Thursday, January 13, 2011

Red bleeds the paper: writing skills through correction

Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration

The following was written in preparation for TESOL 2007 in Seattle: Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration. Demonstration, Writing IS, CC 3B, Sat. Mar. 24, 10:30-11:15.
It appeared at until 2010 and was restored here in 2011. The homepage for this presentation now is here.

Red bleeds the paper: writing skills through correction

Publishing intermediate student writing on a weblog puts the teacher in the center of a controversy that has been quite heated in the last decade: to what degree should the teacher make grammatical corrections? Does this help the student, and is it a productive use of teacher time? Those who firmly believe that it is a poor use of teacher time may also feel hesitant about actually publishing developmental work, and students will surely be unhappy about seeing their own ungrammatical work published, although a large percentage of native self-publishers are ungrammatical also. Nevertheless the arguments of the no red ink side deserve to be examined.

The arguments stem from the work of Krashen, but are best summed up by Truscott (1996); I found them in Gray (2004). They argue that students' grammatical development is independent of the process of correction, and happens naturally regardless of what a teacher does with a red pen; therefore, the teacher might as well hold on to the red pen. A related argument is that red ink on a paper actually sets the writer back, in terms of making him/her less confident, more aware of his/her own shortcomings, less likely to take risks in the future. I actually don't argue with either of these assertions; I have observed both in my teaching.

Yet I continue to correct grammar (we call it "line-editing") on everything that is published, because I believe in publishing, I believe that that's what the students want, and I believe that on some level, it helps them. I don't expect it to help them immediately; it may or may not. I don't expect them to get right tomorrow what I corrected today; they won't. But I believe that the boost that comes from publishing, and communicating grammatically, one's feelings about something important, is ultimately more helpful than the setback that occurs when one notices that one's paragraph needs a lot of correction to be considered standard.

In fact the biggest arguments against Truscott and his followers have come from the students themselves, who consistently and avidly demand correction in spite of any evidence that is presented against its effectiveness. Such studies as Narita (2006) have attempted to show that correction does have immediate positive effects, and countless more have tried to show that "feedback" and "noticing" are crucial steps in the process of acquisition for learners. I agree with these also, and don't necessarily see a contradiction. My own philosophy can be summed up below.

1. Students' acquisition process requires certain organizational conditions in the student's brain, and is therefore not going to respond immediately to most correction; it is mistaken to expect any given red mark on a paper to have immediate results in terms of a student's acquisition process. Nevertheless, grammatical marking is considered helpful by the student, and I believe we can take their word for it that it probably is.

2. Students want their own work, when published, to be grammatical and appropriate; they get confidence from communicating successfully to a public audience. As a result, even if the correction is of no value, immediate or long-term, to the acquisition of grammatical rules, it is still useful in this particular exercise, in achieving the larger goal of successful and long-lasting communication in a public venue.

3. The best approach to grammatical correction in this exercise, therefore, is for the teacher to correct their paragraphs, as simply and directly as possible, before publishing; though it may be tedious, simply try to determine what the student is trying to say, and help him or her say it, grammatically and directly. When not sure of the students' intended meaning, give the student possible choices, or ask. I generally tell students that they may ask about grammatical particulars, and that I would be glad to answer, outside of class, but that I am not actually spending class time discussing grammatical rules, details, etc.

Skill through practice

I teach higher levels as well as lower levels, and I'm always surprised when a higher level student, who clearly has complex academic textbook-reading skills, as well as grammar test-taking skills, essay-writing please-the-teacher skills, or some other kind of charm, is so thoroughly lacking in basic sentence-making skills. I'm inclined to think, then, that somebody got it backwards: they taught this student how to pass tests (like the TOEFL)- yet were unable to teach basic writing fluency at a sentence level.

I am not the first to make this observation. My thinking has followed along the lines of Peter Elbow* and Karen Hornick (1986), who have argued for a writing curriculum that focuses on fluency and writer comfort, as opposed to, say, a system where the writer may write four or five papers in a term, all of which heavily graded for grammar and form, and, in many cases, oozing with student discomfort at the very process of writing that begat them. Students who are unable to write a sentence without great amounts of self-pressure, students who have not incorporated basic rules of capitalizing sentence-initial words, and students who wait until the last possible minute to write a paper, every time, or plagiarize heavily, due to lack of self-confidence, and displeasure at the act of writing, show signs, to me, that the system did not recognize their need to write more, all along the path toward general fluency in all areas.

At the moment we have a large population of students who are relatively fluent (though not always grammatical) speakers and listeners; they are weak in reading and seem to especially dread writing. But why? If their writing could come to reflect their speaking, and even approximate the words they are able to understand and use orally, they would shine in writing.

Another theorist who has influenced me is Marie Wilson Nelson (1991), who basically argued that students learn grammatical structures at the point when they need them for producing meaningful language in meaningful situations; that is, one has to look at the organization of their minds, because only they, the students, can determine when something will be useful often enough to make it worth their while to incorporate it into their production systems.

I combine these elements with a larger picture of what I really want of a student, before they leave our program and go on to academic studies, where they will not have the loving understanding of teachers who embrace cultural diversity in production standards of standard academic writing. Ideally they should have no trouble sitting down at a computer and producing volumes of fluent writing on any subject. I would be satisfied, just that they be able to sit down at the computer, write the way they can speak, write what they know, and make it a close enough approximation to standard English that it can be recognized, even if it has some errors. And, I would hope that they could do this for any class, in any subject, particularly one in which they have attended class and have some idea of what the assignment is.

I am no different from more paper-and-ink-bound writing teachers in that I'd like to see paragraphing skills, sentence skills, grammatical skills, good spelling, good spacing and punctuation, in general a clean product that the student can be proud of. I want the student to write with strength and clarity; I want his/her paragraphs to hold together and go somewhere. I want them to be interesting to read to passersby as well as to me and to their classmates, and to the other teachers in the program.

In addition I want them to develop ideas of thesis statement, topic sentence, support, introduction, conclusion, etc., which will help them in more formal writing situations later on, and which should ultimately become part of their view of their own writing products that they will carry with them. I de-emphasize these in this project, partly because they are dealt with elsewhere (in writing class), but also because I feel that students should have good general fluency, confidence and ability to write before they start dealing with these. I also believe that they are, to some degree, overrated. If teachers stress them too heavily, then all writing products seem too similar, like an elementary school class's wall full of five-paragraph essays. I like to say to them that there's a time and place for five-paragraph essays, and there's a time and place for them to just be able to write about things they see and care about, and I'm working on the second one.

But I want them to do this not only in paper and ink, with double-space, indentation, and a header, but also online, in block paragraphs, with links where appropriate. And I believe that their online presentation trumps their paper-and-ink presentation, in the sense that people will be reading it forever when it is truly published; it will be analyzed, copied, referred to; it will be crawled on by Google's spiders until the end of time, whereas the paper form will most likely sit in a drawer, perhaps be read by one or two people at most. So their online presentation is much more important in the big picture, and I structure the class and the grading to show that.

Lately I've been trying to incorporate my thinking into a set of precepts which I use to guide my class lessons. The class in which I do the most weblogging is not specifically assigned to teach writing at all, yet I am chagrined to find that the formal Writing class is so overburdened with its own objectives, with this particular population, that getting on the weblogs is very difficult given the time allotment that they have.

I have begun using the term "volume theory" to describe a philosophy which believes simply that in order for them to have the same level of writing fluency as they have other kinds of fluency, they must have frequent practice, a sense of ease and comfort, and enough volume of production to make it worth their while to learn the things that will make that production easier and less stressful. From this idea I get the following:

1. Teachers' time is precious, and so is students' time; therefore, having students write more will necessarily cause some adjustment in everyone's calendar and expectations. If you want students to write more, and write as much as will be necessary for them to truly be successful in becoming more fluent in writing, more comfortable with the process, and more successful in incorporating good writing habits into their systems, you will have to make that time available to both them and you, in whatever venue you can.

2. If their writing inevitably leads to a finished product that is formatted, spelled right, punctuated, and in general made to look comprehensible and presentable, whether it be in a paper-and-ink format or online, they will, by themselves, take shortcuts and start producing better formatted, properly spelled, punctuated work right from the start; life will be easier for them that way. The point at which they start doing this on their own is your, the teacher's, target. You can not force them to make their writing systematically cleaner, more fluent, etc.; they will do it only when they are ready, and only when they can clearly see that it will be useful to them from now on. There is no way from here to there, except over large quantities of work.

Dealing with the technology is similar to dealing with the writing. The more they do it, the better they get, the more natural it is. It becomes less a special thing that an eccentric teacher demands, and more just a medium of expression that they have to master, in order to communicate with each other and with other people around them. I know from experience that their first tries at it will be tenuous, conservative, sometimes vacuous; after a few times they loosen up and begin saying more interesting things, and then, after a while longer, they become more interested in being clearer and more powerful, and saying things better. It is at this point that I know I have started something that will ultimately have its own momentum and stay with them long after they leave our program.

There are roadblocks to this kind of technological fluency. For example, many students make a weblog, learn to use it, let it go for a week, or a term, and then forget their passwords- why? They were told to remember them, and, at the time, probably agreed to do it. It wasn't insolence or rebellion. They simply weren't using the information regularly enough. Similarly, they forget how to edit, how to publish, how to get out of one dashboard and onto another, etc. None of these are rocket science, though in some cases knowing the skills is dependent on knowing key words used by Blogger, such as "Publish," "Sign out" or"Edit." On macs, two tough nuts are learning double-space on Microsoft Word (document, paragraph), and learning link code in making blog posts. WIth the link code, even the best students have to ask several times, until they at least figure out where they can find the information, even if it is on a handout, directly in front of them.

With this in mind, I have collected a strategy in presenting weblog assignments and carrying them out, that is, getting students to write, edit, and publish voluminously. These are as follows:

1. Take time to show them the lab, the weblogs, blogger itself, and what it means to have a weblog and publish on it. You don't want to have to explain this after the process has started. Let the good students explain it to the weaker ones.

2. Give them lots of choices of websites to look at. Have a good sense of what they like and want to talk about; make the choices varied. Don't corner any student into talking about religion, politics, or personal experience that he/she is uncomfortable with. Don't make any of the websites reading-intensive. Make weblog assignments a fun thing to do and write about; make them want to choose, and be willing to write about more than one of them.

3. I incorporate their writing assignments into speaking assignments, so that they bring their papers to class, use them to speak to partners, and hand them in at the end of class. Later, at the same time they are updating their weblogs, they are aware of what their classmates are doing and are waiting to read or at least see what their classmates have put on theirs.

4. Line-edit what they write; help them say what they want to say. In classes of over twenty people this can make weblog assignments a huge burden to you; simplify your own experience as much as possible. The advantage of line-editing first is that they can be more confident that what they publish is readable and acceptable on some level, when they publish it; it has, after all, been approved by the teacher.

5. You may have to explain how to make links several times before students get it. It's worth it. Once they've made two or three of them, they get better at it, and they don't generally forget it. They'll be grateful that someone took the time to teach them the skill, too.

6. Systematically use the comment function to get them to read each other's work and participate in the community. I require comments but make almost no demands on what form they take (though I sometimes require questions). I tell them that personal comments can be erased by the weblog-owner; comments placed outside of the class's assignments (for example, on entries done for other classes) may not be seen by me; thus they may not get credit for them. By the way, there are many and varied approaches to the comments; some teachers have their students do all their writing in the comments, so that the comments become a repository of student work in and of themselves. For my classes, the comments are a wide-open free-for-all of pure communication. This system has both advantages and disadvantages (see p. 5). Comment yourself. Share your own life and weblogs.

7. Do this as much as possible in a term; you will see a big difference between being able to do two or three entries, and being able to do five or six. They will get better at it. They will be able to do it in their free time. They will spend more and more time reading each other's work. They will start making comments naturally.

*I have lost the precise reference for Elbow in which he says exactly what I am saying here; and, short of the real time required to hike over to the brick-and-mortar library and retrieve it, I'll have to just claim here that he said this, and then say, I'm not sure where.


Gordon, S. (2005). Is technology good for us? The Speculist blog. Accessed 3-07.

Gray R. (2004). Grammar correction in esl/efl writing classes may not be effective. Internet TESL Journal X, 11, November.

Green, J. M. (1998). Helping ESL Writers Grow. Accessed 3-07.

Hornick, K. (1986). Teaching writing to linguistically diverse students. ERIC Digest Number 32.
http://www. Accessed 3-07.

Leverett, T. (2006a, Aug.). This is your class on weblogs. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication.

Leverett, T. (2006b, Aug.). Three ways to integrate weblogging into your writing classes. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication.

Leverett, T. (2006c). Daring to enter the blogosphere. Prog. Admin. IS, Paper, TESOL Convention, Tampa, FL, Mar.

Leverett, T. and Montgomerie, J. (2005). Teaching teachers to use weblogs, Internet Fair, CALL-IS, TESOL 2005, San Antonio, March.

Narita, M. (2006). Changes in Japanese EFL writing through a native English reader's feedback, (pdf). School of Language Communication, Tokyo International University. Accessed 3-07.

Nelson, M. (1991). At the Point of Need. Heinemann Boynton/Cook Publishers, Portsmouth NH. Available at Amazon.

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, 46:2, pp. 327-369.

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