Written correction

Sekiyama shrine

It is fairly obvious that learners expect us to correct their written work, even if some researchers (e.g. Truscott 1996) have suggested it has no benefits. The question is of course, how we can best do this.

Like a lot of people within ELT, my training emphasised the benefits of using an error correction code with learners and asking them to re-write their work.This seems to be something of an orthodoxy.  The British Council Learning English site (2014) , for example, suggests that ‘This is a common tool to optimise learning opportunities from mistakes learners make in written homework and to encourage the editing stages of process writing.’  The difficulty with correction codes is that experience tells me (and I suspect a lot of teachers) that they do not work very well, much as I am supportive of their use in theory. I have used them many times and found that while students can correct simple surface errors if pointed out with a code (e.g.third person ‘s’ for present simple, adding ‘s’ to plural countable nouns), they have no idea how to correct errors with collocations or more complex constructions, simply because they do not know them. This is of course the reason why they made the errors in the first place!

Research in this area supports the idea that correction works but also suggests that error codes may not be the most effective. Sheen (2007), for example, found that focused  direct corrective feedback  was significantly more effective than no feedback at all, when articles were targeted. Focused direct corrective feedback is simply underlining the targeted form and writing the correction above it. She also found that when metalinguistic explanation was added(e.g. adding brief notes about the grammatical form in focus) this was more effective than  focused direct corrective feedback. Frear (2012) found that focused direct corrective feedback (in this case with past simple forms) was significantly more effective over time with regular verbs when compared to  unfocused direct feedback and both types of indirect corrective feedback. Indirect feedback in this case was to simply underline the errors but not provide the correction and this was either focused on the targeted past simple forms or on errors in general. These studies also suggest that, as we would expect, learners also need to re-write their written work, first correcting errors and then re-drafting their work.  Given that correction codes are a form of indirect feedback then it would seem that it may not be as effective as targeting a particular form and simply correcting it directly before asking student to re-write their work. I would argue that this is even more likely to be the case with collocations and lexical chunks because learners cannot generally form them based on grammatical knowledge. It is simply a case of knowing them.

So what is the way forward? There is a real need for  teacher training to at least introduce teachers to the results of such research and  to introduce more options for correcting written work than only using correction codes. Ellis (2009) gives a useful list of options. Validating the options against the research evidence and in terms of their own particular teaching situations would allow trainees  to make more informed choices in their teaching. In terms of the  research, there is of course a need to replicate the kinds of results described above with more studies in more contexts. There is also a need to look at the impact of different types of feedback on written lexical errors, something which seems to be largely missing at the moment. Reformulated student work (the teacher re-writes students work correcting errors but keeping the original intention of the student) is also an area which needs more research. Although this is time-consuming, it seems logical that reformulated work can be a good source of comprehensible input for learners and it would be interesting to further measure its effects against other  direct types of feedback whereby a targeted form is underlined and  the correction provided. Some studies (



The British Council Teaching English . Writing Correction Code. Available: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/writing-correction-code

Ellis, R., Sheen, Y., Murakami, M., & Takashima, H. (2008). The effects of focused and unfocused written corrective feedback on Japanese university students’ use of English articles in narratives. System, 36, 353-371.

Ellis, R. (2009a). A typology of written corrective feedback types. English Language Teaching Journal, 63, 97-107.
Frear, D. (2010). The Effect of Focused and Unfocused DirectWritten Corrective Feedback on a New Piece of Writing . College English Issues and Trends, Volume 3, 57-72.
Frear, D. (2012) The effect of written corrective feedback and revision on intermediate Chinese learners’ acquisition of English. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Auckland.

 Santos, M., Lopez-Srrano, S., & Manchon, R.M. (2010). The Differential Effect of Two Types of Direct Written Corrective Feedback on Noticing and Uptake: Reformulation vs. Error Correction. International Journal of English Studies Volume 10(1), 131-154 .

Sheen, Y. (2007). The Effect of Focused Written Corrective Feedback and Language Aptitude on ESL Learners’ Acquisition of Articles. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 255-283.

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, 46, 327-369.


About chrisjones70

Senior Lecturer in TESOL/Applied Linguistics at the University of Liverpool. All views and posts here are my own. Twitter : @ELTResearch

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