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IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – September 2020

Using an error correction key for teaching IELTS writing

In my experience, IELTS writing, whether it be a Task 1 or a Task 2 activity, is a complex issue for many learners. While it may be easy for learners to master the structure of this type of writing (usually an impersonal report format for Task 1 and a 5-paragraph opinion essay for Task 2), improving language use is not always as straightforward. One procedure I have found useful for the latter has been the introduction of a correction key as a way of giving learners feedback. The principal rationale for using a correction key is that learners learn from their mistakes. Moreover, in group settings, learners can be encouraged to participate in peer correction and this presents possibilities for additional benefits related to peer-scaffolding and collective/collaborative learning.

Let’s start with a little background knowledge. From an applied linguistics perspective, part of the principle being tapped into is the idea of “noticing” – which can be described as learners noticing errors in their own “interlanguage.” Simply put, “interlanguage” is each individual learner’s internal grammar system of the target language. For example, a low-level learner of English could produce the word “taked” as the past tense of take because they haven’t acquired the correct form. They have applied the limited knowledge of the grammar as a generalisation by adding +ed to create a past tense verb. They will continue to produce this form until they notice the mistake and register the correct form in their interlanguage. Subsequently, it is thought that for learners to acquire new language and language structures they need to first be aware that there is a problem with their current usage, and secondly have the means to correct it. By providing feedback that points out the existence of an error, rather than the traditional method of the teacher correcting an error, learners receive training in noticing and correcting errors in their own work. Whilst noticing is also part of spoken language acquisition, the asynchronous nature of the written form allows for deeper analysis free of the anxiety and pressure of real-time communication.

The classroom procedure is quite straightforward, following this procedure:

1. The learner produces a piece of writing
2. The teacher corrects it using a coded system (the correction key) to identify an error or problem.
3. The learner re-writes their work using the key to try and identify their own mistakes and correct them.
4. The teacher explains any errors the learner is unable to spot.
For this method to be useful, however, a number of additional elements need to be considered. Firstly, learners need to be given some training in identifying errors for them to be capable of correcting their own work. Secondly, they need to be able to identify elements of English grammar and be versed in the meta-language associated with them. Normally, this can be covered in a short, pre-writing session, best done by providing learners with examples of the different types of error and asking them to identify them. Additional scaffolding can be provided by the teacher supplying a list of errors for learners to choose from. Learner could also be given a definition of an error type and then match it to the correct name. Once learners have had opportunities to practice correcting their own work they can also be encouraged to look for errors in their peers’ work.

Whilst some practitioners have argued against the efficacy of using error correction keys in improving student writing (see Truscott (1996, 1999) and Ferris (1999, 2004) for an interesting debate), I have always found that learners find it useful and, as a result, they pay more attention to the types of mistakes they are making. If the mistake is systematic the learner will soon notice and has the opportunity to correct it

Here is an example of a simple correction key. Teachers can add to them or improve definitions as they see fit.

Correction Key
SP Spelling
^ Something Missing
( ) Optional
VT Wrong Tense
WW Wrong Tense
WF Word Form (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.)
[WO] Word Order
? Unclear



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