Grammar Correction in ESL/EFL Writing Classes May Not Be Effective

By Ronald Gray

Most ESL/EFL writing teachers would strongly agree with the statement that teacher correction feedback is a necessary part of any writing course. Most would also concur that grammar correction is essential. This belief seems to be intuitively obvious and just plain common sense, but solid research conducted in the last 20 years has revealed it to be wrong. 
From his research, Gray concludes that…

i) grammar correction in second language writing courses does not work.
ii) grammatical correction in ESL/EFL writing classes can actually be harmful to students’ performance and development.

So what does he suggest?

Practical Implications For ESL/EFL Teachers

So what should a L2 writing teacher do? The quickest and most effective solution would be for writing instructors to simply stop making grammar corrections. (Cheryl: Erm…. ) This would of course be difficult for teachers to do because it has been shown most students strongly expect teachers to notice their writing errors and comment on them, and they become quite resentful if this does not occur. (Cheryl: Which is the expected reaction… The students and their parents (and of course the principal and other teachers) would assume that the teacher is not doing his or her job.)  Adding to this pressure to give grammar feedback is the fact that established curriculum of many language school and university writing programs (especially overseas) is based on the value of grammar correction and if a teacher did not employ it, they would have a good chance of being considered unprofessional. (Cheryl: … and branded as a LAZY teacher!)

One possible solution to this problem which I have found to be useful is to give periodic short grammatical lessons at the beginning of class (the week after a big homework assignment), and I discuss one or two widespread grammatical problem (e.g. articles, prepositions) that I encountered in the students’ homework. This usually has gone over
well and generally satisfied the students need for grammatical correction feedback. Krashen (2004b) recommends teachers simply inform their students of the limitations of grammar correction but I have doubts whether students would be satisfied with such an explanation.

But just because grammar feedback is problematic does not mean all feedback is ineffective. The general problem with is with the focus of S2 teacher’s feedback. Studies indicate that writing teachers spend most of their busy time offering grammatical or surface level corrections in their comments. (Cheryl: Ops.. I’m guilty of this. And I actually “tortured” myself poring over my students’ essays to make grammar corrections. I could have spent those countless hours doing something more constructive.)  In other words, they commonly view their students’ work as language instead of writing teachers, concentrating primarily on form over content. As a consequence, they address only one part of the writing process. What writing teachers need to do is give priority to MEANING and MEANING RELATED problems, to make remarks about students’ texts instead of just form. Semke (1984) has demonstrated that students who received comments from teachers only on content did much better and spent more time working on their essays than those who received criticism only on grammar. (Cheryl: I suppose grammar corrections focus on what students do “wrong”, i.e. their weaknesses and not their strengths, and thus “kill” their motivation to write. In addition, the students might lose confidence in themselves.)

Specifically, this means that teachers should devote their time to areas like:


  • Logical development of ideas and arguments
  • Effectiveness of introduction and conclusion


  • Use of description
  • Thesis statement
  • Focus
  • Use of facts and experience
  • Cogency and consistency of how and why explanations

In short, teachers need to train themselves to set aside their red pens and examine ideas and see what students are trying to say instead of simply looking for grammatical errors. (Cheryl: I must try my best to bear this in mind!)

If ESL/EFL writing teachers are really concerned with improving their student’s grammatical competency, they should, in lieu of offering grammar correction feedback,  constantly stress in their classes the importance of outside reading. Studies have shown that voluntary, ‘light,’ authentic reading (graphic novels, comics, the easy section of newspapers, popular literature) in the target language greatly helps the overall writing and grammatical skills of second language students (Krashen 2004a).

Teaching writing can be a very taxing and time-consuming process. Minimizing grammatical error feedback has the advantage of greatly simplifying teachers jobs, giving them needed time to spend on concentrating on other important elements of the writing process, while also removing a significant impediment to their students learning how to effectively write.      

(Cheryl: It’s time for a CHANGE! I need to change the way I teach writing and give feedback on students’ essays.)



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