Sentence-level errors can be a frustrating component of working with student writing. Each instance of a sentence-level error breaks the flow of reading and can lend an impression of carelessness or inattention. Faculty members, many of whom are accomplished writers, can spend hours correcting minor errors in student writing, which distracts from the learning goals of the assignment. Similarly, the impression that sentence-level errors are lapses in basic skills can lead to exasperation with the state of writing instruction or the study skills of “kids these days.”
What are the best strategies for responding to students' errors? What written response strategies seem to have the best effects for reducing students’ subsequent errors?
Typos, Mistakes, and Errors: A simplified typology of errors
Errors come in almost infinite varieties. When faculty members notice an individual instance of an error, it can be tempting to ascribe a reason for its appearance (inattention to detail, transfer from an additional language, missed keystroke, or lack of effort). The type of error you perceive can influence your feedback strategy.
Typos are errors that emerge in the context of inscription. An erroneous autocorrect or a misspelling resulting from inverting letters might fall into this category, where the error appears unrelated to the misapplication of or failure to apply a grammatical rule.
When a student knows a grammatical convention but misapplies it in a particular instance, we might call it a mistake. For instance, if a writer uses a comma for terminal punctuation in a sentence but never repeats this error, we might assume the comma is a mistake.
Errors are those instances when a student violates a grammatical or stylistic standard or convention repeatedly or when a pattern of a particular flaw emerges across multiple instances. Consistent errors in verb tense of verb form might fall into these categories. Typically, patterns of error demand more intervention than the other categories.
Direct correction, indirect correction, or minimal marking: A variety of options
Direct correction involves identifying the error, marking it, and offering an explicit alternative. This intervention can involve an explanation of the rule or standard or might include a proofreading or editorial notation.
Indirect correction involves specific error identification and marking (perhaps circling an error) but does not include offering a correct alternative. In these cases, writers furnish their own corrections in subsequent revisions.
Minimal marking involves offering some evidence of the presence of an error (like a check mark in the margin), but the student is tasked with both identifying the specific error and offering correction or revision.
If student errors are the result of typos or mistakes, the minimal marking strategy may be advantageous because it encourages students to proofread carefully and detect their own issues. It is also the least time-consuming strategy for faculty. If student errors appear to form a pattern, direct correction and explanation can help students to learn or recall the particular convention. Faculty members are wise to focus only on the most serious or frequent errors in these instances.
Is it worth it: Whether to intervene and when to do it
If a student never revises a piece of writing, strategies of error feedback have very limited effect on subsequent performance. Even if students produce many similar assignments, few students will successfully transfer the error feedback of a previous assignment to subsequent performance. Unfortunately, the most time intensive strategy (direct correction) appears to have the least effect on eliminating future errors.
If a student has an opportunity to revise, all forms of feedback can be beneficial. For advanced students, minimal marking may be advantageous to keep the focus on broader learning goals. Low-intervention strategies keep the locus of control over a piece of writing with the writer.
Finally, consider the purpose, audience, and context of a piece of writing. If the assignment is very significant to the course or will be presented to an audience, error feedback can be very important. In these instances, error feedback can be part of the polishing of a document at the end of a writing process. An informal writing activity intended only for an instructor might not be a valuable opportunity for intervention, nor would it be valuable to offer extensive corrections on an early draft that may change dramatically before a finished version.
When an error is not an error
Because any individual instance of writing is an opportunity for creativity, writers may violate expectations for effect or ignore a convention intentionally. Some usages may be unconventional for a field, but still technically correct. Some differences may be primarily stylistic, such as word choice. Sometimes the most effective strategy is to invite the student to explain their writing process and stylistic choices before diagnosing an error.
Additional Resources on Written Corrective Feedback
- Bitchener and Knoch, “Raising the linguistic accuracy level of advanced L2 writers with written corrective feedback.”
- Can and Walker, “Social science doctoral students’ needs and preferences for written feedback.”
- Ferris, Liu, Sinha, and Senna, “Written Corrective Feedback for Individual L2 Writers.”
Join us next week for a TWW Workshop on Teaching Writing in Five-Minute Increments. Brief teaching interventions can be useful for addressing sentence-level features of writing in your classes.
See the Teaching with Writing pages on the Center for Writing website for teaching resources, including sample assignments and syllabi. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online. To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.