Jun 1, 2013

SLA research: still in the shackles of traditional grammar?

Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research also needs a lexical revolution to free itself from the shackles of grammar tyranny. Rant alert!

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I was recently asked to give a talk at a conference on the topic of writing. Since my main area of interest is vocabulary/grammar (i.e. language) rather than developing skills per se, I decided to take a more "lexical approach" to my talk and focus on error correction in L2 writing: both lexical and grammatical. I scoured a lot of research articles to glean the current state of knowledge about error correction or - as it is more fashionable to say today – corrective feedback.

As I expected, the research literature on corrective feedback has been dominated in the past 15 years by the Truscott/Ferris debate. In his thoroughly researched and passionately argued 1996 paper in Language Learning Truscott famously claimed that error correction is not only ineffective - based on metaanalysis of various studies, it is actually harmful and therefore should be abandoned altogether. His controversial claims were naturally met with a barrage of papers showing how error correction does work – a few of them by Ferris and later on by other researchers - all of which Truscott has methodically dismissed claiming that their studies either had flaws in the design or measured the surface-level knowledge of grammar rules. 

While I would like to save my views on error correction for another post, I just wanted to express my dismay at the total lack of references to lexis in the studies I've looked at – and I have looked at quite a few.

It seems that no matter what side of the debate the researchers are on – pro or anti-error correction (sorry: corrective feedback!) their preoccupation with petty correction of discrete grammar items is plain depressing. It's as though all teachers are expected to correct are tiny little annoying bits of verb grammar and the third person singular –S.

I took about 10 articles related to the Truscott debate and ran a concordancer using AntConc – thanks to Mura Nava for his post "First steps in AntConc". While the word grammar occurred 92 times in my mini-corpus of the research articles (45,000 words), the word vocabulary appeared ... 0 times. Quite predictably, I drew a similar blank with the word "collocation". I struck lucky with "lexical" (20 occurences) but it was still outweighed by "grammatical" (34 occurences)

Although the articles I have accessed – most of them published in System and in the Journal of Second Language Writing - do not include appendices with student compositions, some examples found in the Discussion sections of the articles shed some light on what goes on. Let's look at some of them.

Since part of the debate concerns how errors should be corrected: providing the correct form (direct correction) or simply indicating that a sentence is erroneous (indirect correction) many studies use an error correction code. For example, one study adopts this error correction code attributed to Azar (1985).

I don't see how I suggest you to go with me (the second one in the list above) is an example of a faulty sentence structure. Clearly the problem here is not fully knowing the word "suggest" and how it should be used and not syntax. If anything, the sentence is an example of a good sentence structure because a lot of English verbs follow this pattern

I want you to go with me
I asked him to come with me
I told him to talk to the boss
and the learner probably overgeneralised it to the word suggest.

The only explicit reference to incorrect use of vocabulary is Wrong Word, a category I've always found dubious: wrong as it is used in the wrong context or with the wrong co-text (i.e. collocation)? And the example is:

*He is becoming to mature

Do the authors imply here that the right word should be starting? Or perhaps the problem lies deeper and the learner doesn't know the word "grow up" that could be used instead of the whole phrase "becoming to mature".

Of course, all this is merely a matter of classification. Let's have a look at how some of these studies propose that mistakes should be corrected.

*I didn't understand at first time
The sentence is corrected into "the first time". But why not "at first" which would work just as fine here? The learner must have heard "at first" and tried to use it here. As a result of this deficient correction the learner may assume that "at first" is incorrect too and will stop using it altogether. No wonder error correction gets so much slack from Truscott: instead of fine tuning the learner output and pointing out that at first is sufficient without the word time let's crudely correct so-called errors!

Insert, Delete and Redundant are further categories where such fine-tuning would be in place if we want to provide feedback and not merely correct. But, to tell the truth, despite the use of the pretentious "corrective feedback" I haven't actually seen any positive feedback on students writing in any of the studies. Surely some kind of approval should be given when students use a certain structure or chunk appropriately. For example, I always underline good bits of language when I mark students writing to indicate that they were used appropriately and correctly.

To sum up, if this is the current state of affairs as far as research on error correction in L2 writing is concerned, it is truly lamentable. If that's the way corrective feedback was given in these studies, it is no surprise that it has been shown to have little or almost no effect. I wish that researchers would adopt a more holistic approach to error correction and language learning in general.

For review of some other studies on error correction in L2 writing, see this post by Backseat Linguist


  1. Not a rant at all, a well thought out blog post.

    Me and most of the teachers I know now focus on grammar, lexis and discourse when doing feedback. Personally I look for missed collocations (an example from last week: they say 'a wide imagination', I give them better collocations, like 'broad' and 'vivid'), vocab they could have used but didn't, ability to use referencing devices etc. etc.. I thought this grammar-only, note every pinickity grammar mistake regardless of the learner's level style of feedback died years ago. It certainly isn't what I was taught to do on either my CELTA or DELTA, nor what I think most teachers these days do. The DELTA specifically teaches a holistic approach to marking student's work.

    I don't follow the academic level that much, but I think that when the academics are behind what teachers are doing in their classroom (which by your account, they are), they aren't doing a good job. Academic research should lead the way for positive change, not drag behind what is already going on.

    1. Hi Jonny,

      You would think that it has died, wouldn't you? But apparently not so...

      Normally you hear complaints about practitioners not being up to date with the latest research but it seems that when it comes to error correction, SLA research has clearly fallen behind.

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment!


  2. Good points, Leo. As I read the "becoming to mature" example, I wondered if maybe the correction symbols are to blame here. You see, when students make "grammar mistakes" that are actually lexical in nature, the most obvious thing is to do is to tell them "Look, the most natural way to say that is X". So, for example, if a student says (A) "I lasted some time to become accustomed with the new school" when she means (B)"The school took a little getting used to", it's not easy to take students from (A) to (B) via correction symbols. Maybe that's why we'd end up with "WW" for "lasted" and "prep" for "with". So I guess in this case we're left with two choices: either provide the correction (which students might completely ignore) or maybe say something along the lines of "rephrase this beginning with the school took a little..." (which the most motivated students might google up or something).

    1. Out of these two choices I'd go with the second one. Or how about collecting mistakes like this one, especially if they are recurring, writing up on the board and drawing students' attention to them? With some contrastive analysis perhaps.
      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Luiz!

  3. Interesting post! I think lexical/vocabulary mistakes are not considered as seperate mistakes,they are in the shade of grammar and sometimes are treated as grammatical errors.this is mainly related to the fact that grammar-translation had, even has dominance in some countries.Ultimately, teachers treat vocabulary/lexical mistakes as grammar ones. I think correcting or not depends on teacher's aim, whether s/he wants to develop fluency or accuracy.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Konul!
      I agree that whether to correct or not depends on your aims, but I think the problem with the Truscott/Ferris debate in general is that they've narrowed the attention to grammar. And as you say, for many teachers, vocabulary sadly remains in the shade of grammar. However, vocabulary carries meaning and without understanding what meaning a student wants to convey, we can't really correct a grammar mistake. Well, at least I can't :)

  4. I suppose, as a grammarian, I would be more or less in favour of structural approach which would treat grammar as structure of patterns to be filled with lexis. Over the last 17 years as a teacher of English and German I have noticed that many of the structural errors result from the failure of translation. What does it mean? People think in their native tongue and until they reach a certain degree of experience in usage as recurrence of lexical patterns and gain necessary knowledge of grammar as structure (English = Germanic is wonderful as it is analytical and not synthetic like Slavonic languages) in order to translate their thoughts properly, a number of errors will still remain constant. Of course, much depends on the student's objectives and ambitions. One of them may be communication which requires less accuracy as it focuses primarily on the message. When writing is in question, more accuracy is required, hence deeper knowledge of structure.

  5. I agree that a lot of students' errors are caused by word-for-word translation, i.e. negative transfer from L1. And that's exactly the reason why I would draw students' attention to how grammar + vocabulary combine to form meaning (i.e chunks of language), rather than drill grammar rules and expect students to fill them with words. Because, often as a result of this approach to writing they produce infelicities like
    "people need to get a push in their working perspective" (this is from a recent essay a student has written), which is correct grammatically but makes little sense, if you ask me.
    I do agree with you overall that writing as a skill requires more accuracy (as opposed to speaking).
    Thank you for your comment, Alex.
    Good to have you hear!

  6. When I was younger I had terrible word attack. I still do. I think as a student it's important to focus on what you are good at. I had great skills with math calculations. You can't be perfect at everything.

  7. It's easy to write, especially if you're busy, without even being aware of the mistakes you may be making. Do you always know, for example, when to use commas and apostrophes? When to use singular and plural? Is your spelling perfect? See more funny grammar mistakes


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