Language is ruled-governed by grammatical norms that must be followed for communication. Scholars have studied how prescriptive grammar feedback through teacher response affects students’ outcomes and writing processes at all grade levels. Because writing is a cognitive act, students may not develop a clear writing process without effective feedback but instead employ a thought process that is scattered and disorganized.
Writing is a cognitive process seen as a set of thinking skills that students use to create a written product using a foundation of previous knowledge. If you were born in the late 1980s, you may recall how teachers taught students to think about a rhetorical problem. You started with what is called a brainstorming activity. You would write the main point in a box and then draw lines with words linked to what you could say about your main point. This brainstorming activity would later become a five-paragraph essay. Over time, students developed what Linda Flower and John R. Hayes refer to as a writing model: “The act of writing involves three major elements which are reflected in the three units of the model: the task environment, the writer’s long-term memory, and the writing processes” (Flower and Hayes 369). The model outlines how students are influenced by previous knowledge, their writing process, and the ideas that they have generated through planning and goal-setting. According to Flower and Hayes:
If one studies the process by which a writer uses a goal to generate ideas, then consolidates those ideas and uses them to revise or regenerate new, more complex goals, one can see this learning process in action. Furthermore, one sees why the process of revising and clarifying goals has such abroad effect, since it is through setting these new goals that the fruits of discovery come back to inform the continuing process of writing. In this instance, some of our most complex and imaginative acts can depend on the elegant simplicity of a few powerful thinking processes. (386)
While our early writing experiences in grade school teach us an exact and rigid thinking process, as we mature as writers, we revise this writing model and learn to think more flexibly about writing. Because writing is a skill that must be taught, we rely on feedback that lets us know if our writing is effective. To build the writing process, it is essential that students receive feedback responses that inspire creativity and help students to better link together ideas, avoid mechanical errors, and produce quality content.
Teacher feedback can either enable or inhibit a student’s writing and revision. Although some teachers give constructive feedback, in many instances, contradicting teacher feedback leaves the student in a state of confusion, overwhelmed by red ink in the margins of first drafts. This kind of feedback leaves the student feeling incompetent. The writing process is inhibited by feelings of failure, anxiety, and worry. Because of this confusion, students also struggle to determine how to weigh grammatical errors against content. According to Nancy Sommers in “Responding to Student Writing”:
The comments create the concern that these “accidents of discourse” need to be attended to before the meaning of the text is attended to. It would not be so bad if students were only commanded to correct errors, but, more often than not, students are given contradictory messages; they are commanded to edit a sentence to avoid an error or to condense a sentence to achieve greater brevity of style and told in the margins that the particular paragraph needs to be more specific or to be developed more. (150)
Through feedback that is dense and unclear, students become mentally disorganized. When students become unable to weigh the importance of grammatical errors against that of the content of a text, the text becomes less effective. When students face multiple tasks that push against the same sentence, ineffective feedback creates the idea that a text is made up of a series of parts rather than the first draft of a complete discourse. When teachers respond to student writing, what should be necessary is providing students with an effective way to improve what they are trying to say. In Sommers’ study of teacher response, she noted how students felt about vague directives in feedback: “The students stated that when a teacher writes in the margins or as an end comment, ‘choose precise language,’ or ‘think more about your audience,’ revising becomes a guessing game” (153). Teachers expect students to think about their audience, write clearly and concisely, and more. Should students not expect instructors to give productive feedback?
Scholars have discussed productive feedback and alternative feedback. Studies have shown that alternate feedback affects the writing process by encouraging students to return to their work. In “Providing Productive Feedback,” Ken Hyland states:
While we all agree that careful marking should benefit students, it often seems that it is feedback itself, rather than students acting on feedback, which terminates the exercise. Clearly, teacher-response is an essential step in the writing process. Diligent marking provides students with an idea of the criteria by which their work is judged and should offer useful information that will help them avoid similar errors in the future. Students can certainly learn from their mistakes, but this depends on us adopting feedback methods that encourage them to return to their work after it has been assessed. (279)
Teacher-response plays an essential role in the way students respond to their errors. Students need to learn from their mistakes to improve on their future writing. An example of an interactive feedback method is minimal marking. Teachers provide an X or check on the side of each sentence indicating how many errors are in the sentence. Then the student is expected to find the mistakes themselves and correct them. While minimal feedback may not necessarily work for grammar and content alike, it does not intimidate students in revising grammatical errors. Feedback studies raise the question: Is grammar feedback more crucial than content feedback? Scholars have much more to learn about which feedback is more effective. Hyland uses an interactive approach of minimal marking, saying, “Students are often anxious about writing, and need to be encouraged to see it as a means of learning, rather than demonstrating learning” (285).
Hyland explains another alternate approach that he calls taped commentary. When handing in essays, students are required to turn in blank cassette tapes. While Hyland is grading each piece, he puts numbers by each paragraph. On the cassette tape, Hyland will discuss errors by number and explain what students can do to improve their discourse. Taped commentary allows Hyland to respond to difficulties in student writing that require a more in-depth discussion: “The writer can see how someone responds to their writing as it develops, where the ideas get across, where the confusion arises, and where logic or structure breaks down” (283). Through taped commentary, students can learn how to improve their writing by hearing the natural response from their audience. Using this feedback form, the student will better understand each error because Hyland has given more detailed and precise feedback. Students are not confused by multiple red markings in the margins that pull their minds in numerous directions.
Writing is a complex cognitive process that develops over time. As students practice the skills needed to write effectively, it is vital that writing is treated as a nurturing process. Teacher-response is a building block in the foundation writers need to grow their thinking about writing.
- Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 32, no. 4, 1981, pp. 365–87.
- Hyland, Ken. “Providing Productive Feedback.” ELT Journal, vol. 44, no. 4, 1990, pp. 279–285.
- Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 33, no. 2, 1982, pp. 148–56.