Key Words: Writing
Learner English Level:Intermediate through advanced
Learner Maturity Level:High school through adult
Some teachers think that it is best to focus on content rather than form on a student's first draft (Bates, Lane, Lange, 1993; Cohen & Cavalcanti, 1990); but what if the paper has so many badly misspelled words, convoluted grammar, and inaccurate word choices that it is incomprehensible?
Are Errors of Form Important?
Leki (1990) asks "Does L2 writing need to be error free or merely free of global errors that impede understanding" (p 58). In my experience, it depends heavily on the purpose of the writing. For students who are learning "general" English concerned mainly with improving their overall fluency, perhaps only errors that impede understanding are important. But if students have to write business correspondence or college papers, their final drafts should be relatively error-free. Business writing is especially important: based on 15 years of experience in the English-speaking business world, I can say that sloppy or poorly-worded correspondence is usually detrimental to business relations, even if the ideas are clear. Not only do some errors impede accurate communication, but some irritate non-sympathetic readers, e.g., the frequent misspelling of "r" and "l" sounds by Japanese students, as in "plobrem."
While research on the value of teacher response to student writing is inconclusive (Leki, 1990; Fathman & Whalley, 1990; Reid, 1993), Lalande (1982) found that an experimental group of students who had been given information on the kinds of errors they made showed significant improvement over his control group whose errors were simply corrected by the teacher. Use of a self-editing checklist combined with teacher marking codes give students information on the kinds of errors they make.
A Grammar Review and Checklist
Even advanced students benefit from a review of basic grammar: dependent and independent clauses, verb forms, capital letters, punctuation, and connectors. Once the teacher has reviewed the basics in class so that students understand them, it is reasonable to expect the students to self-correct via a proofreading checklist. Raimes (1983) suggests that both teachers and students use a checklist that encompasses forms and structures covered in class. She also states that students need to be able to find and correct their own mistakes. To this end, I have created the following checklist:
Instructions: After you've finished your first draft (the first writing of a paper) use this list to go over it and look for errors. Put a check mark or X for each item on the list after you've reviewed your writing for that item. After you've checked your document for all items, rewrite it and make the corrections.
Sentences, Clauses & Punctuation
|______||Each sentence and name begins with a capital letter.|
|______||Each dependent clause is connected to an independent clause that completes its meaning.|
|______||Every dependent clause either ends with a period, a question mark, or exclamation mark or is joined properly (not with only a comma) to another clause.|
|______||Every clause (and sentence) has at least one verb and one subject.|
|______||All verbs use the correct tense for your meaning.|
|______||All past participles (eaten, gone, etc.) used as verbs have BE or HAVE auxiliary verbs in front of them.|
|______||Every present-tense verb (or auxiliary) for singular, third-person subjects (he, she, Mr. Smith, the company, etc.) ends with an "s."|
|______||Singular articles (a/an) are not used with plural or non-count nouns.|
|______||Pronouns agree in singular or plural with the nouns they represent (for example, Americans tend to be individualistic. They often like to do things alone.)|
|______||Each pronoun you use is clearly related to a noun or nouns that come before it.|
Words & Word Forms
|______||The words you've used are in the correct form (verb, noun, adjective, etc.).|
|______||You've checked the spelling of words you're not sure about.|
|______||You've looked up word meanings you're not sure about in an English-English dictionary.|
|______||Your paper has a margin of about 3 centimeters all the way around.|
|______||Your lines of writing are double-spaced.|
Lower-level students can use a less imposing list, with the instructor adding to it as new forms are covered in class.
The first step, of course, is for students to brainstorm and freewrite, getting all their ideas on paper. Then, if they are to correct their own papers, they should be told to set the drafts aside for a day or two, then go back and peruse them for each item on the list. An alternative would be for the teacher to collect the first drafts, keep them for a day or two, then return them with instructions on how to self-edit. In order to make sure students actually use the checklist, the teacher can require the submission of both first and second drafts.
After the second draft is written, the teacher can focus primarily on content and rhetoric and use codes similar to those recommended by Raimes for errors. Codes combined with the checklist give students more practice in understanding and finding their own mistakes. After the teacher reviews the second draft, the students do another revision. I most often find this draft to be far more comprehensible than the first.
The Value to Students and Teachers
Self editing with a checklist gives students information on the nature of their errors: they must read error descriptions, reread their drafts and reflect upon what corrections to make. Conversely, when student errors are just corrected by the teacher, students often pay little attention to them (Lalande). The process described above saves teachers valuable time, helps students understand and correct their own mistakes, and puts responsibility for learning on the students.
It also shows the teacher--via a review of the two drafts--which mistakes students are catching and which ones they are not, thereby identifying problems to cover in class. But perhaps the biggest advantage is that if students self-edit properly, the teacher can focus on content and rhetoric.
Bates, l ., Lane, J., & Lange, E. (1993). Writing clearly: Responding to ESL compositions. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Cohen, A.D., & Cavalcanti, M. (1990). Feedback on compositions. In B. KroII (Ed.) Learner strategies in language learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Fathman, A.K. & Whalley, E. (1990). Teacher response to student writing : Focus on form versus content. In B. KroII (Ed.), Second language Writing: Research insights for the classroom. New York: Cambridge University