Teaching Writing as a Process and Teaching Sentence-Level Syntax: Reformulation as ESL Composition Feedback

June 1997 — Volume 2, Number 4

Teaching Writing as a Process and Teaching Sentence-Level Syntax: Reformulation as ESL Composition Feedback

Sharon Myers
Texas Tech University


Modern composition teaching has emerged primarily from observations of L1 freshman composition students, leading to a strong focus on writing ‘process,’ which does not address the need of ESL students for help with sentence-level syntax. Based on ESL students’ documented preference for error correction (Leki, 1991) and the need for word usage and sentence grammar to become automatic, this article describes the rationale and procedures for using reformulation as composition feedback. These procedures are aimed at improving sentence level grammar. Survey responses of three sections (totaling 43 ESL students) of a one-semester university ESL composition class during which the procedures were used are also presented.

In his TESL-EJ article (1995), Tim Caudery reported the responses of second language teachers he surveyed to the question of what the “process approach” meant to them. The responses reflected a lack of consensus among the teachers as to the meaning of the “process approach.” The confusion is not surprising, given that most ESL teachers do not come to their profession through courses that teach the history or theory of composition and until recently, much of the literature on teaching composition has been primarily concerned with L1 composition.

Caudery notes that “relatively little seems to have been done to develop a process approach which is specifically oriented towards L2 writing,” and suggests that “the time for this may be ripe” (p. 11). I agree.

Process, Product, L1 and ESL

Since the ‘process’ approach to composition studies has come to replace the older traditional ‘product’ rhetoric that focused on correctness, the teaching of writing has incorporated invention techniques. Invention heuristics and pre-writing exercises addressed a problem common in L1 freshman writing courses, including those taught by such founders of the new rhetoric as Wayne Booth (1963), Donald Murray (1968), Ken Macrorie (1970) and Peter Elbow (1973). A major problem was that U.S. L1 students were at a loss for something to say. Without some way to generate meaning out of their own experience, they often produced stultifying texts in response to the directions imposed upon them by their textbooks. [-1-] These directions were based on prescriptive grammar instruction, literary criticism, and an oral rhetoric stretching back to the time of Aristotle. Instruction was not based so much on the psychological processes of writing, but rather on an analysis of texts after they were produced (‘products’). In its extreme form early on, the process approach led some teachers to give their students assignments in freewriting and personal narration uncluttered with the demands of error correction or formal register. While this produced livelier text truer to the authors’ voices, it did not enable university students to produce the fluid, formal, documented academic writing their instructors are expected to get them to produce (Horowitz, 1986).

Beginning at the end of the 1960s and continuing through the 70s and 80s, composition was investigated as a cognitive process (e.g., Labov, 1970; Emig, 1971; Flower and Hayes, 1981) and as a social process (e.g., Freire, 1968; Perelman, 1977; Shaughnessy, 1977; Kinneavy, 1983; Bartholomae & Petrosky, 1986; Bizell, 1986; and Rose, 1989). These studies led to discussions about the pedagogical role of reading, the demands of different discourse communities, and the layers of cognition based on class, race, and gender folded into the process of writing. This work began to be reflected in L1 freshman composition textbooks and filtered eventually into ESL writing textbooks. ESL composition scholars and practitioners began their own investigations of L2 writing informed by the insights of L1 investigators (Cohen, 1984; Connor, 1994; Kroll, 1990; Leki, 1991; Raimes, 1976; Reid, 1988; Spack,1984; White, 1988; Zamel, 1985).

One of the most valuable perspectives to come out of this work and be incorporated into classroom teaching is that of the recursive nature of writing. Students are introduced to invention techniques to help them discover and engage a topic. Rather than being expected to turn in a finished product right away, students are asked for multiple drafts of a work and taught that rewriting and revision are integral to writing, and that editing is an ongoing, multi-level process, not merely a hasty check for correct grammar.

Our understanding of writing processes has been enriched and the teaching of writing much improved through this ‘process’ approach. However, ESL teachers are confronted with students whose needs may differ in both content and degree from the needs of L1 freshman composition students addressed by the process approach.

While invention techniques, drafting and revision do lead to more thoughtful work by both L1 and L2 writers, I find that the university ESL population I teach is not one lacking in habits of observation, critical thought, or substance to express. Most of them are placed in ESL composition classes because they do not have enough control of English vocabulary or syntax to write fluidly, not because they cannot generate meaning. In fact, the international [-2-] students are often both psychologically and socially more mature than their L1 freshmen counterparts and often have plenty to say. Figuring out what to say is not so much a problem as how to say it in English. This is reflected in Ilona Leki’s (1991) survey of 100 ESL students who were predominately concerned with producing error-free writing.

Leki and Carson’s (1994) survey of students’ perceptions of EAP writing instruction and cross-curricular writing needs also found that the largest percentage of responses to the question of what students would like to have learned or learned better in their writing classes was “… more language skills.” The most frequently expressed specific needs were vocabulary and grammar (p. 89). Hedgcock and Lefkowitz (1994) also note that “[both] FL and ESL responses” to their survey concerning student response to feedback conventions “indicate a strong concern for formal text features, such as lexical and grammatical accuracy” (p. 150).

Nor is this concern misplaced. There is abundant evidence reflecting negative reaction on the part of native speakers and faculty to sentence level and/or vocabulary errors in ESL writing (Casanave & Hubbard, 1992; Green and Hecht, 1985; Khalil, 1985; Santos, 1988; Sweedler-Brown, 1993; Vann, Meyer, & Lorenz, 1984). Indeed, Vann, Lorenz, & Meyer (1991) have found that in relation to faculty reaction to errors in spelling, article use, and verb form, the “essential pattern found when errors were embedded in isolated sentences remains when errors are embedded in complete essays”(p. 187).

Insofar as L1 and L2 populations are similar, what holds true for one may be assumed to be true for the other. However, L1 composition teaching today strongly de-emphasizes a focus on grammar and correctness as obstructive to students’ efforts to write. Concern with sentence level errors, it is implied, is a vestige of the bad old days from which we have, luckily, emerged enlightened. What L1 students do with English syntax, however, is not comparable with what ESL students do with it, either quantitatively or qualitatively. Our students know this, their readers know it, and however de-emphasized in the consciousness of enlightened teachers , it doesn’t go away. While not underestimating the need for teaching the more sophisticated levels of discourse addressed in the process approach, it is important for ESL students to develop some degree of automaticity in the use of articles, verb tenses, subject/verb agreement, spelling, and other “surface” features. This is not a matter of disowning the insights of the process approach, but of incorporating those insights into our instruction while still addressing the need to teach our students syntactic features of our language which come automatically to native speakers but not to L2 writers. How do we do this and not interfere with our students’ development as writers? How do we do it and still remain true to what we now know about the processes of writing at other levels? [-3-]

Traditional Grammar Feedback

We know that while there may be a role for formal grammar lessons in composition classes, Krashen’s wry observation holds true:

If the student-writer is able to consciously learn all the rules of punctuation, spelling, grammar, and style that linguists have discovered and described, his reward should be a Ph.D. in linguistics. Unfortunately, this will not guarantee him writing competence, since so much of what good writers do routinely and subconsciously remains to be discovered (1984, p. 25).

If accurate grammar needs to be developed at a subconscious level, then how? Simply pointing out what is wrong, whether through grammar lessons, proofreading symbols, or underlining, does not correspond at all to the process of producing a flow of writing, nor does this feedback seem to promote “acquisition” (as Krashen understands it) of correct grammar.

Marking papers with the mysterious language of English teachers (“ab, dm, cs, empha, frag, agr,” and that most dreaded epithet of all, “awk!”) requires that ESL students learn a new specialized system of symbols, learn where to find them, find them, interpret what they mean, and try to correct what they seem to point to. All of these laborious procedures lead the student farther and farther away from his or her text into ever more abstract, unrelated operations. Supplying corrections in a straightforward manner as feedback for sentence level errors may not be effective, either. Burkland and Grimm (1986) found that many L1 students look at their grades and then simply toss the laboriously marked papers.

More Efficient Feedback

I would like to suggest that we try to apply “process” insight not only to composing, but to the process of acquiring the syntax and vocabulary of a new language as well. Simply pointing out what is wrong in surface level grammar, whether through grammar lessons, proofreading symbols, or underlining does not correspond to the process of producing writing.

Gatbonton and Seglowitz (1988) have suggested that many traditional teaching methods have failed to make correct grammar automatic because they have been aimed, not at particular utterances, but at structures . They feel that repetition of utterances would work better, that an exercise to promote automatic production of correct language would have to “provide opportunities to elicit many tokens of each utterance” (pp. 477-478). What is problematic, they write, is “how to make the [-4-] repetition itself natural”(479). While they were referring to spoken language, I think this is probably true for writing as well.

Ilona Leki and Joan Carson express similar concern for natural repetition when they write about “efficiency”:

It seems important to address ESL students’ ongoing need for efficiency in language processing, including vocabulary retrieval. We…argue that this need is not addressed by isolated work with grammar and vocabulary but rather that speed of language processing only develops through extensive and repeated acts of language processing in the service of accomplishing writing goals (1994, p. 98).

Hypothesizing that indeed repetition works, and based on some of my own learning experiences in my second language, I began to work out some classroom procedures and a method of marking compositions modified from the feedback mode known as ‘reformulation.’

Reconstruction and Reformulation

The notion of “reformulation” grew out of work in error analysis in the late 1970s. Levenston (1978) traces it to Pit Corder’s (1971) definition of a “reconstructed sentence.” If an L2 speaker says ‘Lisa at night watches TV,’ the reconstruction would be: ‘Lisa watches TV at night.’ The reconstructed sentence is “what a native speaker of the target language would have said to express that meaning in that context, i.e., it is a translation equivalent” (p. 155). Levenston felt that to make a composition more ‘native-like,’ it would take a process better described as ‘reformulation’ to take into account rhetorical factors other than grammaticalness. To a great extent, the whole composition might have to be rewritten. Cohen (1989) also explains that the reformulator should “rewrite the paper so as to preserve as many of the writers’ ideas as possible, while expressing them in his/her own words so as to make the piece sound native-like” (p. 4). Obviously, rewriting every single composition of every student in a given class is too time-consuming to be practical. It would indeed make us “composition slaves” (Hairston, 1986).

The marking scheme I have developed is less elaborate than Cohen’s version of reformulation, but somewhat more extensive than what Pit Corder described as reconstruction. The remainder of this article will be a description of this method and of student response to its use throughout a one semester composition course required of all incoming international students who receive a score of less than 85 on the writing section of the Michigan test. I would like to emphasize that this procedure is systematically incorporated into these writing classes (among other activities, including reading, [-5-] discovery techniques, rewriting, revision, and conventional student editing). It is not the central focus of the writing class, but it is incorporated to address L2 students’ need for help with vocabulary, word usage, and grammar. The three sections of this class were made up of 43 students. Their first languages were as follows: Arabic, 1; Chinese, 23; Hindi, 3; Korean, 5; Spanish, 3; Thai, 2; Turkish, 4; Urdu, 2.

Writing Assignments

All of the students were in the social or physical sciences. These students are often more interested in non-fiction real-world topics than in fictional ones, and the style they need to imitate is expository and relatively formal. Their reading assignments were essays written by good science writers such as Loren Eiseley, Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, Theodore Sizer, Barbara Tuchman and others. The writing assignments were not structured beyond asking them to respond to the readings in 200 to 250 words. To relieve students of the burden of having to understand every last word in the readings, and to avoid their crawling through these sophisticated texts with bilingual dictionaries, I asked them to “read only for 50 or 60% comprehension,” and respond to what they felt they did understand. Usually they produced two of these responses each week, aiming at an academic register suitable for publication. These were the texts that received the reformulation feedback described below.

Composition Marking and Classroom Procedures

The object of this version of reformulation is not to make a composition sound “native-like” in its entirety, but to free it from glaring errors in syntax. Where practical, it also offers the student the vocabulary he or she has painfully circumlocuted or offer a word or a phrase that would be more “native” sounding in cases where it fits into the flow of the students’ texts. The markings below are also used to correct mechanics such as spelling and punctuation. Very occasionally I use them to take out an entire paragraph or insert a whole sentence, but most correction is done within sentences. The markings are simple and can be learned by students immediately. There are five. I present them on the board this way:

        ^      means "add"      (put in)
     (     )   means "omit"     (take out)
       >       means "indent"   (go in 5 spaces to the right)
       ?       means "mystery"  (I can't interpret this. Rewrite or leave out)
       |       means "separate" (leave a space between these items)

If there is a letter, word, punctuation mark, or phrase enclosed within the parentheses with a letter, word, punctuation mark, or [-6-] phrase directly above, it means “take out what is between the parentheses and put in what is above the parentheses.”

That is the extent of the symbol system although it may be augmented by circling some word or material and drawing an arrow from it to another location in the text, in case the order of the material (word, words, punctuation mark, even a paragraph) needs to be changed.

In this way, the text is corrected. It is not corrected by an underline, which simply draws attention to “wrongness,” or by a symbol naming the error. It is, rather, simply corrected by supplying the right word or material. Once the text has been so marked, I write “CC” or “CCSO” at the top of the paper. “CC” means “Return this text as a clean copy in which all corrections have been incorporated.” “CCSO” (“Clean copy, sentences only”) means “Turn in your original as well as a paper in which only the sentences in this text which have been corrected are copied in their correct form.” CCSO is less common and is for students who have made so few errors that it makes no sense for them to recopy the whole paper. They may choose to copy their papers if they do not want the rest of the class to see the corrections. However, if they don’t mind, they can leave the corrections as they stand and hand in the separate CCSO paper to me, demonstrating that they have paid attention to and used the correction. No one can ignore the corrections I have made in the papers, and in fact must pay attention to them to satisfy the assignment.

This means that the students have to go back to their individual works and attend to them at the sentence level, not at the speed of thought but at least at the speed they copy. They copy them incorporating the corrections, so that the text and meaning remain theirs. The corrections are a matter of processing and putting in an appropriate word or phrase in the sequence each actually occurs in the text, embedding the syntax in their own reading and copying of their own written thoughts and words. In this way, the feedback is absolutely individualized. Each student incorporates the corrections peculiar to his or her paper into the flow of his or her own intended meaning.

These clean copies (which, like the originals, must be at least double-spaced) are then handed in and published. No one has to display his or her errors to other members of the class and in their role as readers of each other’s texts, class members can attend to the meaning of their classmates’ papers and enjoy and discuss them at other levels. Everyone is reading good English undistracted by errors; no one is embarrassed by a low level of grammatical proficiency. Students who otherwise cringe at having to show their papers in class often feel pride in their writing. The others can discuss content, but no one is going to quibble about grammar. [-7-]

After the corrected papers (CCs) are handed in, I distribute them at random to the seated students who are asked to read each paper and comment about what works in each or what strikes them as good or interesting about it. (I tell them that we are together to learn about what works. We do not need to study what doesn’t work, which is obvious anyway). As each finishes a paper, he or she places it on a table at the front of the room and picks up an unread composition at the same time. In this way the papers circulate throughout the class. If one person is left for a few minutes without a composition to read, he or she is expected to use the time to write comments or make journal entries.

After the papers have circulated, the whole class talks about what they have read. Having formulated some thoughts in the “comments” part of the assignment, everyone has something to say even if he or she hasn’t commented on every paper. Everyone knows which papers were the best; they don’t have to be told. At the same time they don’t have to worry about a humiliating comment being made about their work in public. If anything is said at all, it will be positive. Students are very interested to read each other’s work and to calibrate it for quality as well as meaning. I think they learn a lot about writing from each other through these readings and if there is a little competitive edge to improve the next paper, so much the better. It comes through the group dynamic, not through comparing grades, because I don’t grade these assignments. If the assignments are poorly done or incomplete, I note it on their originals and in my records, so it works against their grade in class but otherwise the papers are ungraded.

Following are two example excerpts from texts, marked versions, and final CCs. These have been marked using the computer in this text, but I usually do it quickly by hand.

Original Personal Narrative:

I had a bycicle. I really loved that bike. It was the best toy that I ever had. I bought in Miami in one trip that I did with my father and my brother. My father bought a bike for my brother too. It was better than mine, but now I know that I prefer mine.

Those times I used to ride my bike with my friends. My friends lived in the same block where I live. We used to go to the park and to make longs trips in the city. My bike was red and beautiful. It was litle because I was litle too. It was easyto ride it. It had low weight and strong tires. Maybe, it was one of the best in the block.

One day we planed a exciting trip to the mines of stone. We didn’t go. We planed another trip, and this time was to the hills of north part of the city.


Narrative Reformulated:

           i   y
>I had a b(y)c(i)cle.  I really loved that bike.  It was the best

                              it          on a               made
toy that I ever had.  I bought in Miami (in one) trip that I (did)

with my father and my brother.  My father bought a bike for my

                                            I know
brother, too. It was better than mine, but now that I prefer mine.
>(Those times) I used to ride my bike with my friends.  My friends
       on                            d
lived (in) the same block where I live.  We used to go to the park
and to make long(s) trips in the city. >My bike was red and 
                     t                   t                    
beautiful.  It was litle because I was litle too.  It was easy|to
                     ^                   ^                      
                 was light        had                       
ride it.  It (had low weight) and strong tires.  Maybe(,) it 
                     ^           ^                            
was one of the best (in) the block.
               n                          a rock quarry
>One day we planed a exciting trip to (the mines of stone).
                     n                             it
We didn't go. We planed another trip, and this time was to
                     ^                             ^
           the    ern
the hills of north part of the city.
            ^     ^

Narrative CC:

          I had a bicycle.  I really loved that bike.  It was
     the best toy that I ever had.  I bought it in Miami on a
     trip that I made with my father and my brother.  My
     father bought a bike for my brother too.  It was better
     than mine, but now I know that I prefer mine. [-9-]
           I used to ride my bike with my friends.  My friends
     lived in the same block where I lived.  We used to go to
     the park and to make long trips in the city.
           My bike was red and beautiful.  It was little
     because I was little too. It was easy to ride it.  It was
     light and had strong tires.  Maybe it was one of the best
     on the block.
           One day we planned an exciting trip to a rock
     quarry.  We didn't go. We planned another trip, and this
     time it was to the hills of the northern part of the

Original Academic Excerpt:


          Thailand is classified as the developing country.
     Its industrial and financial indexes have recently high
     enough to group into those "NICs" (Newly Industrialized
     Countries), which are now consisted of 4 countries in
     Asia:  Korea, Republic of China, Singapore and Thailand.

Academic Excerpt Reformulated:

              THE                            ON
>Thailand is classified as (the) developing country.  Its

industrial and financial indexes have recently high enough
        it   the category of the
to group into (those) "NICs" (Newly Industrialized Countries),
which (are) now consist(ed) of (4) countries in Asia:

     the                           ,
Korea, Republic of China, Singapore and Thailand.
      ^                            ^

Academic Excerpt CC:


          Thailand is classified as a developing country.
     Its industrial and financial indexes have recently been [-10-] 
     high enough to group it into the category of the "NICs"
     (Newly Industrialized Countries), which now consist of
     four countries in Asia:  Korea, the Republic of China,
     Singapore, and Thailand.

This five-symbol marking can be done swiftly by a native speaker, and very swiftly after one has become accustomed to it. It is more work than an L1 teacher would do with student text, but our students have to wrestle with the language at additional levels. The extra time marking the L2 papers in this way is more than compensated for by student gratitude (they much appreciate this kind of attention to their language.)

Other Course Features

In addition to the two response texts a week which were reformulated and published as described above, students had a short two-entries-per-week journal assignment on self-selected topics. Students were told that the journal assignment would not be marked for grammar errors, but would only receive reader response. The journal assignment was meant to be exploratory in nature, and to develop speed and fluency. Nevertheless, once students began getting their reformulated compositions back, many of them requested that their journal text be reformulated, too. It would have been far too time-consuming to have done all the journals in addition to the other texts even if it hadn’t violated the purpose of the assignment, but their interest showed that they valued the feedback.

In the second half of the course students wrote two papers explaining controversies in their respective fields, using direct and indirect quotes and field-specific citation conventions. These were about 300 words long, aimed at our class as the audience, and published. Each of these was drafted and revised over a two-week period, and the final version reformulated.

The course included some grammar consciousness-raising directed to the whole class, but the process of the students repeatedly incorporating the vocabulary and structures they needed for their own meanings into their own papers, to be communicated to the whole class was the primary mode of grammar instruction.

Overall, sentence-level accuracy in the response papers improved over the semester, though it varied considerably across individuals. Comparison of impromptu essays written on the first day, midterm, and at the end of the semester in which students had very little time to revise or edit, showed noticeable improvement in the use of articles and verb tenses for most of the students. It is not possible to claim that the composition feedback method was responsible for the improvement rather than the reading or even just the additional time in the second language environment. It will take careful research to measure the effect, but there is no question [-11-] that the overwhelming majority of the students very much liked the method and felt that they were learning from it. Their enthusiasm alone creates conditions for learning.

Some teachers I have told about this method of feedback are clearly suspicious of it because in the response assignments, students are simply given the words they need; they don’t have to “work” for them. But why not just give them the words? Why not directly supply the words needed as soon as possible so that the writers can encounter them and manipulate them in the flow of their own intentions? It is in such communicative use that language seems to be acquired. In a stream of spoken discourse, we do not hesitate to supply the word or phrase needed by a speaker. Students appreciate the prompt and detailed feedback, and the method provides them with frequent contextual opportunities to reorganize the syntax most troublesome to each individual. The object of the reformulation feedback is not to teach the students editing, which is another part of the course, but to promote learning by providing students contextual opportunities to repeat correct use of structures through repeated tokens of written expression. In fact, the repeated reformulations do lend themselves to grammar consciousness-raising and therefore indirectly to the ability to edit. Again, this is in agreement with the observation of Gatbonton and Seglowitz (1988) that many traditional teaching methods have not promoted the automatic use of correct grammar because they have been aimed at abstract structures rather than at particular utterances.

While the new insights into composing processes are important, we also know that “Grammar is important; and learners seem to focus best on grammar when it relates to their communicative needs and experiences”(Savignon, 1993, p.43). In second language settings, we can’t ignore grammar nor can we relegate it to handbooks and refer students to page numbers. Learning the syntax and vocabulary of the new language is basic to our students’ ability to write. The feedback method proposed here suggests only one way to address the need of L2 writers to increase vocabulary and learn the syntax of their new language as they learn to write in it. We need to develop many ways of doing so. Second language learning is as much a process as writing is a process, and among our students writing is firmly embedded in the matrix of second language learning.


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Survey on Student Response to Reformulation*

During this course you have written essays and some journal assignments which were then reformulated by an instructor. (Reformulation refers to the technique of correcting your work by directly providing words, spelling, punctuation, or by providing a phrase or sentence). These were then returned to you and you were asked to produce a clean copy of your text (one which incorporated every correction) by the following class period.

To gather information about this technique, it would be helpful if you would respond to the following questions.

1. This technique helped my grammar:
    not at all      a little      more than a little     very much
        1             12               15                  15

2. This technique helped increase my vocabulary:
   not at all       a little      more than a little     very much
        5             17               13                   8

3. This technique helped me learn word usage:
   not at all       a little      more than a little     very much
        0              6               25                  12

4. This technique helped my mechanics (spelling, punctuation,
   not at all       a little      more than a little     very much
        0             11               18                  14

5. For learning to write in English in general, this technique was
   not useful    slightly useful   moderately useful    very useful
        0              9               18                  16

6.**  In general, I_________ using this technique.
        liked        disliked        felt indifferent about
         32             0                  9

*n=3 D=43

** two students did not respond


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