Do you rely on a teacher to correct your writing mistakes for the IELTS Test?
Is this the most effective way?
In this blog (the tapescript from my podcast) 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!
Watch to the end too find out if it’s time to ditch your tutor!
List of contents
I’ve been a teacher for 30 years, and I’ve been an IELTS teacher for 20 years. I’ve always done a lot of marking of students writing. And I always really enjoyed it because I felt it was useful, of course, that students could learn from their mistakes and I could help them and I could advise them and tell them what they needed to do.
But then I got to a certain point where I thought,
‘Hang on a minute! I’ve said this to these students, the same thing, many, many times, but they’re still making the same mistakes’.
And I felt a bit frustrated by that. 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?
And I thought,
‘Surely somebody has done some research on this?’.
The EnglishUK Action Research Project
Luckily, just at the right time, I went to a conference in London, organised by EnglishUK. They look after all of the private language schools in the UK, and they teamed up with Cambridge English Language Assessment, to sponsor six teachers and to help them do research on things that they were interested in. And they would help us do it properly so that it was accurate and reliable.
Fortunately 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. All I did was I gave my students a big, blue, empty exercise book. And that was their book to keep for the term.
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.
Then correct it.
Then give it back to me to mark again!
The correction code
Following what I’d read in all the research articles, I decided not to correct their writing. I didn’t put the correct answer for them. I only used a writing code.
I know lots of teachers and lots of schools use writing codes, and there are different types. So some people decide to just put an underline under the mistake. Some people write something like ‘p’ for punctuation or ‘sp’ for spelling, or ‘ww’ for wrong word.
And then the student has to go away and work out what their mistake is. So they’re actually thinking about the mistake themselves. They’re not relying on the teacher to just tell them what the answer is. And the theory is that if they do this, then they’re kind of internalizing the problem a bit more, they’re thinking about it more, and therefore, it will have a longer term effect on how they read their own writing in future. That’s the theory anyway.
The 10-week trial
So I marked these essays every week with the code system. And when I handed them back the blue books, they used my codes, to correct their own mistakes, without my help from me. And then they rewrote it, and gave it back to me so I could check if they’d corrected their mistakes.
So yes, they were writing the same thing 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. So 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.
So for example, last week I had one student who wrote a very nice academic Task 1 – I gave this a band 6, but I said it could be a band 7. Have a look and see what you can do to make it to band 7.
So for example, the student said
‘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’.
That’s very good, but it’s a 6. Why? Because there’s no description. And all I did was put question marks after each verb, and before each adjective. All the student had to do was add it the sales fell significantly.
‘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’.
Simply adding those adjectives and adverbs turned the writing into a band 7.
The second example I’ve got here is General Training. And it’s the most common mistake I see. This one got a Band 5, even though it was very nicely written.
‘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? Why is it a Band 5? Well there’s a huge clash between the informal friendly beginning and the formal second half – ‘however’, ‘unfortunately’, ‘I apologize’ ‘inconvenience’. This formal tone limits you to a Band 5.
So an experienced IELTS teacher will be able to point this out to you and with confidence encourage you to write in a more natural friendly way.
A simple change would be instead of ‘I am very excited’, you’d say ‘I’m’ with a contraction, ‘What a pity I won’t be here in June!’. (‘What a pity!’ that’s a great expression). ‘I won’t be here’. That’s a contraction. Plus an exclamation mark. ‘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 5, to a Band 7.
This is where it is really important that you get teacher feedback, of course.
And finally, there’s my lovely student Faris, who 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, I simply put a comma then ‘which means….?’ ‘So..?’ ‘And as a result…?’, ‘For example…?’. And every time I did that he completed the sentence. So ultimately he got into the habit of knowing that his sentences were, in a sense 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. Actually, he went up by one band, simply by doing this in his task two. So it’s something I feel very strongly about.
But I know it’s difficult for students to possibly change their mindset about this. I had a new lovely student this week who asked me to explain the difference between ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’.
And I thought, well, if you’re going to just ask someone to explain a difference they would probably say ‘Hmm. Hang on a minute. Let me think. I don’t know. Well, I suppose they’re quite similar or, I don’t know, maybe…’
Anyway, they’re not going to give you as accurate an answer as you would find in an online dictionary, where they will give you accurate examples, accurate models and clear differences.
Now, if you go to something like Longman Online Dictionary, it’s designed for learners. So the dictionary 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 and I said to the student,
‘Look, I could try to explain this but it’d be much better for you if you found the tools that you need to find the answer yourself’.
I do feel bad saying that, but there’s a sound pedagogical reason behind 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
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.
These days, there are plenty of free online tools to help you. They’re really good tools to help you check your own writing. And even Google Docs now has a system where it highlights if they notice an error.
If you find any you think are better, please do let me know and I’ll add them to the list in the blog. That would be really helpful for other students. One thing to just be a little bit careful about with Grammarly and pro writing aid, I’ve noticed that they actually don’t like formal language. So if you write something in the passive, they will suggest that you turn it to the active. So just be ready to ignore things like that. Because in writing Task 2 especially you’ll have to write with the passive and be very formal. So that just learn to ignore the advice that they give is wrong.
Here are some of the tools you can use to correct your own writing:
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