Red Pen Series: How to Identify Errors in the Written Work of Non-Native English Speakers

This article is part of a series on evaluating the written work of NNES students. Make sure to check out the other articles in the series on providing meaningful feedback and creating a growth-oriented feedback loop.

Grading student writing can be one of the more arduous tasks you encounter as an instructor. That task can become more involved when your classroom includes non-native English-speaking (NNES) students, whose writing requires different attention than that of your native English-speaking students. Research on student preferences consistently shows that NNES writers “expect instructors to comment on their written work and are frustrated if this does not happen” (Hyland & Hyland, 2006). Research also affirms that NNES writers take instructor feedback seriously. Therefore, it’s critical to provide feedback that’s meaningful and also initiates positive, lasting growth in students (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014a; Gonzalez 2018; Hyland & Hyland, 2006).

The “Red Pen” series helps you know how to best use your “red pen” when you provide corrections and feedback to your NNES students. These articles also offer suggestions on how to encourage learners to both continue writing in the target language and add to their linguistic knowledge. This article examines specifically how to identify and address errors in NNES student writing.

What is an error?

If you aren’t a language instructor, your approach to student writing may focus more on assessing your students’ understanding of the subject matter and less on their writing proficiency. For this reason, let’s first clarify what the term error means in the context of a non-native English speaking (NNES) writer’s work. Moving forward, the term error refers to “any morphological, syntactic, or lexical deviation from the grammatical rules of a language” (i.e., mistakes in spelling, punctuation, syntax, grammar, word choice, and word form; Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014b, p. 282). It’s common for an NNES writer’s work to contain these and other inaccuracies.

To correct or not to correct?

When assessing an NNES writer’s work, should you identify all of these errors for the student? The short answer is no. It’s important to refrain from providing NNES students with an “information dump” on their papers. If you mark every error in a student’s writing, then you risk overwhelming the student. (This is an overall best practice when it comes to providing feedback., as we discuss in the article “Grading and Providing Feedback: Consistency, Effectiveness, and Fairness.”) In addition, doing so can be time-consuming for you and lead to poor results from the student.

In fact, offering too much feedback may trigger decision fatigue in a student, which sets in when the student receives an abundance of information and is unable to process it adequately. As a result, the student may not ultimately internalize your recommendations and may instead ignore the feedback altogether or only attend to the minor or more easily correctable errors (Gonzalez, 2018). If you cause decision fatigue, your feedback will not be effective because feedback is about fostering students’ growth and reflection. To avoid this, be selective in the feedback that you provide, and identify just a few key items that will make the biggest impact on the student’s writing (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014b; Gonzalez, 2018). How, then, should you prioritize the feedback you provide to NNES students?

“Red Pen” Strategies

Below are some strategies for how to use your “red pen” most effectively when providing feedback on NNES student writing.

Distinguish Between Treatable and Untreatable Errors

One strategy for effectively evaluating an NNES student’s work is to determine whether the NNES student can treat the error on his or her own. Untreatable errors are “complex idiosyncratic and linguistic errors that require a nuanced understanding” to repair (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014a). If the error doesn’t follow a clear set of rules that the student can easily reference and naturally internalize in due time, then it’s worth pointing out directly. For example, untreatable errors often include mistakes in word choice, such as prepositions (e.g., “on January” instead of “in January”) or excluding necessary words altogether, such as articles and demonstratives (e.g., the, a, that, these, those).

A treatable error, on the other hand, is “patterned and rule-governed” (Ferris, 2011; Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014b). An engaged NNES student should be able to resolve treatable errors by referring to a handbook or style guide. However, treatable errors do not mean you should retreat from the feedback process entirely. Instead, you should view treatable errors as an opportunity to guide students in their search for the solution. For example, many instructors employ editing code sheets to indicate the category of each treatable error (e.g., VT = verb tense error), which then provides the student with a “roadmap” for searching through his or her notes, grammar text, and style guides to find a correction for the error.

Keep in mind that a beginning or intermediate NNES writer may require assistance in not only assessing the treatable error but also locating the appropriate resources to resolve the error (Hyland & Hyland, 2006). Of course, if NNES writers are proficient users of the target language, then you may opt to retire the code sheet and instead identify treatable errors in a summary at the end of the paper (e.g., “The discussion section of your paper contains verb tense errors”). This strategy encourages autonomy by asking the student to reflect on his or her writing, identify discrepancies, and apply linguistic knowledge to arrive at the appropriate correction (Ferris, 2011; Hyland & Hyland, 2006).

Identify Types of Errors

Providing effective feedback doesn’t necessarily require you to mark every error in a student’s written work. Another strategy you can undertake is to identify the types of errors the student is making, and then concentrate your feedback on the following categories of errors: serious errors (those that interfere with the reader’s comprehension), frequent errors (multiple related instances in a single text), or stigmatizing errors (those that trigger the reader to identify the author as NNES; Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014b). Helping NNES students rectify these types of errors can quickly and dramatically improve their writing.

Contact the ESL Department

Finally, don’t forget about the support your institution’s English as a Second Language (ESL) department can provide. ESL instructors can offer insight into the different populations of NNES students enrolled in your institution (e.g., refugees, immigrants, international visa students), their specific language needs, and helpful input on how to grade NNES student writing (see our article “Navigating Diversity in the Classroom”). If time permits, you might consider having an ESL instructor evaluate an NNES student’s paper, and then comparing your initial assessment with the ESL instructor’s (Gonzalez, 2014). This activity can help ensure that your feedback is appropriately selective and meaningful.

Conclusion

With a little bit of thought and practice, you will be able to effectively identify errors in a way that helps NNES students improve their linguistic skills without overwhelming them or yourself. However, identifying errors is only part of the process. For more information on how to help these students succeed, check out our other articles in the “Red Pen” series on providing meaningful feedback and creating a growth-oriented feedback loop.

References

Ferris, D. (2011). Students must learn to correct all their writing errors. In J. Reid, K. S. Folse, C. M. Schuemann, P. Byrd, K. Hyland, … P. K. Matsuda, Writing myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching (pp. 90–114). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Ferris, D., & Hedgcock, J. (2014a). Response to student writing: Issues and options for giving and facilitation feedback. In Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice. New York: Routledge.

Ferris, D., & Hedgcock, J. (2014b). Improving accuracy in student writing: Error treatment in the composition classroom. In Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice. New York: Routledge.

Gonzalez, J. (2014, May 1). Know your terms: Holistic, analytic, and single-point rubrics [Audio podcast]. Cult of pedagogy. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/holistic-analytic-single-point-rubrics/

Gonzalez, J. (2018, January 21). Moving from feedback to feedforward [Audio podcast]. Cult of pedagogy. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/

Hyland, K., & Hyland, F. (2006). Feedback on second language students’ writing. Language Teaching 39 (pp. 77–95). United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Reid, J. (1998). Responding to ESL student language problems: Error analysis and revision plans. In P. Byrd & J. Reid (Eds.), Grammar in the composition classroom: Essays on teaching ESL for college-bound students. New York: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

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