Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Line-editing as a way of life

(the following is part of a TESOL 2008 presentation called Teaching Writing in Online and Paper Worlds; it was originally at http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/tw7.html. Some of the links may have been compromised by the restoration and are still being worked on)

Tonight I line-edited an entire stack of essays; I did this before grading, and I did it separately; I will grade the stack later. I line-edit almost everything my students write, because they publish most of it, and because I believe it is good for them, and a productive use of my time. I will explain here what I mean by "line-editing" and my pedagogical justification; you will find it remarkably free of the influence of research on the subjects of "noticing" and "negative feedback;" it is not that I'm unaware of the research that is being done, more that, for the last few years, I've decided to rely almost exclusively on what I see and know is happening.

Line-editing is, briefly, taking a line, a sentence, or a paragraph that a student has written, and using marks and corrections to render it into acceptable English that means what the student intended to say. The student then presumably uses these marks, along with what has been written, to rewrite a corrected version of the work that is both grammatical and representative of what they originally wanted to say. The process isn't perfect; I sometimes misread what they intended; they are sometimes unable to decipher my marks, or miss what I have corrected. The process assumes, therefore, that there is very little price attached; I am not counting errors, nor am I punishing them for being unable to read my editing marks correctly, unless punishment is considered in terms of the time it takes to recopy and get reviewed multiple versions of a single work. My philosophy has incorporated various axioms related to grammatical correction, which include the following:

1. That students' grammar will improve as a result of the correction, but may not improve immediately, or even directly, as a result.
2. That students must themselves notice both what was ungrammatical, and what was interpreted to be the meaning of what they had written, and approve of the new version, even writing the new version themselves.
3. That getting line-editing, or proofreading, for their developmental work is necessary for all formal publishing and academic occasions; this need will not go away immediately upon their exit from our program, but will steadily diminish and over time will probably become less important to them and those around them, as their general command of English grammar, spelling and writing conventions will increase steadily with steady practice; that, in the mean time, they should not worry about this problem, but merely write, communicate successfully as much as possible, avail themselves of correcting assistance, and concentrate on the organization and power of their work.
4. That the goal of such line-editing is that they be able to communicate as much as possible, with as many people as are able to read what they write; that therefore the goal of my line-editing is not to say what they said as powerfully as possible, but to render a version that is as close to what they intended as possible, considering that their voice is different from mine, and that, by choosing certain tones, styles, and grammatical forms, they have outlined a style and voice that I should stay as true to as possible, while giving them, when necessary, choices about how any particular point could be made with acceptable language.

My students eventually publish virtually every essay and research paper; in addition, they write a number of paragraphs that are for fluency only, and in which I demand very little, except that they write about their own opinions, and they follow the line-editing process to its conclusion, at which point they have successfully published their work on a given subject. Thus, a significant amount of my time is devoted to this process, unless I can get an assistant to help, and, admittedly, this is time that could be productively used in other ways, so I feel obliged to justify the time, if not the marks themselves, which often, if not usually, represent the subjective judgment of a single reader. I could, in fact, be having them write more essays, yet not correcting every word; or, having conferences, for example, to go over verbally what they have written. Instead, I have chosen to have them write yet another fluency paragraph, which I must mark up and return to them.

The devious advantage of having them publish so many fun pieces, about such a variety of subjects that are important to them, is that they eventually notice and read the works of their classmates, and even look forward to them as they appear in a steady progression on a weblog. The class weblog is an ongoing ticker-tape, a written record of their thoughts, an ongoing dialogue about a number of topics, and, since they know each other, they begin to hear each other's voices in the writing, and even respond to each other's ideas. I want them to see each other when they conceptualize "audience," but also see me and any other native speaker who might happen by, as some frequently do. I want them to know that what they've written is acceptable, and that it will be read and understood clearly. In the communicative sense, fluency paragraphs become much more heavily traveled than essays or research papers, since they are shorter, and since many of the readers are aware of the prompt or the assignment that generated them. Because they are for these reasons easier to read, they are much more often read.

I sense from the way they pounce on the returned assignments that the process itself is very significant for them. They rarely if ever complain about the drudgery of turning an ink-soaked assignment paper into acceptable prose; in fact, they enjoy it, often attacking the paper as one would a well-loved garden that had sprung some weeds. They often make the corrections and publish immediately, even if told that other assignments are more urgent; from this I sense a satisfaction of completing a final step, finishing a construction process, much as a carpenter would pound the final nails into a frame that he or she had already set up and positioned much earlier.

The proliferation of fluency paragraphs and line-edited work in the class, the sheer volume of work being passed back and forth, has changed dramatically a couple of working assumptions of the writing class. First, I have an intimate familiarity with the kinds of structures that each student chooses when he/she sits at a typewriter; I have read and interacted with many pages of what they have written right in front of my eyes, and this has made it impossible for them to fool me with use of another's work, and has eliminated the surprise I would get when I found that, for example, while all their take-home essays came back perfect, their midterm and final would be butchered but laboriously made, dense and unreadable muck. Confidence levels are high; they don't fret and hem and haw, when given a time-limited writing assignment. Better still, their reading gives them increasing confidence with a baseline set of useful, fluency-oriented, everyday structures, and their steady, observable progression in mastering these structures takes a turn for the serious. I have totally broken the paralyzing fear vicious cycle, in which the poor student, more and more critically aware of his or her shortcomings, becomes increasingly more restricted in what he or she is actually capable of producing on demand. The other distinct advantage is that, when finished, I have the satisfaction of seeing, reading and using volumes of readable, useful writing that is all, for the most part, in their voices. I find myself knowing them better, enjoying them more, and having better luck in knowing what prompts they will respond to.

The question was brought up about whether we shouldn't be easing high-level students into a degree of independence, giving them fewer and fewer clues about what is grammatically wrong with their work; making them do more of the work and thus becoming more independent in the process of developing the editing mechanisms that would serve them so well and presumably make them ready for full-scale academic writing. I realized that I had believed strongly in this idea, for almost twenty years or more, despite the fact that I knew that students in our highest level still left our program with some degree of dependence and some level of grammatical shortcoming. This is not to say that that wasn't the best way to deal with it. But I did notice also, that if I put barriers between what they wrote and the grammatical version thereof, some things they wrote would never become grammatical; they just couldn't always read our subtle clues. And I felt uneasy about publishing or asking them to publish such things. I now feel that just dispatching the issue, making it as clear as possible what the best options are to say something, is the best option, becasue it's payment for publishing, and publishing carries with it so many other benefits.

I have also found that they literally jump on the returned, graded fluency exercises anyway. Devalued in points, simply line-edited or turned into grammatical sentences as quickly or easily as possible, these marked-up assignments seem to carry high value and priority; they will look carefully at them, fix their work, and publish immediately. I am reminded again of Nelson's (1991) thesis: that they learn grammatical forms at the point of need, in the process of real communication, when moving into a new grammatical structure has a clear benefit that is immediate and tangible.

My other reward for simply delivering the grammatical form, rather than devising ways to make them suffer over finding the right one, is simply that I am able to increase the load, increase the amount of writing that gets published successfully and actually communicates about real things. If it's the sheer volume of writing that irons it out, then I say, bring on the volume (1). I have not seen any particular benefit to making the clues more obscure: simply underlining the error, or putting a mark on the line of the error, or putting a little coded number above the word, that they then interpret, if they can, and change accordingly. I found myself erring on the side of what worked and got them to the right way the fastest; then I gave up all pretense altogether, and just gave it to them.

1. See Volume Theory


Leverett, T. (2007). Red bleeds the paper: Writing skills through correction, in Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration, Writing IS Demonstration, TESOL, Seattle.

Leverett, T. (2006a, Aug.). This is your class on weblogs. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication. http://www.iatefl.org.pl/call/j_tech25.htm#cla. Accessed 3-07.

Leverett, T. (2006b, Aug.). Three ways to integrate weblogging into your writing classes. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication. http://www.iatefl.org.pl/call/j_tech25.htm#way.

Leverett, T. (2006c). Daring to enter the blogosphere. Includes This is your program: This is your program on weblogs; This is your class: This is your class on weblogs; and This is your brain: This is your brain on weblogs. Prog. Admin. IS, Paper, TESOL Convention, Tampa, FL, Mar.

Leverett, T. (2005). One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum, from Leverett & Montgomerie, Teaching teachers to use and teach with weblogs, Internet Fair, CALL-IS, TESOL 2005, San Antonio, March.

Nelson, M. W. (1991). At the Point of Need: Teaching basic and ESL writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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