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Sino-US English Teaching, ISSN 1539-8072 October 2011, Vol. 8, No. 10, 622-628

An Empirical Study of Using Imitation-Based Error Correction to Reduce Repeated Errors in English Writing of Rural Junior High School Students LING Qian, QIU Hong Northwest Normal University, Lanzhou, China

Junior high school students in rural areas constitute a particular group of English learners, for whom English writing is not only important, but also difficult. In order to find out an effective means to help them enhance English writing proficiency. To this end, after carefully analyzing the writing characteristics of this group of English learners, one intact class in Grade 8 of No.14 junior middle school in Wuwei was given an experimental treatment which required them to imitate the correct examples of expressions provided by their teacher where they used to make errors. Results revealed that students in experimental class outperform their peers in control class significantly. Keywords: selective and direct error correction, imitation-based, rural junior high school

Introduction Attitudes and approaches towards student error have been a source of debate among SLA (Second Language Acquisition) and L2 (second language) writing scholars for more than two decades (K. Hyland & F. Hyland, 2006, p. 81). In China, error correction constitutes the main part of teacher feedback in response to student English writing. For junior high school students in rural areas, most of them are of a low level of English writing ability due to the limitation of teaching condition, so they commonly lack confidence in writing in English and thirst for teacher feedback that can provide them with adequate information about their errors, which they consider an important means to improve their English writing. In this sense, error correction is not only necessary, but also essential for this particular group. However, full error correction can probably make them overwhelmed from the perspective of affective factors. As to how to correct errors, some researchers support indirect error correction (Lalande, 1982; Ferris, 2006), but for low-level L2 writers, they can hardly correct errors by themselves even if the errors are pointed out for them (Brown, 2002). Therefore, selective and direct error correction is comparatively more suitable for these rural junior high school students. That the same kind of errors repeats over and over again in English writing is a problem which plagues English teachers for a long time. The solution may simply lie in imitation, although it hears to be out of date and LING Qian, associate professor, College of Foreign Languages, Northwest Normal University. QIU Hong, M.A., College of Foreign Languages, Northwest Normal University.


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have already lost its appear. However, one of the most important characteristics of these English beginners in the present study is that they severely lack learning autonomy, thus, relying heavily on their teachers. As a result, those alternative feedback forms such as peer feedback, portfolio and so on, which are favors of modern researchers, are not suitable to them. Widespread investigation and tentative experiment have testified to it. In contrast, imitation of the correct forms after the correction of macro or repeated errors in the part of students can help them to pay attention to what their problems are. Therefore, to return to the simplest approach and integrate imitation to error correction process can be a point of entry to studies in order to solve the troublesome problem of repeated errors in English writing of rural junior high school students.

Theoretical Framework Behaviorism reached its heyday in the middle of the 20th century. One of the best concepts attempting to describe language acquisition from behavioristic view is operant conditioning proposed by Skinner (1968). According to his interpretation, it is the consequences that control the “verbal behavior�. If consequences are rewarding, certain verbal behaviors are expected to be maintained and strengthened. On the contrary, punishing consequences will lead to weakened and eventually extinguished behavior. In this sense, imitation is consonant with behaviorist principles of language acquisition by constantly pointing out student errors on the one hand, while providing students with correct models and requiring them to imitate on the basis of those examples on the other hand. In more recently, it is criticism and attack that accompany this once famous language acquisition model. In theory, it cannot adequately account for the fact that almost every sentence a child speaks or writes is novel. In practice, it is easy to link behavioristic approach to drill practice in language classrooms which is in danger of dulling language learners rather than stimulating learning motivation and interest. As for imitation, it is a particularly salient strategy in early language learning (Brown, 2002, p. 38). The problem is that children acquiring L1 (first language) concentrate on the meaning of expressions other than the surface forms. In fact, it makes them appear to be poor imitators on the face. Admittedly, behaviorism has its limitation in interpreting this complex language acquisition process, but all theories do. There is no such a perfect theory till now can uncover the mysterious mask of L1 acquisition—a complicated but natural process, let alone apply its principles to relieve L2 learners. Linguists and researchers who seek to compare L1 and L2 acquisition process so as to gain inspirations for L2 teaching may neglect the fact that the two are different in essence. A native speaker of whatever language can freely control his/her language usage without much consciousness about rules of that specific language, but it is probably impossible for L2 learners to do so. L2 learners, especially for foreign language learners, can hardly progress without consciously learning of language rules and exercises of imitation. In addition, unlike children acquiring L1 who focus on meaning exclusively, L2 learners obviously give priority to language forms at the outset. They have to do so because L2 learners have already developed a conceptual system in one set of symbols. To learn a L2 means to learn another symbol system to express their known concept. Therefore, their focus is naturally on the symbol system itself. In this sense, imitation is an effective means to approach the target language for foreign language learners, especially for beginners, even if it is on the surface structure level. Imitation can also be considered as a kind of output with clarity of purpose. In his output hypothesis, Swain


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(1985) pointed out the functions of output in L2 learning. Firstly, the noticing function occurs when a learner is aware of gaps between target language and their interlanguage. That is, they do not know how to say what they want to say. Secondly, the testing function involves the learner trying out some expressions and then confirming or modifying it on the basis of perceived success and feedback. Thirdly, output can also have meta-linguistic (reflective) function. Students reflect consciously on their own language either in individual or in group. In fact, these three functions can work together, and they can be thoroughly embodied in the process of student imitation. At first, examples provided by English teachers can remind students of the gaps between target language and their interlanguage. Then they try to test those expressions where they made errors before through imitation. Finally, they reflect their own output and progress within this process.

Methodology Subjects Two intact classes in Grade 8 of No.14 junior middle school in Wuwei were selected as subjects. The school lies in rural areas in Gansu, China. Students in this school did not receive systematic English training in primary schools. Subjects in the present study learned English from scratch under the instructions of the same English teacher since they entered junior middle school. The two classes were matched in both general English proficiency and English writing achievement through many times of tests before, although their English writing ability was relatively of a low level. In addition, class size, the ratio of sex and student English learning experiences were all similar, so these two classes were randomly pointed as EC (experimental class) and CC (control class). During the experiment, few students did not take English writing seriously. They either did not write as required or refused to imitate according to teacher feedback, so they had to be excluded. Finally, there were 36 samples in CC and 33 in EC. Instrument In reference to Ferris’ (2006) error categories and error codes, subjects’ repeated errors in former writings were collected and categorized, so that it was convenient to analyze the effect of imitation-based teacher feedback on different types of repeated errors. Subjects’ common repeated errors were listed in Table 1. Table 1 Students’ Common Error Categories Code

Examples

More than one verb

Error type

MR

I am very like English./I like play the piano.

No verb

NV

Fragment

FR

Articles

Art

He very popular in our class. I visited my aunt, watch TV. I go to the park. And the zoo At the last weekend/went to the Lanzhou

Subject-verb agreement

SV

He go to school by bike.

Countable-uncountable

C/U

A long black hair

Singular-plural

S/P

Some souvenir

Verb tense

VT

We have a good time last weekend.

Sentence structure

SS

We on foot go home.

Spelling

SP

Atletic, athlecti (athletic) than(then)


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Writing tests were utilized as pre- and post-test to investigate the frequency of errors listed in Table 1 as well as the frequency of correct use in corresponding aspects, thus, computing the percentage of errors in each category. In addition, after each unit, students were assigned a unit-related writing task, the topic of which is listed in Table 2 together with that of the pre- and post-test. Table 2 Topic of Writings Topics Pre-test

Write a short essay to introduce your travel plan. Describe how you will get to your destination in detail.

1st time

Write an invitation to invite your friends to your birthday party on Sunday.

2nd time

Introduce yourself to others. Do you have any change compared with three years ago? If you do, what are they?

3rd time

How did you spend last weekend?

4th time

Introduce the person you admire most. Why do you admire him (her)?

5th time

Talk about your ideal job in the future.

Post-test

The New year is coming. Talk about the progress you have made in this semester and your plans in the new year.

Experiment Writing instructions and assignments (see Table 2) were the same in both control and experimental class. The only difference came from the means of error correction in teacher feedback. In control class, the teacher provided feedback as usual, that is, to give full and direct error correction. After feedback, students had to copy the entire writings until no errors appeared any more. In EC, selective and direct error correction was provided with the focus on common repeated errors and macro errors relevant with the key points in corresponding units. Students were not required to copy their writings from the beginning to the end after teacher feedback; they just imitated the correct forms of their former errors instead. In order to compute the percentage of common repeated errors, the number of real errors and that of possible errors had to be calculated. Therefore, certain extent of subjectivity was evitable. To remove its influence as much as possible, three teachers, including the two English teachers in Grade 8 and the author, counted the numbers respectively. If disputations occurred, decisions were made through discussion.

Results and Analysis The analysis of student common repeated error reduction shows that teacher feedback in control group cannot effectively reduce student repeated errors of all types, while imitation-based teacher feedback in experimental group makes a difference to decrease most types of errors, but not so effective to deal with MR (p = 0.120), FR (p = 0.068), VT (p = 0.391) and SP (p = 0.046). The results are shown in Table 3. From Table 3, at least one thing is clear. That is, means of error correction in control class cut no ice with students in reducing repeated errors. When it comes to imitation-based error correction, the effect on different types of errors differ a lot. Therefore, it is a little difficult to attribute the significant reduction of some types of repeated errors to imitation at this time. It is necessary to compute the ratio of correct imitation for all types of former errors. This process is also accomplished through the cooperation and discussion of the three teachers. Result shows that except from FR (44.83%) and VT (41.38%), the ratio of correct imitation ranges as high as


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from 75% to 100%. The details are shown in Table 4. In general, for types in which student errors decrease significantly, students have little difficulty in imitating the models after teacher correction. For FR and VT where imitation-based error correction seems to have no effect, the ratio of correct imitation is low accordingly, implying that imitation, to a large extent, do help to reduce common repeated errors in student English writing. Table 3 Percentage of Errors Comparison: Pre-test Versus Post-test Experimental group (df = 32)

Error types

Control group (df = 35)

T

Significance

MR

1.599

0.120

T 0.499

0.621

Significance

NV

3.112

0.004**

0.244

0.809

FR

1.915

0.068

1.302

0.204

**

Art

3.503

0.001

1.110

0.275

SV

4.337

0.000**

2.034

0.052

0.045

*

1.432

0.161

*

C/U

2.084

S/P

2.176

0.037

-0.013

0.990

VT

0.871

0.391

0.821

0.417

SS

3.113

0.004**

1.399

0.171

SP

0.747

0.461

1.066

0.294

Notes. * Performance differs from chance, p < 0.05; ** p < 0.01.

Table 4 Student Imitation Details

MR

Accumulative frequency of imitation 37

Accumulative frequency of correct imitation 36

NV

13

11

Error types

Ratio of correct imitation (%) 97.30 84.62

P value in EC 0.120 0.004**

FR

29

13

44.83

0.068

Art

42

37

88.10

0.001**

SV

21

17

80.95

0.000**

C/U

11

10

90.91

0.045*

S/P

14

14

100.00

0.037*

VT

29

12

41.38

0.391

SS

13

10

76.92

0.004**

30

28

93.33

0.461

SP *

Notes. Performance differs from chance, p < 0.05;

**

p < 0.01.

There can be more than one reason to explain why students have difficulty in imitating the examples where FR and VT errors have occurred. As we know, learners acquiring a language have to follow certain natural sequences. For example, they pick up “-ing” form of verbs earlier than “-ed” forms. In addition, the progression of L2 learners’ linguistic development is an everlasting process during which L2 learners experience several stages, although there is not a clear line between each stage. Brown (2002, p. 211) suggested four stages based on observations of what learners does in terms of errors. They are random errors, emergent stage, systematic stage


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and stabilization stage respectively. He proposes that in the first two stages, it is common for learners unable to correct some types of errors when they are pointed out by someone else. As is claimed by Truscott (1996), teachers often provide feedback on all categories of errors in the same way, but students showed differing levels of progress depending on error type. Generally speaking, imitation-based error correction can be helpful to overcome error types that learners are able to realize, but can do nothing to error types that are beyond L2 learners’ comprehension. Fragment and verb tense are common in Chinese English learners’ writings. These learners are usually confused by the connection rules of English sentences. The sentence chains of English are quite distinguished from that of Chinese. There are many conjunctions and transitional words in English, which may overwhelm foreign language learners. For another difficulty, the correct use of tenses in the process of imitation, one reason may be that imitation in this experiment is mainly on sentence-level, which is not enough to equip students with the capability to organize their ideas holistically, which is essential to keep the correct use of tense in the writing. Now the two exceptions need to be analyzed. For MV and SP, students can definitely output correct expressions through imitation, but the same kind of errors appears in the following writings. From the most common errors of MV such as “I like play…” and “My admire person is…”, you can see that native language transfer does occur and has a negative influence. In other words, students naturally output such expressions without much consciousness. When this kind of errors is pointed out, students may tumble to it, and then correct it easily and consciously. However, they will unconsciously make the same errors the next time, and this process goes round and round. As to SP errors, it involves more word spelling memorization than mastery of target language rules. Imitation aiming at reducing grammatical errors obviously has little effect, if any on spelling strategy. In sum, imitation-based error correction plays a positive role in reducing some types of repeated errors in English writing of rural junior high school students, thus deserving attention of researchers and teachers. However, it is still a problem whether experimental means of error correction can have a significant influence on student English writing scores in that it fails to treat all types of repeated errors. Thus, student writings in pre- and post-test are utilized again as English writing test. Another three English teachers in this school are invited to help to mark these student writings according to uniform criteria. All of the three teachers are experienced English teachers who have been in junior high schools for more than 10 years. The mean score of the three is considered as the final score of each student. For pre-test, the EC (M = 6.21, SD (Standard Deviation) = 4.04) scored similarly than the CC (M = 6.22, SD = 3.99), t = 0.010, p = 0.992 > 0.05. After the experimental treatment, post-test result showed that the EC (M = 7.70, SD = 4.19) scored higher than the CC (M = 5.78, SD = 3.98), t = -1.950, p = 0.055. It approaches but not reaches the level of significance. The result is within expectation since we fail to treat all repeated error types. However, this attempt leaves much room for further studies and reflections.

Conclusions Repeated errors in English writing are a constant problem that plagues English teachers. They are the culprits that negatively affect writing quality. In accordance with the characteristics of junior high school students in rural areas, selective and direct plus imitation-based error correction has been conducted for more than half a


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AN EMPIRICAL STUDY OF USING IMITATION-BASED ERROR CORRECTION

semester. It has significant effect on reducing most of studentsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; common repeated errors. However, a few types of errors still take strong root, which results in insignificant English writing scores between treatment and control groups. In addition, this experiment took a relatively short time span. No final say is reached about why the numbers of some types of repeated errors still keep high and whether writing scores would have risen significantly if students have received longer time of treatment is unclear. Therefore, more relevant studies for this particular group of low-level English writers are looked forward to.

References Brown, H. D. (2002). Principles of language learning and teaching (3rd ed.). Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learnersâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 5, 161-170. Ferris, D. (2006). Does error feedback help student writers? New evidence on the short-term and long-term effects of written error correction. In K. Hyland & F. Hyland (Eds.), Feedback in second language writing. New York: Cambridge University Press. Hyland, K., & Hyland, F. ( 2006). Feedback in second language writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lalande, J. F. (1982). Reducing composition errors: An experiment. The Modern Language Journal, 66, 140-149. Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible in put and comprehensible output in its development. In M. G. Susan & G. M. Carlyn (Eds.), Input in second language acquisition. Massachusetts: Newburg House Publishers. Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook & B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principles & practice in applied linguistics. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Press. Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, 46, 327-369.


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