THE ROLE OF FEEDBACK IN L2 ACADEMIC WRITING
THE ROLE OF FEEDBACK IN L2 ACADEMIC WRITING
Master of Science, tutor, Satbayev University,
Master of Science, lecturer, Satbayev University,
Master of Science, lecturer, Satbayev University,
Master of Arts, tutor, Satbayev University,
Due to its preeminent status as the global language, English is ubiquitously studied by diverse learners for numerous purposes, and increasingly as a prerequisite for higher (tertiary) academic study of non-linguistic specialties (e.g. engineering, medicine and business studies) . Consequently, due to the underlying academic motivation of such EFL study (i.e. the specialty of English for Academic Purposes, EAP) there is increasingly focus on international students’ writing skills in English as a second language (ESL), where the second language (L2) is necessary for academic purposes and the communicative approach that predominates at lower levels no longer suffices to meet learner needs. Additionally, other forms of teaching skills are necessary to support learners in EAP, such as more detailed and extensive feedback on progress in L2 writing skills .
Written feedback has a powerful impact on learners’ mastery of L2 writing, offering an important aid in the form of in-depth, tailored support. This article discusses feedback in EAP writing, analysing its importance in general L2 feedback. Writing is a tool to express knowledge and thoughts . Manchon (2011)  divides writing into two kinds: learning-to-write (LW) and writing-to-learn (WL). He distinguishes them by defining the former as learning to articulate oneself in written tasks, whereas the latter is writing to improve the display of critical thinking and analytical abilities. If students produce writing in L2, LW could be matched with EAP writing, and WL with L2 academic writing. (Figure 1).
Figure 1. General features of EAP writing and L2 academic writing
Written feedback is defined as written evaluating messages from teachers on students’ written work . Bitchener (2008)  and Ferris (2006)  pointed out that many studies on feedback in L2 academic written work looked at error correction rather than subject content. It is believed that corrective feedback helps students increase their writing skills in terms of accurate use , but more recent findings show that the purpose of the feedback on academic writing in L2 is to express students’ comprehension on the given topic, with more emphasis on content. For instance, Hyland (2013a)  revealed that discipline tutors (i.e. non-language specialists) highly value learners’ knowledge of their subject content and how it is delivered. The delivery might cover logical connection of ideas and clearly expressed messages, as comprehension and cohesion in writing tend to represent the quality of work in general.
In earlier research, Hyland (2000)  pointed out that feedback is effective when it is clear and fully explained. University students are expected to highly benefit from written feedback on their academic writing work, usually in the form of assignments in essay form. Mahfoodh (2017)  noted that feedback on L2 academic writing is accepted as useful, significant and helpful source by teachers as well as students, although that could be challenging and time-consuming for teachers as they generally have to try and give in-depth feedback on a large number of students’ writing.
Writing classes in EAP might enable students to prepare for academic writing level requirements, which underlines the significance of EAP writing courses for students. Corrective feedback might be more applicable for EAP writing. University teachers usually set academic writing tasks as an assessment in the course. Hyland (2013)  interviewed discipline teacher interviewees and found that they do not give such tasks to evaluate students’ English proficiency; rather they are significantly concerned about the academic (i.e. subject-related) content, in other words what is written and not how it is written. Indeed, accuracy in language is only considered when messages are delivered in an unclear way that makes it difficult or impossible to understand the content, with little or no concern for students’ grammar accuracy (which is also given negligible waiting in most marking criteria for academic subjects). That is relatively fair evaluation for students, because in the past teachers mainly focused on error correction in L2 academic writing rather than content . This requirement is also favoured by international students who do not wish to worry about their accuracy, enabling them to be more productive in their subject areas.
However, EAP teachers expect comprehension in how to write and how they use disciplinary knowledge from their students . They aim to enable their students to articulate different approaches, correcting their linguistic errors to get long-term knowledge and to be more autonomous at writing, facilitating them with academic writing structures and the ways to organise written discourses in L2. Feedback is a two-way process, and it is just as important to consider how feedback is likely to be received as well as how to deliver it, because students could understand messages in different ways according to their background knowledge and individual differences.
Teachers tend to believe that their feedback on written tasks has a substantial and effective role in improving their learners’ skills, which may be disconnected from the reality of how their feedback registers with students. It is crucial to have common understandings between teacher and student perceptions in order to avoid anxiety and avoid potential conflicts to ultimately facilitate and motivate students to learn the L2 . Feedback on written tasks is usually written by teachers to students, but there are some obstacles to doing this in an individualised way, considering learners’ perceptions of feedback, due to teachers inevitably being task focussed (on marking papers) at the expense of tailoring their teaching delivery to each learner’s particular needs and abilities.
Nevertheless, L2 students generally believe that written feedback has a positive influence on their learning improvement . When EAP learners receive comments they see a different view and an evaluation from teachers who have knowledge in the same field as their academic and professional interest. When encountering potential criticism, learners are challenged to acknowledge their weaknesses and strengths. From personal experience, when essays are set as assignments it is usually difficult to spot one’s own mistakes, which can be clearly flagged and analysed by tutors, along with potentially innovate opinions. Carefully reading feedback always helps to gain knowledge about how to progress in writing skills avoid making the same mistakes, along with improving the use of positively valued points.
On the other hand, some students find it difficult to work on feedback, in particular when it is mostly negative, because it can be very demotivating for them, particularly certain types of learner . That is why Truscott (1996)  argued against delivering feedback, as it can hurt students’ feelings, demotivating them and causing them to worry about their accuracy rather than conveying their thoughts. Hyland (1998)  and Sadler (1998)  also found that students can feel discouraged when they received negative written feedback, and furthermore it can cause them to be very passive towards future writing tasks. Clearly it is really dangerous for learners if they develop a language barrier to produce output in L2 due to their experiences of receiving negative feedbacks, but in EAP learners are usually highly motivated to acquire technical accuracy and proficiency rather than general communicative competence (although as noted previously they usually de-prioritize accuracy in favour of academic content in their actual subject-specific written output).
Truscott (1996)  proposed to abandon feedback, in particular error correction in L2 writing, arguing that it is harmful and ineffective. This might apply for L2 academic writing, because students are expected to produce their thoughts, knowledge and ideas in the target topics following academic writing structure. They are also concerned with organising their discourse and linking concepts logically. When they work on that it would be unfair for students if they would be corrected according to their grammar mistakes instead of the content. However, in EAP learners are dedicated to enhancing their L2 proficiency in writing, so grammar should be corrected as well to prepare them properly for subsequent academic studies in the L2.
In general, students believe that feedback assists them in learning, and it is very effective working on delivered messages. However, recent studies revealed that students have different needs and perspectives. According to Hyland’s (2013a)  interviewees, students from different academic subject fields tend to fall into two categories: those who like to obtain error correction prioritizing accuracy, and those who do not think that grammar is important in academic writing as they prioritise the content of their work. As with the choice of academic and professional specialisation, these preferences may ultimately reflect personality types. There are also many personal variations in preferences about how feedback is given between teachers and students as well.
Indirect feedback involves enabling students to discover their mistakes and learn from them by reflecting on feedback on their errors which promises long-term knowledge . Some studies suggest that error correction and instructing grammar rules in EAP writing should be replaced by feedback which lets students discover their own mistakes . However, feedback of this type might be challenging and unclear for students to figure out errors, usually when error codes are used to indicate grammar, vocabulary and punctuation errors.
Conversely, direct feedback involves the explicit correction of student errors . Direct feedback is more effective for EAP students because it focuses on certain features that can be situated within the learning framework posited in the curriculum or programme design. For academic writing in L2 indirect feedback is better, because it tends to encourage students, guiding them to solve problems by themselves and aiding them to improve their writing skills and to adopt more autonomous learning skills . However, in practice most learners and teachers are in favour of direct feedback, because it avoids students being confused in distinguishing error codes , which is relatively applicable for students with lower levels of proficiency of L2 .
The reason for both teachers and students preferring direct feedback could be that it is easy and faster for both of them, and thus it is intrinsically more expedient to the learning process. However, quick corrections may not be effective as learners tend to forget these corrections quickly as well, without substantial re-affirmation and cementing of correct usages . Teachers should always give students the optimum chance to reflect on their errors. Some studies have found that learners benefit more from self-correction, particularly over the long term, and it is convenient for teachers simply to underline errors and leave it to students to comprehend the implicit mistakes .
There are conflicting findings on the efficacy of indirect or direct feedback, supporting the relative advantages of the former  or the latter . Direct feedback with reminding grammar rules would be more effective . Surprisingly, Semke (1984)  did not find any differences of types of feedback in terms of effect on students’ learning process. Bitchener et al. (2005)  report that students who had direct feedback had better results in their accuracy, and performed better than other students who received other types of feedback. Research shows that corrective feedback is significantly effective for EAP students to enhance accuracy using new language forms and structures , and it would help students improve accuracy, but it could just be short-term learning .
EAP students should be corrected in terms of grammar and/or lexical errors to increase their accuracy as well as fluency . This correction could be done either by underlining errors or correcting them directly. In order to significantly improve students’ L2 proficiency teachers should give error feedback, and then ask students to correct the mistakes by themselves. Students who engage in self-correction spent more time to do so than students who received error correction feedback. However, sometimes it would not be a guarantee whether students’ own presumed correction of their errors is properly correct or not, and individual students might benefit differently when obtaining the same feedback.
In writing tasks there are other important aspects such as organization, ideas and processes, but teachers usually concentrate on certain aspects heavily . If EAP students would receive comments on accuracy and content, they tend to get double benefits improving significantly the content as well as accuracy in their writing , which is relatively significant for further academic writing in L2. However, this seems to demand that teachers overlap comments on students’ written work. Receiving written texts full of comments can be frustrating for students and might be an unpleasant experience of feedback. They should also take into account students’ reactions and feelings when they receive the message.
It could be suggested that they should pick important points out then focus on those instead of correcting everything what is written . This could be more beneficial to identify crucial targets and work on them rather than overlapping aspects with unclear explanations in giving feedback. Consequently, teachers should decide which aspect of the written work of students needs the most improvement, and after identifying it they should give feedbacks in a selective way, focusing on certain aspects . That would be relatively helpful for students to figure out their weaknesses and work on that in more depth. Comments which give on time focusing on the main weaknesses in an individualised way are highly valued by learners and positively influence the learning progress in academic writing.
However, Mahfoodh (2017)  offered a very practical solution for EAP teachers, suggesting commenting on both the content and grammar correction, but separately (e.g. giving error correction first and returning the text so the learner can reflect on their work, then ask them to rewrite it and then comment on the content, or in a different order). This could depend on the priority of the written work as well. Some teachers underline tutorials using follow-up questions with students after delivering written feedback, presuming that it would be more effective if they explained the main errors in the written task . This seems to be relatively more efficient, as students have opportunities to clarify some aspects by questioning. Notwithstanding, it might be unthinkable to do this if teachers have dozens of students, as it demands time and patience to have tutorials with each student.
When producing written tasks in English as an L2, international students are concerned with accuracy as well as content. Teachers tend to give feedback in their written work in different ways. Although any kind of feedback is better than none, it varies in its effectiveness and teachers should encourage their students to reflect on conveyed feedbacks to take the maximum advantage from it. Indeed, if students do not read the given feedback it is equivalent to no feedback at all . Written feedback is an intrinsic learning approach, with benefits to be had from both negative and positive comments, enabling the learner to progress in successful L2 acquisition and proficiency.
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