Correcting our EFL students’ written work

What are the main guidelines we should follow when correcting our students’ written work?

Here are 7 tips on providing constructive feedback to our learners that will foster language learning

    Writing is one of the most critical skills in foreign language learning as learners have to turn their input into output and produce a piece of written work in a language other than their mother tongue. They do not only have to convey meaning, but they also need to make sure that their written work is based on the rules that underlie the target language both in types of register and of the appropriateness and accuracy of the lexis used. They also need to use their imagination and learn how to be creative in another language in order to capture their target audiences’ attention. Correcting our learners written work can be one of the trickiest and most challenging tasks we have to do as we must make sure that our students will gain something positive out of our comments and will at the same time not feel intimidated and demotivated from our corrections. Below you will find some key points to consider when correcting EFL writing tasks in order to maintain our learners’ intrinsic motivation and at the same time promote language learning.

  1. How much should the teacher correct?

    The amount of corrective feedback on our learners’ written work will mainly depend on our students’ level and specific needs. In an exam oriented classroom we may need to pay more emphasis on the accuracy of our students’ output, whereas in an intermediate classroom where the main aim is to foster learner creativity, we may have to focus more on the content of our students’ work.

    Sometimes it may seem difficult to mark our students’ written work because we may feel the urge to correct all of their mistakes, especially the ones related to spelling and grammar. Over-marking the written work though may lead to a major drawback to our learners’ progress as it will most definitely demotivate them. We must therefore focus only on the most important mistakes, the ones that hinder communication. Mistakes based on grammatical phenomena we haven’t taught them yet should not be corrected (or even if we do, it is better to not let such mistakes affect the overall mark).

2. Fluency vs accuracy: What should we focus on?

    How can our writers become better writers? This is one of the key questions we need to ask ourselves when focusing on our students’ written work. Vocabulary use, the richness of lexis, the structure and organization of the written work and its accuracy in terms of language and content are all important points to pay attention to in order to help our learners improve their writing skills.

    Our decisions on error correction will primarily depend on our students’ level, on the overall aim of the writing task and on the amount of practice our learners have had on the specific type of written work.

    Marks should mainly reflect the language, the content and the structure of the students’ work as well as the overall presentation, its coherence (organization of ideas/relevance), its cohesion (use of discourse markers), the richness of lexis and the correct use grammar. Micro-skills such as spelling, punctuation and correct letter formation (orthography) should also be considered.

Below you can find a checklist with the basic points to focus on when correcting written work.

3. The role of self-correction, editing and rewriting

     It is important to remember that giving hints and comments instead of direct corrections can be very helpful for our learners’ linguistic development. Whenever possible (depending on our learners’ needs) we could just make some comments to help our students self-correct (ex. “check the tense” instead of writing the correct answer). We must involve them in this process by having them discover the error themselves and re-write the composition incorporating the corrections they have made.

    We need to teach our learners to view editing and rewriting as normal practice. To increase their motivation and their willingness to write a second draft, it is important to make clear that marks will be given to the corrected drafts, increasing their chances to get better grades.

4. The role of intrinsic motivation through purposeful and creative writing tasks

    For Penny Ur (1996), ‘purposeful and original activities’ will foster the learning process and will significantly boost learner motivation. We must give our students a reason to want to express their thoughts and ideas in the L2. We need to increase our learners’ willingness to get actively involved in the lesson and use the TL in a more relaxed and playful way. Our learners need to feel motivated enough and discover new lexis and L2 structures on their own in order to appropriately convey meaning in the target language.

    Ur (1996:169) stresses the positive impact to language acquisition of the ‘journey of self-discovery’ through imaginative writing. When students find the task and the topic interesting, challenging and relevant to their age, they will ‘strive’ harder than usual to ‘produce a greater variety of correct and appropriate language’ in order to express their ideas.

    The role of the teacher therefore in teaching writing is not to focus on simply correcting the learners’ written work but to carefully provide them with creative, authentic tasks that will make the learners want to write more in the target language. Through our feedback on writing, we must always remember this goal and to help students generate ideas for their future work. We must provide them with models for writing that will be useful to them, analyze textual structure and focus on the useful/essential language that they have used or they could have used. Encouraging monitoring and drafting by students is also essential and should be one of our main areas of focus both during teaching and when giving feedback (Hedge, 2005).

5. Promoting learner autonomy and independent thinking

    In addition to focusing on our learners’ active involvement during the lesson, we must also encourage independent thinking. This learner autonomy needs to take place outside the lesson hours too, during individual study. To boost our students’ successful self-development, we must teach them the strategies they need to use (writing strategies, reading strategies, organization, etc.) to be in charge of their learning and make conscious decisions about it. They must be trained to set their own personal goals, to notice what their strengths and weaknesses are and to reflect on what they should be focusing on based on their individual needs. This of course greatly depends on our learners’ age and level and involves a great amount of effort from the teachers’ part as well in order to effectively guide and train their learners towards success.

6. Peer correction

    Peer correction should also be encouraged and become a habit in the language classroom. Through this active involvement and the ‘teacher-role’ they adopt our students learn to notice irregularities in structural/grammatical patterns in the TL and learn from each other’s mistakes. We can have our learners actively involved in the lesson, taking the lead and learning from each other’s mistakes in a very creative and communicative way. After writing we could have our students exchange work and correct it in small groups. We could also place our learners into rotating ‘correction groups’ that correct/comment on the other students’ written work on a weekly basis. Teachers could also organize whiteboard correction competitions in which students in teams have to identify the mistakes found in the sentences/paragraphs written on the whiteboard. The teacher could also select a sample of erroneous and correct sentences from the students’ written work, reads it out to the class and have students in groups decide whether what they listen to is correct or not.

    The benefits of such interactive ‘correction’ activities are numerous. We do not only have the opportunity to highlight to the whole class some common mistakes that appear repeatedly on our learners’ written work, but we also avoid to pinpoint certain students and make them feel uncomfortable or demotivated by commenting on the mistakes they repeatedly make. Students get to enjoy the process (especially if it involves a ‘game’-type interaction) and at the same time begin to ‘notice’ the highlighted L2 structures and their appropriate use in the TL.

7. The importance of positive feedback

        In order to boost our learners’ active involvement in the lesson and unleash their creativity in the production of L2 output it is essential to lower their inhibitions and the fear of making mistakes. We must stress out that what is important here is expressing their thoughts and ideas on a specific topic and the use of their imagination. It is important to emphasize to our learners that making mistakes is part of the learning process. They should not feel discouraged by their tutor’s corrections.  Positive feedback plays a very important role here. By praising their efforts (instead of only making corrections) we keep their motivation levels up and encourage them to express themselves more freely and to become even better writers in the TL. Praise and focusing on the positive aspects of our students’ TL output will motivate them to want to write more in the L2. Our students’ self-confidence and self-esteem will increase and the fear of making errors will slowly go away.

    Different levels of motivation mean different performance levels. Our students have to be intrinsically motivated in order to be willing to participate more actively during the lesson and to write down their thoughts and ideas in the foreign language. Teachers must be an influential raw model to their learners and to try and instill to them the passion in learning a foreign language. We have to prove to them that English is useful, easy and fun. By rewarding their efforts and praising them, we automatically give a confidence boost to our learners. This feeling of achievement brings a deep sense of pleasure to the students and fuels the learning process. Their intrinsic motivation will be increased and they will be more willing to participate in the lesson, not because they have to but because they want to.

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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