Treatment of Error in Second-Language Student Writing
Michigan series on teaching multilingual writers (Series editors Diane Belcher and Jun Liu)
Dana R. Ferris (2002)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xiii + 152
ISBN 0-472-08816-5 (paper)
After decades spent in the trenches, the field of teaching writing to non-native speakers of English has truly come into its own in recent years, a development attested to by the publication of the Michigan Series on Teaching Multilingual Writers. The volumes in this series promise to engage the most pressing issues in L2 composition, a promise kept by Treatment of Error in Second-Language Student Writing by Dana Ferris.
Ferris is clearly qualified to address the topic of error treatment, having been involved in virtually every aspect of the discussion of the topic as it evolved over the years, most memorably, perhaps, her published exchange with John Truscott. While Ferris's first-hand research experience in this area serves as her credentials, readers may be even more impressed with how effortlessly this text reads. Treatment of Error is divided into five chapters, and is supplemented by over 30 pages of practical appendices.
In the first two chapters, the case is made for error correction and a well-organized review of previous studies is presented. The review of the literature is particularly well organized and makes the most of section headings and subheadings, which clearly categorize past studies and research issues. All in all, the second chapter is an impressive catalog of the major research related to error treatment in second-language writing. Surely, the encyclopedic knowledge contained in this chapter must have required excruciating attention to detail--especially considering that Ferris not only reports on the research findings, but also critiques the methods --but it reads so smoothly and is organized so clearly that one hardly needs to take notes or uncap the highlighter. The use of figures to summarize major research and list relevant references in the field of error correction as well as to list research questions that still require attention is a welcomed formatting device.
Chapter 3, "Preparing L2 Writing Teachers to Treat Student Error," briefly suggests ways in which writing teachers can bolster their own knowledge of grammar in order to respond effectively to student texts. Again, presentation of material is streamlined, with advice offered in a series of four principles. Though only ten pages long, this section contains down-to-earth guidance for bringing up one's own competence and confidence in relation to grammar.
Many readers will likely have the contents of Chapter 4, "Responding to Student Errors: Issues and Strategies," in mind when they buy this book. Here we find a systematic discussion of items such as direct and indirect feedback, which aims to answer questions such as which errors to respond to, and when and how to go about responding to them. Chapter 4 offers consideration of every conceivable dimension of error treatment, and does so in surprisingly comprehensive fashion for such a thin volume. The section rounds off with tips for avoiding burnout in error treatment and a summary of strategies for providing feedback, firmly grounding the discussion with practical assistance for writing teachers.[-1-]
"Beyond Error Correction," the final chapter, delves into the topics of peer response and training editing strategies to students. Though this chapter introduces important aspects of the student-as-editor facet of error treatment, the discussion takes place in the context of what has come before. In other words, it is one more aspect of error treatment, but this text does not unravel the issue to a finite extent--most likely because there is a separate volume in this series dedicated to the topic of peer response.
The collected appendices in this volume complement the copious in-text figures and tables. Practicing teachers in need of examples of error-analysis sheets or comparisons of error treatment styles will be pleased with the cornucopia of materials. This text is truly a teacher's resource.
Aware I must sound redundant, I still want to mention that one of my greatest overall impressions of this book is how simple it was to read. If there were an index, there would have been no need at all to take notes or highlight anything, as one could be confident of quickly locating specific passages quickly.
My main reaction to the content is that Ferris is fair, while still making the case for her preferred brand of error correction. At every turn, she acknowledges holes in the research as well as alternative points of view. She never claims she has the right way, or the only way, and, in fact, urges teachers to apply appropriate feedback models to specific situations (p. 76), and to "balance their own beliefs with what students tell them about their needs and preferences for error feedback." (p. 85) Anyone put off by dichotomies in theory, and who may be familiar with the Ferris-Truscott exchange, can feel confident that this text offers insight and solutions, and is not a manifesto.
At some point in our teaching, we are likely to forget why we chose to do something one way, and not another. At times, I found myself newly encouraged as I revisited those points of decision for practices I have been using with my own students. But I also found myself nodding my head in agreement when the written word reminded me of strategies I may have been ignoring or under-using. Treatment of Error is an excellent primer for professionals who are new to the field of second-language writing. Practicing second-language writing teachers will also benefit from the comprehensive discussion of methods and techniques included in this volume.
International Graduate School of English
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