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Review of 'Fire your proofreader!

' Grammar correction in the writing classroom by Sang-Keun Shin

(ELT Journal Volume 62/4 October 2008; doi:10.1093/elt/ccmo89)
This article considers the question of if, when, and how to provide error feedback and correction to
student writers, specifically L2 writers (non-native speakers of English). It references several
principles of the process approach to writing pedagogy (of which I consider myself a practitioner) and
interviews a small group of L2 writers (all Korean speakers) regarding their views of teacher
correction. One conclusion of the author is that teaching strategies that suit L1 writers might not be
appropriate for L2 writers. The student writers interviewed serve as a powerful reminder of the
simple fact that L2 writers are still L2 learners who face a constant struggle with form, which in turn
limits the content of their paper. He argues that delaying linguistic issues until late in the composing
process may not serve L2 writers' needs, validating for me one of our strategies in the Language &
Culture department--that of providing students set expressions before they write, e.g., commonly used
expressions for various rhetorical patterns (e.g., comparison/contrast, cause/effect) as well as reporting
language (e.g., the author goes on to say). More significantly, our ESL students at Delaware Tech
receive 9 hours of grammar instruction per week unlike in some programs where Shin notes the
pendulum has now swung too far to the side of de-emphasizing direct grammar instruction (a
phenomenon I personally witnessed in a previous job at an IEP [intensive English program]). How
are they supposed to correct their errors if they do not know where their errors are or even how to
correct them? he asks.
While the L2 writers decry a lack of directive comments on language forms from their teachers (the
author specifically mentions the problematic word choice and unclear), they do seem to share L1
writers' need for less directive feedback on content. I should note, however, that the writers in the
study were graduate students with preconceived and well-formed ideas about their content, an
assumption that does not apply to the majority of my students. On the contrary, this study suggests to
me that early in the process I should spend more class time devoted to invention, even allowing the
students to do some idea generation in their first language.
The author concludes that the student writers in the study would like very much to have teachers who
offer them grammar correction tools. In our ESL classes we have a standard set of proofreading
symbols that we place above the error to indicate the type of error and its location, leaving it to the
student to correct in the subsequent draft. This practice seems to be validated by this one study with
the caveat that it dealt with only a small group of advanced L2 writers of the same first language.