Metalinguistic feedback: Grammar competence in writing

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There is no doubt the teaching of grammar is of inherent value for language learners. Broadly speaking, grammar is an integral part of the language so flexible grammar knowledge will assist communication in all forms. As Batstone (1994: IIX) said “effective communication in a language would be seriously impaired without an ability to put grammar to use in a variety of situations.”

Grammar is at the service of communicating intended meaning. Lexis and grammar have an indivisible bond. It is a feature of discourse. If we intend to prepare successful candidates, we need as teachers to focus on these key aspects when it comes to developing the necessary grammatical competence.

I would like to analyse one of the tools I use in order to help students develop grammatical competence in writing as described above: Corrective feedback. After marking written work, I select the most recurrent mistakes made by students and prepare a hand-out with them along with guiding questions to help students spot the mistakes and correct them. The mistakes selected vary according to the type of task, time of the year and recurrence of that type of mistakes.

Generally speaking, I try to choose the ones that represent each of the aspects mentioned above, that is mistakes in common collocations, wrong word choice, word order, register and style appropriacy. Using the questions as guide, students are to spot the mistakes and formulate the sentence appropriately.

This type of corrective feedback is usually referred to as metalinguistic feedback. Lyster and Ranta (1997: 47) defined it as a task that “contains either comments, information or questions related to the well-formedness of the student’s utterance, without explicitly providing the correct form”.  It aims at pointing out “the nature of the error but attempt to elicit the information from the student” (ibid: 47). Lyster and Ranta found in their study of students of French in immersion courses that this type of feedback led to learner uptake in 86% of the cases studied and this along with elicitation and clarification of requests led to student-generated repair (Lyster and Ranta, 1997).

Personally, I was very much impressed by Truscott’s criticism of the effectiveness of corrective feedback, especially of written corrective feedback as the one I am describing here. He claimed that there is no hard evidence to support the case for corrective feedback being a useful tool to promote acquisition. Not only did he state this, but he went further by saying it has harmful effects on acquisition (Truscott, 1996).

It was my experience as a learner that systematic written corrective feedback helped me to focus on specific aspects of the language and provided me with tools to edit and self-correct my work. In other words, it helped me develop my internal monitor. Therefore as a teacher I used this tool to assist my learners in this aspect. It is my understanding that by engaging in such metalinguistic task, students need to draw on their pre-existing language knowledge (given-to-new principle) and compare that with the sentence given and, by activating their internal monitor, find discrepancies and be able to adjust the form to match the intended meaning. The guiding questions aim at drawing students’ attention to the aspect that needs correction without giving it away. This type of activity tries to reflect on what Batstone and Ellis (2009) define as the awareness principle.

This type of corrective feedback seems to be particularly helpful to two distinctive groups of students. On the one hand, students who score top grades seem to be able to derive uptake from it, developing repair strategies and are then able to then self-correct while performing follow-up tasks. Their scores in writing in terms of grammar increase systematically. On the other hand, students who are considered weaker language learners due to language difficulties or other reason also seem to benefit from this type of systematic work. Their scores also improve but at a slower rate.

In contrast, there is a group of more average students that seem to be stuck in their grammar acquisition process; this is clearly proved by the persistent number of errors in their written production. When prompted to self-correct they are rarely able to do so and keep on making the same type of mistakes.

Ellis et al (2008: 356) state that this kind of feedback aids the process of language acquisition by “the increase in control of a linguistic form that has already been partially internalised”. Evidently, this tool alone is not solely responsible for students´ grammatical development but as I mentioned above, metalinguistic feedback has been proved to be a highly effective way to promote uptake.

This is just one of the tools I use to achieve one of my main pedagogic purposes that is the development of autonomy in my learners. Autonomy, I believe, is the necessary condition we need to develop in our learners since I hold the conviction that my job is to prepare learners for a life-long process of learning. As Brown (2007: 70) puts it “successful mastery of a foreign language will depend to a great extent on learners´ autonomous ability both to take the initiative in the classroom and to continue their journey to success beyond the classroom and the teacher”.

SAMPLE HANDOUT

Bibliography

Batstone, R. (1994) Grammar. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press

Batstone, R. and Ellis, R. (2009) Principled grammar teaching in System 37. Pp.194-204

Brown, D. (2007) Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. New York, USA: Pearson Education

Ellis, R. et al (2008) The effects of focused and unfocused written corrective feedback in an English as a foreign language context in System 36. Pp 353-371

Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (1990) Focus-on-form and corrective feedback in the communicative classroom in Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12. Pp 37-66

Lyster, R. & Ranta, L. (1997) Corrective feedback and learner uptake in Studies in Second Language Acquisition 20. Pp. 429-448

Truscott, J. (1996) The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes in Language Learning 46:2. Pp 327-369

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