EAP Teacher education and development: some thoughts

Over the past few months my thoughts and energy have been directed at co-researching and writing (with Gemma Campion*) a chapter on education and development for EAP practitioners to be published in the Routeledge Handbook of EAP (eds. Ken Hylands and Philip Shaw). This endeavour proved far more challenging and thought-provoking than I had imagined when first embarking on this project. In this post I want to briefly discuss just some of the challenges and questions that emerged during this process of researching and writing on teacher education and development.
There is a dearth of publications and research exploring EAP practitioner education and development by researchers, teacher educators and practitioners themselves and few (but growing in the UK) opportunities to study for specialist post-graduate qualifications in TEAP. The practitioner (especially in terms of education and development) is almost absent from the pages of JEAP (Journal of English for Academic Purposes). It would appear that practitioners are of only very minor interest to the discipline. Despite infrequent calls over the years for more attention to be paid to practitioners this has not translated into a substantive body of work. Why practitioners have solicited so little interest from the discipline remains a mystery and seems to confirm Belcher’s (2012:544) recent observation that the ‘community that ESP professionals know the least about is their own’.
This lack of interest by the discipline is not entirely reflected by the profession, at least in the guise of BALEAP, where there have been significant developments over the past 8 or 9 years to articulate, guide and standardise the competencies required to teach EAP. Initially, BALEAP developed a competency framework for teachers of English for Academic Purposes (CFTEAP) which has formed the foundations of a new and ambitious accreditation scheme. This accreditation scheme offers three levels of recognition; associate fellow, fellow, and senior fellow. Whilst this scheme appears to have been welcomed within the UK EAP community it is not without problems. The aim of this post (but possibly a future one) is not to dissect this scheme in detail but simply indicate some of the problems with it.
Much of the scheme relies of the orthodoxy of the reflection as the motor of development and education. Yet there are multiple meanings attached to reflection, reflection serves diverse educational and ideological ends and there are some serious concerns pertaining to the quality, significance and aims of reflective practices. Along with a lack of empirical evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of reflective practices this would suggest greater caution in relying so heavily on reflection in this scheme.
There is a general preoccupation (obsession?) in the available literature on the inadequacies of the novice practitioner and how ill-prepared they are for teaching EAP. The novice is cast as ‘deficient’ and requiring induction and assimilation into existing practices and values. This stifles, partly through promoting and privileging ‘experience’ and learning from experienced colleagues, innovation and transformation whilst promoting reproduction of existing praxis. How EAP is to develop in this framework is unclear.
There is an emphasis on understanding and applying institutional values (and even then only in three restrictive areas; equality of opportunity, sustainability, and internationalisation) rather than encouraging practitioners to question and shape these values. In addition, the focus of these three values in unnecessarily restrictive and practitioners should participate in wider debates on the (effects of) commodification of education in a neoliberal world. Practitioners should, in my view, be questioning the range of ideologies and values that profoundly shape (rather than simply form the backdrop to) EAP as well as articulating their/our own values and responses to them. A much more sociologically-informed and reflexive emphasis is needed in education and development frameworks and courses if practitioners are to make a bigger impact on their worlds.
These are just three examples of issues that troubled me during the process of writing this chapter. More generally, during this process of researching and writing, I became (painfully) aware of just how parochial my perspective was/is: it is a very UK-centric perspective. Courses and development frameworks for practitioners all emanated from the UK and the UK perspective appears to dominate discourse on education and development. This raises serious questions about the relevance and pertinence of these courses and frameworks for those teaching EAP in other contexts (about which relatively little is published). A global perspective or multiple perspectives on education and development is simply unavailable at the present time and the UK perspective(s) risks shaping and dominating professional development and education at a time when much more recognition needs to be given to EAP enacted elsewhere in possibly very different and challenging contexts.
One way of reading the growth of interest in EAP practitioner development and education in the UK is as a response to both the expansion of EAP in the recent past as well as a desire to protect and promote the teaching of EAP (and practitioners): to promote greater professionalism within EAP in the UK in a period of expansion; and to seek greater recognition (and security) for EAP within the wider educational community. This comes at a time when the professional status and identity of practitioners is particularly fragile within the UK (EAP units have no settled ‘home’ within universities, out-sourcing of teaching to for-profit organisations is not increasingly common, pay and conditions vary greatly etc.).
I will return to this topic in the next couple of weeks but this just gives a flavour of some of the questions and issues I have been thinking about during this process of writing.

* the views expressed here are my own.

(http://www.baleap.org//projects/teap-scheme)


The CEMistry of EAP

Well worth reading (as per usual)

The EAP archivist

I am in the process of establishing in-sessional provision at my new institution so this was a timely read – Sloan and Porter’s ‘Changing international student and business staff perceptions of in-sessional EAP: using the CEM model’ (2010).

The research that informs this article (conducted between 2005 and 2009) is grounded in the contemporary milieu that sees HE shamelessly obsessing over all things ‘international’. The authors (“two ‘subject champions’ from the English Language Centre and the Postgraduate area of Newcastle Business School” p. 199) were concerned with identifying whether the then “existing model of EAP delivery at the University [of Northumbria was] supporting the academic literacy learning needs of the international student body” (p. 199). This question was posed in acknowledgement of the fact that students seemed to be reticent in their engagement with in-sessional provision offered at the university. A problem that appeared evident to different sectors within the…

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EAP in the East Midlands: Scholarly Activity and the EAP Practitioner

Recently I organised an event on scholarly activity and the practitioner which was held at the University of Nottingham. 40 participants came along from various EAP centres in the East Midlands and beyond. I promised to write up a summary of discussions for participants and the BALEAP mailing list. I haven’t been able to do this or, more accurately to do justice and provide an accurate summary of the discussions. Instead I am going to give my impressions of the event and my concerns in the hope that other participants will add to the discussion by commenting. Of course, everyone is welcome to add ideas, suggestions and comments too.

One of the reasons, selfish perhaps, why I wanted to organise this event was because I had recently been asked to lead scholarly activities and development of language education colleagues (including all EAP colleagues) in the School of Education and wanted to get a sense of what was happening elsewhere in other EAP centres/departments/units. And, indeed, it seems that there is significant variation in support for colleagues in different institutions.  It was also because scholarly activity, as far as I could tell, is, at best, a somewhat nebulous concept and, at worst, a contested one.

I introduced the event by suggesting that scholarly activity is difficult to define – and I couldn’t find a definition only lists of what might count as scholarly activity (writing articles or text books, developing e-learning materials, conference papers etc…). What these activities suggest (an EAP taxonomy of what counts as scholarly activity would be very useful!) is that scholarly activity differs from CPD or ‘good’ teaching practice in a significant manner – scholarly activity is the visible, tangible outcome of specific engagement (research, investigations, readings ..)  to improve teaching and learning and/or developing theoretical /practical understandings that can inform teaching and learning and related activities.

And it must be recognised – simply ‘doing’ scholarly activity isn’t enough, it has to be recognised by peers, managers, the institution, the profession, the wider academic community. There appears to be a qualitative aspect – an evaluation of this activity, impact, quality, or  (?) by peers. Scholarly activity is making visible and public (open to scrutiny, recognition, discussion and use) to various communities (EAP, the university, colleagues, HE colleagues, students, ..) concerted and rigorous engagement with teaching and learning that has resulted in a tangible and public outcome (a conference publication or article are the most obvious examples). In this it differs considerably from CPD or reflective practice in that these can often remain private or silent activities (although of course they don’t have to).

This notion of scholarly activity then, by EAP practitioners, poses a number of questions: time to do it; resources and support available; what to do and why (for promotion, interest, ..), and how to do it. Is scholarly activity part of the identity of practitioners? Part of who we are? An optional activity (even when written into contracts)? Is it a collaborative or individual endeavour? If it’s to obtain promotion how likely is this unless we publish in high ranking journals that are recognised as such by those that decide promotions? Why do some colleagues not engage in scholarly activity? Is it simply the case that if obstacles were removed that they would? How does research fit into scholarly activity? Can we complain about our often marginal positions within universities if we aren’t engaging in scholarly activity?

These are just some of the questions that come to mind. We didn’t have time to discuss solutions as such or projects that might be supportive of a more collective endeavour.

I did want to highlight during our session that we should be more mindful, more supportive and more engaged with those practitioners who are on zero-hour contracts, on the margins of EAP, who don’t have access to journals, CPD, conference funding and university resources. Sadly, we didn’t discuss this much but we shouldn’t forget those who are not in full-time permanent positions.

As I said, this isn’t a summary as such, just some questions really. Perhaps other participants can add their thoughts?

I’d like to follow up this event with another in February looking more positively at what we can do.

PS Last week I led a staff development session on scholarly activity. Here are my handouts below (click on link). Some of what I spoke about was influenced by your comments, so thank you all very much

SA upload


Assessment in EAP: a continuously improved means to carelessly examined ends

I am really pleased that Jane Pearson (a PhD student at Nottingham and EAP Lecturer at Kings College) has provided a stimulating post on assessment. Comments very welcome!

I was struck recently by a quotation used in an article by George Madaus (1993) which seemed to me to sum up the current state of affairs in EAP assessment. Assessment is described in the article as “a continuously improved means to carelessly examined ends” (Merton 1964 p vi in Madaus, 1993), and although this is being used to refer to the state of mainstream education in the USA, it seems especially pertinent to our politically constrained and time restricted context. In my experience, EAP course test writers tend to be divided into three groups: those with test writing experience for large scale exam boards; those with an interest in testing but little experience other than in large scale testing administration and prep courses; and those who are interested in assessment innovations, keen to emphasise authentic testing over statistical reliability, but have no framework within which to work given the dearth of examples or research evidence.  The assessment culture of EAP departments seems to lean towards one of the three points on the triangle.
Is this problematic? According to Bachman and Palmer (2010), two common testing misconceptions are that ‘experts’ should be the ones to write tests and that there is one standard method or framework, a ‘one size fits all’ approach to assessment. This means that the first and second group are likely to appropriate the most familiar method of assessment onto their EAP courses, regardless of the pedagogical aims and outcomes of the course. The third group may have the best intentions at heart, but, without a rigorous design specification, test construction cycle and validation procedure in place, can actually end up doing more harm than good, with confusing tests that change on a regular basis and do not meet criteria for either appropriate summative or effective formative assessment.
However, all of these people make invaluable contributions of EAP assessment. Therefore, it may be important to take a step back from the design of tests to allow open dialogue regarding how exactly we are defining the constructs we are testing. Some questions which could be put on the table are:
1.    Are we testing achievement or proficiency? Paran (2010)’s book Testing The Untestable points to a narrowing of the assessment agenda to include only that which is measureable, but where do critical thinking, autonomy and intercultural competence fit into this? If we are teaching and emphasising these skills, is it appropriate or logical to not test them? If we are not teaching these, but only language proficiency, on which it has been indicated that pre sessional EAP has little effect (Green, 2005), then what are the benefits for students of our courses over taking (and retaking and retaking) the IELTS or TOEFL exams for direct university entry?

2.    Are we testing four skills or integrated academic literacies and discourses? As we know, a significant body of research ( Lea and Street, 1998; Zamel,1998; Lillis,2003) suggests that deficiencies in the latter are the main barrier to success for international students. Yet the shift to a means of testing which acknowledges the complexity of skills and literacies in academia, while still providing a score in the ‘four skills’,  can lead to unthoughtout  assessments which may have face validity but little else. How many of us test speaking using a presentation, mainly because it represents an authentic means of assessment in HE, without considering if it is a fair assessment of the linguistic construct of ‘speaking’? Students may spend weeks researching, planning and practising a critical presentation, only to receive a low score due to poor grammar, lexis or pronunciation which is weighted more heavily because, while paying lip service to authentic assessment, we are obliged to assess mainly language proficiency. On the flip side, students with a high level of proficiency may receive a lower grade than expected due to a poor lack of planning or evaluative skills. Again, if we are testing achievement of academic skills learned and applied, this is fair; if testing language proficiency, it may not be. Perhaps the answer to this is to remind ourselves of Spolsky’s (1997) warning that the search for a ‘fair test’ may lead us down a dead end, and rather, that we need to make it transparent to all stakeholders what our assessments are trying to do. This may include an explicit definition of our constructs and how these link to pedagogy, along with the acknowledgement that they represent a theory of language and academic discourse particular to our context and imposed by us, as those in control of the process, rather than objective truth.

3.    Are we bound by the need to test in ways which are most familiar to us? And if we try to test in an alternative way, do we leave ourselves open to criticisms of lack of robustness? Alternative assessments do not often lend themselves to statistical validation procedures and thus are they considered unreliable or invalid? What kinds of evidence would we need in order to claim our alternative, integrated, process oriented tests are meeting all stakeholders’ needs? Do we need to redefine our paradigms of assessment validation to include a more interpretivist approach (Moss, 1992, McNamara, 2001)? What is preventing research from being conducted on alternative assessments in EAP contexts in the same way as in mainstream education? Obviously, questions are raised but no answers given and I would be fascinated to hear other practitioners’ views on these matters. As assessment affects us all, it would seem that there are ‘ends’ that need to be examined before we can begin to focus on the ‘means’ with which to assess our students.
References
Lea, M. & Street, B. V. (1998). Student Writing and Staff Feedback in Higher Education: An Academic Literacies Approach. Studies in Higher Education 23(2):157-72.
Lillis, T. (2003). Student writing as ‘academic literacies’: Drawing on Bakhtin to move from critique to design.  Language and education 17 (3 ):192-207
Madaus, G. (1993). A National testing system: manna from above? A historical/ technical perspective   Educational assessment 1 (1): 9-26
Moss, P. A.(1996.) Enlarging the Dialogue in Educational Measurement: Voices From Interpretive Research Traditions  Educational researcher 25(1): 20-28
Macnamara, T. (2001).  Language assessment as social practice: challenges for research. Language testing 18(4): 333 -349
Spolsky, B. (1997). The ethics of gatekeeping tests: what have we learned in a 100 years?.  Language testing 14(3) 242-247
Zamel, V. (1998) Strangers in academia: the experiences of faculty and ESL students across the curriculum p249-264 IN Negotiating academic literacies: teaching and learning across languages and cultures eds Spack, R and Zamel V  Lawrence Erlbaum associates new jersey


Blogpost by Brian Street: Academic Literacies

The Academic Literacies approach to supporting writing in Educational contexts has over the last two decades developed into a well-established international field of research.  Aclits was grounded in New Literacy Studies (NLS)/ Literacy as Social practice (LSP), which conceptualized literacy as social practice rather than an asocial, set of generic  skills. Specifically the theoretical shift in these fields has been from what I term an ‘autonomous’ model of literacy which assumes reading and writing are ‘autonomous’ of social context so just need to be taught at a universal level, to what I refer to as an ‘ideological’ model, which recognises that literacy practices vary across cultural contexts, including in the university context across different fields and disciplines (Street, 1984). To learn the writing required for a particular discipline, then,  involves more sensitive attention to context and meaning than is offered by the autonomous model or the study skills approach that has followed from it. The major methodological contribution is the use of ethnographic perspectives in literacy research and training, whereby teachers try to find out what the learners already know and then build on that.

The consequent model of Academic Literacies (AcLits) arose from an ESRC-funded research project (1995) by Lea and Street involving ethnographic study of academic literacy practices in UK universities. This was originally reported in 1998 in the journal Studies in Higher Education. In this project, Lea and Street revealed that skills- and text-focused models dominated much theory and practice, but that these models did not account for the situational factors impacting on students’ acquisition of the literacy required by specific disciplines. By contrast, the AcLits model requires researchers to investigate the variety of academic literacies evident in particular contexts, drawing upon ethnographic methods which involve an ‘emic’ perspective, watching and following what participants are actually doing rather than imposing external – ‘etic’ – perspectives. In this case the practices of those learning to write in academic genres or styles may involve  different disciplinary requirements in terms of argumentation, genre, information structuring and rhetorical styles. As a result the research identified the need for changes in teacher education, which involves supporting subject teachers with the development of students’ literacy and enabling them to use ethnographic perspectives to analyse the existing literacy practices associated with their field and the associated student needs, rather than imposing a general model on all academic writing as in the provision of support programmes external to the subject disciplines.

AcLits has also been influential in the field of English for Academic Purposes in similar ways, shifting attention from a standardised and generic model of ‘English’ to a recognition of varieties and contexts. There has been positive research from the King’s AcLits group, for instance.  Leung and Street (2012) have argued that researching with the AcLits approach involves conceptual transformation in the teaching of English, both spoken and written, of the kind signalled above in the shift from an autonomous to a social perspective on language and literacy practices. There are multiple varieties of what counts as ‘English’ and that required for specific purposes in specific contexts will need spelling out and justifying more carefully in the new global world. Wingate and Tribble (2012) have challenged the apparent dichotomies emerging from the Academic Literacies perspective and argued for a synthesis of AcLits and text-focused approaches. They have developed an AcLits-informed instructional model that uses text as the basis of teaching and learning.
All of these debates are on going and there are currently attempts in South Africa, Brazil and France as well as the UK, to work through the implications of all of this for actual learning and teaching programmes in higher education.
Some Refs
Lea, M., & Street, B. (1998). Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-172.
Lea. M. R. and Street, B.V. 2006 “The ‘Academic Literacies’ Model: Theory and Applications” Theory into Practice Fall Vol. 45, no 4 pp. 368-377
Leung, C., & Street, B. (Eds.). (2012). English – a Changing Medium for Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Leung, C. (2008). Second language academic literacies:  converging understandings. In B. Street & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education (Vol. 2, pp. 143-161). New York: Springer.
Street, B. (1984). Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Street, B 2009 “‘Hidden’ Features of Academic Paper Writing” Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, UPenn Vol. 24, no 1, pp. 1-17
Wingate, U. & Tribble, C. (2012) The best of both worlds? Towards an English for Academic Purposes/Academic Literacies writing pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education, 37, 4, pp. 481 – 495.

ESRC Projects

ERSC Research Grant RES-062-23-1666, Feb 2009 – Jan 2011 (Constant Leung and Brian Street) Modelling for Diversity: Academic Language and Literacies in School and University.
ESRC Research Grant (ref: R000221557) Oct 1995 – Sept 1996  (Mary Lea and Brian Street) entitled: “Perspectives on Academic Literacies: An Institutional Approach”


EAP and publishers: the dangers of Teaching EAP for No Obvious Reason

This post is by our guest Andy Gillett. Andy is well-known in the world of EAP. He was chair of BALEAP, teasurer and PIMS coordinator. He is also very well known for his EAP site http://www.uefap.com/index.htm. Andy worked at University of Hertfordshire from 1995 to 2009 and more recently has been writing vocational English teacher training material for British Council, writing ESAP English for Telecommunications for Garnet, as well as working with Hilary Nesi and Sheena Gardner on materials to support their recent book to go on the British Council learn English site.

I have just been reading an article in the latest issue of ELT Journal by Duncan Hunter and Richard Smith (Hunter & Smith, 2012) about Communicative Language Teaching. In the article, they take a historical view by studying the use of the term Communicative Language Teaching – or CLT in ELT Journal during the period between 1958 and 1986. I find it interesting as, in my view, EAP is Communicative Language Teaching par excellence. Since the early days, CLT had focussed strongly on the authentic language of communicative purpose as well the belief that learners need to use the language actively in order to learn. Hunter & Smith argue that precise academic definitions of CLT existed in early days and still do to some extent, and this was supported my many academic publications (see, for example, Brumfit & Johnson, 1979). However in the last 20 years or so publishers have so diluted the meaning of the term CLT that it is almost meaningless these days. As a consequence of this, perhaps be this will lead to the end of CLT as we know it. And I think that would be a shame.

The reason I think this is important is that I wonder if the same happening with EAP. There has been a healthy research tradition in EAP since the 1970s and well-known researchers such as Averil Coxhead (e.g. Coxhead, 1998), Ken Hyland (e.g. Hyland, 2000), Hilary Nesi (e.g. Nesi & Gardner, 2012) & John Swales (e.g. Swales, 2004), have helped us define what EAP is. EAP is clearly a branch of ESP, which is defined by paying attention to the needs, linguistic and other, of the users. That means that we need to focus on who our users are and what they need and want. Isn’t that what humanistic CLT is about? You might argue, as people such Rinvolucri (1996) have done, that that is not possible, as you cannot possibly know what your learners will need. In order to plan EAP course and teach them, we do need, however, to believe that it is possible to predict, to some extent, what our learners needs are and prepare our syllabuses and classes to help them to achieve those aims. To support this, there is much research on needs analysis in EAP, especially linguistic, starting in the 60s and 70s with vocabulary and grammar, moving through the 70s with an emphasis on skills and functions, into discourse and text structure and now into more in-depth studies of vocabulary and – most importantly – genre. The problem is that once we start being really aware of the lexical and genre needs of students at different levels and in different disciplines, we find (see Nesi & Gardner, 2012) that it gets more difficult to generalise and produce generic materials. Every individual learner is different and needs their own focus.

However, now that the big publishers (Pearson, CUP, OUP), with their needs to sell to large markets, are jumping on the EAP bandwagon, this specialist knowledge of EAP genres and disciplinary differences seems to be getting forgotten. So it seems that EAP is dividing into two. Mass market EAP, concentrating on generic academic language, which is specific to no-one, and specific EAP designed for small groups or individuals, about whose needs are clear. Will the second destroy the first?  I hope not, because the narrow specific focus is needed. The generic EAP course may be useful for undergraduate pre-sessional courses or general EAP courses with no particular objective. You will know about Gerry Abbot’s (1978) TENOR – Teaching English for No Obvious Reason –  but there is a danger that TEAPNOR – Teaching EAP for No Obvious Reason – is developing. Garnet Education, for example, are working hard with their ESP series and I hope they succeed. It would be counter-productive if the big publishers cornered the market and destroyed this. If there are a wide range of very general EAP books available, in the same way as CLT, books with a wide range of generic academic subjects of interest to everyone – or no-one, then everything becomes EAP, and it becomes meaningless. The problem with trying to be too specific is that you are likely to miss – I’m a micro-economist, not a macro-economist. The problem with being too broad is that no one learns what they need.

References

Abbott, G. (1978). Motivation, materials, manpower and methods: Some fundamental problems in ESP. Individualisation in language learning (ELT Documents 103, pp. 98-104). London: The British Council.

Brumfit, C, & Johnson, K. (Eds.). (1979). The communicative approach to language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coxhead, A. (1998). An academic word list. (English Language Institute Occasional Publication Number 18). Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington.

Hunter, D. & Smith, R. (2012). Unpacking the past: ‘CLT’ through ELTJ keywords. ELT Journal, 66, 430-439.

Hyland, K. (2000). Disciplinary discourses. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Nesi, H. & Gardner, S. (2012). Genres across the disciplines: Student writing in higher education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rinvolucri, M. (1996). Letter to Craig Thaine. The Teacher Trainer, 10(2).

Swales, J. M. (2004). Research genres: Explorations and applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


The value of written corrective feedback

After a slight interruption to our planned schedule of posts we are back on track. Blogging was interrupted by a number of (exciting) developments. Firstly, we launched a new presessional programme – one that focuses on education and knowledge. Secondly, we have launched the MA TEAP. These events, combined with a host of other activities – start of term, away days, plenty of meetings etc. have taken over somewhat.

This blog post was written by Richard Lee – a colleague on the insessional programme here at Nottingham. Richard is also studying for an Ed.D in the School of Education. Please feel free to comment.

Written corrective feedback

I would imagine that most EAP practitioners believe in the value of written corrective feedback (WCF) when helping students develop their writing proficiency. It can help the writer to revise a particular text and, more importantly, it provides them with positive input which aids in long term improvement in writing ability. Learners seem to expect it, and research which has looked into the experiences of international students at HE institutions has shown that students value learning support systems that provide feedback on their writing skills (Andrade, 2006). It would appear then that WCF it is a key support element which helps non-native English speakers (NNES) to adjust to their new academic surroundings and go on to successfully complete their course requirements.

We provide WCF not just because we feel it is important to meet the expectations of our students but also because we know that errors may lead to the stigmatization of the writer (Ferris, 2006). The NNES not only has to deal with this deficit perspective but they are also victims of what Williams (1981) suggested was an unconscious tendency for the reader to notice more errors in the novice writer than the expert – a double-whammy if you like.

So, there appear to be solid reasons to suggest that error correction is important.  But what of the occasions where my feedback has appeared to be rather less than helpful? Why is it that some individuals appear to make meaningful gains in accuracy and fluency in relatively short periods of time, but others do not? Is there something wrong with my approach to written feedback? Or is it simply because some people have learning styles that simply do not take to written corrective feedback? Or are there simply hidden variables which I am not aware of?

Recent L2 writing research has begun to look at these particular questions and challenge commonly held opinions about the efficacy of WCF. This began with an article published by Truscott (1996)  in which he challenged both the theoretical and pedagogic principles underpinning its use. In essence, his analysis of prior WCF research showed it to be ineffective – his case resting on the fact that much of the previous research found no significant positive effects for correcting student errors in L2 writing.

Central to Truscott’s criticism is his suggestion, based on Krashen’s monitor model, that different linguistic forms have their own particular order of acquisition and providing feedback on a form which the student isn’t yet ready to acquire is problematic.

Truscott raised concerns over other issues too. He questioned the ability of teachers to identify errors correctly and provide the appropriate correction and meta-linguistic explanation. In addition, he doubted whether students actually understand the feedback and suggested that on many occasions students simply forget the rule or lack the motivation to apply it at a later date. Although, more recently, Truscott and Hsu (2008) have been willing to concede that error correction may help in the editing of a particular piece of writing, they continue to maintain that WCF doesn’t lead to any noticeable long term outcomes.

However, many have challenged the validity of his conclusions. Bitchener and Ferris (2011: 22) sum this up by suggesting that ‘the evidence he presented was extremely limited and the findings of the studies were conflicting’. One only has to look at Ellis’ typology of written corrective feedback (2009) to see that there is a wide array of WCF options available and that the type of feedback we use has ramifications for how successfully the recipient of WCF will attend to error. Indeed, there are clearly both good and bad ways of providing feedback and, as EAP practitioners or researchers, we need to identify and prioritize approaches that are going to be effective. Hence, for research to provide a clearer picture of what constitutes effective WCF, or indeed whether it works at all, it requires research where learner, situational and methodological variables are embedded and clearly evaluated in the research (Evans et al., 2010). Many would suggest that the studies Truscott looked at in his original analysis fell well short of this goal.

It’s interesting to note that since Truscott threw down the gauntlet, there has been a reappraisal of what WCF can realistically offer and also a closer examination of good practice which has been informed by research that has applied more ‘rigorous’ research designs to test its efficacy. This has led to some interesting findings and subsequent recommendations for improving practice when providing WCF.

Here are some of the more interesting and contentious findings (by no means exhaustive) found in recent WCF research: 

  • Much recent research has tried to provide a more robust approach to testing the efficacy of WCF by using control groups. In virtually all cases, the treatment groups that received either direct feedback (the teacher gives the correct form) or indirect feedback (the teacher indicates the error but does not give a correction) outperformed the control groups on subsequent post tests (Bitchener and Ferris, 2011).
  • Where feedback is focused on particular linguistic forms rather than using an unfocused approach treatment groups tended to do better long term (Bitchener and Ferris, 2011).
  • Where research has compared the effectiveness of direct feedback and indirect feedback, direct error correction appears to be more effective long term (Bitchener and Ferris, 2011).
  •  Where research has looked at WCF delivered in conjunction with oral meta-linguistic explanation, there appears to be more successful outcomes (Bitchener and Ferris, 2011).
  • One study by Ferris and Roberts (2001) found no significant differences in the editing success of treatment groups which used either coded feedback or where errors where simply underlined.
  • Chandler (2003: 293) suggests that one crucial element in the success of WCF is that the learner needs to properly attend to the error by systematically  incorporating the feedback in further revisions.

The first finding outlined above suggests that WCF appears to provide learners with clear gains in their writing development. The five additional points suggest that L2 writing research is starting to answer the questions outlined at the beginning of this article and develop a more informed approach to WCF – even if some of the findings appear to be rather disconcerting and may run counter to what we understand as standard practice.

References

Andrade, M.S., 2006. International students in English-speaking universities Adjustment factors. Journal of Research in International Education 5, 131–154.

Bitchener, J., Ferris, D.R., 2011. Written Corrective Feedback in Second Language Acquisition and Writing, 1st ed. Routledge.

Chandler, J., 2003. The efficacy of various kinds of error feedback for improvement in the accuracy and fluency of L2 student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing 12, 267–296.

Ellis, R., 2009. A typology of written corrective feedback types. ELT J 63, 97–107.

Evans, N.W., Hartshorn, K.J., McCollum, R.M., Wolfersberger, M., 2010. Contextualizing corrective feedback in second language writing pedagogy. Language Teaching Research 14, 445–463.

Ferris, D., Roberts, B., 2001. Error feedback in L2 writing classes: How explicit does it need to be? Journal of Second Language Writing 10, 161–184.

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