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Written Corrective Feedback: The Road Ahead

Authors:
  • European Knowledge Development Institute

Abstract

Over the past three decades, the role of written corrective feedback in improving L2 writing has been controversial. Although, a considerable amount of research has investigated WCF from a range of perspectives, limitations in the research design of many studies call into question the validity of their findings, thereby reducing their generalizability. This paper aims to further WCF research by investigating these limitations and offering suggestions for possible research designs, identifying key contextual variables and target structures, considering the roles of explicit and implicit knowledge, individual differences, and teachers' WCF proficiency levels and WCF beliefs.
Language Teaching
Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 6, 1–6
Written Corrective Feedback: The Road
Ahead
Hayo Reinders1, Hassan Mohebbi2,*
1Unitec, New Zealand
2University of Tehran, Iran
Received 20 December 2017 Accepted 8 April 2018
Abstract
Over the past three decades, the role of written corrective feedback in improving L2 writing has been
controversial. Although, a considerable amount of research has investigated WCF from a range of
perspectives,
limitations in the research design of many studies call into question the validity of their findings,
thereby reducing their generalizability. This paper aims to further WCF research by investigating these
limitations and offering
suggestions for possible research designs, identifying key contextual variables and
target structures, considering the roles of explicit and implicit knowledge, individual differences, and teachers’
WCF proficiency levels and WCF beliefs.
Keywords: Writing; Written Corrective Feedback (WCF);
Research Design Deficiencies; Explicit
And Implicit Knowledge; Individual Differences
Introduction
Over the past three decades, the effect of written corrective feedback (WCF) on improving second
language (L2) writing has been controversial (Ferris, 1999, 2004; Truscott, 1996, 1999). Some of
the arguments against WCF (Truscott, 1996, 1999) are rooted in the fact that teachers’ WCF
practices are not in line with what some second language acquisition (SLA) theories assume.
Krashen (1985), in line with Truscott, argues that WCF has no significant effect on learning a
second language (for review, Bitchener, 2012).
Despite these concerns, WCF is an integral component of L2 writing instruction around the
world. A number of theories and hypotheses in SLA, such as the Interaction Hypothesis, the Output
Hypothesis, Sociocultural Theory, and Skill-Learning Theory, provide support for the role of
Hassan.mohebbi973@gmail.com
Hayo Reinders, Hassan Mohebbi
2
corrective feedback in L2 learning and it has been demonstrated that employing WCF can result
in greater grammatical accuracy in L2 writing (Ferris, 1997, 2015).
WCF in English Language Teaching
Ellis (2009) classifies WCF types firstly as either direct or indirect. In direct WCF, teachers give
the correct form of an error in learners’ writing. Direct WCF might involve crossing out a word or
phrase which is redundant, adding a missing word or phrase, or giving the correct form or structure.
As an explicit strategy, direct WCF may help reduce learners’ confusion, especially those at the
lower proficiency levels. It may even be proven to be more effective in resolving more complex
errors in the learners’ writing.
In indirect WCF, an L2 teacher indicates in some way that there are one or more errors in a
learner’s writing, but does not provide correction. Indirect WCF may involve underlining or
circling the error, recording the number of errors in the margin of a given line, or using a code to
show the place and the error type. L2 teachers are urged to give indirect WCF because it engages
L2 learners in cognitive problem-solving (Ferris, 2004). Indirect WCF can provide an opportunity
for L2 learners to reflect on their existing knowledge. Indirect WCF may result in more accurate
writing because it is likely that L2 learners who receive indirect WCF invest a greater amount of
time and processing effort, which may lead to deeper learning.
Next, WCF can be divided into focused and unfocused corrective feedback. In focused WCF,
L2 teachers give feedback on pre-determined types of errors. In unfocused or comprehensive
WCF, feedback is given to all or most of the errors learners make. Van Beuningen, De Jong, and
Kuiken (2012) argued that unfocused WCF is more authentic than focused WCF. In contrast,
Sheen, Wright, and Moldawa (2009) consider unfocused WCF to be an unsystematic strategy for
correcting learners’ written errors, which may overload L2 learners’ attentional and working
memory capacity.
It is reasonable to expect that L2 learners take advantage of focused WCF more than unfocused
WCF because L2 teachers can consider learners’ readiness and give selective feedback on one or
two error types at a time. Consequently, learners may develop a deeper understanding of the nature
of the error. Despite these arguments for and against focused and unfocused WCF, there is a gap
in the literature preventing definitive statements at this point.
Next, WCF can be given by either a teacher or by peers. Both have advantages and drawbacks.
Teacher WCF often leaves learners with little opportunity to choose which errors to correct. Peer-
feedback may encourage more critical consideration on the part of the learner and provide more
freedom. Drawbacks include the need for checking learners’ L2 proficiency, model how to give
WCF, and monitor peer WCF sessions. Also, there may be issues around varying social roles and
cross-cultural dynamics within pairs or groups in peer WCF. Research findings on the influences
of these variables are inconclusive and no clear advice can therefore be given for L2 writing
instruction.
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Language Teaching Research Quarterly, 2018, Vol. 6, 1–6
Future Directions: Expanding the Boundaries of WCF Research
To-date, L2 researchers (Ferris, 1997, 1999, 2004; Sheen, Wright, & Moldawa, 2009) have
investigated the effect of WCF on improving writing accuracy of L2 learners from different
perspectives. Despite this growing body of work, there remain a lot of unanswered questions.
Ferris (2010, for example) stresses the significant disagreements, conflicting theoretical and
research approaches, and the wide range of practical applications In particular, three contextual
variables in WCF research require further attention: (1) learner variables such as motivation,
learning style, goals and L1; (2) situational variables like teacher, physical environment, and
socioeconomic conditions; and (3) methodological variables including instructional design, what
is taught and how it is taught (Evans, Hartshorn, McCollum, & Wolfersberger, 2010).
The need for more targeted WCF research was also argued by Liu and Brown (2015).
Specifically, the authors stressed that answers to key questions of whether and to what extent
different types of WCF can promote L2 writing accuracy remain inconclusive at best. Their
research indicated a number of methodological limitations and gaps, namely lack of
comprehensive reporting of research context, methodology, and statistical analysis; low ecological
validity of studies because of one-shot treatments and timed in-class writing tasks; mixed types of
WCF as treatment for a single group of participants, resulting in mixed findings; and use of
different accuracy measures, making comparison of studies difficult. Consequently, there is an
urgent need to address these shortcomings in future studies if the issue of WCF effectiveness is to
be addressed.
Ferris (2010) recommends the following:
- Contextualized and longitudinal designs: Studying whether the effect of WCF endures
beyond revisions of the same text to subsequent, new pieces of writing.
- Revisions after WCF: Examining the potential role of including revisions in research
designs.
- Types of WCF: The differential effect of direct and indirect WCF.
- Number and types of errors receiving WCF: The number and type of errors as target
structure(s) and the nature of errors (i.e., treatable and untreatable).
- Individual and contextual differences: The role of individual differences such as
motivation, learning style, and metalinguistic background knowledge in taking advantage
of WCF.
Moreover, there is a need to clarify what kind of data a researcher should collect to support the
claim that a learner’s grammar has improved because of WCF. Polio (2012) provides four different
options here:
- Revising a text using the WCF on a page
- Revising a text after having viewed WCF at some prior time
- Writing a completely new text soon after one treatment
- Writing a completely new text after several treatments over an extended period of time
Until now, the target structure in many studies has been the “definite” and “indefinite” article
and the arguments for and/or against the efficacy of WCF are based on the findings of these studies.
www.EUROKD.COM Doi:
Hayo Reinders, Hassan Mohebbi
4
However, these results may not apply to other structures, such as tenses, modal auxiliary verbs,
active and passive forms, connectives, and conditional sentences, to name a few.
Taking full advantage of the nature of the feedback offered in addressing a particular target
structure is one of the many issues awaiting further empirical research. Both the problematicity
and the learnability of the target structure, based on the participants’ L2 proficiency, need to be
taken into account when selecting target structures. Ferris (2002) distinguishes between treatable
errors, related to rule-governed linguistic structures (i.e., a learner can self-correct it resorting to a
grammar book or rules), and untreatable errors, such as word choice errors which are idiosyncratic,
and which require learners to use previously acquired knowledge. Bitchener (2012) argues that
rule-based errors may be more effectively corrected with WCF than complex errors. However, he
warns that this is just a theoretical possibility, which needs to be tested systematically before firm
claims may be made. The issue of whether different feedback strategies should be used for different
grammatical structures is far from resolved and needs more in-depth investigation.
A key issue in WCF research and practice that has received surprisingly little attention is the
role of explicit and implicit knowledge in L2 learning. Some authors such as Pawlak (2014; see
Figure 1) have argued that corrective feedback can lead to the development of implicit knowledge
(either directly, or by developing explicit knowledge which then can develop into implicit
knowledge).
Figure 1.Potential contributions of oral and written corrective feedback to explicit and implicit knowledge
However, such a position is controversial and the relationship between corrective feedback and
the development of implicit and explicit knowledge is not at all clear at this point.
Truscott (1996, 1999) has repeatedly argued that WCF can only help L2 learners develop
explicit or declarative knowledge, not implicit knowledge, which is the ultimate goal of SLA
(Bitchener & Knoch, 2015. Bitchener (2012) has claimed that “we do know that written CF can
play a role at least in terms of developing explicit knowledge and improved accuracy in the use of
activities
activities
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Language Teaching Research Quarterly, 2018, Vol. 6, 1–6
some L2 forms/structures” (p.361), but Bitchener and Knoch (2015) underscored that there is a
gap in the research with regards the potential effect of WCF in converting explicit knowledge to
implicit knowledge. Li (2014) found that the efficacy of oral corrective feedback was constrained
by the explicitness of feedback provided, the proficiency level of learners, and the nature of the
target linguistic structure.
To the best of our knowledge, Shintani and Ellis (2013) carried out the only study to date
investigating the effect of direct WCF and metalinguistic explanation on learners’ explicit and
implicit knowledge. Surprisingly, the data analysis showed that direct WCF had no impact on
explicit and implicit knowledge of the target structure (the English indefinite article). Although
metalinguistic explanation helped the learners develop explicit knowledge of the target structure,
but it had no significant effect on developing implicit knowledge.
Although individual differences have received a great deal of attention in SLA research in
general, this is less so in the field of WCF. Examining the potential interactions between specific
learner traits and specific educational conditions or treatments would be a valuable avenue for
research.
In sum, in the L2 learning classroom context specifically, few empirical L2 research studies
exist today that have closely examined L2 teachers’ WCF practice and learners’ preferences for
WCF. Ferris (2014) goes so far as to claim that “the teachers’ voices have been the missing link in
the research base to date” (p. 6). In order to address this gap in the literature, there is a clear need
to investigate L2 learners’ perception about teachers’ practices in writing instruction. The teachers’
writing proficiency and their technical knowledge and WCF practices and ways of assessment are
unfortunately underrepresented in research as well. Equally important, L2 learners’ preferences
about teachers’ WCF strategies in L2 writing pedagogy require further attention. Moreover,
teacher WCF and peer WCF need more empirical investigation in different classroom contexts.
Although teacher WCF is time-consuming, it is considered an effective and viable strategy and
practice. Teachers’ skill in teaching writing and WCF practice plays a vital role in their
professional life. Therefore, we need to enhance the quality of WCF practice in language learning
classrooms. More research is needed to improve the quality of writing instruction in L2 learning
classrooms and to provide practical suggestions for teachers who give WCF. In addition, more and
better preparation is required for teachers in this area and opportunities for ongoing professional
development can play an important role here. In addition, through action research, teachers can
help bridge the gap between theoretical and practical research in WCF.
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In this study, the controversial issue of written corrective feedback (WCF) is examined through a longitudinal (16-week semester) multiple-case study approach. Ten L2 writers (from “Generation 1.5” backgrounds) in a developmental ESL writing class at a U.S. university wrote four in-class texts, revised them after receiving WCF, and participated in retrospective interviews after each of the first three writing and revision sessions. Data collected included student background questionnaires (N = 10), four student texts (originals plus revisions) per participant (N = 40), recordings and field notes from interviews with participants (N = 30), and recordings and notes from an end-of-semester interview with the classroom teacher. Analyses focused primarily on students’ descriptions of their own self-monitoring processes as they revised marked papers and wrote new texts and individual and contextual factors that appeared to influence their writing development. Students found the techniques used in the study (focused WCF, revision, and one-to-one discussion about errors) useful, but formal knowledge of language rules played a limited and sometimes even counterproductive role in their self-editing and composing. Our findings suggest that teachers should take a more finely tuned approach to corrective feedback and that future research designs investigating WCF should go beyond consideration of only students’ written products.
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Although effective writing skills are vital to the success of university-level students, second language (L2) writers face unique challenges in developing these skills. This is particularly relevant to their ability to produce writing that is linguistically accurate. While many writing teachers feel a great commitment to these students, much of the research has either led to conflicting results or provided teachers with limited practical guidelines that can be utilized effectively in the classroom. This is especially true regarding written corrective feedback (WCF). Therefore, this article provides L2 writing teachers with a paradigm for understanding the WCF debate and interpreting the available research. We emphasize three contextual variables that must be considered if we are to understand the current research and maximize the utility of future research. These include the learner, the situation, and the instructional methodology. As an examination of how one of these contextual variables might affect L2 writing accuracy, this article presents an innovative instructional methodology specifically designed to improve L2 writing accuracy. We refer to the central component of this methodology as dynamic written corrective feedback. The article concludes with the preliminary results from an exploratory pilot study using this instructional methodology.
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For more than 30 years, different opinions about whether written corrective feedback (CF) is a worthwhile pedagogical practice for L2 learning and acquisition have been voiced. Despite the arguments for and against its potential to help L2 learners acquire the target language and the inconclusive findings across studies that have sought answers to key questions about whether it can play a role, the extent to which it might be able to play a role, and how it might be most effectively provided, the field is still awaiting more conclusive answers. The aim of this article is to take stock of what we know, both theoretically and empirically, and what we do not know about the language learning potential of written CF. It looks therefore at what the theoretical literature has to say about such a role and assesses what empirical studies have found about the effectiveness of written CF for L2 learning and acquisition. To move the field forward, a range of recommendations for further research are discussed.