Cambodian EFL Lecturers’ Perspectives on Written Corrective Feedback: A Case Study
1. Research background and research questions
Writing is one crucial macro-skill in learning a language. Learners need the skill to communicate formally and informally with the world. In these communication processes, when English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners produce a written output, they might commit some errors incidentally. In a language class, after receiving written outputs from learners, teachers generally try to correct and give feedback to the learners. Providing feedback in L2 plays an essential role in developing students’ writing. Herrera (2011) claims that Written Corrective Feedback (WCF) provides learners with information that they need to notice their errors or mistakes. Hyland (2003), in a similar vein, mentions that students’ perceptions towards their teacher’s feedback is crucial to their writing development.
There are many ways to provide feedback in L2 situations. Some of the common ones are: teacher correction (with comments) known as WCF, error identification, commentary, teacher-student conference, peer correction, and self-correction (Saito, 1994). Among these types of feedback, WCF has been found to play a very important role in improving students’ writing ability. However, this kind of feedback will not be effective if it is used inappropriately.
This study aims to investigate the attitudes of a group of Academic Writing lecturers at Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), Cambodia towards different types of WCF as well as their WCF practices and the reasons behind their choices of WCF. This study is crucial for several reasons. First of all, the lecturer participants will be able to better understand their students’ preferences and use appropriate types of WCF to improve their students’ writing performance. Secondly, the findings will shed much light on WCF practice in Cambodian Academic Writing classes which have largely remained understudied in the ELT world. Thirdly, based on the study findings, a set of guidelines for WCF practices will be recommended with the aim to make Academic Writing instruction more effective and more helpful for students.
2. Literature review
This section reviews the literature on WCF, main strategies for providing WCF, the effect of direct and indirect corrective feedback on L2 learners’ writing accuracy.
One area which has attracted much attention lately is how teachers perceive the usefulness of WCF (e.g., Ferris & Roberts, 2001; Furneaux et al., 2007; Makino, 1993). The main reasons for giving WCF are “to enable learners to revise their own writing, i.e. produce a better second draft” and “to assist learners to acquire correct English” (Matt, 2012). Regarding error correction in L2 writing, some research found it to be ineffective (e.g., Hendrickson, 1980; Lalande, 1982; Semke, 1984). However, some other research found that it can be useful when teachers use different types of error correction in L2 writing.
Ellis (2008) presents circumstantial information regarding the strategies of providing WCF. First, the teacher provides the student with the correct form. This provision is defined as direct corrective feedback. It can be performed in different ways. The teacher may correct students’ errors by crossing out an unnecessary word/phrase, inserting a missing word, or writing the correct form above or next to the incorrect one. Ellis (2008) explains that the advantage of direct corrective feedback is that it provides learners with explicit guidance about how to correct their errors. It is especially useful for low-level students since they do not know clearly what the correct form is. Nevertheless, the disadvantage is that learners use their processing ability minimally to produce the correct form in their revised writing, and long-term learning might not be achieved.
According to Ellis (2008), indirect corrective feedback is the action which “The teacher indicates that an error exists but does not provide the correction”. It can be done in two main forms. First, the teacher underlines the errors or uses cursors to show omissions in the students’ text. By doing this, the teacher indicates and also locates the error in students’ written output. Second, the teacher indicates the errors only by placing a cross mark (X) in the margin next to the line containing the error. Ellis (2008) agreed that indirect feedback is more effective than direct feedback due to the fact that it encourages students to reflect about linguistic forms, and for the students to engage in deeper processing since the errors are not corrected by the teachers.
Besides these two strategies, Ellis (2008) also discusses other strategies of corrective feedback. Those strategies are: Metalinguistic corrective feedback, the focus of the feedback, electronic Feedback, and reformulation.
There have been controversies among some researchers over the usefulness of WCF in L2 writing classes. Truscott (1996) claims that grammar correction (including WCF) is ineffective, and even harmful to L2 learners. As a result, grammar correction in L2 writing classes should be abandoned. He explained the phenomenon for two main reasons. First, error correction overlooks SLA insights about the complex and gradual process of acquiring the structures and the forms of L2. The second reason is the issue of teachers’ ability and commitment to provide error correction.
Not everyone shares Truscott’s belief. Ferris (1999), for example, claims that Truscott’s thesis that grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned is premature and overly strong and discusses areas for further research. Lu (2010) and Baleghizadeh & Dadashi (2011) were both interested in comparing the effect of direct and indirect corrective feedback. The findings of these two studies were similar and revealed that indirect feedback is a more effective tool than direct feedback in rectifying students’ spelling errors. Van Beuningen et al’s (2008) experimental and intervention study, however, showed contrasting results and found that “direct error correction appears to be the most effective treatment for this study’s population, resulting in both short-term and long-term accuracy improvement”.
As for literature in the local context, WCF research on Cambodian EFL learners is scarce. Keuk (2009) conducted a case study to demonstrate the current situation and ways of teaching and learning of Literature at the Department of English at the same site as one of the current study. A group of Year-two students in one class were asked to write four reflection papers, one paper for each of the four short stories they have read. For the first three reflection papers, the lecturer in the class gave explicit explanations about linguistic forms, grammar rules and structures, lexical elements, and critical thinking theories to students. The lecturer read the papers and provided direct WCF to the students. The feedback mainly focused on seven types of error: 1) articles, 2) tenses, 3) plurals, 4) prepositions, 5) word choices, 6) sentence structures, and 7) sentence problems. The participants read the fourth story independently and wrote the fourth reflection paper. The linguistic errors found in the first three reflection papers were counted and compared to the ones in the final reflection paper. Participants were also asked to complete the questionnaires concerning the effectiveness of the training and their own learning achievement. The results highlight the effectiveness of direct form-focus WCF in a Literature class and the usefulness of drawing learners’ attention to using correct target language forms. The research suggests that direct form-focused written corrective is not applicable to all learners and a combination of providing direct corrective feedback and consultation/conferencing with students regarding their written work.
In summary, there is a conflict among researchers in terms of their findings. We also learned from the literature (Bitchener et al, 2005; Chuang, 2009; Keuk, 2009) that using a good combination of corrective feedback strategies or options can improve L2 learner’s writing accuracy much more than using only a single strategy of providing corrective feedback. In addition, both WCF from the teachers and individual learner factors could both affect the learners’ writing outcome, but also. The other interesting thing from the literature is that revision must be made after giving corrective feedback. Thus, students could locate their errors and make attempts to correct those errors (Lalande, Frantzen & Rissell, Fathman & Whally, Chandler, and Ferris, as cited in Ferris, 2003).
In the literature, a great deal of research has examined the effectiveness of corrective feedback. A number of studies have been conducted on students’ perspectives towards their teachers’ WCF. However, what remains to be explored are the teachers’ different perspectives on WCF, especially in the context of Cambodian ELT.
Based on the above problem, the following are three questions which are needed to be answered:
- What types of WCF do the participants think are most useful, and why?
- What types of errors do the participants think should be corrected, and why?
- Does providing WCF motivate students to write and learn from their errors?
This research study mainly bases on qualitative approach as it is the case study of particular individuals. Creswell (2005) categorizes case studies under the umbrella of ethnography. He, in addition, points out the merit of case studies, explaining that it is used to seek in-depth information of individual(s) or group(s), program, events or activities. The current study falls into the category of instrumental case study. Based on Creswell‘s (2005) explanation, instrumental case study is used to study one particular case in order to gain insight of one particular issue or theme.
The research study takes place at Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), Cambodia. The reason for the selection of this university is that this very institute is one of the oldest and largest higher education institutions in Cambodia. The way lecturers give feedback is, as a consequence, interesting to be explored. The study participants are five lecturers who teach Academic Writing subjects in Years 1, 2, and 3. Since the current study bases on qualitative method, it is purposeful sampling which was applied.
The main tool used in this study is interview. Creswell (2005) explains that open-ended question is the most recommended one in the qualitative interview due to the fact that it helps interviewees to generate their answers and express themselves more freely without restriction. In addition, participants are allowed to shape the interview questions accordingly by adding relevant information to the answer as long as they do not go far from the topic. Creswell (2005) states the advantage of qualitative interview is obtaining in-depth and more useful information in the absence of direct observation. The participants were interviewed in the semi-structure mode, which lasted between 30 to 40 minutes.
Before the study took place, all the interviewees read and signed the consent form, indicating that they agree to join the study. They were informed that the interview would be recorded with a mobile phone. Simultaneously, note taking was also practiced. After the interview, the obtained data were transcribed verbatim with Microsoft Word. The interpretation of the data were made based on the common themes emerging from the data sets.
4. Findings and discussion
Three interrelated themes have emerged concerning lecturers’ perceptions towards WCF. This section is divided based on the three themes – types of WCF, types of student’s writing errors, and effects of WCF.
Types of WCF
The first main theme discusses the types of WCF the participants used in their classes. The result points out that most of the participants knew only two types of WCF: direct and indirect corrective feedback. It is probably possible to say that the two types of WCF are the most popular ones among lecturers at RUPP. The result also shows that four of the participants prefer using indirect corrective feedback to respond to their student’s writing at RUPP. They believe that the level of students’ knowledge at RUPP is advanced already; thus, they are able to find out and correct the mistakes by themselves effectively. The same participants also believed that when the students correct mistakes by themselves, they can learn more by discovering the correct answers by themselves, so they can remember and learn from the mistakes well. It is safe to say that these participants value student autonomy. They want their students to become independent learners, so that those students will not depend entirely on their lecturers. These lecturers’ support of students’ self-correction in their writing corresponds with some previous research (Ferris & Roberts, 2001; Hendrickson, 1980; Makino, 1993). One participant, differently, used a combination of WCF and teacher-student conference. She thought that WCF is not enough for her students; consequently, she had to arrange some time to talk with her students face to face individually aiming to focus more on students’ writing. This finding is in line with a research study conducted by Bitchener, Young, and Cameron (2005). They found that using both WCF and conference feedback improved students’ accuracy levels in some structures.
Another interesting explanation from the participants shows that when giving too many WCFs, students will be de-motivated since they feel negative about their writing. As a result, they will be reluctant to continue writing or start writing a new piece of composition.
Not surprisingly, there are explanations by three participants, which show that effort and time may dictate the amounts and types of WCF teachers provide to students on their written works. This finding goes in line with research conducted by Amrhein & Nassaji (2010).
Types of students’ writing errors
All participants described quite a number of errors their students have committed. Some of those errors are related to dangling modifier, subject verb agreement, word choice, collocation, parallel structure, and tense consistency.
The participants believed that teachers should give WCF on both form or surface structures and comprehensibility of the content in their students’ writing. Participants showed most positive opinions towards WCF on grammatical errors, organization and also on contents in the writing. In addition, they also showed their interest in giving WCF on forms such as punctuation, spelling, and vocabulary. These findings echo the implications of the previous studies (Hyland, 2003; Lee, 2008; Furneaux, Paran & Fairfax, 2007) which showed that a crucial focus of teachers’ WCF is on language accuracy.
Effects of WCF
The participants required their students to revise their writing after giving WCF. They believed that if students want to improve their writing performance, they need to think about teachers’ written feedbacks and reflect on their errors. This finding corresponds with Conrad and Goldstein (1999) and Ferris (2001). Surprisingly, a lecturer in this research study explained that the chance of students’ revision depends on that student’s writing performance. If he or she has very few problems with their writing, this lecturer would not ask him or her to revise the paper.
In addition, the participants showed positive perceptions towards the effect of WCF on their teaching. For instance, if a teacher gives a lot of WCF, it means students committed a lot of mistakes, too. In this case, the teacher has to teach students more and give them more practice. The participants also believed that the effects of WCF may vary based on the students themselves. In other words, the students will not learn much from their mistakes and the teacher’s comments or feedback if they do not pay much attention to the WCF. Two of the participants added that WCF will provide positive effects to students, but the teacher has to work closely with the students. Teacher has to spend time and effort communicating more with students, and help them as much as he can.
Three of the participants suggested that WCF will more likely provide long-term effects for students. However, they also believed that it requires student’s attention and effort too in order for WCF to work. They believed that WCF plays a crucial role in encouraging students to keep writing and keep learning from their errors, which in itself motivates students in their learning processes.
5. Conclusions and implications
This paper has given an account of the use of WCF and the reasons behind in L2 writing teaching practice in a university context in Cambodia. The study argues that indirect corrective feedback is the best instrument used to respond to students’ writing errors. The study also suggests that only selective errors should be corrected. In other words, errors that are related to what teachers have taught deserve to be corrected. And the study explained the central importance of WCF in motivating students to keep writing and learn from their errors. This study has shown that the most widely used strategy of WCF at Royal University of Phnom Penh is indirect WCF. Participants in this study believed that students should learn to discover the correction by themselves. It is their responsibility, and it is also more beneficial for them because they can remember the mistakes well in their writing. However, teachers have to play their parts too in helping students achieve their academic writing goals. The reason is that students need support and help from the teacher in terms of advice, suggestions, and care. Another significant finding emerging from this study is the belief that in order to make WCF more useful or effective, writing revision is strongly needed. Feedbacks from the teacher will not be useful if the students never use those feedbacks to work on a new version of their writing.
In summary, these results suggest that generally WCF is worth practicing in the second language writing classroom. The reason is that it improves student’s writing accuracy. However, teachers still need to think about the amount of time and effort in giving WCF to their students. They have to also think about what they and their students should do after giving WCF.
Although the current research study is carefully prepared, the small number of participants constrains the findings of the study. The researcher, in addition, could have analyzed the students’ writing papers in order to see what feedbacks teachers provide to students.
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(*Mr Lundy Prak is a lecturer of English at the Department of English at Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His main research foci include teacher’s error correction and feedback, student motivation, and learner autonomy.)