How often has this happened to you? You sit down with your one of your students (read: certificate exam candidates in Greece ) and review an essay he or she has produced, and you have subsequently corrected. At one point, you come to a bit of text that you had previously underlined, and perhaps had inserted a question mark or ‘WTF’, in order to question the student on confusing point he oe she had made. You explain to the student that you aren’t quite sure what this part means. The student responds something along these lines: “Yes, what I meant to say was … uh …”, or “What don’t you get? I thought it was obvious…”, or perhaps “Come on! Anyone who reads it will know what I mean!”, or maybe even “Hello!? Do I have to fill-in the blanks for you?”
In my case, after pestering the student to provide more details, I might suggest, “That was a marvelous explanation! Why didn’t you write it down in the first place?”, or “Yes, well I understand what you mean now, because you just explained it to me. However, when someone else reads this, or an examiner grades your paper, you aren’t going to be able stand next to him and explain all that. You have to write it down so that he can see it and understand it in the first place!”
These situations usually arise because students don’t really consider the effect their writing has on the reader. They assume that teachers or examiners will understand the meaning of what they were trying to say in their compositions. This is an attitude that is commonplace with students, and perhaps may have some merit in their regular classes. But in the world of EFL/ESL study, one definition of fluency is that a student can transfer his thoughts from mind to paper in a fluent and effective manner. Therefore, when students fail to do this, it is reasonable for an examiner or a teacher to suspect that perhaps they lack the fluency to do so.
A good step towards raising awareness in students of the important of facilitating appropriate “effect on the reader” is by making the most of another type of mistake, or as some humanistic practitioners would say, learning opportunities. What I’m referring to is basic sentence level correction. The idea is that getting students to become more reflective of how their sentence level mistakes might affect readers actually creates a need for students to more accurately express themselves in an effective way. After all, one conception about ‘sentence structure’ is that the most grammatically correct sentence is one that is also the most effective.
Ultimately, one of our goals for our students is to help them become autonomous learners, and certainly also autonomous learners of the language. In simple terms, this means helping our students take responsibility for their own work that they produce, both at the macro (meaning wise) and micro (sentence wise) levels.
One way of doing this is by using a correction code when marking up your students’ compositions. Rather than crossing out student mistakes with red ink and squeezing in your own bits of prose, try underlining and highlighting the offending pieces of text, and then inserting a code to reflect its specific mistake.
Sometimes, instead of underlining words, I use a colored highlighter to mark the areas of text I want to focus on. If the student has left space at the right or left of the line, I’ll insert my code there. If not I’ll try to squeeze it in near the marked text. In general, it’s always a good idea to tell your students to leave some space on the left or right margin of the page for you to enter your codes.
Although I’ve seen many versions, here are just some examples of coding I tend to use with my students:
SP = spelling problem
WW = wrong word
WO = wrong word order
WM = word missing
WF = word form
T = tense problem
P = punctuation problem
Par = paragraphing
S-V = subject /verb agreement
S/P = singular / plural issues
Exp = poor expression
Ref = problems with reference and cohesion
? = ‘do not understand’ (Note: this is more politically correct than ‘WTF’)
Whatever coding you use, it’s important that you come to some understanding with your students about how you will correct their essays. This should occur in the 1st or 2nd class, preferably before you hand back even a single piece of corrected text.
The following are some of the advantages of this type of approach:
- It facilitates in-class peer correction work
- Student errors truly become learning opportunities.
- Instant homework!
- It supports top-down and inductive learning styles.
- It cuts down or correcting time.
- Students are forced to consider what effect their writing has on others.
- By focusing on only some of the errors, it’s easier for students to see recurring errors in their work.
- It supports structural and sentence level approaches to grammar teaching.
Of course, as with any change of teaching, it’s important to be aware of potential pitfalls. The following are some related issues of using error codes:
- Some students prefer having ‘the answers’.
- Students may be able to correct ‘slip’ but not ‘errors’.
- It does not support students with bottom-up learning styles.
- It clashes with some students learning expectations. Many students expect a teacher to provide corrections, in the old fashion way.
- There may not be a code for every type of error.
- Sometimes there are more than one problem embedded in an error.
- You can easily demotivate a student by putting in too many codes.
In the past, believing I was a conscientious teacher, I used to spend a lot of time correcting errors and making long-winded suggestions in the margins of student papers. However, after returning the compositions, I wasn’t always sure that my students were really taking the time to consider their original mistakes or my corrections and advice. By switching to using an error code, not only did I find that students were forced to self-correct and reflect on their first attempts, but I also discovered some other side benefits.
For example, using only a correction code allows teachers to put students into pairs and discuss to suggest possible corrections to their papers. They can even agree or disagree with their own error corrections. This is one form of what is known as a ‘peer editing’ task. This type of task obviously increases ‘student talking time’ in class, but it also lends the added value of a student’s seeing first hand how his writing effects a reader (his peer), other than the teacher! In terms of ‘communicative language teaching’, this is very much a ‘real-life’ task indeed.
Another important consideration is actually how much to correct. Modern humanistic methodology suggests that it is overly demotivating for a student to have his or her essay, which they might have worked very hard on, returned awash in a sea of red ink. It’s far more important to correct a sample of the more critical mistakes you’d like the student to focus on rather than making your error correction a ‘how many errors can I spot’ pursuit.
Keep in mind that ‘under-correcting’ can also bear its share of disadvantages. Many students may assume that the errors you marked up are indeed the only ones in the essay. This can cause a problem when you ask students to revise their essays. If the students don’t catch their unmarked errors, they will most probably repeat them in the second draft. Moreover, this consequence brings the student one step close towards fossilizing these mistakes. In some cases, some students will probably be resentful that you didn’t point out all their mistakes in the first place!
Most of the negative aspects involving the under-correction of essays can easily be circumnavigated by having a clear understanding with your students regarding exactly what you will correct and what you won’t. Being up-front with your students regarding your teaching agenda will go along way towards calming their revision concerns and addressing their learning expectations.
One way of doing this is by adding a short paragraph of feedback to the student. To do so, I would suggest the following considerations:
- Contrary to public ‘misconception’, don’t spend time mentioning errors that should be obvious from the error codes themselves. If you really feel a ‘friendly reminder’ is important, give it to the students after they have revised the essay. In other words, they write an essay, you return it with error codes (no feedback paragraph), they rewrite the essay with corrections, then finally you give them the feedback paragraph when you return their 2nd attempt. Remember the point is to get students working on their mistakes, not your rubbing their noses in their mistakes.
- In a brief paragraph, commending the student on his or her effort. Find what’s right with the student’s composition and mention it. After all, students need to what they did right, as much as they need to know what they did wrong. If you can’t fund anything positive to say about the students efforts, you’re not looking hard enough!
In conclusion, using an error code has helped my students become more aware of their mistakes and has improved their overall grammatical and communicative competencies. I am convinced that such an approach to correction will help prevent your students from capsizing in a sea of ‘red ink’ and save their creations from having to go down with their ‘slips’.
If you have other suggestions for providing feedback to students, please let us know and comment below.
Slip = a mistake that a student can probably correct with a bit of prompting because they already have the knowledge to do so.
Error = a mistake a student can probably not correct because it is beyond their knowledge to do so.
Mistake = a general term in this article used to refer to both ‘errors’ and ‘slips’