simple underline without any explanation may be all that is needed for your students to be more attentive to this particular point. If you try this method, it can be very helpful to add margin notes or comments between the lines for short grammar/usage explanations. For example, you could make a note about why beginning a sentence with But is not a good idea… This process would entail more work for you, on the other hand, so if you have dozens of students, it may not be practical. A good workaround could be to provide a pre-fab list of common mistakes and their explanations, all of which are numbered. When you encounter these problems on a student’s paper, all you need to do is write the number of the explanation. The students can then look up the explanations themselves (Barker, 2015). Also, remember that the time to correct mistakes is not limited to when you are going over their papers. While students are writing in class, you can monitor and help them as needed.
Finally, another idea is to teach your students how to provide useful peer feedback by checking their partners’ work. If you’re interested in peer assessment, there is a lot of literature and information online. A quick google of EFL peer assessment strategies for academic writing will find a large amount of information for you. If you go this route, we recommend that you do so only after you are very confident in your approach to corrective feedback. The clearer you are about how you do it, the easier it will be to teach your students.
Ideas for Assessing Writing
As for assessing academic writing, one idea we’ve previously mentioned is to have students reproduce their short composition from memory and subtract points for each mistake—a point or two for small errors, three or more for larger problems. This works well in classes where students have access to a grammar textbook for reference so that they can look up information on their mistakes. Most students should be able to memorize short compositions up to a few hundred words—your typical five paragraph essay—but obviously not for longer term papers. This test format puts grammar accuracy at a premium. It will challenge students to prepare thoroughly by writing out their composition again and again until they get it right. Despite the seeming drudgery of this task, there is a simple and effective beauty to it. Students are required to pay attention to their grammar studies in class because they know they’ll be assessed on it. During their preparation time, they will be reading and writing out perfectly accurate sentences they wrote many times. This is hard work that will pay off in increasingly accurate compositions. Over time, with luck, their papers will be easier for you to mark.
A more traditional approach to assessing writing is to use an analytic rating scale rubric. After students submit their final draft of a paper, you take your rubric and assign marks on the various constructs you choose, such as Clarity & Development of Ideas, Overall Organization, Using Sources, Grammatical Accuracy, or Academic Style. Within each construct, simply mark each on a scale from 1 to 8 (or whatever) and have some descriptors to help guide your grading. You should also share this rubric with your students so they know what they have to do to succeed. There is a lot of freedom in marking this way, but if you’re getting started, it can help to go with a pre-made one. Feel free to use our Writing Assessment Rubric Descriptors handout, which you can download from the online version of this article at http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/departments/dear-tlt
To summarize, the way you provide corrective feedback and assess your students’ writing can be a very useful way for them to improve their overall writing skills. Whichever approach you use, strive to be consistent yet flexible. It will take some time for you to develop your preferences for error correction and assessment. We recommend trying out a few different ways and seeing what works best for you. Good luck!
- Barker, D. (2015). English writing manual, 2nd edition. Nagoya, Japan: Back to Basics Press.
- Munby, I., & Zemach, D. (2015). Read to write compositions, 2nd edition. Nagoya, Japan: Back to Basics Press.