September 2014
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Robert H. Taferner, Hiroshima University, Higashi-Hiroshima, Hiroshima, Japan

The value of feedback for improving second-language (L2) writing skills has been widely established in L2 writing literature (Bitchener & Ferris, 2012; Ferris, 2012). For example, providing feedback on content, structure, and style all seen to have immediate and long-lasting effects on L2 learners’ writing abilities and motivation. Still, many writing instructors and researchers have argued that the need for providing corrective feedback (CF) on grammar outweighs the lack of empirical research supporting its practice (Truscott, 1996). It was with this in mind that Truscott (2007) summarized the empirical findings of CF on L2 grammar and again found it to be ineffective in the short term. Truscott also determined that a more disciplined approach to grammar instruction was necessary to promote efficient language learning and acquisition.

Grammar error correction has been debated since early scholarship on L2 acquisition (Corder, 1967; James, 1998). Responses to this debate often focused on how CF might improve subsequent grammar usage and whether it would have a lasting impact on learners’ interlanguage (Ferris, 1999). Ferris argued for the use of CF, but also encouraged ongoing research, noting that “we must take Truscott’s claims and challenge seriously…helping students to develop their written language skills and improve their accuracy in writing is too important to be ruled on hastily” (p. 10).

The effects of instruction on learners’ errors has since been determined to only be noticable longitudinally (Ellis, 1990). Therefore, to establish the effects of CF on grammar acquisition, longitudinal studies of many years in length (Jackson, 2013) are required to observe changes in learners’ grammar acquisition. Nevertheless, very few CF research studies have used a longitudinal design (see Sasaki, 2009), and it has been difficult to establish whether CF can have a lasting impact on L2 grammar acquisition. Much scholarship continues to examine its short-term influence on learners’ grammatical development (Truscott, 2007). Due to the application of short-term cross-sectional interlanguage development studies, it is highly unlikely that the CF provided could realistically provide insight on its long-term impact.

With these established limitations of CF treatments on L2 writing, it appears that CF research has little to offer second language acquisition (SLA) researchers and classroom practitioners. However, addressing errors in writing is vital to the overall comprehension of current and possibly future compositions of a learner; thus, applying SLA theory to CF research and practice remains an important goal to pursue.

Application of SLA Theory to the Study of CF

Transfer and Variability
Traditionally, past CF studies have not drawn from SLA theory to substantiate their hyphotheses that the application of CF on errors would improve the accuracy of grammatical features in subsequent L2 compositions. Nevertheless, SLA theory is important, as it provides the foundation for explaining the results of many previous CF studies. From an SLA perspective (e.g., Towell & Hawkins, 1994), factors investigated have included:

  1. first-language (L1) transfer;
  2. deficits in L2 learning;
  3. learning variability among learners;
  4. staged development (e.g., went – goed – went), as seen in Figure 1; and
  5. language systematicity as in the case of morpheme acquisition orders (see Table 1).

In most CF studies, (1) L1 transfer, (2) deficits in L2 learning as represented by errors or avoidance of grammatical features, and (3) learning variability are evident when researchers report their findings in the results and analysis sections. These factors complicate coding and statistical measurements as error types, and the frequency of those errors varies across learners and writing tasks. In fact, task factors (e.g., choice of grammar, task type, time-on-task, cognitive load, task repetition, etc.) influence language usage to such a degree that it is difficult to compare a partipant’s pretest and posttest errors, making the results of a study especially difficult to interpret when a large number of participants are involved. To resolve this methodological limitation and improve the validity and reliability of these studies, research that uses grammar tests that target specific items of interest and simulate actual writing task conditions are needed. In the meantime, much can be gained from case studies, as they provide valuable insight into CF and grammatical acquisition (Ferris, Hsiang, Sinha, & Senna, 2013).

Staged Development

SLA theory can be more helpful in describing the changes in interlanguage through staged development (see Figure 1). Here, learners go through three stages of learning as depicted by a U-shaped learning curve for irregular verbs. In Stage 1, after learners received instruction, they produce correct forms; however, as time goes on, deviant forms (errors) emerge due to backsliding (Stage 2). In the final stage, as learners become more proficent with the grammatical item, near perfect grammar usage is observed. Therefore, great care should be taken when describing the resulting changes in grammatical accuracy rates, as the determination of which stage learners are in affects whether CF was successful in aiding interlanguage development.

Figure 1. Staged development of irregular verbs

Adapted from Oshita (2000) and O'Grady (2005)

Another point that is rarely mentioned in CF studies is the role of systematicity in the acquisition of grammatical features. In Table 1, morpheme acquisition orders for L1 Spanish and L1 Japanese learners of English indicate that the success of CF may depend on learners’ L1, as well as the grammatical feature that is being corrected. At this point in time, further research is needed to establish the orders of acquisition for a variety of grammatical items, and align these orders with the application of CF to increase the likelihood that CF treatment could enhance grammar acquisition.

Table 1. Morpheme Acquisition Orders for Spoken English

Natural Order
(Dulay & Burt, 1973)

(Izumi & Isahara, 2004)

1 plural –s “Books”

1 possessive –’s

2 progressive –ing “John going”

2 progressive –ing

3 copula be “John is here”

3 copula be

4 auxiliary be “John is going”

4 third-person singular

5 articles (the/a) “The books”

5 plural –s

6 irregular past tense “John went”

6 auxiliary be

7 third person –s “John likes books”

7 irregular past tense (went)

8 possessive –’s “John’s book”

8 articles (a/the)

In summary, the application of SLA theories can help provide an estimation of when CF is likely to influence grammar learning and acquisition, and learners’ interlanguage, and the type and saliency of CF may be a useful indicator of its successful application.

Application of CF in Accordance With Interlanguage Stage
The determination of the CF type and saliency of CF is likely to be dependent on a learner’s interlanguage stage for any particular grammatical item. Corrective feedback type is divided into focused and unfocused feedback. Focused CF targets a limited number of items, whereas unfocused CF covers more grammatical features and is more comprehensive. Corrective feedback saliency refers to the degree to which explicit grammar knowledge is provided to the learner. Direct CF shows learners where the error is and replaces the mistake or error with the correct form. Metalinguistic CF gives an explanation of the correct grammatical form. While indirect CF may or may not show that an error or mistake was made, no correct form is made available to the learner (for a thorough description of CF typology, see Ellis, 2009).

Table 2. Interlanguage Stage and Applicable Corrective Feedback

CF Type and CF Saliency (with error/mistake indicated)


Stage (Accuracy)

CF Type

CF Saliency






1 (0–25%)






1–2 (25–50%)






2–3 (50–75%)






3 (75–100%)






In Table 2, the interlanguage stage and CF type and CF saliency are correlated. In the early stages of grammar learning, it is more likely that the learner will make errors due to lack of grammatical knowledge. On the other hand, at Interlanguage Stages 2 and 3, the learner has more control over the grammatical item, but still can make either an error or a mistake. The differences in whether an error or mistake is made can inform how instructors provide CF. For instance, when a learner does not have sufficient knowledge to self-correct an error, more direct and focused CF should be provided to successfully remediate the error. On the other hand, mistakes could be treated with less CF intervention, allowing for the learner to access his or her grammar knowledge. The reason for these different CF treatments is to promote language development, as well as eventual learner autonomy as learners’ proficiency improves over time. To improve CF practice, it is clear that ongoing research into the effects of CF on grammar development is urgently needed.

Goals of CF Research and Classroom Practice
While corrective feedback research focuses on examining several issues, CF and SLA research are both committed to the improvement of L2 pedagogy. In the long term, it is presumed that SLA research will lead to an empirically supported strategic CF approach that will lead to effective language learning. Current research on the effects of CF treatment on learners’ errors may not necessarily result in observable changes in accuracy in the short term; however, the presence of CF alone may encourage self-monitoring of language usage for self-correction (Cresswell, 2000). For instance, CF may trigger a response which signals to the learner that their current language should be altered, which may even prevent fossilized language (Han, 2013), and promote grammar acquisition.

With the application of CF on L2 learners’ written production, it is often assumed that accuracy of grammatical forms will immediately improve and be maintained. It is likely that when CF is successful, as in the case where mistakes are self-corrected (Suzuki, 2008), the uptake of the correct form can be maintained for long periods of time. Mistakes, as opposed to errors, are grammatical features that have been successfully learned, but are occasionally produced incorrectly. Errors, on the other hand, are less likely to be within a learner’s ability to readily correct due to a lack of accessible grammatical knowledge under writing task conditions. When the application of CF is ineffective, this indicates that additional instruction and practice of that item may be required. It also shows the current interlanguage state of the learner and the next steps to take to improve the learner’s grammar development. It can be argued that when CF is successful in facilitating the correction of errors and acquisition of those forms, preemptive classroom instruction (Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen, 2001) may facilitate grammar accuracy as part of classroom instruction and pretask planning (Foster & Skehan, 1996).

Preemptive Grammar Instruction
It was through the efforts of many researchers (e.g., Ellis, Sheen, Murakami, & Takashima, 2008; Bitchener & Knoch, 2010a, 2010b; Sheen, 2010) that CF research produced findings that could enhance pedagogical practices in the classroom. If CF can help make a group of language learners monitor their language and shift toward better language usage (Schmidt, 1990), it is likely that improvement in whole-class instruction, rather than individualized CF, would be a more effective pedagogical approach. Through continued persistence in researching the effects of CF, it was revealed that some grammatical items (e.g., articles) are ready to be processed through the application of CF (see Piennemann & Kessler, 2011). In other words, when the application of CF is effective in developing interlanguage, improvements in instructional task design (Bygate, Skehan, & Swain, 2001) may help to preempt potential errors, rather than correcting by relying on posttask remediation in the form of CF. Thus, the promotion of preemptive instruction for grammatical features that were maintained after CF is seen as a step forward in improving the accuracy rates of targeted items (Ellis et al., 2001).

The role of CF on L2 writing and L2 grammar development is highly complex. L2 acquisition theory and CF application to learners’ mistakes and errors still requires more integration to enhance research practices for examining how CF can be used to facilitate the advancement of learners’ interlanguage. Many CF studies to date have only marginally supported investigations with the knowledge obtained through empirical SLA research. Continuing CF research that utilizes sound methodological practices derived from SLA findings, as argued in this article, may be another step in understanding how CF can be used to support learners’ L2 grammatical development in L2 writing.


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Robert Taferner has been teaching English in Japan since 1993. He holds an MAT-TESOL from the School for International Training in Vermont, USA. His research interests include pragmatics, second language acquisition, and materials development.
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