, , , , , , , ,

Hand writing with a quill. Photograph: Stephen Johnson/Getty

Within second-language writing studies, one question that has been debated for over 20 years and still lacks consensus is whether grammar correction has benefit in second-language writing feedback. In articles by John Truscott (1996) and Dana Ferris (2004) for this week’s post, how much of the practices of written corrective feedback (WCF) depended on teacher lore was startling.

“Teachers and researchers hold a widespread, deeply entrenched belief that grammar correction should, even must, be part of writing courses.” (Truscott 327)

Truscott in, “The Case Against Grammar Correction in L2 Writing Classes” took on this “entrenched belief,” by arguing that it was not just “ineffective,” but that it has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned. . . . and that “given the nature of the correction process and the nature of language learning” that “grammar correction has significant harmful effects…” (328).

Examining the numerous research studies pre-1996 and breaking down individual arguments by citing researchers’ failure in examining the “nature of the correction process” or the many “practical problems involved in grammar correction,” Truscott began what Dana Ferris calls “The Grammar Correction Debate in L2 Writing” in her 2004 article (328). Countering Truscott’s claims, Ferris writes “Error treatment, including error feedback by teachers, is a necessary component of L2 writing instruction” (49). While acknowledging that “the research base on error correction in L2 writing is indeed insufficient…” (50), she points out three observations:

  1. Research to date has not “adequately addressed” whether error feedback helps L2 students. Studies are lacking that are both controlled and that provide longitudinal results.
  2. Studies are “fundamentally incomparable” as they are different in almost every variable.
  3. Research that does exist “predicts” that there may be positive effects with written error correction, encourages “developing linguistic competence” and wards off students “fossilizing” at certain language competency levels.
Puzzle parts of speech

Parts of Speech

Truscott however, in positing that students risk damage by corrective feedback focuses on incomplete language development, stressing that students will improve based on “extensive experience with the target language” through reading and writing (360) instead of through correction that may inhibit their attempting more complex writing structures. While students may think they want corrective feedback, in truth, giving students what is good for them, not what they may actually want is teacher lore…Truscott would not resort to supplying it, even as he writes “students obviously do think correction is helpful—and even necessary…” (355) and Ferris reiterates this, pointing out that “students are likely to attend to and appreciate feedback on their errors” (56).

Ferris does offer “best guesses” at how error treatment should be approached in a classroom with 6 suggestions

  1. While error treatment is necessary, it must be done competently, faithfully and consistently.
  2. Feedback should be indirect most of the time and engage students in “cognitive problem solving.”
  3. Not all errors can be treated the same as students may not understand lexical and/or global problems.
  4. Revision has to be part of the process.
  5. Supplemental grammar instruction is beneficial.
  6. Error charts created by students can make students more aware of weaknesses.

From Dr Zareva’s lecture on world Englishes and English as a world language movement, I do question Ferris’ offerings in her article of ways of “correcting weaknesses” without any mention of how Standard English and its monocentricity privileging the Inner Circle of English may affect how English, Standard English and with it Standard English grammar, is inherently taught. Looking at points from last week’s discussion on what is the “norm” even for native speakers of English, I do wonder about L1 grammar research and its efficacy on student writing.

While Truscott points to L1 research (Knoblauch and Brannon 1981; Hillocks 1986; Krashen 1984 and Leki 1990) that demonstrates the lack of effect that grammar correction has on students’ writing ability, this is an area that still necessitates further reading as I question what is current pedagogy and theory in L1 research, if it has changed and been debated as much as in L2 and how changing views on Standard English have changed the conversation? Janice Lauer addresses this to some extent in Chapter 2 “Rhetoric and Composition” in English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s), noting, “One of the most controversial aspects of the work in rhetoric and composition in the eyes of the public is the field’s teaching of grammar, spelling, and punctuation” (128). She goes on to emphasize that George Hillock, in his 1984 article, “discredited the full-frontal teaching of grammar,” but it nevertheless remains as part of “formalist pedagogy” in classrooms.

inner circle

Kachru’s three-circle-model. Figure adapted from Crystal, D. (1999), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: CUP, p.107.

One thing stood out from this week’s readings, there is no lack of questions in L2 writing research as in any other area of English Studies. Each of the articles points to many holes in the literature that offer opportunities for new studies and research in the field.  Good news for those of us interested in future research!


  • Written Corrective Feedback (WCF) – Providing written correction on a student’s writing through a variety of means, including:
  •  Indirect WCF – Noting errors on a student’s writing without providing the corrections. This could be through underlining, circling, or otherwise singling out the error.
  •  Direct WCF – Providing the correct form on a student’s writing by crossing out, writing the correction, or adding missing terms.
  •  Focused WCF – Correcting errors selectively on a student’s writing by addressing only a specific or limited range of error types, such as articles, tense, or agreement.
  •  Unfocused WCF – Correcting all errors on a student’s writing.

 Works Cited

Ferris, Dana R. “The ‘Grammar Correction’ Debate in L2 Writing: Where Are We and Where Do We Go from Here? (and What Do We Do in the Meantime..?” Journal of Second Language Writing 13 (2004): 49-62.

Lauer, Janice M. “Rhetoric and Composition.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComiskey. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006. 106-52

Truscott, John. “The Case against Grammar Correction in L2 Writing Classes.” Language Learning 46.2 (1996): 327-69.