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February 14, 2009


Strictly English

The main problem with this kind of writing correction service is that the TOEFL student ends up ACTIVELY memorizing the grammar mistakes before he/she ever hands in the essay for correction. If the student writes an essay with 10 sentences that have incorrect S/V agreement, then that incorrect S/V agreement has been ACTIVELY memorized. Seeing the correction 24 hours later is only a PASSIVE acquisition of knowledge one which the student already knows when he/she takes the time to think about it. What we need to do is find a way of catching the mistake AS SOON AS IT HAPPENS. This is best done in private lessons with a tutor sitting beside you who can stop you as soon as you've made the mistake. Such immediate correction is the fastest way to internalize the correct grammar and begin to "self-correct" without any comments from the tutor.

Jason Renshaw

Very interesting...

"If the student writes an essay with 10 sentences that have incorrect S/V agreement, then that incorrect S/V agreement has been ACTIVELY memorized..."

I'm not sure which research findings this is based on (but interested to find out!), but it doesn't resonate well with some established principles discovered through Second Language Acquisition research.

SLA research documents phenomena such as interlanguage and variability in output, which give an altogether different account of why a student makes mistakes in production (especially under timed conditions). The phenomenon of 'backsliding' is also something that wouldn't normally be attributed to "active memorization". I think the most important one is variability, however - accounting for why some mistakes appear to sometimes be systematic, but within connected utterances or written production, sometimes the student uses it correctly and sometimes doesn't (and/or makes different kinds of mistakes with the same sets of structures).

I think your philosophy may have some validity for first language users, but it sees the tip of the iceberg and not the vast mass beneath the water for second language learners (who, let's face it, are the takers of tests like TOEFL).

I can see the 'surface' benefits of "catching the mistake as soon as it happens", but again - this doesn't resonate hugely with established research on SLA, why mistakes happen, and the best methods for helping students cope with them. The passive acquisition you mention can be overcome (and a better overall teaching/learning process can be facilitated) by helping students "notice" systematic errors in their production, and figure out through experimentation/discovery how to correct (or at least improve) them.

While I heartily agree that simply showing students their errors 24 hours after they make them is potentially ineffective (many students are fatally addicted to just being satisfied that someone has checked and located the mistakes for them - often leaving it at that), it is the task-based learning cycle that has the best overall potential to promote more language awareness and accuracy.

I think you've also missed something important, that being what happens when students stop to focus on grammar/vocabulary during the composition process - especially when it comes to topic development and overall cohesion. There are a lot of interesting research findings in that area as well (particularly from Second Language Writing). There are plenty of established accounts of every grammar mistake being corrected - on the spot - and the method having no discernable marked effect on the student's language accuracy OR general text-level writing ability over time.

Immediate correction does not, in fact, comprise the fastest way to internalize grammar. That approach echoes the approaches to composition and grammar learning prevalent in the 50s and 60s...

It does, however, yield some results in terms of short-term memory, which makes it appear to be effective (in turn making the teacher look dedicated and effective), and giving some instant gratification to the learner. Further down the track, however...

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