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Approaches To Teaching EFL Writing

Feedback in writing has recently received a growing interest from SLA researchers due to its instrumental role in second language education. Literature suggests that as an important component of language, writing skill in a second language can greatly benefit from teachers’ comments particularly in the form of written feedback on learners’ written products. Previous research has investigated the role of teachers’ corrective feedback on learners’ written assignments (e.g., Ferris & Roberts 2001, Ferris 2004; Harmer, 2001) and learners’ expectations on teachers’ error correction in their written work (e.g., Lee, 2009; Nunan 1999; Williams, 2001). These studies suggest that for improvement of learners’ writing skills in a second language teacher feedback is indispensable.

With this in mind, this chapter discusses the importance of feedback in development of EFL learners’ writing skills in tandem with key issues and previous studies related to corrective feedback in the literature. It first discusses the nature of writing as one of the four main skills in language acquisition/learning (i.e., listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and common approaches undertaken to teaching writing in EFL contexts. It then discusses what feedback entails and identifies different types of error correction followed by a discussion of the role of feedback in EFL education in classroom setting. Finally, this chapter summarizes and concludes the literature review which provides insights into understanding better feedback practices in EFL classrooms.

What is Writing?

For any study that involves investigation of learners’ written work, it seems necessary to establish a working definition of writing. Numerous assumptions and definitions have been proposed to specify the concept of “writing” in the literature. Customarily, writing refers to a set of visible signs representing elements of a language which are arranged systematically. This system is referred to as writing system of the language. Coulmas (2003) defines writing as a “set of visible or tactile signs used to represent unit of language in a systematic way, with the purpose of recording messages which can be retrieved by everyone who knows the language in question and the rules by virtue of which its units are encoded in the writing system. Bryne (1979) views writing as transforming our thoughts into language; a very complex skill that requires both physical and mental activity on the part of writer. Bryne (1979) further notes that writing is the last and perhaps most difficult skill learners learn if they ever do. While these definitions provide an understanding of the nature of ‘writing’ and its qualities, what is obvious is the fact that writing is a complex and demanding process that is difficult to master particularly for those who want to produce accurate and precise pieces of writing in a second language.

Among various reasons cited for complications attributed to writing, Bryne (1991) suggests three main causes that make writing an arduous task. The first, that he calls psychological problem, is caused as a result of lack of interaction and feedback between the reader and the writer. As such, to tackle this kind of problems writers rely to a great extent to their readers’ feedback and evaluation of their written product. Understanding this problem is of importance for language learners to improve their writing since they need to take into account their audience’s likes and dislikes. The second complexity is language related; that is, lack of adequate linguistic knowledge prevents us from fully monitoring what we intend to say. This shows that linguistic competence in dominantly instrumental in developing writing skills. The third problem is cognitive, whose causes can be linked it instructional inadequacies. This emphasizes the role of writing courses in framing learners’ writing abilities as well as language teachers’ central roles as providers of appropriate input and feedback in such courses. As such, in light of this short review on the nature of writing task and what factors might influence a second language learners’ attainment of this skill, it can be inferred that teaching writing can be informed by the teachers’ perspectives towards such a practice in instructional settings. To further illustrate this point, the next section presents two of the most common approaches to teaching writing in a second language.

Approaches To Teaching EFL Writing

Writing as a Product

The first approach to teaching writing, which has been known as traditional approach, is product approach, which focuses on the final product, the coherent and the error-free text (Nunan, 1999).This approach has been practiced widely since the 1950s well into 1970s. Britton (1996:30) noted that product approach emphasized “correct usage, correct grammar and correct spelling” in the language and that it stressed overwhelming attention toward “…topic sentence, the various methods of developing the paragraph… and the holy trinity of unity, coherence” and other aspects of writing.

Additionally, in this approach, composing is primarily viewed as a linear process that predictably starts with a topic selection to pre-writing activities, followed by actual writing and editing. The teacher only looks at the paper when it is done.

Selection of topic

Pre-writing activities

Writing

Rewriting, editing, proofreading

Figure 1: Process Line (Product Approach)

There are basically two main concerns with the product approach: the written product, and the grammatical accuracy. The emphasis on written product is clear in the fact that the teacher only responds to the composition once it is finished, and not before or while it is in progress. According to Jordan (1997:11), during the practice of product approach, “…a model is provided with various exercises undertaken” for learners to be able to internalize the prescribed patterns. Then, learners are “…required to product similar or parallel text”. Nunan (1999) mentioned that the composing process in the traditional approach is viewed as linear process. It proceeds systematically from the planning or prewriting stages, to composing stage, to the revising stage (usually nothing more than copy-editing), and the final draft stage, with the writer progressing from one stage to the next without backtracking. The piece of writing handed in by the learners is the final text and is supposed to be his/her best piece of work where further revision in not needed. The feedback and correction made on the texts by the teachers would not make any difference at this stage. The focus of this approach is on the final, the coherent, error-free text, thus it is also known as the product oriented approach (Nunan 1999).

As such, looking at this direct effect, the product approach does not appear to fulfill the true nature of writing. It stops short at considering writing being a skill by itself, not just a manner to attain linguistic competence. It is lacking in terms of interaction between the teacher and the text, where teachers will only see the final product, not knowing how it was developed. Lastly, as it assumes that writing is a linear process and that learners know exactly what to write about in their writing, it fails to consider how learners develop their ideas and meaning.

Writing as a Process

The second approach of teaching writing that has been dominant over the recent years and is opposed to traditional ways of teaching writing is process approach. The predominance of process approach has given rise to the role of feedback as an essential component of writing courses. The notion of writing as process was introduced to EFL studies by Zamel (1976), who argued that advanced EFL writers are similar to L1 writers and can benefit from instruction emphasizing the process of writing. As opposed to the view of writing as a reproduction of previously learned syntactic or discourse structures, the process-based approach emphasized the view of writing as a process of developing organization as well as meaning. In light of this view, invention strategies, multiple drafts, and formative feedback from by the teacher and/or the peers are also considered important parts of writing instruction in EFL writing classrooms.

A research conducted by Zamel (1983) has revealed that composing is a non-linear, exploratory, and generative process whereby writers discover and reformulate their ideas i.e., writers often backtrack and revise from the moment they start till they finish the final draft. Writers go back and forth from one stage to another is a non-systematic way. Written texts under this approach are not treated as a final and fixed product but as part of complex process, which is recursive. There would be many drafts written by the learners on a single topic and teachers would response to every draft in order to help improve their writing and finally attaining the best written piece. The whole process begin by the learners writing their first draft and submitting later to their teacher for feedback. After writing their feedback on the learners’ essays, the teacher returns them to the learners . The learners write another draft by taking into consideration teachers’ feedback. The process then is repeated with draft going back and forth between the teacher and the learners. If a learner’s draft is still not satisfactory to both the learner himself/herself and the learners draft would be repeat. That means the additional draft would be the final piece of learners’ writing to be submitted to the teacher. Hence, what is evident here is that in traditional approach (i.e., product approach) response is given once, whereas in the process approach, responses would be given in many drafts. The intention is to build up learners’ confidence and also slowly attain the best piece of writing.

In this approach, the main concern of the teacher is to help learners develop their ideas, therefore, throughout the earlier writing stages; the teacher would be stressing more on content. Nunan (1999) notes that the teacher focuses less on a perfect final draft product than the development of successive drafts of a text. He further states that the focus in the first instance is on quantity rather than quality, and writers are encouraged to get their ideas onto paper without worrying too much about formal correctness in the initial stages. Because of this, the traditional way of responding to a composition would not be suitable to the process writing approach. In the same token, Nunan (2001) clearly states how very different the “process” approach is from the traditional product-oriented approach. He contends that whereas the product approach focuses on writing tasks in which the learner imitates, copies and transforms teacher supplied models, the process approach focuses on the steps involved in creating a piece of work. The primary goal of product writing is then an error-free coherent text while process writing allows for the fact that no text can be perfect, but that a writer will get closer to perfection by producing, reflecting on, discussing and reworking successive drafts of a text. In sum, this body of literature indicates that that most scholar nowadays advocate the process approach to teaching and learning writing, and perhaps most of them would agree on this important point that: good product depends on good process.

What is Feedback?

The term ‘feedback” in this review and incidentally in this study embraces the notions of “correction”, “marking”, “evaluation” and “responding”. It includes what Diab (2006) terms as “correction feedback” which refers to the editing type and “evaluative feedback” with reference to the judging type. In effect, the term “feedback” in this study refers to any “information provided to learners about the appropriateness of their performance or the general accuracy of their answers” (Diab 2006). As these definitions imply, the notion of feedback on writing was traditionally understood as “error corrections” teachers made to learners’ writings. Hence, a brief review of the corrections customarily provided on learners’ writing errors is in order in the next section.

Error Correction

When learners have completed their written assignments, teachers are expected to correct them. The corrections then serve to help the learners’ language development by showing where their knowledge is lacking. Truscott (1996) defined error correction as the “correction of grammatical errors for the purpose of improving a learner’s ability to write accurately” (329). This definition can be broadened to include lexical errors, including word choice, word form, capitalization, and typing conventions (Truscott, 1996). However, in terms of second language writing, this definition focuses on the mechanical and form-focused aspects of writing and showing little concern for the organizational types of corrections made by the teachers. Thus, error correction should cover feedback on both linguistic and non-linguistic skills of writing. Non-linguistic features could include instructions on paragraph development, topic string (consistent links throughout the text to relate all parts to the topic), suitable transitions between paragraphs, inclusion of preambles and signposts to increase the overall readability of the written work.

Thus, these concepts indicate the extensiveness of the scope of error correction indicating its vital role in developing learner writing in a second language. Learners have a mental picture of how they think a certain grammar rule works, and the corrections should help learners to adjust that picture when they are mistaken (Krashen & Terell, 1985:177). Many teachers look at learners’ errors as part of learning process. But how do we know the extent to which we can let errors recover on their own? What types of errors are to be given more attention to? Therefore, while providing corrections on learners’ assignments several essential factors should be taken into account.

Hendrickson (1980) arguing that simply providing all the correct forms in learners’ imperfect sentences is an ordeal that can be frustrating to teachers outlines four critical learner factors that have to be considered in error correction. First, one needs to be aware of learners’ purpose and goals for communicating in writing. Second, the teacher must take into account the learners’ proficiency in the target language at any given time. The third critical factor is the teacher’s awareness or error types and frequencies as well as how these aspects relate to the learners’ goals. The final and probably the most critical factor is the learners’ attitudes towards the nature of correction.

Feedback, whether it is given through corrections or comments, has the purpose of supporting learners’ learning. Race (2005:95) cites four purposes for feedback: (1) It should help learners to make sense of their work in some way, (2) It should clarify the need of learning by showing the learners what they should be trying to achieve; what the outcome of their work should look like, (3) Its should enhance learners’ willingness to learn, and finally yet importantly, (4) Feedback should motivate the learners to develop their skills.

What becomes evident from the above stated aims is that feedback is highly instrumental in helping language learners improve their level of awareness in learning by making as less mistakes as possible. At the bottom of this reasoning is the fundamental belief that by making the learners aware of the error they make and by getting them to act on those errors in some way, then it is believed that the learners will assimilate the mistakes and eventually not make them in future. In other words, correction is closely linked to language acquisition and particularly to the idea of accurately acquiring the language. This statement itself is making sweeping statements about everything from the quality of the feedback to the ability for learners to acquire language through the feedback we offer them. However, it seems to be the heart of why we do provide feedback. Indeed one could argue that institutions and learners demand feedback and that this is the reason why we provide it, but even these two groups fundamentally believe that correction in some way leads to language acquisition and demand it for that reason.

Writers such as Ashwell (2001) have pointed out that with the increased importance of the writing process there may be other reasons for including feedback and these include improving the “communicative effectiveness” of a given written piece. In other words we correct learners and guide learners so that the written piece they eventually produce communicates their ideas as effectively as possible. This is linked closer to feedback that looks at the content of a written piece rather than the grammatical forms within it. He also points out that an additional reason for correcting learners work is simply because “formal accuracy of a written piece matters” and that people generally are a lot less accepting of mistakes in written pieces.

Having looked at the nature of the concept of feedback, what seems to be of importance in the classroom setting is the appropriateness of the type of feedback provided for certain purposes and for certain recipients. That is, teachers should use appropriate written feedback in order to get effective learners’ reaction. This goes through motivating learners using their teacher’s written feedback. There are many types of writing feedback and there are different types of learners’ reactions. Since every learner has his / her own personal attributes, the type of teachers’ written feedback given to learners will possibly affect learners’ state positively or negatively. Accordingly, it is central to look at these different types of teaches’ written feedback and their influence on learners’ attainments.

Types of Written Feedback

Ellis (2009) in his article titled “A typology of written corrective feedback types” suggests a variety of feedback types for correcting learners’ written work. He illustrates the types of feedback by examining the various options (both familiar and less familiar) from studies of written feedback that have examined the different options of feedback to date. Ellis (2009) outlines six main methods for providing written corrective feedback. This classification is also adopted to identify the types of feedback in this study. Ellis has categorized the various types of written corrective feedback into six major categories (see Table 2.1).

Table 2.1 Categories of Written Corrective Feedback (adopted from Ellis, 2009)

Written corrective feedback type

Description

Direct CF

This occurs when the correct form is given in place of an incorrect form. It is the direct correction of error.

Indirect CF

1) Indicating only

2) Indicating the specific location

Indirect CF occurs when an error is indicated but the correct form is not given. Ellis

identifies two types of indirect CF:

1) Indicating only is when an error is noted, such as in the margin, but the exact location is not provided.

2) Indicating the specific location is when the error is underlined or given specific reference.

Metalinguistic

1) Error codes

2) Brief grammatical description

Metalinguistic feedback occurs when the writer is given a linguistic clue of the error. This can

take two forms:

1) The use of abbreviations or error codes

2) A brief grammatical explanation

usually given at the bottom of the text

or on an attached form

The focus of the feedback

1) Focused

2) Unfocused

Feedback can take a variety of forms in the way it is given, such as the level of focus.

1) Focused feedback occurs when a limited number of language features are concentrated on.

2) Unfocused feedback occurs when many or all language features are addressed in the feedback.

Electronic

Electronic feedback occurs via computer mediated methods when a hyperlink is used to indicate an error has occurred.

Reformulation

Reformulation occurs when a first language user rewrites or reformulates the targeted second language learner’s text.

Due to the significance of Ellis’s (2009) classification of feedback types in informing the analysis of the data and providing insights into this study the most important feedback types outlined in the proposed scheme will be illustrated in the preceding sections.

Direct Versus Indirect Feedback

A first distinction in Ellis’s (2009) classification is made between direct and indirect feedback. Direct feedback refers to highlighting the errors and providing the correct forms to the learners. That is, the correct form is given in place of an incorrect form. Ellis (2009) states that direct feedback has advantage because it will explicit guidance for the learners about how to correct their errors. Similarly, Bartram and Walton, (1991: 84) mentioned that “direct corrective feedback, is implemented through underlining the errors and providing the right forms in the learners’ written work”. Examples (1) and (2) below illustrate the direct and indirect types of feedback respectively.

(1)

at is health

Sleeping late in night are very bad for our heelth and brain.

As demonstrated in example (1), direct feedback can be provided by indication of the errors accompanied with their correct forms and explanations while in case of indirect corrective feedback, learners’ errors can be indicated by underlining the errors without any explanation or correcting it. This is can be done by indicating where errors are located only. Example (2) shows indirect feedback.

(2)

Sleeping late in night are very bad for our heelth and brain.

Concurring with Ellis (2009), Ferris and Roberts (2001) suggest that direct corrective feedback is better than indirect corrective feedback with learners/writers of low levels of proficiency, but conversely, Hedge (2000) argues that “the dangers of its spoon-feeding effect are that learners overlook their own role in the correction process and may become passive”. This is because learners can just mechanically copy the ready-made correction without figuring out the reasons. To make full use of the advantages of direct feedback and indirect feedback and avoid their disadvantages, teachers can consider combining them together.

Focused Versus Unfocused Feedback

A second distinction in feedback typology is made between focused and unfocused corrective feedback. Ellis (2009) states that in focused corrective feedback much attention is given on one or two types of error which assists the learner to examine several corrections on the same type of error. In unfocused corrective feedback, on the other hand, the learner or the learner is asked to engage in different type of errors, which may confuse the learner focusing on the error. Focused and unfocused correction feedback can also involve all other types of feedback such as direct, indirect, metalinguistic, focused versus unfocused and electronic corrective feedback (Ellis, ibid).

Written corrective feedback studies (e.g., Bitchener, Young & Cameron, 2005; Truscott, 2009; Sheen, 2007) suggest that when written corrective feedback is focused it is likely to be more effective in promoting acquisition, than unfocused corrective feedback. Sheen (2007), for example, in his study using focused corrective feedback found that such approach is effective in promoting more accurate language use.

In a similar vein, Sheen at el.’s (2009) studied six intact language classrooms in a pre-academic non-credit EFL program in a US college. The researchers seem to be more focused on two types of written correction (focused and unfocused) and they attempted to investigate the effects in using use adult EFL learners’ accurate use of English articles, use of grammatical features other than that which is the focus of the correction and the effect for written narrative tasks without error correction on the accurate use of grammatical features other than that which is the focus of the correction. The results confirmed the effectiveness of unfocused corrective feedback on learning English articles. As such, the findings from these studies recommend the teachers to select focused feedback with one or two errors types at one time rather than selecting too many types of errors.

The Role Of Written Feedback In EFL Development

The importance of feedback lies in quality, not frequency. There are some important aspects to consider before feedback is given. First, whether the provided feedback takes the learners’ development into account since demonstrating their progress through feedback can create extra motivation to work more efficiently. Motivation is an important part of feedback and lack of enough motivation can lower learners’ self-esteem. Giving feedback should be about motivating learners and at the same time focus on what they need to improve. This is a difficult balance to keep (Hyland & Hyland, 2001:187). As such, the teacher needs to emphasize the efforts the learners made; that is highlighting the learners’ effort rather than the outcome or the effect it has had on the teacher. There is a difference between “I see that you have worked very hard, good job!” and “I appreciate the hard work you have done!” As the latter suggests that the work was done for the teacher, while the former focuses on the learners’ effort. The learners should feel that they work for themselves, not for the teacher (Good and Brophy, 1994:147).

A second important aspect of feedback deals with whether the given feedback is based on a conscious strategy or it is provided without any consistent pattern. What this means is that teachers need to establish a consistent and conscious strategy in providing written feedback, so that learners become aware of the patterns of writing that is pointed out consistently by the teacher.

However, a third aspect of feedback comes into play when tutors need to provide as various feedback as possible. Only writing “Wow!” does not say much about the work the learners have carried out. It is better to point out the parts that are impressive and explain why. Also, variation is necessary because if a teacher, for example, constantly writes “Good job!” the learners might not find it genuine and disregard it (Good & Brophy, 1994:147). In the same token, as Harmer (2005) contends, there are more effective ways of correcting than underlining, crossing-out and putting question marks in learners’ written assignments. Keeping these points in mind could help to make feedback more useful for the learners, and also more appreciated.

Variation may also be created through different ways of providing corrections on learners’ works. For instance, they may use selective correction which means not correcting every mistake the learners make. For selective corrections, the learners must be told before they start writing. If a teacher announces that, for example, only punctuation will be corrected, the learners might concentrate harder and make fewer mistakes in that area. Using correction symbols may be another way adding to variation and effectiveness of correcting. This reduces the amount of red ink all over the essay, which often lowers the learners’ motivation. Additionally, Harmer (2005:111) mentions reformulation, which means that the teacher shows how a particular sentence can be formulated in another way. That enables the learner to compare a correct version with an incorrect one. Moreover, referring to a dictionary in the feedback is yet another way to make learners learn. They have to look something up with a purpose in mind. In this way, they learn as they correct. For instance, if a mistake is difficult to explain, teachers can write “ask me” next to it so they can explain the mistake to the learner face-to-face.

The fourth and final point central to providing effective feedback is to note whether it is restricted to form or it provides insights into the content as well. Gray (2004) suggests that effective feedback should concentrate on content, rather than form; check to see if the learners write fluently. Have they tried to use new words? Do they have the knowledge of going around the problems when their vocabulary is not extensive enough? There are more aspects to look at than only grammar. Hence, it would be a misconception if teachers focus only on mechanical error correction instead of seeking excellence in the learners’ writing development. With this in mind, the next section presents relevant issues in and appropriate methods of error correction in writing courses.

In sum, this brief review indicates that in order to provide effective feedback, EFL teachers need to take into considerations different factors including learner motivation, teacher awareness of his/her feedback strategy, implementation of various types of feedback, and inclusion of both form-focused and content-related corrections in their feedback. These methods of providing feedback can be contrasted to traditional practices of error correction that focused mainly on formal or grammatical aspects of language.

Williams (2001) suggests two main shortcomings of traditional methods of correcting grammatical errors. First, correction of learners’ errors has been found to be unclear and inconsistent when it deals with teacher’s written feedback. Second, using the traditional methods, learners simply copy their teacher’s feedback correction and use it in their subsequent drafts. Majority of the learners do not take their teacher’s written feedback into consideration and study those errors. Rewriting or copying the mistakes without recognizing the essence of the error will create a passive action preventing learners to learn from their mistake. Thus, giving the learners the correct feedback will motivate them with their writing task in a new piece of writing.

2.8 Research Into Types of Feedback on Learners’ Writing

Feedback is just one aspect of EFL education; the other piece of an effective EFL learning programme would be feedback. Feedback occurs between teachers and learners in particular cultural, institutional, and inter-personal contexts, and learner responses are affected by different aspects of the context (Lee, 2009). In the context of EFL education, Lee (2009) examined learner perspectives on teacher feedback, wherein it has been established that in EFL education feedback anchored on the learner’s personality and personal needs are perceived to be more effective. Hence, the perception of learners with regard to feedback mechanisms often depends on the manner by which the EFL teacher conducts both assessment and feedback mechanisms.

In another study, Diab (2005) examined the teacher preferences with regard to error correction and feedback. Through a thorough review of literature, Diab (ibid) was able to observe that more often than not, foreign language learners have different responses to feedbacks regarding pronunciation, error correction, and the importance given to grammar and vocabulary are often different from that of their tutors. Furthermore, Diab (2005) also indicted in his article that foreign language learners are more responsive to corrective feedback, both written and spoken than tutors. This is a good point raised in the sense that effort for a successful EFL programme should not only emanate from the willingness of the learners to learn but also in the ability of the tutors to be efficient and effective in performing their functions.

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