If you teach ESL, you may have encountered any number of disparaging remarks from students and teachers alike about language instruction. For example, when I challenged my students a couple of weeks ago to spend a little more time on their English homework, one of my college students said to me, “No offense, but it is ONLY English.”
I countered, “Isn’t English the most important language in the world for business, travel, and research?”
“Yes,” came the reply, “but I live in St-Jerome.” There was some nodding and general agreement that followed. Apparently, in St-Jerome, Quebec, English does not seem to be a pressing need for some eighteen-year-old Francophones.
Years earlier, in South Korea, during a department meeting about adding a writing component to our Freshman English Program, a colleague declared with a grin, “What’s the point? They don’t learn anything away.” There was some nodding. General agreement that followed that remark, also. Apparently, adding writing correction to the list of ESL teachers’ duties does not always seem like a particularly effective use of time in all contexts.
Obviously, motivation can ebb and flow on both sides of the teacher’s desk. Learning, for example, when to use the Present Perfect Progressive can seem like more trouble than it is worth. Also, correcting the same error in a student’s writing multiple times can be disheartening to even the most patient of teachers. Such problems! Are ESL teachers doomed forevermore to be the workhorses of the academic world?
Automated Feedback Solutions
Computers can provide solutions to some of the problems one encounters in ESL. If you think English is irrelevant to your day-to-day life, YouTube and Facebook might persuade you otherwise. If you are starting to feel that correcting quizzes and writing assignments is getting tedious, Moodle and Virtual Writing Tutor can help.
Lately, I have been using Bokomaru Publications’ Moodle-Assisted English Language Learning site called Labo d’anglais. I do almost all of my testing online with automatically graded quizzes and peer-reviewed writing assignments. As a result, students get scores quicker than they did when I did all correction by hand, and I notice a significant reduction in the amount of tedium in my job. To provide my students with faster corrective feedback on writing errors, I use Virtual Writing Tutor.
When my colleagues complain that they spent the weekend giving corrective feedback on student essays, I sympathize, a little. I think back to the years when my weekends were gobbled up by stacks of writing corrections, and then I smile at how the most repetitive and tedious aspects of providing corrective feedback are now handled by a machine.
Correction without Tears
To illustrate one way that my job has gotten easier without sacrificing good pedagogy in the process, I would like to share a little about my approach to teaching Francophone College students the Present Perfect Progressive. In week one of a fifteen-week semester, I ask my students to find and correct the errors in a short introduction forum post written by a former student. This is the text:
my name is sophie Gagnon. i am born in laval.
i live at Montreal. i have 17 years.
i study in sciences humans since 2 years.
Me, i like to do party with my friends.
My best friend make me smile.
This text contains some pretty common errors made by Francophones writing in English. In French, you are born somewhere. In English, you were born somewhere. In French, you live at a city. In English, you live in a city. In French, you have so many years. In English, you are so many years old. In French, you study in a program since so many years. In English, you have been studying a subject area for so many years, and so on. Back to my method…
Then, I ask students to introduce themselves to the class using an online forum. Of course, despite having done the correction exercise, they still make many of the same kinds of errors, so I ask them to check their own introduction for errors using the Virtual Writing Tutor. They get the same amount of corrective feedback (or more) on errors as they would get from me if I were to collect the paragraphs on paper, bring them home and return them the next week covered in red ink, but they get the feedback in in less than a second from the machine. Here is what you get when you submit the above text into the Virtual Writing Tutor:
Later in the course, I ask my students to create an unusual character and write an introduction for that character using the first person. Again, I ask them to share it online and then check it for errors using the Virtual Writing Tutor.
On the final exam, one of the six sections of the exam asks them to write a paragraph where they introduce themselves. This time, it is me who uses the Virtual Writing Tutor to check for errors. By the end of a semester with me, most of my students will write a paragraph containing a correct instance of the Present Perfect Progressive in response to the following writing prompt:
Introduce yourself. Say where you are from, where you live, how long you have been living there, the name of your program, how long you have been in the program. Also, describe your usual weekly routine, your job, and how long you have been doing it.
The Virtual Writing Tutor Makes Good Pedagogy Possible
All in all, the students get much more corrective feedback on errors than I would be willing to give without the help of a machine. The goal is to throw so much negative evidence at an error that the interlanguage rule in students heads that produces the error will begin to destabilize. Once that happens, they might then be able to resist the urge to map English words on the French structures, and finally introduce themselves in Standard Written English. To provide that much feedback by hand might negatively affect my motivation as a teacher.
The Virtual Writing Tutor Saves Time
Just consider how long it would take you to provide the same amount of corrective feedback as the Virtual Writing Tutor can provide on 125 students’ paragraphs. Assuming you are a well-rested teacher with a two day weekend ahead of you and assuming you could correct one error every 15 seconds, and assuming each text has 21 errors like the one above, it would take you only about 5 minutes per student. Not so bad. Assuming you had five groups of 25 students (my groups have between 27 and 29 students this semester) and spent five minutes on each text without any interruptions, meals, or breaks, it would take you 625 minutes, or 10 and a half hours to correct them all.
Your weekend is gone, and your kids are now complaining to their mother/your wife that you never make time to play with them. Your motivation to provide corrective feedback might start to wain by week two of the semester. Now, times that 10 and a half hours by three. I have learned, as I hope you will too, that the Virtual Writing Tutor saves ESL teachers time.
How much time do you spend on providing corrective feedback on ESL students’ writing? Leave a comment.