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57-1 2001 봄호

English Teaching, Vol. 57, No. 3, Fall 2000



“Pushing?Written Output in the Computer Lab: (Almost) Real Time Error Correction Over Students?Shoulders



Everette Busbee

(Jeonju University)


Busbee, Everette. (2002). “Pushing?written output in the computer lab: (Almost) real-time error correction over students?shoulders. English Teaching, 57(3), xxxx


Grammar has made a comeback in the EFL/ESL classroom, but error correction in writing has come under new attack. Critics informed by a strong realism argue that paper correction is a waste of time because students rarely look at the corrections, and further, there is the indirect evidence that conversation students commonly continue making the same error after being corrected many times. This paper describes a computer-based approach to error correction that assures students attend to corrections while the writing is still fresh in their minds. Monitors, as opposed to paper, allow the teacher to read over shoulders, “push? output (offer hints to elicit improved output), and verify responses. Computers also allow students, who clearly enjoy the system, to correct with ease. The CALL literature appears to have no mentioning of such a low-tech, personal use of the computer. An experiment reported on suggests the system improves grammatical accuracy, and another shows that the length of timed writing (an indicator of L2 writing and language skills) increases dramatically without any Process Writing instruction. The paper argues that in an EFL situation such as in Korea, student goals are better met by focusing on clean single-draft writing than lengthy prewriting, organizing, and rewriting. It is also argued that, since writing seems to be learned by writing, the primary duty of a writing teacher may be to maximize student output.





This paper reports on a major-elective writing course taught in a computer lab. Students are primarily English education majors taking the course to increase their chances of passing the teacher’s qualification examination or doing well on the Test for Written English (TWE). Both these tests require, in a single draft, the clear written presentation of ideas with grammatical and lexical accuracy. To help students attain their goal of acquiring writing skills sufficient to pass such written examinations, the writing course focuses on single-draft writing that incorporates good grammar and word usage. This seems reasonable, especially given that Post-Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has nurtured writing, grammar, and vocabulary for perhaps a decade. However, remnants of the 25-year-old CLT movement clutter the English-teaching landscape, and offering a course centered on “the clear written presentation of ideas with grammatical and lexical accuracy?may be viewed as hopelessly pre-Communicative: Everything included in such a course—writing, grammar, and vocabulary—was either low on the list of CLT priorities or else considered harmful.

In addition, aiming for a high-quality product in one draft runs counter to the central tenet of another movement that arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Process Writing. This tenet states that writing is always a work in progress, not a final draft (Zamel, 1985). Process Writing has also begun to fall on hard times for being too much of the 1960s. Its orientation is communal, while the TWE and essay exams are solitary, and it focuses on free expression of feelings at the expense of structure. It is too process oriented and product negligent to dependably produce an acceptable essay for a professor or letter for an employer, and, in the field of EFL/ESL, it is too L1 oriented in its lack of concern for sentence-level syntax. In spite of these shortcomings, a teacher focusing on a quick, clean single draft may still be viewed as a throwback to pre-enlightened times. However, contemporary enlightenment values a reflective eclecticism that assumes there is no single “best?approach, method, or technique, and anything is acceptable if it works in the classroom.

This writing course has evolved over the past eight years, and appears to be somewhat unusual in that it has been computer based for five years, while even very recent research reports on writing instruction overwhelmingly concern paper-based classes. Although the use of computers for EFL/ESL writing allows the use of a spell checker, the real value of computers in a writing course is the ease with which a teacher can read student writing as it is being produced, along with the ease with which students can correct their writing in response to a teacher’s suggestions. Admittedly, walking around a classroom reading what students are writing on their computers and then making oral suggestions is about as low-tech an approach to the computer as possible, but it also has about as high a personal touch as is possible with the computer. Although this paper concerns writing, it is, in fact, the result of my continuing interest in finding ways to use computers in language teaching that are more productive than sending students wandering around the Internet, immersed in a written English on the level of Newsweek and an oral English on the level of CNN News (See Busbee, 2001).

The ease with which students can make corrections solves the problem of students rarely availing themselves of the large quantities of information made available by a teacher’s laborious correction of their papers, because students who ignore comments penciled on their papers will make use of error correction provided by a teacher as they write. Nowhere in the literature have I seen mention of correcting errors and checking responses as students write.

Over-the-shoulder correction has another major advantage: it deals with language fresh in a student’s mind as it is being produced, whereas a student’s response to error corrections on a returned paper, in the rare event that a student actually responds, is an act of editing historical writing (from last week or the week before). The immediacy of over-the-shoulder corrections makes the process less like editing and more akin to the restatement of an utterance with better English in response to a teacher’s prompting, which Allwright (1988) calls “repairing.?The teacher’s prompting, known as “pushing,?(Pica, 1988), attempts to elicit the restating of an English utterance so that it is clearer in its communication, or more accurate in its grammar (Lyster & Ranta, 1997). Nobuyoshi and Ellis (1993) feel that pushing learners to improve their accuracy leads to immediate improvement and also long-term gains, and Swain and Lapkin (1995) conclude that this output can lead to learning that enhances the learning from input.

Nevertheless, while the judicious soliciting of pushed output is a traditional tool in conversation classes, Krashen (1998) has denied its value, primarily on the grounds that it happens so infrequently per student as to be meaningless, and further, students often do not respond to pushing when it does occur. Oliver (2000), however, found that in ESL classes and in native-speaker teacher and student pairs, and for both adults and children, learners do indeed receive a meaningful amount of prompting (negative feedback) for repairing, and further, they used this feedback. At any rate, Krashen’s argument has no validity for over-the-shoulder correction with a reasonable class size, where each student can be pushed frequently, and where students invariably respond. Nowhere in the literature have I seen mention of “pushed writing.?/span>

Given the varying degrees of controversy concerning explicit grammar instruction, error correction, and single-draft writing, before I describe the writing course and its over-the shoulder correction, I will review the literature to sort out our field’s present views on explicit grammar instruction, first covering the concerns of CLT and then newer concerns specifically directed at grammar as error correction in the writing class. I will then look at the problems of Process Writing, both L1 and L2, but especially as Process Writing relates to L2 writing students?goals of being able to quickly produce a high-quality product. There follows a small discussion of the questionable practice of applying to Korean EFL classrooms the results of ESL research in an English-speaking country.

There then comes a detailed description of the course and its students, and of its teaching methods, after which the methods and results are presented for experimental work looking into changes in error frequencies after over-the-shoulder error correction, the ability to use complex grammar after explicit instruction, and the steady increase of writing output per unit time as the semester progresses, even without instruction in how to write. The paper ends with a discussion of the implications of these data on the validity of a non-Process Writing approach stressing sentence-level syntax.





1. The Decline and Rebirth of Explicit Grammar Instruction


To say that the explicit teaching of grammar to language learners has been controversial over the last several decades is an understatement. During this time the pendulum has swung between the “opposing extremes of obsessive attention to every single student error and benign neglect of linguistic accuracy?(Ferris & Hedgcock, 1998, p. 198). In the 1970s, CLT, filled with a youthful confidence and convinced of its historical uniqueness and correctness, proclaimed that grammar had no place in language teaching, pointing to a fictional past composed of “parrot trainers? “drilling and killing,?with these trainers somehow unaware that practice in communication led to better communication skills, even unaware that the goal was the ability to communicate. For a more accurate look at the history of language teaching, see Kelly (1969) and Titone (1968).

An indication of the prevailing attitude of the early days of CLT is that it is not uncommon to hear of older English conversation teachers who secretly maintained grammar as an integral part of their classrooms during the 1980s. A little more than a decade ago secrecy became unnecessary as mainstream research again began to suggest that grammar in the language classroom was beneficial or even necessary for acquisition. Schmidt’s (1990) research indicated that the more complicated grammatical structures could not just be picked up, nor could they be acquired by exposure to them in comprehensible input. Ellis (1990), Terrell (1991), and VanPatten & Cardierno (1993) went so far as to suggest that explicit grammar instruction may be necessary for acquiring a language at an advanced level. More recently, de Graaff (1997) and DeKeyser (1997) have stated that explicit teaching of grammar improves language proficiency, and Musumeci (1997) has called for learning explicit grammar rules through sentence-level study, followed by practicing those rules in communication. The most effective place for such study and practice is often considered to be the writing classroom (Atwell, 1987; Meyer, 1990).

Conclusions such as these led Celce-Murcia, Dornyei & Thurrell (1997) to write of seeing “a turning point?(p. 141) in communicative language teaching, with “explicit, direct elements…gaining significance in teaching communicative abilities and skills? (p. 146). It must be noted, however, that the ever-present voice of Krashen (1983, 2001) continues to dismiss the value of grammar, with a few minor qualifications, such as his concession that, for older students, grammar knowledge can lead to a modest improvement in editing. (Krashen, 2001).


2. New Doubts about Grammar Correction in Writing Classes


CLT banned grammar from the classroom on both theoretical and practical grounds: Language was acquired by communication, not studying grammar; the goal was communication (often “survival?level) and grammatical accuracy was therefore irrelevant; and grammar study killed the pleasure of learning to communicate and so decreased motivation. Grammar has again come under attack, not from conservative CLT theoreticians, but from teachers with a starkly realistic view. Relying on research showing the ineffectiveness of grammar correction, Truscott (1996) concluded that ?/span>grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned?/span> (p. 328). It is ironic that his objection to grammar was in the one area where it had been tolerated throughout the years of CLT, writing, although writing itself at that time was neglected as a minor skill (Horowitz, 1986a).

Truscott’s explanation of error correction’s ineffectiveness was that students may not understand an explanation of the grammar concerning an error, may understand an explanation but forget it, or if they remember it may lack the motivation to put it to use in their future writing. Ferris (1999, p. 6) echoes this: ?/span>Often students don’t understand grammar feedback or are unmotivated to deal with it.? Motivation, always just under the surface as an issue in language learning, looms especially large in writing revision because of the student effort required, an indication of which is an experimental design by Polio, Fleck, & Leder (1998) that allotted 30 minutes to write an essay and 60 minutes to revise it. Reports of a lack of motivation to revise abound: Burkland and Grimm (1986) found that many students look at their grades and then simply toss the papers that had been laboriously marked by their teachers. Carnicelli (1980) discovered that students will not sit and listen at writing conferences if they have already received a grade. Ferris (1994) learned that students utilize teacher feedback more on the early drafts, when it will play a larger part in determining the grade. Krashen (2001) relates a student interview in which an informer states that when her error-corrected writing assignment was returned, she focused almost entirely on the grade. If the grade seemed acceptable to her, she put the paper away without rewriting or correcting it, and she never looked at it again. Further, she maintained that other students never looked at the corrections, only the grade.

Truscott (1996, p. 341) sums up the situation with: “Veteran teachers know that there is little direct connection between correction and learning: Often a student will repeat the same mistake over and over again, even after being corrected many times.?Truscott then goes even further, concluding that grammar correction in writing classes is not only ineffective, it harms students by discouraging them and harms teachers by consuming a great deal of their time without producing improvement.

Truscott (1996) of course does not go unanswered. Ferris (1999) calls his conclusion premature and overly strong, although she agrees there is little evidence error correction improves writing, and she recognizes the burden of proof lies with correction advocates. Still, she expresses the depth of writing teachers?attachment to error correction when she relates the common response of veteran teachers to Truscott’s call for the abandoning of error correction: fear of getting fired when students failed their writing exams needed to graduate. Truscott (1999) nevertheless maintains his position.

Although the strongest anti-correction voice is provided by Truscott (1996, 1999), the idea that correction is a waste of time and energy has been around a while. Robb, Ross, & Shortreed (1986, p. 91) concluded that “highly detailed feedback on sentence-level mechanics may not be worth the instructor’s time or effort.?Recent empirical support for this comes from an experimental study on the effect of error correction on revision accuracy by Polio, Fleck, & Leder (1998. p. 43), whose unusually realistic interpretation of their statistics led them to conclude that although improvements in revisions were statistically significant and therefore theoretically interesting to researchers in second language acquisition and L2 writing, they may have been too small to have practical value.

Other alternatives to teacher-provided grammar correction include commenting on the message, which has been suggested by Kepner (1991), and peer review. My beginning students want little part of peer review, but a few of the best students review each other’s papers on their own, at times having heated discussions over a grammar point, and calling on me mostly to settle disputes. Although peer review is sometimes presented as having affective advantages over other forms of feedback, Zhang’s (1995) review of the literature found little empirical research to support that idea. Of course peer review does have a favorable effect on the amount of reviewing a teacher must do.

Finally, Semke (1984), after working with a first-year German course, presents an intriguing idea that most seasoned writing instructors would consider plausible: correction of grammatical accuracy or language proficiency improved neither, and that only writing practice improves writing. I will return to this argument later.





Process Writing, which developed within L1 writing education, is often accepted by the ESL/EFL writing community with little or no modification, but even in its L1 form, Process Writing has been criticized for neglecting grammar and so giving a product unacceptable to academia (Horowitz, 1986b). In spite of this criticism, given that native speakers have a far greater command of a language’s grammar than EFL/ESL learners, the tenet of L1 process writing that minimal attention be paid to grammar might possibly be justified.

Paying minimal attention to grammar in L2 writing is less justified. The application to ESL/EFL students of a writing education approach developed for native speakers requires an assumption that the two groups are similar, and this assumption is often made despite there being many major differences between L1 and L2 writing students (Silva, 1993). Evidence of this assumption is seen in White and Arndt (1991), a major work aimed at training ESL/EFL writing teachers: In the lengthy introduction on the theory of process writing, the authors do not mention even once that the book is written for the teachers of L2 learners.

A student-centered approach will find that EFL/ESL writing students, aware their grammar skills are far below those of native speakers, want their writing courses to give them greater language skills (Leki & Carson, 1994), and in those courses they are most concerned about vocabulary and grammar (Hedgcock & Lefkowitz, 1994). This focus of EFL writing students on grammatical accuracy could merely stem from the same fear of making an “embarrassing?mistake that conversation teachers work so hard to overcome, but considerable documentation indicates the concerns about written accuracy are not unwarranted. To begin with, university faculty in English-speaking countries may view writing as a more important skill than speaking (Ferris & Tagg, 1996), and these professors, along with other native speakers, often view grammar and vocabulary problems quite negatively (Casanave & Hubbard, 1992; Sweedler-Brown, 1993). Master (1990) goes so far as to say that non-ESL faculty may even conclude that misuse of the English articles is the result of laziness on the part of writers. While we might expect this negative reaction to grammar errors to fade when those errors occur in writing that expresses good ideas clearly, research has shown this is not the case (Vann, Lorenz, & Meyer, 1991).

Another real-life importance of grammatical accuracy in writing is that it may determine if a test score is high enough to enter the teaching profession or to study abroad. For Korean students, tests along these lines include the TOEFL’s Test of Written English (TWE) and the teacher’s qualification exam. Both are timed tests that require the quick production of good clean writing in one draft, and Process Writing, with its extremely lengthy process of prewriting, writing, and multiple editing, does not meet the needs of students who will take such tests (Horowitz, 1986b).

There are also the needs of students who will write in the workplace, and Yao and Warden (1996) maintain that a classroom focus on the process (which employers will in fact never see) and a sacrificing of the product (which employers will see) leads students to erroneously believe their writing is acceptable in the real work world. Noguchi (1991) points out that, as distasteful as we may find it, the power structure lacks flexibility in its view of non-standard writing, and students must be prepared to deal with that inflexibility.

The “one size fits all?approach of process writing in EFL/ESL has been criticized for ignoring students whose preferred learning style for writing is individual rather than communal, whose L1 grasp of writing logic and organization is already developed, or whose personal goals include honing writing skills that incorporate sufficient grammar to pass some important examination or to write a clean, functional business letter. Most EFL/ESL students want and need the writing skills that lead to a good product—a final draft—quickly, which is antithetical to Zamel’s (1985) call, in the hay day of the Process Writing movement, for teachers to always treat writing as a work in progress rather than a final draft. Consequently, the application of Process Writing in EFL/ESL is under attack, with Leki (1992), a leader in the field of L2 writing education, concluding that student performance is enhanced by a greater emphasis on grammar than seen in Process Writing, and that ESL students need more grammar instruction than many teachers provide.





A practical concern when evaluating the relevance of a particular piece of research on English teaching in Korea is whether the research was conducted in an English-speaking country (an ESL situation) or in an EFL situation such as we have in Korea. ESL writing students enrolled as full-time students in American universities have normally scored at least 550 on the TOEFL. In addition, they are exposed to many hours of lectures in English and must read large quantities of English, and they live within an English-speaking culture. This is in stark contrast to the makeup of EFL writing students in Korean universities, and to an environment that provides little exposure to English.

A look at a few typical publications will illustrate the problem. Loewen (1998) reports on grammar correction involving writing students whose length of U.S. residence ranged from three to twelve years, with an average of seven years. Such students would approach being eligible for mainstreaming into writing classes for native speakers, and research based on such students would surely have little relevance for EFL writing classes in Korea, where students often struggle to produce a small amount of writing with enough grammatical accuracy to be comprehensible. Similarly, Leki’s (1992) teaching guide is primarily for teachers of English language students enrolled full-time at the college level in an English-speaking country, and for these students, she writes, ?/span>The whole range of language activities—not just writing, but also reading and speaking—may still be an object of study?(p. 8). That is, these writing students are likely to have finished their reading and speaking studies, a far cry from the writing students in Korea. Another of many possible examples is Kepner’s (1991) paper on written feedback and the development of writing skills, a paper that deals with ESL, not EFL Students, and which therefore has limited applicability when looking at the effects of written feedback for EFL students in Korea.

The list of publications on ESL research could go on and on, but, as Williams (1996) notes for L2 reading research, a list of papers reporting on quality research involving EFL students in a non-English speaking country would be quite short. This is especially so in writing, which gives a situation in which we EFL writing teachers in Korea are provided little information upon which to base decisions on how to teach. Fortunately, we have our experience to draw upon.





1. Course Organization


Officially the writing course is actually three courses, Beginning Writing, Advanced Writing, and Teaching Writing in Middle and High School, but in actual practice, it is one course that can be taken for credit three times in any order, so at any one time the class contains students at three levels. Individual and group instruction allows the level of grammar instruction and error correction, as well as the expectations for writing quality, to be increased with each repetition of the course. Treating the course How to Teach Writing in Middle and High School as another course in how to write can be justified on the following grounds: A teacher with basic writing skills can figure out how to teach writing, but a teacher with a good knowledge of writing pedagogy but insufficient writing skills can hardly figure out how to write. This attitude reflects the Ministry of Education’s push for stronger language skills in teachers and less concern for pedagogy.

The class meets twice a week, 80 minutes each period. Normally students taking the course for the first time sit on one side of the computer lab and repeating students sit on the other, so I can work collectively with one group while the other group keeps writing. Students, normally numbering from about 15 to just over 20, spend most class time writing. Up until about six years ago, a semester of writing was a junior English Education major requirement, and accordingly, I could assign two long essays a week for homework, but now that writing has become an elective, there is no homework. Nevertheless, two or three hours of intense writing a week is enough to lead to large improvements, especially if continued over three semesters.


2. General Teaching Methods

1) Over-the-Shoulder Error Correction


The teaching method is simple: While students write on computers, I work my way around the lab, reading over their shoulders and offering comments appropriate for each student’s level. As a student makes a correction, I continue reading the rest of the writing, offering more suggestions and checking responses. Comments range from the specific to the general: “You need a determiner with ‘student?here,?“Check your tenses in the last paragraph,?or “Check the third sentence in your second paragraph.?As a student gains in writing skills, corrections so general they are actually hints become appropriate, in line with Ferris & Helt’s (2000) and Ferris & Roberts?(2001) suggestion that less explicit feedback is more effective for improving self-editing than more explicit feedback. Further, error corrections should be selective, prioritized, and clear (Reid, 1997), and clarity is quite possible even if corrections are in the form of hints.

If several students have made the same type of error, they receive a “mini lecture?on the grammar of that error, or perhaps just an admonition to “Remember your tenses!?For students to pay attention, such comments and mini lectures must be preceded by “Hands up in the air, look at me.?This gets their hands off the keyboards and gives eye contact. Without this, students, caught up in their writing, continue typing and hear nothing.


2) Pushing Hard for Students to Incorporate Corrections into Future Writing


By assuring that error corrections are indeed looked at, thought about, and taken care of, an over-the-shoulder approach to error correction overcomes the lack of student motivation to respond to error correction. However, the issue of motivation is still alive, for the ultimate goal is the reduction of errors in future writing, and this requires considerable student effort. Motivation for this effort thus becomes the single most important factor in becoming a good writer, so it must be nurtured.

Students are pushed to incorporate their new knowledge into their future writing in a number of ways. I remind them often that I really do expect them to stop making those same mistakes. I sometimes start a chant and make sure all students join in: “I studied yesterday, I study everyday, I am studying now, I will study tomorrow,?or, “Details! Details! Details,?or, “No naked nouns! No naked nouns!?(“Naked nouns?are nouns without a required determiner.) Students may be directed to read what they have written, and if they decide that it is boring, they should start over again. Upon seeing a common error we have often discussed, I may wipe an imaginary tear from my eye and say, “Oh, that hurts! I try so hard to get you to use your tenses correctly.?I may even directly say, “Hey, guys, when we talk about determiners, the goal is for you to use them.? Whether this is effective is of course open to question, but if it in fact leads to little improvement, then less dramatic, that is, more traditional, teaching would likely lead to even less.

A common view in education is that a gentle, low-pressure classroom reduces student anxiety and is therefore conducive to learning, and this is thought to be especially true in language teaching, “because the chances of making mistakes in the language class are much greater. A learner may get the answer right in terms of content, but wrong in terms of form or pronunciation?(Tsui, 1996, p. 156). In spite of this, the need for a gentle touch with students can be questioned on several accounts, particularly on the college level. First, at least a small amount of pressure can be effective in increasing student effort. Second, for some students, such as those majoring in English education, interpretation, or international trade, shyness toward producing English is unacceptable. Third, even though error correction is also known by the unpleasant term “negative feedback,?learners often desire more of it than they get (Allwright & Bailey, 1991; Straub, 1997), and students in this course may be unhappy if their papers happen to go unchecked, and may even stay after class and request that they be checked. Fourth, when Bailey et al. (1996. p. 16) observed language teachers in action, they determined that an easygoing teaching style was not necessary for good teaching: “Some of the teachers that we considered the best were perceived as successful because [my emphasis] they were demanding and strict, rather than displaying supportive behavior.?As with most things, this calls for moderation and a teacher’s wisdom, and a “demanding and strict?teacher may also maintain a high level of classroom humor.


3) Rationale for Foregoing the Larger Issues of Writing


Only at the course’s beginning are the larger issues of writing explicitly taught. The first lesson of the semester is aimed at 1) making writing come alive by providing details rather than speaking in generalities and 2) avoiding stale ideas that have been around for years. Students are shown examples of clich? essays that say nothing but somehow manage to keep repeating themselves, as well as examples of lively and informative essays. The subsequent assignment of each writing topic is followed by the admonishment “Details, details, make it come alive with details,?and students are often reminded of this over their shoulders. Although this is the only instruction given on the larger issues of writing, many students, assumedly as a result their personalities and personal experience, come to produce writing that is not only interesting, it is so honest and informative it is my major source of knowledge about the culture of Korean college students. That they can produce such writing means that, in addition to having interesting personalities and sufficient experience, they could think prior to enrolling in the class, and they just need a little time to harness that skill in their English writing. It seems that what Rose (1981), the writing education theorist, concluded for American L1 writing students was correct for Korean L2 students: most students do not need help in generating ideas.

Since both organization and logic generally become adequate without explicit instruction, almost all teaching effort is directed toward improving sentence-level syntax. This choice reflects the reality that a student who has not managed to acquire L1 thinking and writing skills during 12 years of public education and a couple of years of college will be unlikely to develop those skills in an L2 English writing class. For a student lacking either of these skills, even three hours of private lessons a week would have to continue far longer than one semester to be at all successful, and success would by no means be guaranteed

I have not always devoted the course almost exclusively to sentence-level structure. For one semester I stressed the paragraph organization painstaking presented by our textbook ?topic sentence, support, support, support, conclusion ?but this tended to produce an annoyingly mechanical style of writing. Although such an approach might help improve the writing of those lacking even marginal logical and organizational skills, it surely stifles the development of a more natural style in the better writers. Good writing is far more recursive an activity than this linear model.





In order to test the effectiveness of over-the-shoulder error correction, I conducted a modest experiment involving error analysis in pre- and post-treatment essays, with the treatment being two months of over-the-shoulder general error correction. In addition, since this paper focuses on grammar, and since the effectiveness of explicit grammar instruction on writing is questionable, I also conducted a similarly modest experiment, also involving error analysis in pre- and post-treatment essays, with the treatment being extended instruction in the grammar of the English conditionals, along with oral and written practice. Finally, I recorded the length of weekly 30-minutes essays from the second through the thirteenth week of class. This was to see if student output, a strong indicator of writing skills, increased over time in spite of there being no instruction in Process Writing.


1. The Effect of Over-the-Shoulder Correction on Error Rates


1) Subjects and Methods


The selection of subjects presented a problem, for, as has been noted, the course can be taken for credit three times, so the students are a mixture of beginning writers on through advanced, with many of those taking the course three time also regularly attending high-level conversation classes. Even the 11 students taking the course for the first time were a varied group, not the best subjects for experimental work. However, an opportunity presented itself when six new transfer students enrolled at the same time. They were unusually homogeneous, in that they were all graduates of other colleges and universities and brought with them an excellent academic record and a habit of 100% class attendance. They were 24-31 years old, and so were more mature than the typical third-year student, and they had enrolled in the English Education Department with a single-minded goal—to become teachers. They were an ideal group of research subjects for the detection of a teaching treatment, although a larger group would of course have been better.

The experiment consisted of assigning three 20-minute pre-treatment essays during an 80-minute class at the beginning of the fourth week of the semester. Over-the-shoulder error correction, which was described earlier, was carried out for the large majority of the class-time over the next two months, following which three 20-minute post-treatment essays were assigned, also during an 80-minute class. Topics (listed in Table 1, along with the general instructions for the essays) were chosen to encourage sufficient use of target grammar to provide a valid test for those patterns. The targets were articles, verb tenses, and verb agreement.

This is the only error-correction research I know of that has, by choice of essay topic, increased the frequency of target-grammar use. Untargeted essays would have to be extremely long to provide enough uses of a certain grammar to provide a valid test. Analysis of a non-targeted essay is therefore based on total errors, a measure with such variation that that it gives a shotgun pattern when graphed.

The results are shown in Table 1. The means of the pre-essays are tightly clustered, which is of course partly explainable as a result of the group’s homogeneity. Clustering could also be due to the essays?short lengths placing a firm upper limit on number of errors, while at the same time topics designed to maximize the use of the target patterns increased the opportunity for students to make errors. As a result, even though one student missed the tense every time she used a verb, she had only 7 errors, and no paper had 6 errors in any category. Only 4 had 5 errors, and only 2 had 0 errors, so in the total of 18 pre- and 18 post-treatment papers, 29 had 1-4 errors in the target grammar.?



Mean Number and Range of Errors in 20-Minute Essays Before

and After Two Months of Over-the-Shoulder Error Correction

Error Category






3.33 (2-5)

1.50 (0-4)


< 0.05

Verb Tense**

3.17 (2-7)

1.83 (1-4)


< 0.05

Verb Agreement***

3.33 (2-5)

2.00 (0-5)


0.180 (NS)

*Pre topic: “My Homeroom in My Last Year of High School ?/span>

   Close your eyes, picture the room, and describe what you see.

   Post topic: “The Graduate School of Education Computer Lab?/span>

   Describe in detail the room you are in now.

**Pre topic: “The First Time I Traveled with My Friends?o:p>

   Describe your first trip with a small group of friends.

   Post topic: “My High School Class Trip?o:p>

   Describe your class travel in high school.

***Pre topic: “A Typical Day for My Father and for Me?o:p>

   Compare your and your father’s activities during a normal day.

   Post topic: “A Typical Day for My Brother (Sister) and for Me?o:p>

   Compare your and your brother’s (sister’s) usual weekend activities.


(1) The Articles


As would be expected from Korean students, whose L1 has no articles, errors in articles are primarily in the form of omission (*I bought large, beautiful desk.) It seems that if a student remembers that an article should be used, it is fairly easy to make the decision as to whether the speaker and listener both definitely know exactly the item (noun) under discussion, so students generally avoid errors in article choice (You told me about a dog yesterday. *I saw a dog you told me about.). This would indicate that sensitizing students to “no naked nouns?could be an effective strategy. There was, in fact, a statistically significant improvement in the use of articles in the post-treatment essays, with the error rate cut by 55%, although it is unknown how fragile this improvement is over time. This marked decrease in errors in article use contrasts with the results of Ferris & Helt (2000), who report only an 8% decrease in article errors (statistically non-significant) over the course of a semester of paper-based error feedback, and a 13% drop in total errors. Concerning the data on articles, Ferris and Helt offer an interesting possibility: Early errors may more often be in the omission of articles, but after being sensitized to this, students might increase the use of articles where there should be none. Although the comparison of the present study and that of Ferris and Helt would compare beginning EFL and upper intermediate ESL writers, a comparison of the data could suggest that over-the-shoulder correction is more effective than paper correction. Finally, although this of course can be interpreted as a very positive result, the fact remains that 45% of the errors in article use remained.


(2) Verb Tenses


Tense errors tend to be the use of the present when talking about the past (*Yesterday I meet my friends.), although tense errors include the use of the past perfect when the past simple is required, along with confused combinations of several tenses (I was going yesterday. I was gone yesterday. ?/span> *I was go yesterday.) The sensitization process for tense errors consisted of a call for “constructing a determined past-tense mindset?when beginning to write about the past.

The post-treatment essays contained 42% fewer errors than the pre-treatment essays, which was statistically significant, but here again, 58% of the pre-treatment errors remained.


(3) Verb Agreement


A grammatical trait that quickly identifies a language as English is the universal –s of the third-person singular present tense. However, because Korean lacks any counterpart to this grammar, Korean students are plagued by this –s. American content course professors quite understandably assume that any student even mildly motivated could remember this simple rule, but those professors are, unfortunately, wrong. Somehow, even among highly-intelligent students who strongly desire to minimize errors, this error keeps popping up over and over again, and a verb separated from its subject is the most stubborn of all (He goes downtown almost every weekend. *However, she almost never go downtown.). A separated subject and verb being common, the error is tenacious even among advanced students who know and understand the rule, and who even practice producing language using the rule.

Although verb-agreement errors decreased from pre- to post-treatment essays, the decline was not statistically significant, and two students actually had more errors after treatment. Such results are not unusual, with Truscott (1996, p. 341) stating bluntly that “Often a student will repeat the same mistake over and over again, even after being corrected many times.?This has led a pair of leading researchers in ESL writing, Ferris & Helt (2000), to describe the process of dealing with errors as ultimately frustrating.


2. The Effect of Explicit Instruction on Grammar


Although this experiment also involved pre- and post-treatment writing, it was not essay writing, but the quick construction of a few sentences on a topic that would strongly suggest the use of one of the three major English conditionals. A further practical reason for choosing the conditionals is that, unlike the articles and past-tense verbs, they are so rare in the writing of Korean students that explicit instruction and practice is called for. These patterns are resistant to acquisition, and seem to qualify as advanced patterns that Schmidt (1990) maintains require explicit grammar instruction for adults to acquire.

As expected, the pre-instruction writing showed a complete lack of facility in the patterns, even though students were guided prior to writing by a brief lecture on the conditionals, along with examples. No feedback was given on their attempts at the conditionals, so that the same topics could be used again for the post-instruction writing. The treatment was a total of two hours of instruction and practice in the conditionals, with students told beforehand that the conditionals would be an important element on the midterm. One midterm essay was, in fact, “Explain the three English conditionals, giving the grammar and function of each, along with an example.? All subjects correctly included the nine items requested. Although I had been concerned that the successful production of the conditionals in this experimental design would be dismissed as the result of a blatant attempt to elicit grammar patterns, as can be seen in Table 2 this fear was unnecessary. Only one student used any of the conditionals correctly, in his case all three. Although instruction on the conditionals incorporated “past conditional for regrets?as a kind of mantra, the students did not call upon any of this when asked to write about regrets. It seems that their interlanguage was just not at a level where the conditionals could be used.



Number of Students Using Conditionals Correctly at Least Once in

a 5-Minute Writing Assignment Before and After Explicit Instruction







Present Real*





Present Unreal**









1 Pre-instruction essays were guided to increase the probability

?/span>that students who knew the target pattern would use it. (See text for

?/span>a description of the guiding.)

2 Identical pre- & post-instruction topics were separated by seven

?/span>weeks. Students received no feedback on their first essay.

*Topic: “Some Plans for My Future, If Some Good Thing I Hope

?/span>to Happen Actually Happens?

**Topic: “What I Would Do if an Impossible Dream Came True?o:p>

***Topic: “A Regret I Have: What I Didn’t Do and What I Missed?o:p>


3. Increases in Student Output Without Teaching the Process


?/span>A typical 80-minute period in this course consists of students writing three 20-minute essays as errors are corrected over their shoulders. The sheer quantity of this output, coupled with the ease with which word counts can be obtained for computer documents, allowed the testing of the hypothesis that, as Semke (1984) maintains, writing is improved primarily by practice in writing, not by studying about the process of writing, nor by engaging in time-consuming prewriting or editing that may consume three times as much time as was spent on the original writing. The testing of this hypothesis requires the assumption that the length of timed writing is a good indicator of the quality of an EFL essay, just as the length of a verbal response to a question is a good indicator of speaking skills. Essay length would probably also have predictive value in beginning L1 writing, but for advanced L1 writers, longer essays might correlate with wordiness, a writing flaw. Wordiness is hardly a problem in L2 writing.



Changes in essay length over time are presented in Figure 1, which shows a best-fit plot of the data (R2=0.909) that increases over time. By the seventh week, essay length had tripled, and thereafter gains were less dramatic. Students learn to sit down, think a while, and then write, although they received no instruction on how to do this. This is not to suggest that advanced students would receive no benefit from studying the finer points of each genre, and there is considerable truth in the adage that there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. However, Figure 1 suggests that an initial period of being “left alone?to struggle with the process is beneficial for EFL writers, and that a certain quantity of writing must be produced before fluency can develop. (In keeping with this, for the first few weeks, students taking the course for the first time receive a minimum of corrections.) Although this paper is concerned primarily with error correction and explicit grammar instruction, the correction and instruction take place in a classroom dedicated to copious writing. Given that efforts to show the value of error correction and grammar instruction have been so elusive, it may well be that it is the course’s focus on massive production that leads to most of the improvement in writing skills.





As the objections of CLT to grammar in the EFL/ESL classroom have steadily grown quieter, a new objection has arisen to the one form of grammar instruction that had largely been accepted by CLT, error correction in writing classes. This objection maintains that error correction is ineffective because a student may not understand a teacher’s comment on an error, may understand but forget it, or may lack the motivation to put the knowledge to use if it is remembered (Truscott, 1996). All these objections are overcome by an over-the-shoulder approach to error correction, in that teachers can not only verify that the explanation was understood or remembered, they can check that their hints for corrections have been properly put to use. In addition, errors are dealt with shortly after they have been produced, while the language is still fresh in students?minds. Although an over-the-shoulder approach is a new way of dealing with errors in writing instruction, it is pleasantly personal and low-tech. Students like the system, as would be suggested by typical EFL students?desire for more error correction than they receive (Allwright & Bailey, 1991; Leki, 1991). The effectiveness of the system is suggested by improvements in article and verb use by students corrected in this manner.

Another finding of this study is that essay length, an assumed indicator of essay quality for beginning EFL writers, increases dramatically without any Process Writing instruction. This is support for the idea that writing is learned by the act of writing. Error correction may play a secondary role.

That the role of error correction is not well known is primarily the result of a reality in error correction research—controls are essentially impossible: While a treatment group would receive error correction, a control group would receive none, which both students and department colleagues would probably consider unethical. A possible alternative to error correction would be to discuss only the ideas of the paper, but this would likely not satisfy the desire of colleagues and students for error correction. At any rate, this paper’s documentation of improved use of the articles and verb tenses is documentation without controls, so a question arises: Would such improvement, or a meaningful portion of it, have occurred without error correction? That the answer may be yes is suggested by indirect evidence: EFL/ESL writing students the world over do improve, and they do so while largely ignoring error correction. A more theoretically interesting approach to the question also suggests the answer would be yes if writing practice does not, in fact, lead the interlanguage to new heights, but instead helps the writing student make efficient use of the interlanguage that already exists, with a bonus perhaps being a heightened grammar awareness that helps tidy up the interlanguage.

Writing classes, especially those stressing the value of students actually writing, are the least input-oriented of all language classes, and our field hardly questions that it is primarily comprehensible input that builds the interlanguage. Accordingly, it would follow that writing does not add a great deal to the interlanguage. However, taking the interlanguage to a higher level would increase the potential for writing, although it would take writing practice to harness that potential. This reasoning would lead to the conclusion that, once writers have come to fully exploit their interlanguage by following Semke’s (1984) suggestion of learning to write by writing, the best way to improve their writing may be to take a conversation class or to read extensively. Pushing writers to write beyond the level of their interlanguage would lead nowhere, and such attempts are probably what lead writing teachers such as Ferris & Helt (2000, p. 1) to conclude that the “treatment of students?written errors can be…ultimately frustrating.?

The following might well be as effective a writing class as any, at least through the intermediate level: Students are informed that their grade will be determined by 1) midterm and final essays, 2) the semester’s total writing assignment output as measured in kilobytes, and to maintain motivation for writing carefully, 3) a few essays chosen randomly from the writing assignments. There is no professor, but an assistant calls roll each class, sits as students write, and then collects finished assignments for the “Portfolio Maintenance and Grading Center,?which carefully grades the midterm and final exams and the randomly selected assignments.

Such a system is theoretically sound and would seem to conform to the ideas of many English teachers cited in this paper. Further, as Truscott (1996, p. 359) wrote, “although students believe in correction...that does not mean that teachers should give it to them.?However, it would be advisable for a writing teacher who abandons error correction to be tenured, and to have a sufficient number of other classes to offset any cancellation of a writing class due to lack of enrollment. A more acceptable alternative that would satisfy students, and also protect the teacher from becoming a “composition slave?(Hairston 1986) correcting papers deep into the night, would be to limit error correction to what can be done over-the-shoulder during class. Such a solution would even eliminate a possible conflict of interest, for while maximizing student output benefits students, minimizing student output has a certain appeal for teachers who feel the necessity to diligently correct all student writing. With error correction limited to class time, teachers become free to push output to its limits. (This is the second time this paper has mentioned “pushing output,?but here it is used with a meaning different from “prompting a student to produce language that is an improvement over what has been produced. The title of this paper, then, has a double meaning.)

Ultimately, L2 writing comes down to thinking skills and language skills, with thinking skills transferring from the L1 (Carson, 1992), at least when L2 language skills have reached a sufficient level. It being unreasonable to expect an L2 writing teacher to remedy major shortcomings in L1 thinking skills, and the best that can be hoped for is a modest increase in the clarity with which existing thoughts are expressed. Likewise, if a student suffers from a severe lack of English skills, a writing teacher cannot be expected to bring those skills into existence. No matter how hard we may promote guessing, top-down skills, and Process to get students to perform at a level higher than their interlanguage would normally allow, improvement on a scale that has practical value is hard to come by.

Large improvements come only with large increases in the level of the interlanguage. Raimes (1985), in an older but still influential paper, tells us that good and poor L2 writers generate their ideas and language the same way: they use whatever they have, and then move on. There is no sudden entry into the kingdom of good writers. Students ask, “How can I become a better writer? The answer is to begin by taking a writing class or two. After that, the best strategy is probably to just do whatever you can to improve your English.






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Applicable levels: Secondary, tertiary, and adult education

Key words: Teaching of writing, error correction/error treatment, feedback



Everette Busbee

Department of English Education