Providing Language Feedback in WR 39

Susan Earle-Carlin, UCI

In high school, students may not have received comments on language problems, or they may have received only global remarks such as "you need to keep working on your grammar."   In order to help students continue to acquire academic English and to correct patterns of error that may persist in their writing, they need structured help.   However, providing the correct forms when the student is capable of making the corrections is not the answer.

  • Try to predict potential errors and supply correct forms beforehand.  In an essay on stereotypes, for example, remind students that stereotype is a count noun (and thus can be made plural), that discrimination is a noncount noun (and is used only in singular form, never with the determiner a), and that the correct phrase is to discriminate against.  This should cut down on the errors.
  •  Plan to allot ten minutes for students to proofread their essays in class before handing them in.  This models good behavior and encourages students to ask questions.
  • Be consistent in using the Correction Symbols for UCI Writing Programs.  Students who have taken ESL and writing classes at UCI should now be accustomed to receiving grammar feedback on their second or working drafts.  Use a symbol as specific to the error as possible.
  • Have students work in groups to practice editing a sample paragraph marked with correction symbols; then give students time to ask questions when you return their own work.
  • Mark errors in ways that demand more of the writer's attention in each essay, page, or paragraph as the quarter progresses:
    • First circle or underline each error and write the correction symbol above it;
    • next highlight the error without supplying the symbol;
    • then write only the symbol  in the margin of any line with this error; and
    • finally, put only a check in the margin indicating that there is an error of some sort.
    • This method of making the student increasingly responsible for recognizing errors can be spread out over the quarter (from symbols over errors in early assignments to checks in the margin at the end of the quarter).  For those students who are producing non-passing work, it is important to continue to provide clear language feedback by using the correction symbols over each error.
  • Supply quick margin notes for underlined problems with verb forms and verbals (modal + base V;  enjoy + V+ing) or refer the writer to a learner's dictionary, such as Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English or the website
  • Develop a system to provide set phrases, either in the margin, or in footnotes or endnotes, or refer the writer to a learner's dictionary. If a student has written a non-idiomatic phrase, it is not always enough to just underline or highlight it.  Second language learners have often misheard set expressions and cannot figure out what is wrong, for example, with on another hand.  A dictionary will probably not indicate that the body usually means a dead body so a possessive adjective is needed instead of an article.  In order to make language learning a part of the writing process,  the instructor may need to supply language notes.  Suggest that students keep a list of important phrases, especially those related to their research.
  • Model correct forms in your questions and comments and underline them  so that students focus on their use.
  • Suggest rewriting sentences with serious syntactic problems and provide a few words to start with.  It is often too difficult for a student to reformulate an "awkward" sentence, but beginning the sentence correctly is sometimes enough to help put the pieces together.
  • Hold students accountable for proofreading and revising their own work, but give them time to do it.  If a paper is riddled with errors, it is important not to overwhelm or discourage the writer by pointing out all of them.  However, it is more important not to give the false impression that the writing is clear and errors are not problematic.  If possible, give the student extra time to work on language.
  • Make general comments on the first page and mark all errors on the second; let the student know that you cannot continue reading the draft until she/he has done more editing.

Basic English and ESL errors

¨ Subject-verb agreement (s-v)

¨ this theory prove 
¨ authors who write in flowery prose is 
¨ Punctuation (p)
¨ Asimov whose theory we discussed 
¨ Before reading this essay. I thought
¨ Comma splices (cs)
¨ It isn't fact, it is fiction.
¨ Verb tense (t)
¨ Her essay described how she feels 
¨ In 1999, he has written an article
ESL features

¨ Problems with passive voice (vb)

¨ software must install 
¨ the plan was resulted in
¨ Verb forms (vb)
¨ to forbid children accessing 
¨ Word order 
¨ and less use violence
¨ Word forms (wf)
¨ he tries to proof his theory by 
¨ her independence attitude
¨ Articles (^ or *)
¨ on Internet 
¨ in the society
¨ Number (num)
¨ scholars' studies and researches 
¨ mention its danger such as
¨ Incorrect/missing prepositions (ww/id)
¨ attitudes to some important things 
¨ to intrude other people's freedom
¨ Word choice/collocation (ww/id)classify 
¨ the rating to any movie 
¨ to keep the accuracy of information 
¨ As the result, we can see
¨ Clarity or comprehensibility  (?/              )
¨ nothing will be the law to forbid children doing it by movies

What's teachable?

  • Predict errors and preview grammar and vocabulary, especially which nouns are not countable and what prepositions are required in set expressions.
  • Discuss appropriate use of verb tenses in academic discourse and research summaries.
  • Try telling the students the "one S rule" for present tense: On regular verbs and regular noun-subjects, there can be only one S, either on the subject or the verb.  The law protects the innocent. The laws protect the innocent.
  • Remind students that the English nouns are classified into count and noncount nouns.  Noncount nouns cannot be made plural and can use only certain determiners (the, some, much, a lot of, this, that - but not a, many, a few).  Noncount nouns always take a singular verb.  Point out that many academic nouns are noncount (especially words that end in -ment, -ance, -ity, -ion).  When possible, refer students to a learner's dictionary - noncount nouns are labeled U.  As a last resort, tell them to try putting numbers in front of the noun to see if it "sounds" countable "one grammar, two grammars, three grammars."
  • Explain that all singular count nouns in English require a determiner in front of them (an article, a possessive,  a demonstrative, or a quantifier).
  • Explain that English writers prefer to use plural nouns, if possible, in generalizations.
  • Teach students to the use the dictionary to check word forms by asking for the correct form: correspond = V; what is the noun?
  • Ask students to find the correct prepositions in the dictionary  by asking:  fond _?  going.
  • Send students to the Internet for grammar help on topics such as passive voice and IF clause forms.
  • TESOL Internet Journal (this comprehensive website has links for teachers and students to grammar lessons, explanations, and exercises) 
  • Purdue's OWL 
  • Capital Community College Guide to Grammar and Writing
  • Explain that the collocation of words is not predictable (we write "attacked in broad daylight" not "bright daylight") and recommend checking new phrases in a learner's dictionary.
  • Review the correct formation and use of transition words and phrases.
  • Review the creation of relative clauses.  Second language writers need to remember to place the clause closest to the word it modifies.  They often use that in place of and as a connector.
  • Explain that long complicated sentences and SAT words do not equal good college writing.