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Journal of Second Language Writing 17 (2008) 292305

Error correction, revision, and learning


John Truscott *, Angela Yi-ping Hsu
Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, National Tsing Hua University, Hsinchu 30013, Taiwan

Abstract
Previous research has shown that corrective feedback on an assignment helps learners reduce their errors
on that assignment during the revision process. Does this finding constitute evidence that learning resulted
from the feedback? Differing answers play an important role in the ongoing debate over the effectiveness of
error correction, suggesting a need for empirical investigation. In this study, learners first wrote an in-class
narrative and then revised their writing during the next class. Half the students had their errors underlined
and used this feedback in the revision task while the other half did the same task without feedback. Results
matched those of previous studies: the underline group was significantly more successful than the control
group. One week later, all students wrote a new narrative as a measure of (short-term) learning. On this
measure, change in error rate from the first narrative to the second, the two groups were virtually identical.
Thus, successful error reduction during revision is not a predictor of learning (at least for the uncoded
corrective feedback that has typified studies in this area), as the two groups differed dramatically on the
former but were indistinguishable on the latter. Improvements made during revision are not evidence on the
effectiveness of correction for improving learners writing ability.
# 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Error correction; Revision; Learning; Correction debate

Introduction
It is generally agreed that revision plays a central role in good writing, in terms of both content
and form. Not surprisingly then, a considerable amount of research has been devoted to exploring
issues regarding the revision process (see, for example, Ferris, 2006; Goldstein, 2006; Sachs &
Polio, 2007). Our present concern, however, is with only a small subset of these studies, those that
investigated the effects of teachers form-based feedback on students success in the revision
process (Ashwell, 2000; Fathman & Whalley, 1990; Ferris & Roberts, 2001). In these
experiments learners were asked to revise their writing, some with the benefit of written error

* Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: truscott@mx.nthu.edu.tw (J. Truscott), angela@mx.nthu.edu.tw (A.-p. Hsu).
1060-3743/$ see front matter # 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.jslw.2008.05.003

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correction and some without, and the effects of the feedback were measured by the extent to
which they managed to improve the accuracy of their essays. An additional study, that of Lee
(1997), is sometimes included in this category, though it differed from the others in that the task
did not involve revision of the students own writing but rather identification, classification, and
correction of errors implanted in a newspaper article.
One clear conclusion from this research is that teachers corrections do indeed help learners
reduce their errors: the revised manuscripts of students who received it showed significantly more
improvement in accuracy than those of students who did not receive it. This research also
produced a number of interesting findings on related issues, such as the relation between
feedback on form and feedback on content or the timing of the two types. Our concern, however,
is not with these results but rather with the question of how research on revision relates to broader
issues regarding the role of error correction in writing classes.
In particular, we are concerned with the differing positions that have appeared in the literature
on the use of grammar correction as a teaching device and with the place of the revision research
in evaluations of these positions. One view (see especially Truscott, 1996, 1999, 2007) holds that
correction makes little or no contribution to the development of accuracy in writing, possibly
even harming the learning process, and therefore has no place in writing classes. The other (see
especially Ferris, 1999, 2003, 2004) takes a more favorable view of correction, recommending its
use in writing instruction. Not surprisingly, the two sides in this debate have offered very different
interpretations of the revision research, and these differences have become an important part of
the debate. The disagreement is about whether the findings of this research constitute evidence of
learning, which we will define as improvements in learners ability to write accurately. We will
not be concerned here with the question of whether such improvements represent new knowledge
or simply priming of existing knowledge; the issue is simply whether learners become better
writers as a result of the treatment.
View #1: error reduction during revision is not a measure of learning
Truscott (1996, 1999, 2007) took the position that the revision research had no implications
for the issue he was addressing, because the point of his case against grammar correction was
that correction is not useful as a teaching device, while the revision research was about its
usefulness specifically as an editing tool, a way to improve a particular manuscript. Evidence of
its value in this function does not constitute evidence of its value for learning, the argument goes,
because evidence on learning necessarily involves a comparison between two independently
written works. So the revision research is not relevant to the case against grammar correction.
A similar view was expressed by Ashwell (2000) in discussing the relation between his study
of revision on the one hand and the case against grammar correction on the other. He argued that
the two were unrelated, because the goals of correction in the two cases were entirely different: he
was studying its role in improving a particular manuscript, not as a teaching device.
View #2: error reduction during revision is a measure of learning
A sharply contrasting view has been offered by a number of other authors, for whom the
revision research is an integral part of efforts to understand the value of correction as a teaching
tool. The first was Sheppard (1992), who carried out an experiment comparing a class of ESL
students who had all their formal errors corrected with a similar class that received feedback
only on content and clarity. After 10 weeks of this treatment, he found an advantage for the

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no-correction group. He then contrasted this negative finding with the positive outcome of
Fathman and Whalley (1990), discussing the possible reasons why the two studies obtained such
different results. In doing so, he took it for granted that Fathman and Whalleys findings, like his
own, were in fact a measure of learning, and he looked elsewhere for explanations of the
contrasting outcomes.
This view was echoed in Chandlers (2003, 2004) discussion of the literature. She suggested
that the two studies might have yielded contrasting results because Sheppard (1992) looked only
at selected errors while Fathman and Whalley (1990) were more comprehensive. In her general
discussions of the grammar correction debate, she gave a prominent place to the revision studies.
Like Sheppard, she saw this research as significant evidence regarding the effects of correction on
learning.
Similarly, Fazio (2001) discussed the negative findings of three experiments on the effects
of correction on students writing ability (Kepner, 1991; Semke, 1984; Sheppard, 1992) and
presented Fathman and Whalleys (1990) results as contradictory evidence. The explanation
she suggested for this contrast was that Fathman and Whalley studied a process-oriented
writing class while the others looked at skill development classes. It was taken for granted
that the revision study, like the experiments with which it was contrasted, did in fact measure
learning.
The same position was adopted by Russell and Spada (2006), who carried out a meta-analysis
of research on the effects of error correction, with the goal of determining how it affects learning.
Their sample of 15 studies included three that focused on improvements in accuracy made during
revision (Ashwell, 2000; Fathman & Whalley, 1990; Lee, 1997), the results of which were
averaged in with work that uncontroversially measured learning, to produce general conclusions
about the effect of correction on learning. These three studies yielded very large effect sizes and
therefore played an important role in the overall findings. Thus, the question of whether they
actually measured learning is quite important for interpretation of this meta-analysis.
Dana Ferris, the most prominent advocate of grammar correction, has discussed this research
more extensively. Her main point appears to be that it provides good evidence regarding shortterm learning that results from error correction. Ferris (1999) treated Fathman and Whalleys
(1990) findings as problematic for Truscotts (1996) case against grammar correction. Ferris
(2003) argued that the significance of Fathman and Whalleys findings was limited by the shortterm nature of the experiment, but that it was nonetheless the best evidence available that
correction is effective, the issue being whether the observed benefits would hold up in the long
run. This concern with short-term versus long-term effects of the treatment again contradicts
View #1, on which the observed benefits were limited to changes in the manuscripts themselves,
ruling out any issue of whether they would endure. So this discussion can be taken as an implicit
rejection of View #1. Ferris (2004) discussed criticisms that had been made of revision studies,
suggesting that the point of these criticisms was that the studies were not longitudinal. More
recently, Guenette (2007) echoed Ferriss view, presenting these studies as useful evidence while
leaving open the question of whether the effects they found were only short-term. For our
purposes, the essential point here is that the revision research is taken as evidence regarding the
impact of correction on learning.
Thus, two fundamentally opposed views of the revision research have been put forward, with
important consequences for the debate over the effectiveness of error correction. One view is that
this research does not measure learning at all. The other is that it provides at least a valid measure
of short-term learning resulting from correction and possibly an indicator of long-term
improvement as well.

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There are no signs of any resolution to this clash of interpretations, and a reasonably safe
conclusion at this point is that further discussion will not produce one. What might do so is
empirical evidence regarding the relation between error reduction in revision on the one hand and
improvements in writing ability on the other. If the studies that measured improvements in accuracy
during the revision process had also included an uncontroversial measure of learninga
comparison between accuracy on the initial writing and that on a new writing taskwe would be
able to compare the two and draw conclusions about this relation. A finding that they yield very
similar results would constitute evidence that the revision studies can indeed be taken as evidence of
learning. On the other hand, a finding that they are entirely unrelated would imply that findings
obtained entirely during revision cannot be taken as evidence of learning. But past studies did not
include any uncontroversial measure of learning, so no such comparison is possible.
What is needed then is research that looks at the effects that error correction has during the
revision process, in essentially the same way previous authors have done, but which also includes a
second writing task. A comparison can then be made between gains made during revision and gains
made from one independent writing task to the other, to determine if success during revision is or is
not a genuine indicator of learning. The second task should probably not be carried out immediately
after the revision, as this approach could introduce a fatigue factor. However, it should not be so long
after the first that additional experience with the target language could contaminate the results,
possibly overwhelming the effects of the single episode of error correction and revision.
Our study is an effort to fill the need for research of this sort. We began with an in-class
narrative writing task, followed the next week by an in-class revision of the narrative, both tasks
comparable to those used by Fathman and Whalley (1990). Half the participants had their errors
on the initial writing underlined and were able to use this information while revising, while the
other half did their revisions without the benefit of any feedback. A week later, all were asked to
write a new narrative on a different subject, providing a measure of any differential learning that
had occurred as a result of the presence or absence of correction.
Methods
Participants and setting
Forty-seven EFL graduate students, 38 males and 9 females, from a large public university in
Taiwan participated in this study. Twenty were from the College of Electrical Engineering and
Computer Science, 10 from the College of Science, 10 from Engineering, 5 from Life Sciences, 1
from Nuclear Science, and 1 from Technology Management. These students were enrolled in
three sections of an elective basic writing seminar, which oriented them to the use of writing
conventions and standards including general attributes of writing (clarity and conciseness) as
well as basic structure (thesis statement, specific support, organization, unity, coherence, and
cohesion). Specific genres covered in this course were narration, description, argumentation,
comparison/contrast, and process. Each class met for 3 hours once a week for 18 weeks.
Prior to registering for the basic writing course, students were required to take a diagnostic test
extracted from the guided writing section of the high-intermediate General English Proficiency Test
(GEPT). Test results were used to place students with similar writing proficiency in appropriate
levels of the course in order to maximize the value of teaching. The GEPT, a criterion-referenced
test, was developed by the Language Training and Testing Center (LTTC) in Taiwan. It has been
widely used as a means of determining learners English abilities for admission and placement, as
well as a criterion to evaluate whether or not a student has met certain graduation requirements.

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Students were given 40 minutes to write an essay of 150180 words on whether they supported or
opposed the Public Welfare Lottery, and they also discussed its impact on society as a whole. Each
student essay was then graded by two experienced writing instructors based on the grading criteria
developed by LTTC. Students who scored from 30 to 42 (out of 60) on their essays were placed into
this course. These students demonstrated skills of basic writing structure and fair use of highfrequency vocabulary but failed to produce cohesive sentences and coherent paragraphs.
Two instructors with many years of experience teaching EFL writing taught the course
sections, one of them teaching two sections. The other instructor, one of the researchers for this
study, taught the third section of the course. This instructor-researcher provided support and
ensured consistency among the three sections. Working closely together, the two instructors
maintained the same instruction (the course objectives, content, activities, and materials were
consistent), and data collected for this study were collected in the same manner. In order to retain
objectivity in the marking and rating of written data, all scoring was done by the other researcher,
who did not teach any of the sections.
Data collection
Students enrolled in these courses were divided equally into two groups (a control and an
experimental group) based on their Narrative 1 error rates. To form the two groups, students in
each section of the course were ranked from high to low according to these error rates. Those with
odd-numbered rankings were placed into the experimental group, whereas even-numbered
students were placed in the control group. The oddeven number designation was used ONLY for
creating the two groups and for determining the level of feedback students would receive on the
two in-class writing assignments used in this study, which are described in the following
paragraphs. These two writing samples were not graded. Throughout the rest of the semester,
there was no such division. All students received the same in-class instruction and assignments;
written feedback on all their regular assignments was given in the same manner. Students were
informed at the beginning of the semester that their writing products would be analyzed and used
for research and teaching-improvement purposes.
After 11 weeks of instruction in the genres of narration, description, and argumentation,
students were quite comfortable with and familiar with the procedures, pacing, and activities in
the course, including writing during class time. Therefore, data were collected from an in-class
writing assignment conducted during weeks 1214. Students viewed a sequence of eight pictures
provided by the instructors. The pictures which provided the prompt for Narrative 1 showed the
story of two school boys who met in front of their school after class. They then went to a
bookstore to buy a birthday card for their friend. While walking to their friends place, they ran
into their other friends who were also heading to the birthday party. The ending of this story is a
joyful birthday celebration. For Narrative 1, the students in all three sections were given
30 minutes to write a guided narrative story based on the pictures. A sample student narrative is
provided in Appendix A, with errors marked.
In week 13, students Narrative 1s were returned, and they were given 30 minutes to revise
them (see Appendix B). Students were specifically told not to write a new essay; instead, they
should improve the one they had already produced in week 12. Students who were in the
experimental group received their Narrative 1s back with errors underlined; students in the
control group received their drafts without any marks on them. Neither group had grades issued
on their drafts. In week 14, students again were provided 30 minutes to write a guided narrative
story (Narrative 2) based on a new series of eight pictures. This story was about a little boy who

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ran out of the house after being scolded by his mom. The boy called a friend of his and went
shopping for jeans. His friend put a pair of jeans in his backpack without paying for them. The
sensors set off the alarms as the two boys were leaving the store. They then ended up in jail for
shoplifting. A sample of Narrative 2 is given in Appendix C, written by the same student whose
Narrative 1 and revision are provided in Appendices A and B, respectively.
All three writing exercisesincluding Narrative 1, Narrative 1 revisions, and Narrative 2
were collected for further analysis. Only those students who completed all three tasks were
included in the data analysis, and one additional student was excludedbefore the Narrative 1
revisions were donedue to an exceptionally high error rate on Narrative 1. The experimental
group ultimately consisted of 21 students and the control group 26.
Marking of errors
On each of the three writing exercises errors were underlined in red immediately after students
completed the exercises. Students in the experimental group did their Narrative 1 revisions using
the markings, while those in the control group were instead given unmarked copies of their
original narratives. After the errors were marked, each piece of writing was assigned an error rate:
the total number of errors divided by the total number of words written. Marking was done by the
researcher who did not teach any of the sections, and the procedure was entirely blindat no time
did the scorer have any knowledge of whether a writing sample was produced by a student in the
experimental group or by one in the control group. In order to ensure the reliability of the scoring,
10% of the writings were graded a second time, 6 months later, by the same scorer. The intra-rater
correlation for the two markings of the same narrative was .967, with S.D. = .066. The
corresponding 95% confidence interval is (.837, 1.000).
Selection of error types to be marked was based on the need for both consistency and broad
coverage. All grammatical errors were included, but errors in word choice were not, except when
they involved the choice of a function word (particularly determiners, prepositions, and
transitions) and could therefore be considered grammatical problems. Errors in mechanics in
general were not counted; exceptions were those associated with fragments and run-on sentences
and failure to use a question mark instead of a period. Spelling errors were marked. This approach
yielded a substantial number and range of marked errors while maintaining a very high level of
consistency, as was shown by the second scoring 6 months later.
Results
Descriptive statistics for the two groups on each of the three measures are shown in Table 1. In
each case, standard deviations are given in parentheses.
In order to ensure that students in the two groups began the study with similar writing
proficiency, an analysis of variance (ANOVA) was performed on the error rates for Narrative 1.
Results are shown in Table 2.
Table 1
Mean error rates for experimental and control groups
Groups

Narrative 1

Revision

Narrative 2

Experimental
Control

21
26

.0799 (.0367)
.0763 (.0389)

.0474 (.0255)
.0680 (.0447)

.1130 (.0472)
.1095 (.0537)

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Table 2
Analysis of variance for error rates: Narrative 1
Source of variation

d.f.

SS

MS

p-Value

Between groups
Residuals

1
45

.00015
.06472

.00015
.00144

.1045

.7480

Total (corrected)

46

.06487

.00141

Table 3
Analysis of variance for error reduction: Narrative 1 to Revision
Source of variation

d.f.

SS

MS

p-Value

Between groups
Residuals

1
45

.0068
.0361

.0068
.0008

8.4998

.0055

Total (corrected)

46

.0429

.0009

The difference between the error rate for the experimental group (.0799) and that for the
control group (.0763) fell far short of significance (F = .1045, p = .7480). We thus conclude that
the groups were equal in their initial writing proficiency.
To examine the effect of error feedback on students subsequent revisions, a comparison was
made between the two groups on their reduction in error rates from Narrative 1 to the revisions.
The results are shown in Table 3.
The difference in error reduction between the two groups is significant (F = 8.4998,
p = .0055). Students who had their errors underlined performed better on the revisions than those
who did not. In other words, error feedback had a significant effect on students rewrites.
The error rate for Narrative 2 was then compared with that for Narrative 1. Results are shown
in Table 4. As can be seen there and in Table 1, the two groups were virtually identical on this
measure (F = .0002, p = .988), indicating that the corrections did not have an effect on students
writing development. Whether students received corrections on their drafts did not seem to
influence their writing performance on the subsequent assignment.
The error rate in Narrative 2 was considerably higher than that in Narrative 1, suggesting that
Narrative 2 was harder for students to write. To preclude the possibility that this difference
influenced the results, the scores were standardized and analyzed a second time. (For discussion
of standardization and its uses, see Hatch & Lazaraton, 1991.) Table 5 shows the results of this
additional analysis. As can be seen, the test results based on the standardized scores are consistent
with those based on the original scores.
The above tests were performed under the assumption of normality. However, because this
study used proportion data, the normality assumption may have been violated. Therefore, in
addition to ANOVA, the Wilcoxon rank-sum test, a nonparametric testing procedure for which
Table 4
Analysis of variance for error reduction: Narrative 1 to Narrative 2
Source of variation

d.f.

SS

MS

p-Value

Between groups
Residuals

1
45

.00000039
.07753157

.000000390
.001722924

.0002261744

.9880675

Total (corrected)

46

.07753196

.001722932

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Table 5
ANOVA for error reduction (standardized): Narrative 1 to Narrative 2
Source of variation

d.f.

SS

MS

p-Value

Between groups
Residuals

1
45

.0091
36.9650

.0091
.8214

.0111

.9165

Total (corrected)

46

36.9741

.8038

Table 6
Rank-sum test statistics
Test

p-Value

Error rate: Narrative 1


Error reduction: Narrative 1 to Revision
Error reduction: Narrative 1 to Narrative 2

.396
2.4719
.0963

.6921
.0134
.9233

the normality assumption is not required, was conducted. The results, shown in Table 6, were
consistent with the findings reported in Tables 25.
Once again, no meaningful difference was found between the two groups on Narrative 1 or on
the change in error rates from Narrative 1 to Narrative 2, while a significant difference was found
in error reduction from Narrative 1 to the revision (favoring the experimental group). That is, the
test results are reliable with or without the assumption of normality.
Discussion
First of all, our findings confirm once again that correction does help students reduce their
errors on the writing on which they receive the corrections, and that the effect is substantial.
Our primary finding, though, is that the benefits of error correction found on the revision task
did not extend to a new writing task performed a week later; the students who had received
correction on Narrative 1 and therefore were more successful in reducing their errors during
revision did not differ from the students who had received no correction and therefore did not
perform as well on the revision. In other words, no relation was found between success on the
revision task and learning as measured by performance on a new writing task. The
implication is that successful error reduction during revision is not a predictor, even a very
weak predictor, of learning.
These findings, in themselves, do not constitute evidence against the effectiveness of error
correction. They are entirely consistent with the view that feedback of this sortif provided
over an extended period of timehas beneficial effects, just as they are consistent with the view
that it does not. Our goal here is not to make a direct contribution to the debate over the
effectiveness of correction but rather to clarify the issue of what does and does not count as
relevant evidence. The point to be drawn from our findings is that studies which looked
specifically at error reduction during the revision process and did not include a second,
independent writing task do not provide evidence on the value of error correction as a teaching
device.
Several possible limitations should be noted, though we do not believe that any of them offer a
strong challenge to our conclusions. First, the possibility exists that learning occurred but was too

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short-term to be detected by our Narrative 2; perhaps the correction group learned a great deal but
then forgot. But if this is the case then the learning was not a very interesting variety, as no traces
of it could be found just 1 week after the treatment. Similarly, the possibility exists that
extraneous variables differentially influenced the two groups during the 1-week gap between the
revision and the second narrative. Perhaps a substantial difference existed between the writing
abilities of the two groups immediately after the corrections but was entirely eliminated by
extraneous factors during the 1-week period that followed. But it is difficult to imagine what
factors might produce such an effect, particularly given that the two groups had no existence
outside our essentially random designation of certain learners as experimental subjects and others
as control subjects.
Another possible limitation on our conclusions is that we used only one type of feedback,
marking location of errors but not giving information about their nature. Fathman and
Whalley (1990) and Ashwell (2000) also used uncoded correction, so this point has no
bearing on our conclusion that their results do not constitute evidence of learning. Ferris and
Roberts (2001) tested both coded and uncoded correction, so the possibility exists that half of
their findings (those involving coded correction) are related to learning. In other words, it is
conceivable that successful corrections made during revision result in short-term learning
specifically when they are based on coded corrective feedback rather than uncoded. But it is
difficult to see why such a contrast would exist. Ferris and Roberts found the two correction
types nearly identical in their value for reducing errors during revision (64% vs. 60%
success), and the literature contains no apparent reason to think that one is superior to the
other for learning.
We conclude that while limitations exist, as they do in any single experiment, our findings
make a strong case for View #1: The revision studies reviewed offer no evidence regarding the
effect of correction on learning. The debate over the effectiveness of error correction should thus
be carried on either without reference to such studies or with a sharp distinction maintained
between the value of correction for learning on the one hand and for improving a particular piece
of writing on the other.
Acknowledgements
We wish to thank Professor Nan-Jung Hsu for extensive help with the statistical analysis,
Chia-yu Joy Lin for making her two writing sections available to us, Melody Shen for
drawing the pictures used in the writing tasks, and of course the students who participated in
the study.
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Writing, 16, 255272.

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John Truscott is a Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at National Tsing Hua University in
Hsinchu, Taiwan. His research interests include the effectiveness of grammar instruction and correction and applications
of research and theory in linguistics and cognitive psychology to second language acquisition. His current research is
primarily concerned with developing a processing-based account of language development, first and second.
Angela Yi-ping Hsu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at National Tsing
Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan. Her research interests include plagiarism issues in ESL and EFL student writing,
bridging the gap of research and teaching, as well as the correlation between teacher commentary and student writing
development.