Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. – Emerson

Grammar and the ESL Writing Class

Kroll, B. Exploring the dynamics of second language writingFrodesden, J. and Holten, C. (2003). Grammar and the ESL Writing Class. In B. Kroll (Ed.), Exploring the dynamics of second language writing (pp. 141-161). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frodesden and Holten begin with a brief discussion of the construct of “good writing” and then consider the impact of communicative language teaching methodologies on ESL grammar instruction in the 1980s. The authors begin by asking three questions:

  • Is formal grammar instruction useful for L2 (second language) writers?
  • What is the role of grammar in the drafting process?
  • Is individualized feedback on errors in student writing an effective strategy for improving accuracy and developing overall language proficiency?

Three Questions

To answer each of these questions, the authors give a short review of relevant literature published in the 70s and 80s. Major themes covered are a) the dichotomy between theoretical and pedagogical grammar, b) conceptual constructions of error and c) the degree of focus given to form and to function.  They review criticisms of direct grammar instruction attributed to Krashen and Hartwell and others who suggest that formal grammar instruction has a negligible, or even harmful a effect on writers’ emerging composition skills. They point out that these positions were developed within the context of L1 (first language) instruction, and may not be appropriate to L2 (second language) learners, for whom “focused attention to language features is often beneficial and sometimes necessary” (p. 114).

Turning to drafting, Frodesden and Holten suggest that the dominant view of writing as a recursive process unfolding over multiple drafts means that less attention is now given to accuracy. Process writing, they say,  gives a lot of attention the organization of content and often delays editing to final draft stages. They mention that this practice is supported by research indicating that ‘more effective writers’ – in both L1 and L2 instruction – often delay editing until they are at the final draft stage. Frodesden and Holten then say that L2 writers – especially those who are less proficient – do benefit from feedback on both grammar and content throughout the writing process and state that weaker students who do not receive such feedback often produce final drafts replete with errors which they are unable to correct precisely because they lack the formal grammatical knowledge needed to do so.

The authors conclude with a discussion of whether individual feedback on errors contributes to language proficiency. They refer to Truscott’s 1996 paper in which he asserted that “Grammar correction has no place in writing classes and should be abandoned” (p. 361) and explain that this position is based on both theoretical and empirical evidence. They then review a rebuttal of this position by Ferris and Roberts, who claim that empirical evidence – including some from their own studies – shows that students who receive direct grammar feedback are better able to self-edit than are those who received no direct feedback on grammar errors. They point out that explicit grammar instruction and correction

help students notice grammatical forms, focus explicitly on the gap between their output and what native speakers would write, and expose them to language forms that they may not be ready to acquire immediately, but will at some point in their acquisition trajectory, (p. 147).

Frodesden and Holten conclude by mentioning three potential benefits of explicit error correction: 1) students gain an understanding of how their texts deviate from conventions of standard written English; 2) develop self-editing skills; 3) gain understanding of the importance of clarity and appropriateness of written forms.