Do you rely on a teacher to correct your writing mistakes for the IELTS Test?
Is this the most effective way?
In this blog and video, I look at some research that’s been done about the best way to learn from your mistakes – and the answers may surprise you.
Scroll down to find 3 examples of how I changed my students’ scores from Band 6 to Band 7.
In a nutshell: 'Three Before Me'
The ‘3 before me’ system recommends that you try 3 methods of finding the answer before you ask the tutor.
It is based on the theory that if you find the solution to a problem by yourself, you are more likely to understand it and retain the information long-term.
3 ways to edit and check your own writing
They will highlight your mistakes and suggest corrections. Keep your own Google Doc to type on, like we do in the Members Academy, and you will start to notice common errors.
These will make suggestions about your writing but do be careful – they don’t like formal language. So if you write something in the passive, they will suggest that you turn it to the active. In Writing Task 2 you need to write with the passive and be formal.
Ludwig Guru tells you if a word or phrase is correct by showing you all the correct examples it has found. It’s also useful if you’re not sure whether a collocation is possible or whether something you read/hear is in common use.
The rest of this article discusses the research that supports the theory that ‘Error correction by the teacher is a waste of time and should be banned!’.
Scroll down to see the 3 examples of how I helped my students improve their score through my corrections.
Using a learner dictionary
If you ask someone to explain a difference they will probably say ‘Hmm. Hang on a minute. Let me think. Ooooh, I don’t know. Well, I suppose they’re quite similar or, I don’t know, maybe…’
They cannot give you as accurate an answer as you would find in an online dictionary, which will give you accurate examples, accurate models and clear differences.
If you use a learner dictionary like the Longman Online Dictionary, it’s designed for learners it will know if there’s an important difference, and it will tell you be careful.
For example, there’s a difference between ‘work’ (uncountable) and ‘a job’, which is countable, and the Learner Dictionary knows that this is a really common mistake. It will point that you to you.
And because you’re doing that research yourself, you will remember it.
There’s evidence that is much better, long term, for the student to do their own research because it will help them and build their independent learning skills
Other useful tools
(See the Writing Links Page for a full list)
Netspeak helps you to search for words you don’t know, yet. It is a new kind of dictionary that contains everything that has ever been written on the web.
Just The Word is a tool that can help you choose the right words and phrases in English. It can also help you correct your writing mistakes. It is a combination of dictionary and thesaurus, and is very useful for learning collocations.
Words to use – ‘a new kind of word reference that can help you write about anything! Unlike a thesaurus, which groups words by their meaning, we group subject-related words by parts of speech.’
Sentence Dictionaries like Sentence.dict: an ‘online sentence dictionary, on which you can find good sentence examples for almost every word.’
sentence.yourdictionary: ‘With this sentence maker, simply type a word in the search bar and see a variety of sentences with that word used in its different ways. Our sentence generator can provide more context and relevance, ensuring you use a word the right way.’
My new favourite (free) tool is Wordtune which magically suggests better sentences!
How can teachers help you get Band 7?
Example 1: Academic Task 1
Look at this extract from my student’s Task 1. What score would you give it?
‘It is clear that sales of VHS tapes fell, whereas sales of DVD discs saw a rise followed by a decrease. Blu-ray discs also experienced an increase in sales’.
It’s a strong 6 but not a 7. Why? Because it’s safe, accurate but lacking in description.
What can the student do to make it a Band 7?
Here’s how I helped my student – what words could you put to replace the question marks?
‘It is clear that sales of VHS tapes fell [?], whereas sales of DVD discs saw a [?] rise followed by a [?] decrease. Blu-ray discs also experienced a [?] increase in sales’.
By adding adjectives and adverbs (more description), the Band score increased to 7.
‘It is clear that sales of VHS tapes fell [dramatically], whereas sales of DVD discs saw a [steep] rise followed by a [slight] decrease. Blu-ray discs also experienced a [noticeable] increase in sales’.
Example 2: General Training Task 1
The second example is General Training. And it’s the most common mistake I see.
This one got a Band 6. Why?
‘Hi, Jane, How’s it going? Good to know that you passed your uni exams. I am very excited to hear about your plans and glad that you are coming to visit me in summer. However, unfortunately, I am not available at that time and I apologize for any inconvenience caused’.
What do you notice? How could you improve it?
There’s a huge clash between the informal, friendly beginning and the formal ‘however’, ‘unfortunately’, ‘I apologize’ ‘inconvenience’. This inconsistency could limit you to a Band 5.
An experienced IELTS teacher can point this out to you and help you to write in a more natural, friendly way e.g
1. Use contractions: instead of ‘I am very excited’, you’d say ‘I’m’
2. ‘What a pity I won’t be here in June!’.
(‘What a pity!’ that’s a great expression). ‘I won’t be here’ is a contraction. Plus an exclamation mark!
3. ‘Can’t you make it a bit later?’
‘make it’ = informal expression. ‘can’t you?’ is a direct question.
All of these things will push that writing from a Band 6, to a Band 7.
This is where it is really important that you get teacher feedback, of course.
Example 3: Writing Task 2
My lovely student Faris kept getting 5.5. And he needed 6.
And the trouble with him was that he wasn’t extending his sentences. So his writing was underlength, even though he had good points. He couldn’t reach the 250 word limit and he wasn’t developing his ideas.
On his writing, after each point, I put ‘which means….?’ ‘So..?’ ‘in order to…?’ ‘And as a result…?’, ‘For example…?’ ‘because…?’ ‘Such as..?’
And every time I did that he completed the sentence. So ultimately he got into the habit of knowing that his sentences were incomplete because they had no development or extension. And this made his sentences too simple.
But when he added the consequence of the result, that suddenly gave him a voice, it made his opinions clearer, and strengthened his arguments and he got a 6.5.
In the Members Academy, weekly writing feedback is included with all the courses, so when I spot anything you need help with, I can point you in the direction of where to get help.
How does this work?
- Every week I set a Task 1 or Task 2
- I give you some research/homework to help you prepare for the task
- Every Friday at 1pm we do the feedback session LIVE on the Webinar page in the Academy.
- We ALL do the SAME task (in a shared Google Doc) so that you can cover ALL of the topics in the 6-month syllabus and so you can see how different people do the same question (peer-learning)
- After the class, I send feedback in a follow-up email, and you can find the PDF and all the previous webinars/PDFs.
- If you miss the live lesson – you can watch the replay and I save all the videos and worksheets in the Members Academy so you can watch them anytime.
Click on the image below to learn more about the benefits of joining the Members Academy.
My error correction project
As an IELTS tutor, I do a LOT of marking. I actually enjoy it because it gives me a chance to help my students fix their grammar problems.
But it doesn’t always work like that and a few years ago I thought,
‘Hang on a minute! I’ve corrected the same thing, many, many times, but I keep seeing the same mistakes’.
I felt a bit frustrated and I wondered,
- Is that my fault?
- Is the way I’m correcting students not working?
- Or is it that students simply don’t learn from this method of error correction?
- Is there a better way?
- And could they learn from their mistakes in a more effective way?
I also thought,
‘Surely somebody has done some research on this?’
The EnglishUK Action Research Project
I went to and EnglishUK training session in London. EnglishUK look after all of the English language schools in the UK, and together with Cambridge English Language Assessment, they sponsor six teachers every year to help them do research into better teaching practices.
I was chosen as one of the six people. They suggested that I monitor the way I give correction and try and find out which correction is most effective. And to back that up with research (lots of reading!).
The Blue Book Project
My project was called the Blue Book Project. I gave my students a big, blue, empty exercise book.
They had to write all their homework in it and every time I set a writing for them, they had to write it in the blue book and give it to me to mark.
When I marked their work, I didn’t put the correct answer for them. I only used a writing code e.g.‘p’ for punctuation or ‘sp’ for spelling, or ‘ww’ for wrong word.
Then you have to work out what their mistake was. So you’re actually thinking about the mistake and not relying on the teacher to just tell you what the answer is.
This will have a longer term effect on how well you remember grammar, punctuation etc in the future.
The 10-week trial
So yes, the students wrote the same essay twice. But the second time they had corrected their own mistakes. And we did this for about 10 weeks.
During that time, I did different kinds of tests and questionnaires. And I counted up their mistakes at the start and then counted up their mistakes at the end. And the people who helped me, the experts from English UK and Cambridge English, showed me how to analyze the results and to work out what was effective and what was not effective.
So guess what?
Yes, what we found that there was a significant difference between the students who did this Blue Book project and the students who didn’t.
There could be a variety of reasons for this. It could be that the students who didn’t have the blue book, and simply just didn’t have that opportunity to look at their work and rewrite it. And it could be the fact that the blue book actually encouraged them to think more about their mistakes.
There are lots of reasons and of course, more research needs to be done. But ultimately, the project was very positive in that, we did see a noticeable improvement in the student’s ability to notice and correct their own mistakes. And, therefore not rely on a teacher. And, of course, in an exam situation, you don’t have the teacher there, breathing over your shoulder, you have to do it yourself. So it’s something I believe very passionately in.
Let me tell you about some of the research articles. The one I loved – and this is the most important one – was by John Truscott. I read the first line and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, I totally agree with this’. It says,
‘This paper argues that grammar correction in L2 writing classes should be abandoned’
And that’s it. He thinks it should be abandoned and that we shouldn’t correct grammar. He gives reasons why – he says research shows it’s ineffective and doesn’t work, for many ‘theoretical and practical reasons’. It has harmful effects, for example, it affects your morale when you’re always being corrected, and he thinks it’s a waste of time in class, and that’s not how we learn languages. So he had a lot of things to say about it.
And, of course, there were people who disagreed with him as well and people, who had done other types of research. But the thing that I really noticed was – what I found in many of these research papers – is that if you DO something with the error correction, then that is more likely to make the difference. So, Hyland says the ‘crucial factor’ is
‘having the students do something with the error correction besides simply receiving it.’
The problem with error correction is you just look at it, maybe you just look at your score, and you don’t actually act on it. So you might as well just throw it in the bin. This is a really important lesson, I think. And it’s an essential skill that students have to learn in my Friday feedback session in the Members Academy, where students submit their writing every week. I do correct that grammar, but there’s a reason for that and I’m going to talk about that next.
Learn more about the project
Want to get more details about how the Blue Book project worked?
Click on the image to see the full article.
Find out more about how EnglishUK and Cambridge English Language Assessment helped me carry out my research project.
I hope this will really guide you long term like it did for my students and give you the skills that you need to help yourself in the future, to go on and do wonderful things with your life and your English language learning.
Get more help – grammar lessons are integrated in the step-by-step courses of the Members Academy.
Hyland, K (1990) Providing productive feedback, ELT Journal 44(4), 279-285
Truscott, J (1996) The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes, Language Learning 46 (2), 327 – 369