Conti’s post starts with a reference to Hattie who has suggested that feedback is very effective. Conti notes that giving corrective feedback on writing has now been given top priority in many state schools. He then goes on to write that his post is a response to the numerous teachers who have written to him asking whether the time and effort they put into marking is justified. Conti states:
I intend to answer this question by drawing on thirty years of error-correction research, my personal experience as a learner of 14 languages and teacher of five and, more importantly, neuroscience and common sense.
Impressive stuff. 14 languages! 30 years of error correction research! AND neuroscience! However when we get to the research we run into a problem.
What jumps out initially is the age of the references. Conti promises ‘thirty years of error correction research’ but sadly those 30 years seem to be 1974-2004. The most recent reference, Conti 2004, is to his own writing. In fact, the only post 2000 references are to his own writing. I would have liked to read the works in question to evaluate the claims made but as Conti doesn’t provide a reference list or hyperlink to the texts referenced in the post, this wasn’t possible.
Now, references don’t have best before dates, and to this day E still equals MC squared. That said, the age of Conti’s references does present an issue in this case. For instance, Dana Ferris, possibly the world’s leading expert on written corrective feedback (WCF) is only mentioned in relation to a 1999 paper. She has, since then, written extensively on the subject including three books (Response to student Writing 2003, treatment of error in second language 2002, 2011, and with Bitchener, Written Corrective Feedback 2012). None of these are mentioned in the section called “What L2 error-correction research says”.
What’s more, the research findings show a distinct change in the period Conti leaves out. For instance, Ellis and Shintani note that whereas in 1996 it was possible for Truscott to argue that the effectiveness of WCF could not be supported, this position is no longer tenable (2013:271). And as if spookily preempting Conti, Ferris, in a ‘state of the art’ paper from 2004 notes that ‘since 1999, I have done a considerable amount of both primary and secondary research work on the issues surrounding error correction in L2 writing‘ (2004:50).
A lot is missed if we miss out the last 15 years of research. In a recent meta-analysis looking at WCF, of the 21 studies that met the inclusion criteria, only four were published before 2004. Conti’s post does not include any of the 17 remaining studies. This is important as the research design of ‘early (pre-Truscott, 1996) studies‘ contained design and execution flaws (Bitchener and Ferris 2012:50) perhaps indicating why ‘studies published after the year 2000 showed a significantly higher effect size…than that of the studies published before 2000‘ (Kang and Han 2015:99).
So what does the research say about corrective feedback?
Research tends to suggest that error correction is effective. Ellis and Shintani state that ‘both oral and written CF can assist L2 acquisition.’ (2014:268) It has a positive effect on student writing (Ferris 2011, Bitchener and Ferris 2012). Kang and Han conducted a meta analysis of current research and concluded that “written corrective feedback appears to have a moderate to large effect on the grammatical accuracy of L2 students” (2015:7). Research by Van Beuningen et al (2012) also points to the efficacy of WCF noting that it can improve subsequent pieces of writing. This contrasts Conti’s claims that ‘both direct and indirect correction do not impact students’ accuracy more effectively than no correction at all‘ (though it is perhaps possible that the bold font cancels out the research evidence).
It isn’t clear from his post, but Conti may be talking about lower level students. As Schmidt notes on the ELT research bytes webpage, the Kang and Han meta Analysis found that ‘[WCF’s] efficacy is mediated by a host of variables, including learners’ proficiency, the setting, and the genre of the writing task‘ (2015). Notably, Kang and Han’s analysis suggests WCF is less beneficial among lower level learners.
And what type of feedback is best?
Conti claims that direct correction is ‘pretty much a waste of time’ and ‘Indirect correction, on the other hand, is not likely to contribute much to acquisition as the learner will not be able to correct what s/he does not know’ (section 2) But what does the research say about types of correction?
Direct or indirect?
Direct correction, that is telling the students exactly what is wrong, and what they ought to write, ‘is more effective than indirect’ and direct feedback alone ‘resulted in gains in grammatical accuracy’ (Ellis and Shintani 2014:271). According to Shintani and Ellis ‘Bitchener and Knoch (2010), Hashemnezhad and Mohammadnejad (2012) and Frear (2012) all reported direct feedback to be more effective than indirect’ (2015:111) In older studies no difference was detected, or indirect CF appeared superior (Ferris 2011:32) but ‘recent studies report a clear advantage for direct forms of feedback.’ (Bitchener and Ferris 2012:74). As an interesting side note, teaching guides tend to promote indirect feedback (Ellis and Shintani’s 2014:279).
In conclusion, we can say fairly confidently that feedback of some kind is, in most cases, better than no feedback. Research suggests that even a ‘single treatment’, particularly if focused on a grammar point with a clear rule, is effective. (Ellis and Shintani 2014:271).
Coded or uncoded?
Coded feedback is using some kind of code like ‘V’ for verb or ‘S/V’ for subject verb problems. These are usually accompanied by some kind of meta-linguistic explanation. Uncoded feedback, on the other hand, would just be highlighting that an error had occurred but not providing an indication as to what it was. The theory behind correction codes is that students will have to work a bit harder to work out what their errors are.
Interestingly, there is no evidence that coded feedback is superior to uncoded (Ferris 2011:34). Both teachers and students, however, believe that coded feedback is more effective. (Ferris and Bitchener 2012:93) and there is some research supporting the idea that meta-linguistics explanations make feedback more effective (Ferris 2011:100).
Focused or unfocused?
Focused just means concentrating on one type of error, verb forms or articles for example, rather than picking up different types of errors. The research is not that clear here. According to Ferris most researchers now believe focused feedback is more effective than unfocused (Ferris 2011:51, 2010:182). Shintani and Ellis (2015:111) are more cautious, noting that research has shown focused feedback to be effective ‘in the sense that it results in gains in grammatical accuracy in new pieces of writing‘ and adding that it is more effective than unfocused feedback ‘in some cases‘.
So the jury is seemingly out on focused vs unfocused WFC. However, whereas a study that compared focused and unfocused feedback found no difference between the two (Ellis et al., 2008) both were superior to the ‘no feedback’ group. A finding which seems to contradict Conti’s bold statement.
Doesn’t error correction demotivate students?
Finally, a common complaint is that error correction demotivates or humiliates students. This is certainly possible. Conti quotes research from 1998 noting that ‘an excessive concern with error treatment may affect students’ motivation negatively‘. Well yes, it may, but (ready the bold font) it also may not. Ellis and Shintani argue that the case for this is perhaps overstated, pointing to the fact that ‘learners typically state that they want to be corrected’ (2014:275) a point Ferris (2011:51) and Conti himself (see point 1) concur with. In my context (academic English writing) a study by Weaver (2006, N=44) suggests, like much research on this subject, that when students are asked, they say they like and want feedback. In fact, 96% of business students surveyed by Weaver agreed that ‘tutors don’t provide enough feedback’. Unless they actively enjoy humiliation (a hypothesis I’m sure someone could investigate,) then it seems unlikely that students mind WCF.
Conti has written a great deal on this subject. His blog includes posts explaining how current essay feedback practices are questionable, ‘7 reasons why traditional error correction doesn’t work‘, ‘why asking students to self correct is a waste of time‘ and ‘why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students writing‘. Clearly, there is a theme here (and no, it’s not starting blog posts with the word ‘why’). Conti doesn’t think error correction is all that worthwhile. To be clear, he doesn’t think it is worthless either, just that it shouldn’t be given as much importance as it currently is. It would be really useful though, when making statements like “There is no conclusive empirical evidence that EC can be effective” (2.7), if he could explain why he chooses to only discuss evidence that is 15 or more years old. I don’t know Conti’s teaching context so can’t comment on whether or not there is an overemphasis on WCF there. What I can say is that, on my reading of the evidence at least, ‘there is a clear case for correcting learners written errors’ (Ellis and Shintani 2014:276).
*I realise ‘I like dogs and I like cats’ isn’t a great sentence.