Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How many errors are too many?

Ferris’ article “Preparing teachers to respond to student writing” deepened my thinking about commenting on student papers, especially through the lens of second language (L2) learning. In an L2 world, errors in syntax, grammar and spelling are sometimes so numerous that they interfere with the writer’s message. As teachers, we want to “fix” the writing, we want the message to be clear and we struggle with what to comment on, how much to correct, etc. When we “fix” the glaring mistakes of L2 learners, we often fail to see the devastating impact on the writer. This is also true of native English-speaking writers in the pre K-primary grades.

In my writing methods’ course many years ago, we shared the example of a 3 year-old who wrote long stories and letters to her Grandma, which only she could read (and which varied each time she read her text). Her stories were full of details and plot twists. When you looked at her writing, you realized that this little girl knew about lines, reading from left to right and top to bottom, and she even had some consonant sounds. Then she started Kindergarten. And after several weeks of waiting anxiously for a new story, Grandma finally received a story. In perfect handwriting and spelling it simply read “The cat is black.” Another writer smothered.

Ferris talks about the need to convince teachers that their job is NOT to produce the “ideal text.” Rather, our work should focus on “each student’s progress and increasing awareness of and skill in using various strategies to compose, revise, and edit their own work (p. 167).” She goes on to explain that giving “thoughtful feedback tailored to the needs of an individual student and his/her evolving text and writing is a gift, and perhaps the most important thing a writing instructor can do for his/her students (p. 169).” The article features great examples and strategies for commenting on students’ writing, which could be adapted for younger grade level. Throughout the article, Ferris also comments on the opposing forces of content and form but offers a solution in the way of “error conferences.”

This brings me to Kelsey’s post, which triggered so many thoughts that I couldn’t put them all in one comment. Kelsey talked about the dichotomy of expectations between “published" written work—which needs to be completely error free—and writing for the sake of writing—which emphasizes the message and overlooks the errors. This is the dilemma of all second language teachers. I see both sides. In an immersion or second language setting, we want to encourage every baby step students take in writing by emphasizing message over form. We need to reward students’ risk taking, their play with language, their attempt to connect with a reader. Yet at the same time we need to teach and expect students to correct their form and those dreaded fossilized errors. If we don’t hold them to a higher standard of grammatical and spelling accuracy, they could very likely never get there. One look at the writing of many secondary immersion students from any program makes that point all too well.

I haven't read the Bernstein's article that Kelsey referenced but I agree with her point that “programs and teachers need to carefully discuss and agree to common philosophies and expectations for writing assessment and instruction.” If "published" work needs to be free of errors to emphasize correct form, what does "published" work mean? It certainly can't be every final draft. It could mean anything posted publicly on a wall for all to see, as was the case in Kelsey’s example. A compromise could be to leave the work as is and include a disclaimer, in French, that these are exemplars of students’ best writing at this point in the year which show the developmental stages of inventive spelling, etc.

The plot thickens if we consider digital writing. Does every digital piece that sits on the Web have to be held to the perfection standard of so-called “published work?” Or do we hold that standard only for projects that truly reach a very broad audience? For example, if 4th graders create websites about US regions for a worldwide francophone audience, shouldn’t their writing be error free? How do you react when you read a webpage riddled with mistakes? Again a compromise could be to emphasize the use of multimedia storytelling tools that allow students to write digitally without having to correct every little accent mark, verb conjugation, or adjective agreement.

There isn’t any easy answer about content vs. form in L2 writing. My belief is that the vast majority of the time we need to nourish with kindness the hesitant steps of L2 writers, while holding their work to higher standards of accuracy for some key pieces each year. And perhaps we can keep in mind Ferris’ point that the “long-term goal of moving students toward improved writing and increased autonomy in assessing and revising their own work is more important than the short-term aim of ‘fixing’ the particular paper under construction (p. 170).”

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