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Earl DeMott “To Err is Humane”

“To Err is Humane” A Study on Written Corrective Feedback Earl DeMott Old Dominion University June 23, 2013


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”


The writers that live within writing teachers know fairly well –either intuitively or overtly- the process which led them to their proficiency level as writers, perhaps having a face, a name, a tag-phrase that they adhere to in order to ensure “good writing”. For me, ever since elementary school, I dreamt of writing, but it was only during Mrs. Welty class senior English that I tangibly felt its challenge. Draft after draft, I worked my way through a semester to receive the coveted B-, a demarcation for Mrs. Welty between those who earned Snoopy stickers, and those who did not. Ironically, these childish representations signaled the students’ entry into the mature writing world that Mrs. Welty demanded. Years later, as an English teacher myself, I am amazed at how often I feel while reading a student work that I am reviewing the work of a surgeon who has meticulously lifted paragraphs from one source and transplanted them tenderly into the patient, alternating perhaps in technique between paraphrasing and direct quote, but ultimately harvesting thought, structure, argumentation from the now fragmented body of literature related to the chosen topic- as if the writers’ thought, analysis, and interaction with the material were disallowed by the process of the mandated need for replication. My own observations heightened my belief that student papers, especially ones based in nonfiction, overwhelmingly employed the skill of summation and little else. When did writing ever become a test of the students’ ability to cut and paste? As a reaction, and perhaps at the dismay of my incoming pupils, I vowed that I would really teach writing to the freshman class. The hegemony to my pedagogy had roots in the apparition of Mrs. Welty, but also took evaluative shape in the work of the 6 + 1 Traits researchers, as well as the ideas put forth in


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

Outcome Based Education (OBE), a methodology popular during my graduation from teacher’s college. Transparent to me, however, was the fact that the Composition for Teachers course required to obtain teaching certification had not influenced my teaching of writing. My university transcripts confirm that I did indeed take such a class, but my struggle to recall the material covered is limited to the memory of writing daily essays, and a very heated discussion on the color of ink used in marking papers, the professor promoting the idea of using green ink for good points, red for corrections. Not to discredit my instructor, who I greatly respect, but the logical thread of my own education in the field of writing led me to a reflective state. Something seemed to be missing. Something big. Something necessary. This maggot remained, ruminated in my mind, and bore the ultimate question: where then did I learn how to teach writing? Even more perplexing for me was the fact that I earned my bachelors with three teaching certifications, meaning I had to attend English methodology, social studies methodology, and theatre methodology. Certainly, since there is a great deal of writing in all of these field, someone must have taught me how to teach writing. The thought burgeoned into an obsession; my mind starting to reluctantly reframe my professional development into the revelation that the pedagogy in composition instruction – at least for the public school teacher - is actually apprentice based. We learned on the job. Profound implications stem from this. Apprenticeship connotes skills based, connotes imitation, connotes tutelage, connotes rising in ranks, connotes craftsmanship, connotes mastery and innovative “signature” once mastery is met, connotes a specialization. Yet, since writing in a literacy based society essentially acts as the cornerstone for all disciplines, the transference of the understanding of the writing process cannot function like an apprenticeship. Literacy based society connotes equity based upon full enfranchisement rather


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

than a limited set of specialists, connotes creative individuality over imitation, connotes finding self identity and narrative through the written word over tutelage, connotes inherent “rights” to literacy over hierarchal advancement into it, connotes free form over regulated writing, connotes open ownership to language in all its form over the keepers of the fire concept, connotes a noncritical “signature” based on an author’s ownership and independent voice over an acutely crafted “signature” based on adherence to predetermined “rules”, ultimately leading to the art of writing, and connotes the abandonment of writing as a specialization. To put it another way, as literacy has become systematically democratized, the traditional limitations that promote creative growth have become diluted in order to promote a more accessible literacy. Accessibility overrides creativity. Functionality trumps innovation within a pre-existing written genre. I had to see if this actually held true in real practice, so, although anecdotal in nature, I informally interviewed my son, a recent graduate from high school. His answers indicated that he “really” first learned to write from his AP European history teacher, and not from his English teachers, stating that the directive approach demanded in AP essays worked best for him. He cited a frontloading process that essentially stepped students through sentence by sentence in a particular paragraph. For example, the teacher would teach that the first sentence should have an interesting historical fact, followed by a second sentence that compared that fact with another time in history, and so on. In this course, therefore, order and organization was predetermined. My son’s second example came from his eleventh grade English class, which, also as an AP class, seemed to work on the same model of mandating students to write in a formulated way. A lesson on writing might look like the following:


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

“(Author) shows (diction, syntax, imagery- pick one) through (select exemplifying passage) until the shift in rhetoric in (select exemplifying passage)” (A. De Mott, personal communication, June 22, 2013). On the evaluative end, corrections took shape in written feedback which was discursive in nature, a rubric which combined a numerical value to a written description of the student proficiency, and (if questioned by the student) a possible explanation of the written comments. In short, the teachers of writing (one a history teacher, one an English teacher) limited their focus on the writing process to a particular analytical skill, actually going as far as avoiding the need to holistically grade student’s work on all the aspects of writing, by essentially giving the student the words or structure to use in important topic or thesis sentences. Secondly, although the teacher employed three evaluative tools, only one is consistent with the concepts of apprenticeship, namely the written corrective feedback. Seemingly this commentary is relational in nature, as opposed to either quantitative (rubric) or clarifying (question from student), because it directly relates to the work at hand. However, how relational is relational if the transformative process within the student (which takes place after the student runs through the comments) is never assessed or revisited? This suggests two important points: the written commentary given by the teacher encourages the students to use transformative thinking on their own process of writing, and, interestingly enough, for all the promotion of process based learning prevalent in today’s literature regarding writing, it is the product, not the process, that is ultimately evaluated, leaving the evaluation of a student’s evolution of writing in what Shakespeare might call “that unknown country.”


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

This is where I began my search. This search has taken me around the globe, and far from the fringes of English methodology. “To err is humane” purposefully uses wordplay regarding the topic of this paper, written corrective feedback, but also challenges reader to recognize the obvious syntactic “error” of the misspelling of the famous quote, and also to read the title as written without recognizing it as an error. We know from Pope that it is human nature to err, but is it also humane (compassionate) to make errors? Given what the cognitive research suggests, maybe the allowance for errors is in fact the allowance for development. And what is more humane in the teaching world than the very development of the student? In the literature review below, much is missing, in part because of the nature of research done for this particular question, in part because I purposefully cast a wide net. Moreover, I delved into particular categories that ultimately require additional research, especially in the area of application. The results, therefore, are at best inconclusive, most significantly because of the lack of research material which juxtapositions cognitive research on task switching and instructional encoding, educational methodology related to language acquisition, the use (or misuse of) written corrective feedback as a supposed tool for improvement, and (most absent) an evaluation of the student’s ability to meaningfully read feedback. The literature review, therefore, covers multiple categories in part because my process of research was driven (I realized later) by one assumption, untested and unproven, which I now offer as a type of conclusion of my research: Ultimately, the writing process is a subcategory of the language acquisition process and, therefore, teachers of writing should look methodologically to the foreign language classroom for guidance.


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

What follows is a literature review which meanders through a precursory look at cognitive research on task switching, ELL concepts of error strengthening, interlanguage and fossilization, practical applications of written corrective feedback (WCF) from ELL practitioners and researchers, the Cognitive Apprenticeship Model of the teaching of writing, a look at the writing pedagogy through the eyes of a director of a writing center, and finally research gleaned from student interviews that provide the rare “feedback on feedback.” In Practical Applications, I enumerate the teaching tenants a practitioner may wish to follow based on this research. In the end, I make brief mention of my own practices and reflect upon some of the focus points I can concentrate upon in the future. Hopefully readers will see this writing for what it is: an invitation to gather data on the true effectiveness of their own practices in the teaching of writing, without necessitating the revamping the whole of their writing classroom.

Literature Review

In Best Practices in Teaching Writing, Dr. Charles Whitaker exemplifies the convoluted entente of “good” writing instruction. Focusing on the teacher being a mature writer, the use of the workshop model where “the amount of time devoted … differs from teacher to teacher”, the writer’s notebook, “often a three-ring binder (which) may contain whatever the teacher and the student think helpful”, and the use of diverse reading material, where reading plays a major role in the writing classroom, Whitaker calls teachers to “select an approach that will be effective” while designing their lessons. Authenticity, various modalities of response (from written comments to brief before class oral conferencing), and collaborative peer editors all lead to an


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

evaluation where, in Whitakers words, teachers “especially want to encourage students as writers, validating the writer and writing as important – perhaps the most important goal for response” (Whitaker, 1998). As shown above, the evaluative nature of the writing process is nowhere near clear cut; it takes on the cognitive process to writing, the proficiency level of the teacher-writer, and the discerning wisdom necessary to selectively correct student-writers. Moreover, the need to respond in meaningful ways to the student writer involves a reading skill set on the students’ part, as well as a common language in the community which is developed throughout the course. The chaotic contradictions of Whitaker signal the need to understand the multi-layered nature of writing. Starting with the process itself, the cognitive theory of task-cuing procedure, studied by Stephen Monsell (2003), Arrington, Logan, and Schneider (2007), and later by Steinhauser (2010) essentially produce three major foci that can be useful for the writing practitioner, namely that the brain has a hierarchical order in performing tasks, a level “switch costs” exist when moving from one task to the next, leading to increase errors when tasks due to the cognitive processing used during the task switch and, as Monsell points out, although allowance of preparation often diminishes the error rate when task switching, there is a residual cost that cannot be eliminated by preparation. In Monsell’s findings, “substantial residual costs have been reported even when 5 s or more is allowed for preparation” (Monsell, 2003, p.135). Arrington et al. furthered the study on task switch effects and tested the brains encoding process (Arrington, Logan, & Schneider, 2007). Steinhauser looked at the strengthening of taskrelated associations (i.e. memory) and their trigger. Most applicable was his consideration of the effect of errors. Noting that errors can be reversed if immediately addressed, his findings imply


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

that when not corrected, “errors lead to erroneous task strengthening” (Steinhauser & Hubner, 2006, as cited in Steinhauser). Further studies looked at the nature of corrective response, finding that the reversal of task strengthening cannot take place if the response modality differs from the modality in which the error was produced. “These results suggest that only the execution of task-related responses triggers task strengthening, whereas the activation of taskrelated response categories is not sufficient” (Steinhauser, 2010). In another field of study, that of English as a Second Language teaching, much literature debate the value of error correction. Kathlene Bardovi-Harlig reviews the concept of interlanguage, defined loosely as the error-ridden hybrid language used by students as they develop their proficiency of a target tongue. By studying the errors made on a larger scale, one can understand a student’s process towards acquisition. This error recognition, however, does not need to emerge externally. Bardovi-Harlig, citing House and Kasper (1981), brings to light the concept of “downgraders,” a phenomenon where the student (despite the lack of proficiency in communication, and perhaps without metacognition) begins using a heuristic of downgrading grammatical structures and/or lexiconical items in the language usage. These include: “politeness markers (please), play-downs (past tense, progressive, modals, negation, interrogative), consultative devices (would you mind), hedges (kind of, sort of, somehow), understaters (a little bit, a second), downtoners (perhaps, possibly), minus committers (I think, I guess, I suppose), forewarnings (anticipatory devises such as, you’re a nice guy, Jim, but…), hesitators (deliberate malformulations used to indicate reluctance to perform the ensuing speech act such as stuttering or repetition), scopestates (I’m afraid that, I’m not happy that), and agent avoiders (passive and impersonal constructions). (Bardovi-Harlig, 1999, pp. 690-691).


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

The implication of the developmental use of interlanguage by students would no doubt produce errors in language acquisition. Approaches to errors are explored by many practitioners, John Bitchener of AUT University (New Zealand), however, can be seen as a seminal writer on the topic. While looking at ELL development, Bitchener reflects upon the effectiveness of correcting the errors made by language learners, at least in the form of written corrective feedback (sometimes referred to as “written CF” or “WCF”), noting the cannon of research by Manchon (2011,2012), Ashwell (2000), Fathman and Whalley (1990), Ferris (1997), and Ferris and Roberts (2001), who all conceded that L2 writers “using the CF they had received, were able to improve the accuracy of a particular written text.” Bitchener’s contention with this conclusion, however, can be seen in his statement that:“revision of a text is not necessarily evidence of learning. Evidence of learning can only be seen when accuracy in one or more new texts is compared with inaccuracy in an earlier text,” as explained by Polio, Fleck, and Leder (1998), and Truscott and Hsu (2008). Bitchener continues to ask the basic question of whether different types of WCF are more effective than others, noting the categories of feedback: direct, indirect and metalinguistic, and assigning usages for each. Direct CF, concerned with correcting form and structure, is seen as “more helpful to learners because it is clear, it offers information on how to resolve more complex errors, it provides “explicit feedback on hypotheses that are tested by learners, and it is immediate. (Bitchener, 2012, p. 355-357) Indirect CF, on the other hand, indicates the location of an error, leaving the solution to the error to the learner. Although not possessing the clarity of message inherent in Direct CF, the cognitive process falls on the learners shoulders. Meta linguistic feedback provides examples and explanations of “accurate target-like uses of linguistic


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

forms/structures,” and can be seen as a written modeling technique. (Bitchener, 2012, p. 355357). Practitioners in the ELL classrooms offer a great deal of writing advice on the issue of WCF. Dan Brown in the TESOL Quarterly indicates the need to decide on an approach in the melee of a debate on the effectiveness of each model. Brown offers some guidelines to do this, noting the need for selecting a level of explicitly of feedback, or “how feedback draws learners’ attention to the location or nature of an error.” This choice will determine the long range skills developed in student writers. For example indirect feedback which “marks the location of an error” without correcting it, pushes students “to engage in hypothesis testing” (Bitchener, 2008, p. 105), whereas direct feedback offers clarity. Ferris (2006, 2011) argues that the potential for self monitoring is greater with indirect feedback, and the method of WCF which labels errors by type (Ferris, 2006, Ferris and Roberts, 2001) is actually preferred by students “as long as the code does not lead to confusion.” (Brown, 2012, p. 862) To this end, Rod Ellis in his article “A Typology of Written Corrective Feedback Types” provides concrete and coded examples on how correction looks in all its forms (Ellis, 2009, pp. 97-107). Digitally, many websites offer codes to use in “correcting” writing. An excellent marking guide comes from the University of Calgary which provides both codes and full annotated explanation of errors, both grammatical and stylistic ("The Effective Writer's Marking," n.d.). Ironically, Wei Li-qui, in the article “To correct or to ignore?” sees the benefit of the error, and cautions teachers of their too quick eradication. Addressing the heart of the debate, Li-qui cites the need for error analysis by teachers, so that they can learn the processes that led to the errors. Tolerance towards errors, though counterintuitive to traditional teaching, supports the 10

DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

idea that “learner’s errors are a natural part of the learning process” and should (according to Murray, 1999) “have a positive and useful role to play – not the least in illuminating some of the blind spots … that can exist in teaching,” especially when categorized as “persistent errors.” How to handle these errors, or even, whether to handle these errors, remains a hot topic of debate (Li-qui, 2008, pp. 25-30). ZhaoHong Han (2004) questions the overall effectiveness of feedback by exploring the concept of linguistic fossilization, or the phenomenon of “the non-progression of learning despite continuous exposure to input, adequate motivation to learn, and sufficient opportunity for practice” (Han, 2004, p. 213), rendering error correction as “beating a dead horse.” Learning, in fact, does continue to take place, but the maturation of the learning suggests a long term memory of what was learned, errors and all. Noting the seminal work by Selinker, Han delineates the broadening of the fossilization concept moving from fossilizable structures (i.e. local fossilization) to “fossilized interlanguage (i.e. global fossilization) (Han, 2004, p. 216). The inherent problems that a teacher faces when interlanguage is in fact fossilized would make teaching of writing, therefore, a futile exercise. For practitioners, then, one model of teaching to explore may come from the research of Collins, Holum and Brown (1991) and Berryman (1991). In “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible,” Collins et al. argue that the transparency of learning is evident in the one on one education that apprenticeship affords, but remains invisible in the formal school setting. Whilst under the tutelage of a master craftsman tangibility is omnipresent, the “practice of problem solving, reading comprehension, and writing is not at all obvious – it is not necessarily observable to the student,” resulting in “conceptual and problem-solving knowledge acquired in school” remaining “largely inert for many students.”


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

This creates the problematic gap in student’s conceptual knowledge, and therefore the inability to transfer school lessons into practical application. In the field of writing, for example, the article points out that when teachers use exemplar readings to model good writing, students cannot discern the process writers used in producing these texts. Dubbed “knowledge-telling strategies” by Scardamalia and Bereiter (1985), students become stuck on the content instead of the craftsmanship. Collins et al. promote the looking back at the traditional apprenticeship model and applying the concept to the modern teacher-student interaction. The steps of this model of teaching including “modeling, scaffolding, fading, and coaching” (Collins, Holum & Brown , 1991, pp. 42-43). What is paramount in this paradigm, however, is the fact that the process is conceptual and (in some ways) nonlinear in nature. Explaining the practice Collins et al. state the following:

The interplay among observation, scaffolding, and increasingly independent practice aids apprentices both in developing self-monitoring and correction skills and in integrating the skills and conceptual knowledge needed to advance toward expertise. Observation plays a surprisingly key role; Lave (1988) hypothesizes that it aids learners in developing a conceptual model of the target task prior to attempting to execute it. Giving students a conceptual model — a picture of the whole — is an important factor in apprenticeship’s success in teaching complex skills without resorting to lengthy practice of isolated subskills, for three related reasons. First, it provides learners with an advanced organizer for their initial attempts to execute a complex skill, thus allowing them to concentrate more of their attention on execution than would otherwise be possible. Second, a conceptual model provides an interpretive structure for making sense of the feedback, hints, and corrections from the master during interactive coaching sessions. Third, it provides an internalized guide for the period when the apprentice is engaged in relatively independent practice. (Collins, Holum & Brown, 1991, p7-8) Admitting that the traditional apprenticeship has the possibility for observation, whereas cognitive apprenticeship does not, the authors promote “making the thinking visible”. Through the use of such techniques as protocol analysis, a delineation of the cognitive processes to the meta-cognitive awareness in all stakeholders becomes clear. In three important steps, Collins et


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

al. recognize transference of knowledge as the key goal in this model. This is done through the identification of the task, the situation of abstract tasks in authentic context, and the variation of diversity of situations (including the articulation of common aspects) (Collins, Holum & Brown, 1991, pp. 44-45).

In the field of writing, the authors cite the work of Scardamalia and Bereiter (1985 and 1987) and Hayes and Flowers (1980). A seminal work on the cognitive process model of writing, Hayes and Flowers, departs from the traditional view on how writers write, with major implications on how teachers of writing teach. Noting the lack of reliable resources on the process, Hayes and Flowers focus on remodeling the writing process from the traditional “stages of writing” approach, by looking at what cognitive processes actually occur while writing, stating that: (T)he model identifies three major processes (plan, translate, and review) and a number of sub-processes available to the writer. And yet the first assertion of this cognitive process theory is that people do not march through these processes in a simple 1, 2, 3 order. Although writers may spend more time in planning at the beginning of a composing session, planning is not a unitary stage, but a distinctive thinking process which writers use over and over during composing. Furthermore, it is used at all levels, whether the writer is making a global plan for the whole text or a local representation of the meaning of the next sentence. This then raises a question: if the process of writing is not a sequence of stages but a set of optional actions, how are these thinking processes in our repertory actually orchestrated or organized as we write? (Hayes and Flowers, 1981, p. 375). Also significant in the Cognitive Process Model is the premise that “(w)riting is a goaldirected process. In the act of composing, writers create a hierarchical network of goals and these in turn guide the writing process.” Hayes and Flowers breaks writing goals into process goals, “the instructions people give themselves about how to carry out the process of writing,” and content goals, “plans (which) specify all the things the writer wants to say or to do to an audience” (Hayes and Flowers, 1981, pp. 372-373). 13

DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

In the strategic planning of writing, Colins et al. make a distinction between knowledgetelling (where writing novices essentially write down the ideas they have, and simply stop when the ideas run out) and knowledge transforming “which incorporates the linear generation of text but is organized around a more complex structure of goal setting and problem solving.” Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1983, 1985) categorize planning into idea generation, idea improvement, idea elaboration, goal identification, and synthesis of “ideas into a cohesive whole.” (as cited in Colins, Holum & Brown, 1991, pp. 38-40). Scardamalia and Bereiter also offer subdivisions of the revision process, as well as prompts specific to each cognitive process. Positive results of this methodology showed that these practices produced “superior revisions for nearly every student and a tenfold increase in the frequency of idea-level revisions, without any decrease in stylistic revisions” (Colins, Holum & Brown, 1991, pp. 38-40). The systematic approach to the Cognitive Apprenticeship explored by Berryman debunked learning assumptions that hinder progress, including the ideas the students naturally transfer learning from one situation to the next, that students are empty vessels to be passively filled up, that learning is behavioural in that it operates on stimuli-response model, and that context of learning is immaterial. Berryman’s rebuke of such systematic errors proceeds to a call for the construction of “effective learning environments,” ones which employ the concept of the teacher as continuously practicing expert, the concept of sequencing which begins with students gaining an overall understanding of the “terrain before attending to details,” and a level of authenticity, called Sociology by Berryman, that gives due credit to the context in which a student will actually engage in the use of a skill (Berryman, 1991, n.p.). For whatever reason, the models provided thus far in the literature review: the cognitive, the concepts explored in language acquisition, and the cognitive writing process inherent in the


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

apprenticeship model, inexplicably are only reflected in a limited amount of research that comes from the most central agents in the teaching of writing process: the master writer and the apprentice (i.e. the teacher and the student). One needs to look in the writing labs to find such sources, as logic would have it, the good practice of apprenticeship, with modeling, one on one tutelage, and lessons embedded in the work at hand, happen there. Richard Leahy writes in “The rhetoric of written response to student drafts” that a new framing needs to exist, where the relationship between teacher and student is dynamic. In explaining the strategic goals of giving feedback, Leahy mentions “the “rhetorical triangle” of dynamic relationships among writer, subject, and audience as a heuristic to guide … response style.” Ironically, the hierarchical relationship is dissolved once the idea that a written response is, in fact, a model piece of writing. In other words, the teacher “becomes the writer,” the student writer of the draft “becomes the audience, and the draft itself becomes the subject.” Offering practical advice, one gets the sense that the truly effective written corrective response is one that includes drafts, considers the audience, and promotes writer’s careful selection of word choice, tone, and voice. In short, the response is a piece of writing in the most artistic sense (Leahy, 1998, pp. 2-3). The art of comment writing, in fact, is explored by Hyland and Hyland (2006). The building of a teacher as a member of the community, and the reduction of the authoritative image of the teacher, can be fostered through the use of such techniques as paired comments (e.g. ideas are great, but the use of jargon confuses a reader not familiar with this topic), hedged comments (use of “modal verbs, imprecise qualifiers”, e.g. “there’s a little bit of sitting on the fence in your thesis”), reader response from the teacher, rather than expert response (e.g. I really liked the way you threaded in your story) and interrogative form which softens up the comment itself (e.g. the


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conclusion – should it refer to the examples given in the body paragraphs?) (Interpersonal Aspects, 2006, p. 8) This reduction of hierarchy between the teacher and student can be seen in very simple practices in the comment giving. As discussed in lecture in June 2013, the simple act of writing the students name prior to a comment increases the reading of the comment (T. Bostic, personal communication, June 24, 2013). The study of feedback effectiveness would not be complete without the input of the student writers themselves. Maria Ornella Treglia, in her work “Feedback on Feedback” and Jim Hahn, a practitioner writing for National Writing Project, both address this issue through the use of interviews. The conclusions from both teacher interviewees bring to question many of the preconceived ideas writing teacher hold as true regarding the effectiveness of the written corrective feedback. Ornella Treglia challenges the premises laid out by Hyland and Hyland, suggesting that where mitigation is appreciated by students, there is a general acceptance of direct feedback, especially when navigating areas of the language that are deemed as “right or wrong”. (Ornella Treglia, 2008, p. 106). For the practitioner, a more detailed breaking down of the categories of mitigation, including praise, paired act patterns, criticism/suggestion, praise-criticism-suggestion, lexical hedges, syntactic hedges, personal attribution (Ornella Treglia, 2008, pp. 134-135). Of interest is the fact that both the developmental stage of language acquisition and the developmental tool of written corrective feedback involve the concept of hedging. It brings into question whether or not this strategy is part of the interlanguage prevalent in the developing writer. In other words, is the teacher “speaking the same language” as the student when employing hedging? No research is provided to answer this question.


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Hahn’s interviews resulted in the author drawing eight conclusions on WCF. First, students only can learn from comments they understand, suggesting that a common language is paramount in written comments. Second, students can understand a comment without knowing what to do about the issue, suggesting a need to look at process of writing. Third, student writers have the perception that they are being clear, since, after all, they know what they were attempting to say, suggesting a need for writing teachers to highlight the need for writers to familiarize themselves with the reader. Fourth, student writing is often unaffected by WCF because despite the fact that there is a genuine belief that comments are written to assist students in their development, they lack the strategies to fix the issues, suggesting a need to review writing protocols. Fifth, students hold the belief that more careful attention to the reading of their work before submitting will assist in their development as writers, but often lack the ability to spot errors, suggesting the need to teach students how to peer edit and self edit. Sixth, students rarely have an opportunity to fix their errors due to the pacing of class, suggesting a time allowance for revisions after a graded submission. Seventh, some comments help student writing, especially when framed in positive feedback, suggesting the need to continue to encourage. Eighth, the assigning of grades to a particular writing has an inconclusive effect on the improvement of future writings, suggesting writing does not necessarily need to be graded (Hahn, 1981, pp. 8-10). Admittedly the conclusions by Hahn are observational in nature, and Hahn himself calls for more systematic research. Some research has been conducted on the topic of feedback, but little certainty is reached, and the existing body of literature only heightens the sense that more empirical research is needed to really grasp the effectiveness of corrective feedback.


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

Steps have been made in the right direction, but not necessarily steps that mirror the practices conducted by the writing instruction done in an English classroom. For example, Sara Servetti of the Department of Applied Linguistics at the University of Torino (Italy), has looked at indicators such as self correction rates and scores in her article entitled “Cooperative Learning as a Correction and Grammar Revision Technique.” Her study specifically targets student to student correction (Servetti, 2010, pp. 12-22). Othman and Mohamad (Malaysia) in a 2009 study showcase the uncertain nature of the student reaction to feedback, citing three researchers in particular, Dheram, Conrad and Goldstein, and Lee. In the Dheram study (1995), the research calls for a “mutual agreement on the nature and function of feedback in order to secure successful feedback utilization in students’ revision process,” yet Conrad and Goldstein (1999: 173) conclude their findings by saying that, “Although we believe teachers should always critically assess their feedback, students’ consistent lack of success of making certain kinds of revisions might not be a sign or failure on the part of either the teacher or the student but it may be a signal to adopt a different instructional strategy.” Most notably, a study by Lee (2008) reveals the complexity of the give and take aspect of feedback by citing research on pupils in two high school classrooms in Hong Kong, stating that student reaction to teacher feedback is an “intricate matter, intertwined not only with student characteristics like proficiency level, but also with teacher factors, such as teachers’ beliefs and practices and their interactions with students, as well as the instructional context in which feedback is given. (Othman & Mohamad, 2009, p. 4). The feedback on feedback, though limited, provide insight into the ineffective nature of a very common practice of written corrective feedback, not necessarily due to the fact that teachers


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are “doing it wrong,” but rather due to the very fact that the assessment of its effectiveness is so limited, in both quantity and type. All sources seem to draw the same conclusion, essentially that more research needs to be conducted on the art of written comments, and although strategies exist, with many positive results, the influences that touch the traditional modality of responding to students’ written work come from convoluted waters, and where the comments lead is dubious at best.

Practical Applications If good writing practice considers the cognitive processes, makes use of the guiding hand of the master to the apprentice, which is permeated in reflective educational observance, and begins with a larger conceptual model and only later adds details, good writing teaching should involve a good deal of listening to the invisible workings of the student’s cognitive process and promoting advancement only when there is writer readiness. In constructing lessons supported by the research above, I think it important to note the overwhelming success teachers have had throughout the generations in the teaching of writing (after all, literacy does exist today; publishers still publish, readers still read, and writers still write). This acknowledgement may seem contradictory to the tenants brought forth in the literature review. It is my belief, however, that much of the teaching of writing has been intuited, often using an apprenticeship model or considering the process involved, partially due to the fact that the teachers who are teacher writers as well as writing teachers know from experience what it takes to produce “good writing,” often making the allowances necessary for student writers to reach a higher level of proficiency. Systematically, however, the school system has not been built around the needs of a developing (or developmental) writer. 19

DeMott: “To Err is Humane�

From a practical point of view then, what can be done to follow researched based practices, while working within the confines of the school system? To approach an answer to this question, a review of the tenants are enumerated below followed by suggested practices. 1. Cognitively, one task can be done at one time. a. Teachers need to be aware of not only what they are asking students to accomplish, but the number of tasks involved and their complexity. b. Teachers should be aware that open ended questions and lack of clarity of instructions will increase the need for students to create meaning, and /or subcategorize the question into meaningful tasks. 2. Switching tasks involves the process of interpreting instructions. a. Although prompts can certainly involve multiple tasks, students will translate the meaning of the instruction in terms of task expectation, process to accomplish the task, and ordering of the process. b. Task switching often involves a cost in the learning process. 3. Errors can be corrected by the same modality in which they were made. a. Teachers should be aware that conceptually if a student makes an error in one modality, having the student correct the error in another modality may produce the desired product, but won’t correct the cognitive error since a different mode of cognition is in use. b. Immediacy of error correction is important, however the use of different forms of error correction will produce different results (e.g. direct, indirect, and meta linguistic feedback all have different purposes in their usage).


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

c. Meta-cognition (e.g. the look at the process involved) often allows for a student to override the repetition of the error due to the re-categorization of the process. 4. Error Analysis can shed light on the student’s progress, as well as the effectiveness of the teacher’s practices. a. Errors have to exist in order to see what needs to be corrected. b. In their own way, errors are student feedback on the teacher’s feedback. c. Categorization of the errors is an important pre-assessment on what needs to be taught or re-taught. 5. Fossilization of learning enters the long term memory. a. Errors can be fossilized and are more difficult to eradicate once this stage is reached. 6. The Cognitive Apprenticeship model offers a complex relational model of learning based on process, readiness, concept followed by detail, and an open dialogue. a. Relationship and community are paramount. Authority and hierarchal trappings are downplayed. b. Readiness is tested by altering situations to test the student’s conceptual understanding. More advanced and/or complex problems are offered once the first is mastered. c. Detail is used to prove the conceptual understanding. d. Dialogue supersedes teacher monologue. Often the class set up is practice based, resulting in a larger pool of products. 7. Goal creation is central to the Cognitive Process Approach a. Goals can happen any time, just as planning is not completed after the first step of writing (as is suggested in the Stage Approach to writing)


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

b. Short term procedural goals are often forgotten once completed. Content goals have longer staying power. Therefore, the analysis of the process after the process is complete often is inaccurate. Voicing the internal process monologue is encouraged to really see what is happening cognitively. 8. The use of Cognitive specific prompts will improve the writing process. a. Breaking down tasks in the instructions and/or feedback will encourage concentration on one task to master. b. Assisting students to categorize will improve organization, which, in turn will help in the planning portion of writing (which again, happens all the time). 9. Learning environments conducive to the apprenticeship model are in short supply. 10. The rhetorical triangle is a power shift and challenges teachers to follow the practice of good writing while producing evaluative comments. a. Teachers model good writing even in commentary. b. Teachers maintain a partnership and are part of the community of writers. c. Employing written feedback which follows the interlanguage rules produced in the developmental stages of writing may increase student engagement with the feedback. 11. Interviewing students on feedback will give teachers insight on the student point of view. a. Using other teachers students is fair game as the concepts of student ability to “read” meaningfully corrective feedback is consistent. b. Having another teacher interview the target group and reporting back to the instructor may feel uncomfortable at first, but will offer another teacher’s point of view. c. Categorizing the comments to draw conclusions should help inform the future adjustments made.


DeMott: “To Err is Humane�

d. Immediacy is important. End of year assessment of comments made much earlier won’t necessarily produce meaningful results. 12. Conferencing with each and every student is ideal for the writing process. a. Decide what to sacrifice if this is an actual goal. b. One on one conferencing can easily be replaced with small group conferencing, and can take the form of teacher to student with an audience of two or three other students, teacher to group as an open discussion, or student(s) to student(s) with the teacher as listener (observing the peer editing process). c. Meaningful work for non-conferencing students is a must. d. Use of a common language on the writing process is a must (I suggest 6 +1 Traits to writing). e. Sustaining the process is a must. 13. Combined form of feedback allows for multimodalities, though, at any given time, all feedback should be singularly provided. a. Time to process each modality is a must. b. Not all modalities of feedback are needed for each situation. Providing conferencing for one prompt and written corrective feedback for another is acceptable, and also allows for time management for the teacher. c. Time to react to the feedback is a must. 14. Revisions, even after the work is graded, are the only way to evaluate improvement. a. Each new piece is a new set of cognitive processes, new set of goals, and ultimately resulting in a new product; therefore, revision of a piece of work that has been worked on is the only way to truly measure improvement in the writing process.


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

Moving from the tenants and the adjoining suggestions, I would like to finish by looking at my own practices as a teacher of writing. Using my English 9 class as an example, the writing element was based on the following concepts, some mandated by the district, others based upon practices that I found worked. 1. Use of approved rubric 2. Use of WIP folder 3. Use of Showcase folder 4. Use of Conferencing 5. Individually Focused Attention on writing element 6. Sustained Group Focus on non-negotiables 7. Use of peer editing 8. Use of various forms of writing 9. Use of combined dose of structure and student choice in format 10. Reflective writing on writing 11. Revocation of the rules 12. Final presentation and sharing Generally, I would deem the writing segment of class as successful, as the majority of student reflective writings actually stated that they could see marked improvement in their ability to write. Some, however, felt stifled by the process, even though they “understood” the intended purpose. Making use of the interview regarding feedback is essential for the reflective practitioner, but may provide a discomfort. I would utilize the form created by Maria Ornell Treglia (found in the


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

attached Appendices), but still hold the interviews orally so that it would not feel like a worksheet. The research actually has me asking a number of questions regarding my practice, rather than providing answers. I think this ultimately means that my focus should be on my development as a teacher of writing rather than as a disseminator of what I deem as “good” writing practices. The ideas of developmental (process related) writing should be employed, as well as metacognition and meta-linguistic remarks. Like the apprentice, the idea of seeing the big picture before seeing the detail suggests that a fair amount of directed teaching, albeit in smaller chunks, may be in order. More poignantly, the challenge of an apprentice like classroom is more solidified in my mind, and it tells me that conferencing (although time consuming) should have a major presence in the class. This begets the question of what can be sacrificed as more and more demands are placed on the teacher. I question the effectiveness of the peer editor, the effects of too direct of written corrective feedback , and ultimately the concept of switch cost in cognitive response. The way I envision my writing instruction regarding peer editing is to have “laser focus” on one element of writing, rather than a holistic approach from student editors. Having employed the work of 6+1 Traits to Writing in the past, I feel this is an excellent rubric to use, due to its flexibility. A lesson very well might just concentrate on sentence fluency, ignoring all the inherent organization, detail, grammatical errors.


DeMott: “To Err is Humane�

A second lesson might shift to just organization, ignoring the other elements as areas of correction. This strategy should employ the concept of repetition of task and avoid the switch cost of jumping from one area of writing to the next. I actually found that when I would just indicate location of the error, rather than the nature of the error, more students came to my desk to ask for clarification. They did so, however, often with a guess of what the mark meant. I have not been able to follow through with research on the overall effectiveness of these indirect marks. I feel a combined use of indirect WCF and a follow up peer editing circles might encourage the engagement of students with their writing. Finally, I would purposefully employ the mitigation techniques suggested by Hyland and Hyland and directly teach peer editors to do the same. This concentration on process teaching must take centre stage in order to really mine the cognitive treasures of the mind. Ironically, this practice of teaching the students how to teach themselves to be good writers is most appealing to me, probably because it answers my opening question addressed in the introduction, the question which asks who actually taught me how to teach writing, the answer which so poignantly lives in the reflection of this paper, much the way a image lives in the reflection of a mirror.


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

Sources Arrington, C. M., Logan, G. D., & Schneider, D. W. (2007). Separating cue encoding from target processing in the explicit task-cuing procedure: Are there "true" task switch effects? Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory & Cognition, 33(3), 484-502.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. (1999). Exploring the interlanguage of interlanguage pragmatics: A research agenda for acquisitional pragmatics. Language Learning, 49(4), 677-713.

Berryman, S. E. (1991). Designing effective learning environments: Cognitive apprenticeship model. Institute on Education and the Economy.

Bitchener, J. (2012). A reflection on ‘the language learning potential’ of written CF. Journal of Second Language Writing, 21, 348-363.

Bostic, T. (2013, June 24). [Lecture].

Brown, D. (2012). The written corrective feedback debate: Next steps for classroom teachers and practitioners. TESOL Quarterly, 46(4), 862-867.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S. & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator, 6-11,38-46.

De Mott, A. (2013, June 22). [Personal interview].


DeMott: “To Err is Humane�

Ellis, R. (2009). A typology of written corrective feedback types. ELT Journal, 63(2), 97-107.

Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 32(4), 365-387.

Hahn, J. (1981). Students reaction to teachers written comments. The Quarterly, 4(1), 1,8-10.

Han, Z. (2004). Fossilization: Five central issues. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 14(2), 213-242.

Interpersonal Aspects of Response: Constructing and Interpreting Teach Written Feedback. In Feedback in Second Language Writing: Contexts and Issues, Applied Linguistics Series, p. 206-224. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006

Leahy, R. (1998, April). The rhetoric of written response to student drafts. The Writing Lab Newsletter, 22(8), 1-4.

Li-qui, W. (2008). To correct or to ignore. US-China Foreign Language, 6(5), 25-30.

Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3), 134-140.

Ornella Treglia, M. (2008). Feedback on feedback: Exploring student response to teachers'


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written commentary. Journal of Basic Writing, 27(1), 105-137.

Othman, S. B., & Mohamad, F. (2009). Student response on teacher feedback on multiple draft compositions in ESL classroom. Paper presented at 2nd International Conference of Teaching and Learning, INTI University College, Terengganu, Malaysia.

Servetti, S. (2010). Cooperative learning as a correction and grammar revision technique: Communicative exchanges, self correction rates and scores. US-China Education Review, 7(4), 12-22.

Steinhauser, M. (2010). How to correct a task error: Task-switch effects following different types of error correction [Abstract]. Journal of Experiemental Psychology. Learning, Memory & Cognition, 36(4).

The effective writer's marking guide. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2013, from University of Calgary website:

Whitaker, C. (1998). Best practices in teaching writing. Retrieved June 25, 2013, from Write in the Middle website:


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

APPENDIX A Operational Definition of Mitigated Commentary Mitigation is a form of politeness intended to buffer and mediate the emotional involvement and possible sense of inadequacy related to receiving critical responses to one’s writing (Rubin). Criticism can be softened by the use of praise (compliments), paired act patterns, lexical and syntactic hedges, and personal attributions (adapted from Ferris ["The Influence"]; Hyland and Hyland). Praise (Make a positive comment, statement, or exclamation) Examples: A very nice start to your essay! You have done an impressive job of finding facts and quotes to support your argument. Paired act patterns [1.Preceding negative comment with positive one (praisecriticism), 2. Critical remark combined with suggestion (criticismsuggestion), 3. Praise-criticism-suggestion triad] Example 1: Vocabulary is good but grammar is not accurate and often makes your ideas difficult to understand. Example 2:This is a very sudden start. You need a more general statement to introduce the topic. Example 3: References very good. Two small problems: (1) Bibliography (at end of essay) include initials of authors. (2) Be careful about referencing inside the essay. Hedges [1. Lexical hedges (e.g., maybe, please, might, a little), 2. Syntactic hedges (construct criticism in interrogative form)] Example 1: You might want to expand your introduction. Some of the material seemed a little longwinded and I wonder if it could have been compressed a little. Example 2: Can you add an example here? The first two paragraphs—do they need joining? Personal attribution (Express commentary as a personal response) Examples: I’m sorry, but when reading the essay, I couldn’t see any evidence of this really. Perhaps you should have given me the outline to look at with the essay. My concern in this essay is that you introduce several terms in the introduction but do not provide a definition for any.

(Ornella Traglia, 2008, pp. 135-136)


DeMott: “To Err is Humane”

APPENDIX B Protocol for Interview with Students 1. When your teacher returns your essay, do you read all written comments or just some of them? 2. During the process of revision how much do you rely on the teacher’s comments? Do you go back to your teacher and ask her or him to clarify a comment you may not have understood? 3. How do you usually feel after reading your teacher’s comments? Encouraged

Same as before


4. How do you feel when you finish writing a draft? Are you optimistic about having done a good job or do you usually feel you could have done better?

5. What are some types of comments you find helpful? (Student will point them out in the copies of her or his essays that I bring to the interview.) 6. Now show me in the essays any comments you didn’t find useful and tell me why.

7. Do you prefer that your teacher write a lot of comments, a moderate number, or very few? Explain the reason for your preference. 8. Do you feel you have learned from your teacher’s comments? Could you give some examples?

9. What is one thing that a teacher can do to help you improve your writing?

(Ornella Traglia, 2008, p. 137)


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