October 2018
Joel Heng Hartse, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

In an article in the Journal of Second Language Writing, Ryuko Kubota and I (Heng Hartse & Kubota, 2014) wrote about whether a “non-error-based” approach to working with second language (L2) writers’ texts was feasible in the context of scholarly publishing. With the recent rise of sociolinguistically influenced approaches to understanding writing that recognize the reality of multilingual influences on English usage, including world Englishes (Matsuda & Matsuda, 2010), English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), (Ingvarsdóttir & Arnbjörnsdóttir, 2013), and translingual approaches (Horner, Lu, Royster, & Trimbur, 2011), we examined challenges for the acceptance of nonstandard English use in published texts, finding that even when we claim to have relatively progressive approaches to preserving the voices of multilingual scholars, the realities of the demand for polished standard written English can make this difficult.

In this short article, I would like to ask whether a non-error-based approach to L2 writing is possible in the university classroom. My question is: Can teachers of L2 writers operate with a sociolinguistic curiosity that reserves judgment about language differences, rather than using a traditional seek-and-destroy approach to looking for and correcting errors in their students’ texts? (Spoiler alert: The answer, I think, is “maybe.”)

The Subjectivity of Error Judgments

In Heng Hartse and Kubota (2014), we describe the traditional view of L2 writers’ texts as “error-based”: These texts are “usually read with an eye to how they differ from a presumed native speaker standard, often at the word and sentence level” (p. 73). Clearly, much of our work as teachers of writing involves written corrective feedback meant to help students make fewer errors, or at least write more fluently. However, what actually constitutes an error? Years of research in both first and second language writing have shown that when readers are given the opportunity to look for errors in texts, they rarely come to the same conclusions. My favorite example is Hyland and Anan’s 2006 study, which intended to examine readers’ reactions to a paragraph containing 11 errors. Most readers indeed identified the 11 errors, as well as a total of 42 additional ones.

Similarly, studies of attitudes about emerging varieties of English show that there is great variation in whether readers accept novel English usages as legitimate variations or reject them as mistakes. For instance, in Heng Hartse (2015), I found that a group of 46 experienced English language teachers, who in total identified nearly 800 usages they deemed unacceptable or incorrect in the seven L2 student essays they read, had a high level of agreement on only 3% of putative “errors.” Conversely, nearly 50% of the errors were identified as such by only one out of 46 participants; if hundreds of the “errors” were deemed so by a single teacher, perhaps the question of correctness in writing is not so simple.

This finding led me to some hard questions about my own practice as an L2 writing instructor. Although I still certainly believe there is such a thing as an “error” in English writing, I now rarely find myself using the word. The term “language difference,” which I borrow from Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur’s 2011 piece advocating the translingual approach, often makes more sense to me. English usage varies for so many different reasons—language background, cultural context, genre, register, idiolect, and so on—that it may be worth reserving judgment on whether an unconventional usage is truly an error. In addition, this means that simply being the person with the red pen is not always enough to make us reliable judges of students’ language use; we have to think about what gives us the right to make certain judgments and how we explain this to students so that we earn their trust.

If so few of us can agree on what constitutes an error, and if so many of our judgments of unacceptable language seem to be idiosyncratic, what should we do? I am not always certain, but I have a few suggestions, things that I try to keep in mind when I am reading and offering feedback on a student’s text.

1. Be aware that you and other readers may have different priorities.

It is easy for writing instructors to assume that they are the ultimate arbiters of correctness, especially as native speakers or highly skilled users of the language. However, aside from agreeing on very obvious syntactic violations of the rules of English, various language experts are likely to have quite different priorities when it comes to judging which uses of language are unacceptable to readers. As a result, an inflexible insistence on one’s own personal preferences may simply lead to students’ confusion and may not be conducive to learning to write.

For this reason, I advise that instructors exercise caution and self-reflexivity when it comes to making comments, suggestions, and changes to L2 writers’ texts. Rather than making this reflexivity a source of anxiety, it should be a “teachable moment” for both students and teachers. We can all develop greater metalinguistic and metadiscursive awareness of different standards in different contexts, whether those be countries, regions, institutions, disciplines, or even classrooms. Though we may be accustomed to thinking about these differences in large-scale terms of genre and register, it is also important to think about this when it comes to the uptake of variation from standard written English, even at the grammatical level.

2. Be aware of contextual differences in varieties of English and how these affect the way texts are written and understood.

Because many of us work with students whose lives are transnational, it is also important to be aware of the varieties of English in the world. Even if one does not wholeheartedly agree with the theoretical positions of world Englishes or ELF researchers, it is important to recognize their empirical scholarship and descriptive work on varieties of languages that we are not all likely to be familiar with. Teachers and other literacy brokers would do well to familiarize themselves with the scholarship on varieties of English in the contexts their students come from. There has been descriptive work done on Englishes in many countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa, to name a few regions. It may be worthwhile to also invest in a handbook on world Englishes (such as Kachru, Kachru, & Nelson, 2006) and to keep abreast of developments in research centers like the University of Helsinki’s ELFA project and the University of Southampton’s Centre for Global Englishes.

3. Be aware of how you understand your own authority to make judgments of language use and how you communicate it to L2 student writers.

As with Point #1, some reflexivity is necessary here. As teachers, we are accustomed to being judges of language use; after all, it is part of what we are paid to do. However, there are different ways to communicate our authority to students, some more helpful than others. What lends an instructor credibility as an authority in one context (e.g., knowledge of the students’ first language in an EFL context) may not be credible in another (e.g., work experience in the students’ discipline may be more credible in some settings). We need to be more aware of the ways we can earn students’ trust by how we rhetorically position ourselves as experts who can judge their language use in ways that will ultimately be beneficial to them, rather than acting as the writing police who can “catch” writers’ mistakes.

One way of bolstering our authority is continuing professional development in our own knowledge of English (especially for native speakers, who often lack serious training in language structure), as well as educating ourselves about our students and the contexts they write in. We may be able to gain students’ trust that our judgments are legitimate with our life experience, our bilingualism, our grammatical knowledge, our deep understanding of academic institutions, or for any number of reasons. We should explore how we can strengthen our own authority in ways that benefit students, not in ways that are self-aggrandizing.


Research shows that teachers’ reactions to texts are idiosyncratic. Rather than allowing this to paralyze us, it should empower us to work together with our students to better understand how to prioritize feedback and error correction, be more thoughtful about the reasons for our own linguistic preferences, and learn more about how English is used in varying real-world contexts. We can keep our red pens in hand, but perhaps by attempting to shift to a non-error-based understanding of L2 writing, one that rather emphasizes variation and difference, we can wield them with more restraint and wisdom.


Heng Hartse, J. (2015). Acceptability and authority in Chinese and non-Chinese English teachers' judgments of language use in English writing by Chinese university students (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of British Columbia, Canada.

Heng Hartse, J., & Kubota, R. (2014). Pluralizing English? Variation in high-stakes academic writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 24, 71–82.

Horner, B., Lu, M. Z., Royster, J. J., & Trimbur, J. (2011). Opinion: Language difference in writing: Toward a translingual approach. College English, 73, 303–321.

Hyland, K., & Anan, E. (2006). Teachers’ perceptions of error: The effects of first language and experience. System, 34(4), 509–51.

Ingvarsdóttir, H., & Arnbjörnsdóttir, B. (2013). ELF and academic writing: A perspective from the expanding circle. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 2(1), 123–145.

Kachru, B., Kachru, Y., & Nelson, C. L. (Eds.). (2006).The handbook of world Englishes. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Matsuda, A., & Matsuda, P. K. (2010). World Englishes and the teaching of writing. TESOL Quarterly, 44, 369–374.

Joel Heng Hartse is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He earned a PhD in TESL from the Department of Language & Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. His work has appeared in the Journal of Second Language Writing, Asian Englishes, Composition Studies, and English Today. He is coauthor of Perspectives on Teaching English at Colleges and Universities in China (TESOL Press, 2015) and coeditor of the Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie.