March 2014
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EXPLORING PEDAGOGICAL TECHNIQUES IN SECOND LANGUAGE WRITING INSTRUCTION: A SELF-REFLECTION ON REFORMULATION
Li-Tang Yu, University of Texas at Austin, Texas, USA

Written feedback plays an important role in second language writing. It encourages learners to focus on form, providing them with opportunities to notice the gap between their interlanguage and the target language form (Schmidt, 1990; Schmidt & Frota, 1986). As a second language writer, I believe that written feedback has great value. Especially when a native speaker gives me feedback, I am assured that my writing quality and accuracy will be much improved. During my graduate studies, I have received written feedback from teachers and writing tutors in terms of writing content, mechanics, grammatical aspects, and word choice. In these various experiences, I have observed that different people have different approaches to giving feedback. Some teachers prefer to give direct feedback and correct my inaccurate expressions, while some instructors like only to highlight mistakes, but later add comments for me to self-correct the mistakes. Among the feedback approaches I have experienced, I am very impressed by reformulation for its feedback strategy in the form of rewriting my original text.

Reformulation has received considerable attention in recent years (Lapkin, Swain, & Smith, 2002; Sachs & Polio, 2007; Thornbury, 1997). As defined by Ellis (2009), reformulation “consists of a native speaker’s reworking of the students’ entire text [including but going beyond sentence-level concerns] to make the language seem as native-like as possible while keeping the content of the original intact” (p. 98). Sachs and Polio (2007) compare the efficacy of direct error correction and reformulation on the linguistic accuracy of ESL students’ writing. They provide an example, illustrating both feedback approaches below, and assert that the key differences between the two are “a matter of presentation and task demands and [are] not related to the kinds of errors that were corrected” (p. 78).

(1) Original version: As he was jogging, his tammy was shaked.

(2) Reformulation: As he was jogging, his tummy was shaking.

                                                                                tummy          shaking
(3) Direct correction: As he was jogging, his tammy was shaked.

The results show that, after studying reformulated and marked texts and then revising original texts without access to the reformulated/corrected texts, students benefitted from both error correction approaches, but students receiving direct correction statistically outperformed those receiving reformulation feedback in terms of accurate revisions. Sachs and Polio (2007) indicate that reformulation is nevertheless a useful feedback approach because it not only assists learners with tackling surface-level linguistic errors, but also draws their attention to higher levels of errors, such as style and organization.

My Experience

I did not have much experience with this reformulation feedback until I worked on a conference proposal with a U.S. colleague who is experienced in academic writing and has many publications in various reputational education journals. Inspired by previous studies on reformulation, I was interested in taking a second look at my final version of the proposal, which had been reformulated by my colleague, and to compare and contrast the differences between my draft and the revised text.

Appendix 1 shows a six-paragraph excerpt from my results section, selected because this excerpt received the most revisions. The first section is my draft; the second section is the reformulated text. I examined the differences in the two columns. During the comparison of both texts, I identified the corrected parts and tried to understand the purpose of the correction. Then I tried to induce possible categories in which to include the feedback. Once a category emerged, I reread the corrections, confirming or disconfirming the category. Six categories emerged: grammar, word choice, sentence structure, elaboration of the results, better description, and unclear correction. These categories can be generalized into three types: linguistic issues (local level of writing), content issues (global level of writing), and clarification needed. The linguistic issues are grammar, word choice, and sentence structure. The content issues consist of elaboration of the results (i.e., to further explain the result) and better description (i.e., to present the results more clearly). The final type, clarification needed, encompasses revisions for which I did not understand my colleague’s rationale.

Forty-three changes are identified and displayed in Appendix 2. A summary of each revision category for these changes is listed in Table 1, including the number and percentage of corrections in each category (click on image to enlarge).

I assigned the corrections to the category that best fit, although some corrections could fit into more than one category. When more than one possible category for a correction existed, I discussed the correction with a doctoral student who had taught second language writing for several years, and came to a final conclusion. After searching for differences in two texts and placing them into different categories, I made efforts to understand the corrections. This experience confirmed Sachs and Polio’s (2007) position that reformulation helps learners focus on the revised text in terms of various writing levels, as discussed below.

The percentages of corrections in the six categories are not equal. At the local level, more corrections were concerned with word choice. My colleague replaced my general or inaccurate word selection with precise words. For example, I realized that development was not an appropriate word for describing discourse moves and that fluctuation was an accurate word to explain an up-and-down situation. With regard to the global level, there were more pieces of feedback on new and better expression. I learned that I could use words in various ways. For example, in my original text, I wrote: “Monica had a higher percentage of uniqueness codes than Drinna. Fifty-three percent of Monica’s posts and 49% of Drinna’s posts were coded as showing unique.” My colleague reformulated it this way: “Monica also had a slightly higher percentage of uniqueness codes than Drinna, with 53% of Monica’s total number of posts and 49% of Drinna’s total number of posts displaying distinctiveness” (emphasis added). My colleague skillfully combined the two sentences into one sentence and used with to elicit the two participants’ percentages of discourse moves. I was excited about reading these reformulated corrections. Previously, I did not realize that I could use with to express conjunction. This correction broadened my writing repertoire.

Furthermore, I was fascinated by the reformulated sentences with regard to better expression. For instance, my original sentence was “Drinna’s anti-uniqueness codes comprised of 18 percent of her all posts and 14% of Monica’s posts were anti-uniqueness codes.” In contrast, my colleague redrafted the sentence as “For Drinna, 18% of her postings were coded with anti-uniqueness codes whereas for Monica, 14% of her total postings received such codes” (emphasis added). The colleague adeptly contrasted the two participants and specifically made the difference of the participants’ coding results stand out more. After the colleague’s reformulation of the text, the results section in the proposal more vividly presented better clarity. Several of my native-English-speaking classmates read the reformulated text and recognized that it was well written. More surprisingly, there were no advanced, sophisticated words used in the revised text, but rather, my colleague used common words. I learned that the power of straightforward words can still communicate ideas in a direct and nuanced way as long as they are well organized. In addition, by close observation of the reformulated text, I noticed the correct words that I always misused and understood how to present the finding succinctly and clearly.

In contrast to the five categories of linguistic feature corrections, I had several questions about some reformulated phrases and sentences, which I categorized as “unclear correction.” The percentage of unclear correction was the second highest among all categories. I did not understand why or whether the corrected sentences were better than the original ones. I felt uncertain about some changes that my colleague made, like dividing my sentence into two sentences, deleting certain words, or using punctuation to present the same idea. For example, my original text was “Drinna showed moderately high need for uniqueness (3.29 out of 5) and strongly agreed that it is important to express distinctive ideas in class whereas Monica displayed low need for being unique (2.07 out of 5) and strongly disagreed the importance of having distinctive ideas in class to her” (emphasis added), but my colleague reformulated it as “Drinna showed moderately high need for uniqueness (3.29 out of 5) and strongly agreed that it is important to express distinctive ideas in class. Monica displayed low need for being unique (2.07 out of 5) and strongly disagreed that conveying distinctive ideas in class was important to her.” I did not know the reason that she deleted my whereas.

Also, word replacement aroused my curiosity. My colleague substituted appeared for seemed in the original sentence “She . . . seemed to be more deliberate about how she created her posts” (emphasis added). So far, a simple and quick (but maybe insufficient) answer to explain the “unclear correction” revision was different writing styles and instinctive language sense. I suddenly remembered that my native-English-speaking writing tutors occasionally said, “Well, I don’t know how to explain it to you, but it just sounds better and natural to me!” when I raised tricky questions with them. It is suggested that more meetings with writing experts is one of the solutions to further clarify my problems. Another possible way is to read more good writing pieces and keep mindful of their expressions for further reflection.

Conclusion

There are several advantages and disadvantages of using reformulation as a way to give feedback on second language learners’ writing. With regard to the positive side, reformulation allows learners to compare the difference between their own and the reformulated version and further to push themselves to reflect on why the reformulated version is better than their own. I was exposed to examples of better expression of meaning and correct usage of English in academic writing. Moreover, reformulation involves feedback on both the local and global levels of writing, giving learners comprehensive feedback (Sachs & Polio, 2007). For me, the comparison of the reformulated text and my original text is like a treasure hunt game. I have to “dig out” my writing errors and examine correct writing expressions. By reading the reformulated text, it challenges my previous writing belief and further stimulates me to find answers to this question: Why does it look better when it is written like this?

As for the negative side of reformulation, it is an implicit feedback approach. I have to spend more time searching for the correction. As Ellis (2009) suggests, reformulation may impose the burden on learners of identifying writing revisions that have been made. Language learners have to pay close attention and exert effort to note the difference. Without such attention and effort, the learners may not receive the potential benefits of reformulation. Furthermore, reformulation may be better suited for advanced learners who can analyze the comparison between their writing and the reformulated text, rather than for novice learners who may feel overwhelmed and have many questions about why their writing is reformulated in a particular way.

To overcome the weakness of the reformulation, writing instructors or more knowledgeable writers could hold writing conferences to clarify students’ questions about the corrections. Such conferencing can motivate and encourage learners to look back at the revisions and identify changes they do not understand, thus enabling them to receive more benefits from the reformulation approach and further improve their writing.

References

Ellis, R. (2009). A typology of written corrective feedback types. ELT Journal, 63(2), 97–107.

Lapkin, S., Swain, M., & Smith, M. (2002). Reformulation in the learning of French pronominal verbs in a Canadian French immersion context. Modern Language Journal, 86, 486–506.

Sachs, R., & Polio, C. (2007). Learners’ uses of two types of written feedback on a L2 writing revision task. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 29(1), 67–100.

Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11(2), 129–158.

Schmidt, R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner of Portuguese. In R. R. Day (Ed.), Talking to learn: Conversation in second language acquisition (pp. 237–326). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Thornbury, S. (1997). Reformulation and reconstruction: Tasks that promote “noticing.” ELT Journal, 51, 326–335.


Li-Tang Yu is a doctoral student in the Foreign Language Education Program at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include new literacies, computer-assisted language learning, second language acquisition, and L2 literacy development. He taught EFL at the elementary school and university levels in Taiwan.


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