Is Providing Grammar Feedback in Students’ Writing Worth-doing?


There has been a long debate on the efficacy of grammar corrective feedback in students’ writing. The debate between those who claim that grammar corrective helps improving the accuracy of students grammar, especially in writing- with those who claim that corrective feedback doesn’t work, is harmful and therefore, must be abandoned.  The discussion is presented after short reviews on the development of writing approach,  writing process, grammar mistakes and feedback

1. Introduction

Many times I find myself in the split stance on the question posted as the title of the paper.  Between  ‘Yes’  and “No’, between ‘it’s worth doing’ and ‘it’s NOT worth doing’.  It is worth doing because I and also perhaps many writing teachers believe that students will learn from the feedback we have given, which then will improve their writing for the next task.  We expect that the grammar mistakes will not appear again on the next writing work. As English teachers, we very often feel rather disturbed to see our students’ writings containing many –sometimes unnecessary- grammatical mistakes.  Therefore, though providing feedback is certainly a very tiring and time-consuming task  (Kroll in Celce-Murcia, 2001),  many of us do that job full-heartedly. Our intuition as teacher says that the students need help; our intuition says that the students will learn from the feedbacks.

On the other hand, very often we also find that the feedback doesn’t work as it is supposed to do.  The hard work and sweat of writing teachers in finding errors and providing correction on students’ writing seems to be useless since students do not really learn from it.  My personal experience as a writing teacher confirms that very often the corrected papers completed with the appropriate linguistic versions just go to garbage bins as waste. Similar mistakes occur and occur again on the following assignments.  Students seem to neglect and do not learn from feedbacks.  How pity we the writing teachers are.

The question raised now is then what we should do with the grammar mistakes our students make on their writing.  Should we just stop doing correction? Should we just read the work,  give them scores, and return the paper?  We just neglect the mistakes / error and hope someday they will not appear again on their paper.

Or should we continue the practice? We read the work line by line and provide them with feedbacks either directly or indirectly. Many writing teachers are very faithful with this such intuition. Very often they are busy struggling with piles of students’ papers both at school and at home, reading, reviewing, and providing correction and comments with their red pens till late at night in the expense of other jobs such as preparing and developing the courses due to the following day.

Failing to prepare and develop the course makes writing teachers –when they are in the classroom for teaching writing- simply refer to the work that the students did previously, point out and elaborate the so many grammatical mistakes and errors, and the corrections for them.  Other aspects of writing as content development, flows of ideas, logics and styles will likely be neglected.

This paper then tries to present some of available references on that issue as a starting point for discussion. It will begin by taking a brief look at the development of ESL writing approach, the writing process, grammar mistakes, feedback and the opposing arguments on the issue of corrective feedback. To conclude, some important points are drawn.

2. The Development of ESL Writing Approach

Only after 1960, did writing find its significant place in ESL classes because many foreign students came to study at American universities and needed to write in English for academic purposes. The methods still focused largely on grammatical perfection and were highly controlled (Leki, 1992). Exercises in writing became focused on imitating English paragraph or essay form by copying or making changes to an existing text. The period which was later called as the beginning of the form-based writing focused very much on grammar accuracy and mechanics, with feedbacks given by the teacher (Reid, 1993).

By 1976, pattern/product approach came to replace form-based approach.  At that time, it was felt that the approach failed to prepare students to do writing exam given in universities (Reid, 1993). Different from form-based approach, pattern/product approach focused on the concepts of thesis statement, topic sentences, paragraph unity, organization strategies, and the development of paragraphs by following different patterns of writing. Form and structure were still important, but the importance of using more original ideas in writing was starting to unfold. Feedback was given more on content and organization.

In 1980s, the pattern/product approach developed to process approach in which the goal of writing instruction was more on communication rather than grammatical accuracy (Leki, 1992). Students became the creators of text rather than just mimicking or manipulating a form or pattern presented to them. Classroom strategies included journaling, peer collaboration, invention, revision, and attention to content before form. Ideas, expression, discovery, and organization became the focus.

In the late 1980s,  the process approach to ESL writing was criticized for focusing too much on the personal experience of writing, for giving the impression that accuracy was not important, and for not preparing language learners  for single-draft essay exams (Leki, 1992). Therefore, teachers and researchers began to focus on aligning teaching toward content of specific fields and the requirements of writing in those fields with a specific audience in mind. English language instruction became linked to other courses through team-teaching (Raimes, 1991). Error correction and grammatical accuracy in writing became a focus again because academic writing requires accuracy as well as fluency. However, the process approach was not abandoned altogether but integrated into academic writing tasks (Reid, 1993).

In the 1990s, writing trends and research focused on composing and revising processes, contrastive analysis/error analysis, coherence/cohesion, communicative competence, collaborative learning, computer-assisted language learning (CALL), and proficiency testing (Reid, 1993). Teaching writing to advanced ELLs became a particular focus (Reid, 1993). These methods and trends were in contrast to earlier methods.

3. The Writing Process

Writing is a process with 4 stages namely planning, drafting, revising and editing (Seow; 2002), or planning, drafting, editing and final draft  (Harmer; 2004).  Planning which is also sometimes called as pre-writing is the stage where writing learners are encouraged to write by jotting ideas and collecting information necessary as through brainstorming, clustering, making WH-questions and the like.  When planning, writers have to think about three main issues (Harmer, 2004).  In the first place they have to consider the purpose of their writing since this will influence not only the type of text they wish to produce, but also the language they use, and the information they choose to include.  Secondly, writers have to think of the audience they are writing for, since this will influence not only the shape of the writing but also the choice of language –whether it is formal or informal in tone for example.  Thirdly, writers have to consider the content structure of the piece – that is how best to sequence the facts, ideas or arguments which they have decided to include.

Drafting is the stage where writer puts ideas and information he wishes to share on paper.  This is usually done on the assumption that it will be amended later. The focus is usually more on the fluency of ideas rather than the accuracy of grammar and spelling.

The next stage is revising (Seow) or editing (Harmer). Seow suggests that revising occurs when writer looks back at his / her work by putting feedbacks from both teachers and peers into consideration.  The writer will also measure the effectiveness of his / her communication to the audience he / she is targeting. Harmer also suggests that what he means by editing is reflecting and revising.

The last stage is editing (Seow) or Final version (Harmer) in which the writer produces the final version.  Checking grammar and spelling accuracies, punctuations, and word choices usually becomes the main task to be done at this stage.

Though there are four stages but as a matter of fact elements of writing process as mentioned above are not linear, but rather recursive in the sense that a writer plans, drafts, edits / revises and then re-plans, re-drafts, re-edits before finally has the final work.  Seow describes this process from Process Activated to Process terminated, while Harmer describes it as the Process Wheel, as the following:


Figure 1

The Writing Process

(Anthony Seow in  Richard & Renandya, 2002)

4. Figure 2

The Process Wheel  (Harmer, 2004)

4. Grammar Mistakes

Errors are defined as “morphological, syntactical, and lexical deviations from the grammatical rules of language that violate the intuitions of native speakers (Hedgcock, 2005). Errors in second language writing are part of learning, and research on ESL errors has found that they are not random, but are regular and rule-governed (Reid, 1993). Types of errors learners have in their second language may depend on the structure of their L1 and their previous learning experiences of the English language (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2005). L2 writers’ grammatical errors tend to be different from native speakers’ errors, for they have distinct problems with verbs (tenses, modals, passive construction, infinitives, conditionals), subject/verb agreement, nouns (types, plurals, possessives, articles), prepositions, and sometimes spelling (Holt, 1997).

In his study, Bitchener, et al. (2005) reported that grammatical error that occurred very frequently in the writing of ESL learners is the use of preposition.  In the context of ESL in Indonesia, the learners’ difficulty in dealing with appropriate use of English preposition is understandable since English prepositions –compared to the ones in their native language of Bahasa Indonesia- are not very consistent.  For example, English uses preposition ‘in’ with part of the day as ‘in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening’, but  English has ‘at night’ instead of ‘in night’. In addition to ‘consistency’, many Indonesian ESL learners also have problems with prepositions since there are many ‘verb + preposition’ phrases as ‘get on, get off, get over, get along, put on, put off,  put away,’ etc.

5. Feedback

Feedback is any procedure used by teachers to inform learners whether an instructional response is right or wrong (Kulhavy, 1997), or any inputs from readers to the writer that provide information (Keh; 1990), or just response (Reid 1993).  Teacher’s feedback on student writing is a significant issue related to language errors in writing (Frodesen in Celce-Murcia; 2002).

Feedback can be about content of the writing, stylistics, grammar or the combination of the three.  Content feedback focuses much on ideas and the organization of ideas on the writing, stylistics feedback focuses on the word uses, while grammar feedback focuses on grammatical aspects of the writing.  Grammar feedbacks are categorized into direct and indirect feedbacks.  Direct feedbacks are the ones provided by teachers / peers directly to the learners either in oral form or in written one. On the case of writing, direct feedbacks are usually given by the teachers by crossing the wrong version and writing the right one somewhere on the students’ paper. While for indirect feedbacks, the teachers only provide signs to show that certain phrases are inappropriate, as putting a check in the margin of the  lines where errors occur, underlining or highlighting selected errors,   coding errors either in the margins or above selected errors with symbols such as vt for verb tense, wf for word form, art for article and so on, attaching a sheet to the writer’s draft with a list of several structural errors along with exercises or handouts to help writer  better understand the grammatical system or feature involved.

Table 1:  Examples of Direct and Indirect Grammatical Feedbacks

Inappropriate sentences Direct Feedbacks Indirect Feedback
Many students are very interested to join the university English debate club. Many students are very interested to in joinING the university English debate club. Many students are very interested to join the university English debate club.
The decision should have made days ago. The decision should have been made days ago. The decision should have made days ago.
She bought CD She bought a CD She bought ___CD
He went to the store  buy some books and drove home. He went to the store, buy some books, and drove home. He went to the store /  buy some books / and drove home.

6. Two Different Stances on the Issue

6.1 The proponent of feedback practice

According to the proposing group as Ferris (2003), providing grammar feedback is essential because it helps students recognize their linguistic shortcomings. If a teacher points out to a student a grammatical error he has made, and provides, indirectly or directly, the correct form, the student will then understand the mistake he has made, learn from it, and his ability to write accurately will improve. It is also widely felt that if teachers do not correct their students’ grammatical mistakes, ‘fossilization’ will occur, and it will become very difficult to later eliminate these errors (Gray, 2004).

The continuing practice of error correction is also based on the argument that writing  -as Seow (Richards & Renandya: 2002), Harmer (2004 & 2007)- involves  4 stages, namely planning,  drafting, revising, and editing. Teachers’ feedback – together with peers’ – is important input for students to improve their writing.   At this revising stage, students usually look back at what they have put on papers and see whether they have communicated their ideas effectively to the readers.  Comments, corrections and the like from readers represented by the teachers and peers will be very helpful in completing a good writing work

In writing, revision is necessary because of at least two reasons. First, unlike oral communication, writing tasks do not allow for an ongoing negotiation of meaning through interlocution. Therefore, the intended meaning must be expressed accurately to the readers. Second, the written medium is often reserved by society when important ideas need to be formalized, standardized or made more permanent. Thus, formal writing carries with it certain expectations of clarity, precision, quality and durability.

Other arguments from the proponent of the grammar feedback is that the feedback helps in the development of grammatical ability (Omaggio, 1986), and because students want correction and they believe it is helpful (Hendrickson, 1978; Leki, 1991; and Walz,  1982).

6.2 The opponent of feedback practice

The opposing group as Truscott (1996) claims that grammar correction should be eliminated from L2 writing class. He argued that the provision of corrective feedback on ESL student writing was ineffective and harmful, and that it should, therefore, be abandoned.

‘My thesis is that grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned. The reasons are: (a) Research evidence shows that grammar correction is ineffective; (b) this lack of effectiveness is exactly what should be expected, given the

nature of the correction process and the nature of language learning; (c) grammar correction has significant harmful effects; and (d) the various arguments offered for continuing it all lack merit.”

In his study Truscott reviewed many previous works such as the one from Knoblauch and Brannon  (1981), Hillocks (1986), Krashen  (1984) and Leki (1990) which found that correction had little or no effect on students’ writing ability. It made no difference who the students were, how many mistakes were corrected, which mistakes were corrected, how detailed the comments were, or in what form they were presented, the corrections had no effect.

Studies even have revealed that grammar correction to second language writing students is actually discouraging to many students, and even harmful to their writing ability.  Generally those who do not receive grammar corrections have a more positive feeling about writing than those who did, wrote more, and with more complexity, than those who did receive grammar corrections.

According to them, there are 4 reasons why grammar feedback doesn’t work.  Firstly, the feedback only treats the surface appearance of grammar and not with the way language develops. Secondly, learning grammar in a second language is a complex and gradual process which occurs both developmentally and hierarchically. Thirdly, it concerns with the practicalities associated with teachers’ comments and students’ understanding of these comments. Research found that the corrections made by the teachers are arbitrary, not consistent and greatly depends on the amount of time the teacher has with his / her students. And fourthly, students generally only make a mental note of the corrections they have understood,  and if they have to rewrite their papers, they do not always incorporate these corrections to their papers.

7. The Recent Studies

7.1 Shin (2008).

The study of  Shin was published on ELT Journal Volume 62/4 October 2008 entitled ‘Fire your proofreader!’ Grammar correction in the writing classroom.” The goal of the study was to critically review the debate over the efficacy of grammar correction in L2 writing classroom through the eyes of L2 writers.  This study involved five students of advanced English proficiency. In the conclusion, Shin wrote ‘Pedagogically speaking, grammar correction is one of the few ways we can help L2 writers with language issues.  Theoretically speaking,  while producing papers, they are forced to pay attention to the forms with which their intended meaning is expressed and thus make a great number of hypotheses about the structure and meaning of L2.  Grammar correction represents one of the most crucial forms of feedback for the verification of the hypotheses.’

7.2       Bitchener and Knoch (2009)

The study of Bitchener and Knoch was published on ELT Journal Volume 63/3 July 2009. The study entitled “The Value of Focused Approach to Written Corrective Feedback”  investigated whether accuracy in the use of two functions of the English article system improves over a ten-month period as a result of written corrective feedback.  The study was different from other previous ones in the number of the target structures. If Ferris’s study involved as many as 15 forms and structures, this study was only targeting two functional uses of the English article: indefinite article ‘a’ and the definite article ‘the’.

The result of the study showed that students who received written corrective feedback outperformed those who received no feedback in all four post-tests even though all groups developed differently over time.  This means that the provision of written corrective feedback has a significant effect, enabling the learners to use the targeted functions with greater accuracy over the ten-month period. In the conclusion they recommended that teachers feel confident about providing direct corrective feedback on their students’ linguistic errors, providing it is based to the best of their knowledge on the students’ ‘readiness’, both in terms of their proficiency level and their understanding  of the merit of focusing their attention on written accuracy.

7.2       Conclusion

ESL writing approach has experienced developments from pattern/product approach, form-based approach to what now we have as genre approach.  One approach one time focused very much on grammar accuracy, and on fluency of ideas on the other time. When corrective feedback is the case, there have been opposing arguments on the efficacy of it.  The proponent argues that corrective feedback is useful for students because it helps students recognize their linguistic shortcoming.  The opponent on the other said claims that feedback doesn’t work, even harmful and should be abandoned.   The debate between the proponent and the opponent has stemmed more interest in the issue.  New studies were conducted to clarify the claims each claim.


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