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Some controversies to ponder over in ESL writing feedback



Feedback is one of the most important activities in any English as a Second Language (ESL) writing class, and many teachers and students believe that it is key for writing development. The aim of this paper is to analyze research and come to an understanding of the effectiveness of corrective feedback in enhancing the quality of ESL students' writing. To this end, the following paper presents a critical review of published empirical studies in the area. The review illustrates that feedback in ESL writing has both advantages and disadvantages, with mixed empirical findings suggesting controversy about its effectiveness. The review concludes by highlighting the need for continuing research in the area.
Zeleke, A. S. (2018). Some controversies to ponder over in ESL writing feedback. Accents Asia, 10(1), 1-7.
Some controversies to ponder over in ESL writing feedback
Aytaged Sisay Zeleke1
Delaware Technical Community College
Feedback is one of the most important activities in any English as a Second Language
(ESL) writing class, and many teachers and students believe that it is key for writing
development. The aim of this paper is to analyze research and come to an understanding of the
effectiveness of corrective feedback in enhancing the quality of ESL students’ writing. To this
end, the following paper presents a critical review of published empirical studies in the area. The
review illustrates that feedback in ESL writing has both advantages and disadvantages, with
mixed empirical findings suggesting controversy about its effectiveness. The review concludes
by highlighting the need for continuing research in the area.
In almost all English as a Second Language (ESL) writing situations, feedback is asked
for or given in order to improve a piece of writing, and therefore feedback assumes a central role
in teaching ESL writing (Ferris, 1997; Hyland & Hyland, 2006). However, there is a great deal
of variability about when, how (Chandler, 2003; Sheen, 2010) and by whom (Ferris, 2006;
Hyland, 2003) feedback should be given in a second language (L2) classroom. ESL writers may
receive feedback when they search for a topic to write on, when they start outlining a paper,
when they are midway through their writing process, or even when they are in the final stages of
their writing. The nature of the feedback they receive may also vary. Some may focus on
grammar and word choice, while others may be related to content and organization.
Writing researchers and teachers have suggested numerous strategies for ESL writing
teachers to use when they provide written feedback. The first two strategies are direct and
indirect corrective feedback (Ferris & Roberts, 2001). Teachers who use direct feedback usually
cross out incorrect words or structures and replace them with the correct ones, while teachers
who use indirect feedback do not correct the errors but localize the errors by underlining,
circling, or using another localization approach (Lalande, 1982; Robb, Ross, & Shortread, 1986).
Some indirect feedback providers may not even localize the errors, but simply identify that an
error, or errors exist in the margin (Chandler, 2003; Ferris & Roberts, 2001). The third strategy is
1 Aytaged Sisay Zeleke is currently an ESL instructor at Delaware Technical Community College, U.S.A.
He is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware. His research interests include: language
testing. program evaluation, ESL writing, educational leadership, comparative and international
education, and instructional technology.
He would like to thank Dr David Coker, who is an associate professor at the University of Delaware, and
Christopher Nicklin of Rikkyo University, Tokyo, Japan, for giving valuable feedback in the preparation of this
Zeleke, A. S. (2018). Some controversies to ponder over in ESL writing feedback. Accents Asia, 10(1), 1-7.
the provision of metalinguistic corrective feedback, which entails the use of some kind of codes,
such as ”WO” for word order, and “SP” for spelling, or a brief grammatical description
(Chandler, 2003; Ferris & Roberts, 2001; Lalande, 1982;). The fourth strategy concerns what the
focus of the feedback should be. In other words, the feedback may focus on all the errors
identified, or on one or two errors, which has been labelled as focused or unfocused corrective
feedback (Chandler, 2003; Ferris, 2006).
The source of feedback for ESL writers can either be teachers or peers (Hyland, 2003).
Using the different feedback strategies and focusing on structural, meaning, or organizational
aspects of the writing, ESL teachers react to students’ writing efforts with a hope of improving
students’ writing skill (Hyland, 2003). Peer feedback is mostly used in conjunction with
teachers’ feedback and it is used to provide editing and revision support to peers as advocated in
process approach to writing (Zamel,1985). According to collaborative learning theory, peer
feedback can also be employed in motivating L2 writers to put their ideas and resources together
to complete tasks that are too difficult to be completed individually.
The variability of the different aspects of giving and receiving feedback to ESL writers
has attracted the attention of L2 writing researchers and teachers. Their studies have indicated
that there are unsettled issues in the field concerning whether feedback should be given, and if
so, when, how, and by whom it should be given. Some researchers in the area have suggested a
positive impact of corrective feedback on the writing development of ESL writers (Ashwell
2000; Chandler 2003; Fathman & Whalley,1990; Ferris & Roberts, 2001; Lee, 1997), while
others question the usefulness of feedback and its effectiveness for the population (Kepner, 1991;
Semke, 1984; Truscott, 1996; Truscott & Hsu, 2008).
Due to the dearth of agreement on the various issues surrounding corrective written
feedback, understanding the controversies in the area will help guide the feedback process in
ESL writing. To this end, this article attempts to present an objective synthesis of the conflicting
research findings about corrective written feedback. It is hoped that this will help guide ESL
writing teachers’ feedback decisions, strategies, and involvement by reviewing and, if possible,
renewing those controversial issues, or by pointing out the settled issues.
This literature review is delimited by the population addressed, type of article consulted,
and type of issues identified. Reports on non-peer reviewed journals as well as non-professional
outlets are not included so as to base the outcomes of the review on scientific investigations. The
writer understands that there are many other issues and factors that surround effective ESL
writing instruction, but this report focuses on issues related to debates surrounding feedback to
ESL writers.
This review is specifically geared towards advanced ESL writers. This population of
ESL students is assumed to have transitioned from paragraph to essay writing. Therefore, giving
different types of feedback and using different feedback strategies make more sense than for
lower level ESL writers.
Written Corrective Feedback
Zeleke, A. S. (2018). Some controversies to ponder over in ESL writing feedback. Accents Asia, 10(1), 1-7.
Written feedback for ESL students is aimed at improving their piece of writing by
incorporating teachers’ or peers’ feedback on the various aspects of a writing. Written feedback
in ESL students writing has been studied extensively from different perspectives. For instance,
some researchers studied students' preferences concerning teachers’ corrective feedback (Leki,
1991; Radecki & Swales, 1988), while others investigated teachers’ response practices (Ferris,
Pezone, Tade, & Tinti, 1997; Zamel, 1985). Other areas of research include measurement of the
difference in effectiveness between content-focused or form-focused feedback (Fathman &
Whalley, 1990; Kepner, 1991; Semke, 1984), between providing direct correction or coding
errors (Lalande, 1982), and investigating whether praise, criticism, or indicating both helped
students to improve their writing (Cardelle & Corno, 1981).
Supporters of a process approach to teaching ESL writing, which attends to writing
instruction as a series of stages involving drafting and rewriting, contend that feedback focusing
both on form and content is essential and should be provided to students’ work (Ashwell, 2000;
Chandler, 2003; Fathman & Whalley, 1990; Ferris, 1997; Ferris & Roberts, 2001; Lalande, 1982;
Lee ,1997). Correcting grammar has been shown to improve ESL writers’ accuracy in
subsequent writing, and is important because errors in grammatical structure may obscure
meaning (Ashwell, 2000). Thus, providing form focused feedback in ESL writing is essential
because in some contexts grammar may totally change meanings and affect the message being
transmitted. Ferris and Roberts (2001) reported on an experiment that focused on whether
teacher-provided corrective feedback helped students to undertake improved self-editing and
revision. The experimental group that received corrective feedback from teachers outperformed
those who received no corrective feedback. However, there was no statistically different
performance between students who received corrective feedback only through the underlining of
errors, and students who received feedback indicating the errors in the margin. Ferris and
Roberts concluded that ESL students appreciated error feedback even though they may differ in
the type of strategies they prefer their teachers to use. Again, in support of giving corrective
feedback, Fathman and Whalley’s (1990) research, which followed a process approach with
specific reference to revision, concluded that ESL students who received feedback from their
teachers qualitatively improved their second drafts more than those who did not get feedback.
Research into ESL writing has reported mixed results concerning whether or not
feedback focusing on one area or multiple areas of students’ writing is the best practice. In a
study focusing on intermediate East Asian college students, Chandler (2003) suggested that
students who edited and revised their writing after they received corrective feedback from their
teachers showed significant improvements in their writing accuracy, as opposed to those who
received no corrective feedback. His results also implied that giving feedback in any order,
whether giving content or form feedback separately in different drafts, or giving both together in
one draft, produced significant improvements in the students' writing. Chandler also warned that
giving corrective feedback is not enough to help students improve their writing unless they are
required to edit and revise their writing based on the feedback they get. These finding were
similar to those of Fathman and Whalley (1990), who compared and contrasted the work of
students that were exposed to different types of teachers’ feedback; specifically those who
Zeleke, A. S. (2018). Some controversies to ponder over in ESL writing feedback. Accents Asia, 10(1), 1-7.
received zero, content-focused, form-focused, or both content and form-focused feedback. They
found that giving feedback on content and form separately, or giving feedback on content and
form simultaneously did not significantly differ in bringing about changes in writing
performance when students rewrote their essays.
Although Chandler’s (2003) findings were corroborated by Ashwell (2000), Ashwell
suggested that students should not receive both kinds of feedback in one draft as it may not be
effective due to the cognitive burden it entails. Thus, he advised ESL teachers to provide content
feedback in the first draft while their focus of the second draft could be on form. Similar to
Chandler (2003), Zamel (1985) proposed that feedback to ESL writers should be done in
multiple drafts, in which the minimum is two drafts, however her findings were in line with
Ashwell (2000), suggesting that each draft should focus on either content or form. Zamel (1985)
argued that doing both in one is confusing for developing students. This implies a need to plan
the way teachers prioritize their feedback focus; that is between the large-scale changes to
content (revision) and the small-scale changes to form (editing).
It is rare for research into written corrective feedback to provide students with a chance
to voice their opinion. However, in a case study on ESL student’s reaction to feedback, Hyland
(1998) pointed out that even in a fluency-oriented exercise some ESL students wanted correction
from their teachers in grammar because they do not see how their writing can be improved
without such feedback. In agreement with Hyland’s case study, Leki (1991) found out that ESL
students wanted their writing to be perfect and error free, thus they preferred all their errors to be
strictly corrected. It was also emphasized that even though some students were not happy with
open-ended comments from their teachers, they were still satisfied with the corrective feedback
they got from their teachers.
Although the body of the literature reviewed in the previous section generally supports
the need to correct students’ grammar errors as well as provide feedback on the contents of their
writing, there is no consensus among the scholars in the area about what exactly should be
corrected. Truscott‘s (1996) study, which strongly criticized those who advocate the use of
corrective feedback, fueled the controversies in the area. According to Truscott, grammar
correction in L2 writing is not only ineffective but it is also harmful. Truscott supported his
argument on theoretical grounds and through reference to other empirical studies that questioned
the effectiveness of grammar correction in L2 writing. Strongly criticizing those who advocate
for grammar correction in ESL writing class, Truscott stated that there is reluctance on the part
of teachers (and non-teachers) to accept his argument against the effectiveness of grammar
correction, mainly because the argument clashes with their intuitions. Drawing implication from
first language (L1) error correction research, Truscott suggested that L1 findings can be
transferred to L2 writing contexts and contended that error correction had a non-significant effect
on students writing performance. Furthermore, his review of empirical evidences based on Ll
and L2 studies showed that traditional sentence-level correction does not bring about meaningful
revision in students’ essays. In justifying his argument, Truscott raised three persuasive but
controversial issues. The first is related to theoretical issues, in which he argued that teachers
who believe in the importance of grammar correction for the development of ESL writing hold a
simplistic view of learning; that is, a belief that transfer of information from teacher to students
Zeleke, A. S. (2018). Some controversies to ponder over in ESL writing feedback. Accents Asia, 10(1), 1-7.
by paying no attention to the process of learning guarantees learning. Truscott suggested that this
opposes the large body of language acquisition research describing L2 learning as complex and
exhibiting different learning stages, and not simply a step by step process that occurs suddenly.
Furthermore, he pointed out that the acquisition of syntax, morphemes, lexicon require different
processes; thus, using one correction technique is not sufficient to help students learn these
items. He also decried grammar correction as having a negative effect on students’ attitudes due
to the time and energy that it demands.
The second explanation Truscott (1996) gave for the ineffectiveness of grammar correction
is centered on its long-term effect. He noted that there are many students who may agree with the
correction provided by their teachers superficially, but these students may have other reasons not
to consider the correction given by their teachers in their final drafts. He also underscored that
some students trust their intuition more than their teacher’s feedback, thus they disregard the
feedback given. Because of these situations, students who are forcefully required to make
changes based on the correction they get from their teachers either do not correct the identified
errors at all, or they only accept that teacher’s corrections while they are in that teacher’s class.
Truscott‘s point here is that if students do not transfer the learning they get from a previous
writing correction to their future writing, then it has no effect for long term use, therefore error
correction is not useful. The belief that students might sometimes intentionally ignore teacher
feedback was supported in Radecki and Swales’ (1988) study on perceptions of students who
were taking college level non-language courses. Their results showed that some students did not
have confidence in the ability of their ESL teachers to give content and text organization
feedback because of lack of expertise in what is written.
Third, Truscott (1996) recommended that grammar correction should be avoided
because there is little evidence demonstrating that students’ writing improved because of such
feedback. After reviewing the available evidence in the area, Leki (1990) came to a similar
conclusion stating that grammar correction is not necessary in ESL writing. Leki suggested that
correcting only those errors that affect the comprehension of the message should be given more
emphasis than grammatical errors that cause no or little understanding problem. Implying that
corrective feedback on form has no significant effect in helping students rewrite accurate essays,
Frantzen and Rissel (1987) discovered that students were not able to figure out what their errors
were when teachers simply indicated the location of errors. Kepner (1991) compared a group of
Spanish as a foreign language writers’ development in terms of producing quality content and
grammatically accurate writing after teachers' feedback in both areas and found that students
improved the content of their writing significantly while they did not show significant
improvement in their grammatical accuracy. In accordance with this research, Sheppard (1992)
compared two groups that received feedback in two different ways. One group was given general
feedback on the errors they made using error codes followed by discussions on the errors, while
the other group received feedback only on the content of its writing. The results showed that the
group receiving no feedback on the grammatical aspect of its writing did not perform lower than
the group that should have performed higher. This position was partly supported by Hyland
(1998), who reported mixed results regarding positive feedback on students’ writing. Hyland
stated that some ESL students considered positive feedback as a source of encouragement and
motivation to write, while others consider it as an insincere form of feedback since such
feedbacks are followed by but. Hyland also highlighted that praise as a form of writing feedback
may not be trusted if it is not common in the students' native language writing experience, and it
may also disillusion if the students’ scores for writing are low.
Zeleke, A. S. (2018). Some controversies to ponder over in ESL writing feedback. Accents Asia, 10(1), 1-7.
Written feedback assumes a central role in ESL classroom. The manner in which
feedback is given can be direct or indirect; it can also be focused or unfocused. Its purpose is to
help ESL writers improve their writing skills by engaging them in their own writing based on the
feedback they receive. Many of the issues addressed by the ESL writing researchers, however,
raise questions rather than give conclusive answers to the issues they investigate. This paper,
thus, has attempted to objectively document the scholarly arguments in support of and against
written feedback for ESL writers. In terms of support for written corrective feedback for ESL
writers, the main arguments suggest that correcting grammar in writing improves ESL writers’
accuracy in subsequent writing, and that feedback also ensures ESL writers’ intended messages
are not obscured by grammatical errors. The research above also suggests that any corrective
feedback provided is better than receiving no feedback at all, and that there is also a student
expectation to receive such feedback.
Research has also shown mixed and negative results regarding the effects of written
corrective feedback. For example, there exists no consensus on the issue of whether it is better to
focus attention on the correction of one area or multiple areas of students’ writing. There does,
however, exist a body of research suggesting that grammatical feedback to ESL writers might be
harmful, might have a negative effect on L2 writers’ attitudes due to the time and energy it
demands, might have no long-term repercussions, and might not have any effect on student
writing in terms of improvement.
In short, the controversies surrounding written feedback issues in ESL context were
described and a need to conduct related studies has been justified.
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How to provide appropriate feedback to students on their writing has long been an area of central significance to teachers and educators. Feedback in Second Language Writing: Context and Issues provides scholarly articles on the topic by leading researchers, who explore topics such as the socio-cultural assumptions that participants bring to the writing class; feedback delivery and negotiation systems; and the role of student and teacher identity in negotiating feedback and expectations. This text provides empirical data and an up-to-date analysis of the complex issues involved in offering appropriate feedback during the writing process.
To date, few empirical studies have been designed to evaluate the effects of different types of feedback on error in the written work of second language writers. The study reported in this article contrasted four methods of providing feedback on written error. These methods differed in the degree of salience provided to the writer in the revision process. In the study, a factor analysis was used to reduce an initial set of 19 measures of writing skill to a subset of 7. Each of the 7 measures in the subset was then used as a dependent variable in an analysis of covariance design which contrasted the effects of the feedback methods on subsequent narrative compositions. Evidence against direct correction of error in written work is discussed.
Because writing teachers invest so much time responding to student writing and because these responses reveal the assumptions teachers hold about writing, L1 writing researchers have investigated how composition teachers respond to their students' texts. These investigations have revealed that teachers respond to most writing as if it were a final draft, thus reinforcing an extremely constricted notion of composing. Their comments often reflect the application of a single ideal standard rather than criteria that take into account how composing constraints can affect writing performance. Furthermore, teachers' marks and comments usually take the form of abstract and vague prescriptions and directives that students find difficult to interpret.A study was undertaken to examine ESL teachers' responses to student writing. The findings suggest that ESL composition teachers make similar types of comments and are even more concerned with language-specific errors and problems. The marks and comments are often confusing, arbitrary, and inaccessible. In addition, ESL teachers, like their native-language counterparts, rarely seem to expect students to revise the text beyond the surface level.Such responses to texts give students a very limited and limiting notion of writing, for they fail to provide students with the understanding that writing involves producing a text that evolves over time. Teachers therefore need to develop more appropriate responses for commenting on student writing. They need to facilitate revision by responding to writing as work in progress rather than judging it as a finished product.
This study assessed the effects on second language learning of variations in homework written feedback that either suppressed student errors or made them salient. Eighty students from two college Spanish courses were randomly assigned to treatment groups for a six-week period. Performance data were collected before and after treatment, as well as from homework during treatment. Analysis of variance blocking on pretest revealed significant achievement increases for treated students independent of course membership. Planned comparisons pooled across courses showed achievement was consistently superior under salient error conditions and in particular with constructively critical feedback. Results support the notion that the written performance of students learning a second language can benefit most by focusing on homework errors in a motivationally favorable manner. Relevance of the findings for instructional theory and second language teaching are discussed.
In this study, the author examined over 1,600 marginal and end comments written on 110 first drafts of papers by 47 advanced university ESL students, considering both the pragmatic goals for and the linguistic features of each comment. She then examined revised drafts of each paper to observe the influence of the first-draft commentary on the students' revisions and assess whether the changes made in response to the teacher's feedback actually improved the papers. A significant proportion of the comments appeared to lead to substantive student revision, and particular types and forms of commentary appeared to be more helpful than others. The results suggest several important implications for L2 writing instruction and for future studies on a vital but surprisingly neglected topic.
This study contrasts the effects of two distinct ways of respon ding to a student essay: discrete-item attention to form and holistic feedback on meaning. In examining the before- and after-essays of a linguistically diverse group of 26 college freshmen, it shows that the use of a holistic response is likely to increase a student's awareness of sentence boundaries more than the alternative. In other words, responding to content results in improvements in grammatical accu racy. General implications are also addressed.
Teacher response to student writing is a vital, though neglected, aspect of L2 composition research. The present study adds to the previous research through the development and implementation of an original analysis model, designed to examine both the pragmatic aims and the linguistic forms of teachers' written commentary. This model was used in the examination of over 1500 teacher comments written on a sample of 111 essay first drafts by 47 advanced ESL university students. It was found that the teacher changed her responding strategies over the course of two semesters, that she provided different types of commentary on various genres of writing assignments, that the amount of her feedback decreased as the term progressed, and that she responded somewhat differently to students of varying ability levels. The study raises several implications for L2 writing instruction as well as for analyses of teacher commentary.