Establishing Priorities for Choosing Which Errors to Mark

Kate Vieira and Rebecca Lorimer,
Writing Across the Curriculum

Instructors with multilingual writers in their classes often hear the good advice not to mark every language error in students’ papers. After all, some features of English, such as prepositions, are idiomatic, so they require years and years of memorization. Often these features seem easy to native speakers of English, making the errors seem (falsely) indicative of students’ carelessness.

Moreover, marking every error tends to inhibit writers, which can actually make their writing worse as opposed to improving it. Research has shown that writers who receive too much negative feedback tend to take fewer risks and write less, thus diminishing the quality of their writing. Finally, commenting on all surface errors leaves instructors little energy for the more important intellectual work of responding to a paper’s content and ideas.

Yet, as most instructors know, there are times when it pays to take errors seriously. And many multilingual writers are eager for instruction in grammar and word choice. So how can you know which errors to respond to and which to let go? While some broad guidelines are provided below, there are no hard-and-fast rules for responding to errors in multilingual writers’ papers. Your choice ultimately depends on your priorities for what students learn from the writing assignment.

You might consider, for example, what your goals are for the particular writing assignment and whether the paper is at an early stage of development or finished. If the assignment calls for a formal, highly polished piece of writing and you’re reading the final version, then it is probably appropriate to respond to most surface errors. If the assignment, on the other hand, consists of brainstorming ideas or informal free writing or an early draft that will be revised, then it is probably more appropriate to respond only to content.

Another consideration is the frequency of errors in a paper. If a paper has many errors, you might find it efficient to focus on only one or two errors that repeat throughout a paper. Or if a paper has only two errors, you might respond to both of them. Finally, you might also consider your students’ wishes and their development as writers. Some students are eager to have most errors corrected, while others would feel overwhelmed by this approach. Both your goals and your students’ goals for a paper assignment, then, can help determine how and when you respond to surface errors.

That said, many instructors find the following rule of thumb helpful: respond to errors that interfere with meaning and don’t pay too much attention to those that don’t. As second-language writing researcher Tony Silva has pointed out, just as people speak with accents, so too do writers write with accents. So you might consider those errors that do not interfere with meaning as examples of “accent,” and those that do interfere with meaning as a communicative issue worth addressing.

Kate says:

To illustrate this distinction, consider the following example from a student’s paper I received a year ago about alternative energy resources.

      Also, it might bring better a new form of energy if only advantages of several alternatives energies sum.

In this sentence, errors clearly interfere with the meaning the writer is trying to get across. Even after having read this students’ paper on alternative energy resources, I still didn’t know what this sentence meant. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, I suspected that the student himself was unsure of what he was trying to say. This unclear sentence presented me with an opportunity to ask some critical questions, to help push this writer’s thinking forward, and to clarify his point. Here is my comment:

I’m not sure I follow. Did you mean that there is or could be one new form of energy that combines the advantages of all energy alternatives? If so, what might this look like?

This comment signaled that communication between writer (him) and reader (me) had broken down, and that I would like to hear more details about the implications of his claims in subsequent drafts. Note that the comment also models one way to articulate what I think the writer was trying to say. Many multilingual writers find such modeling useful as a way of learning what works in conventional academic prose in English.

How did I have the time to write three sentences of response to his one sentence? I chose not to spend responding time correcting errors that did not interfere with meaning. For example, I did not mark as wrong the following sentences that appeared later in the same student’s paper, when the writer was describing why energy resources were necessary for the development of technology:

The high-developed technology and sufficient resources are inseparable “twins,” such as relationship between needle and thread. To develop higher technology, strong supportable energy resources should be sustained.

Many instructors would notice right away that this sentence is not perfect. For example, there should not be a definite article before “high-developed technology” and there should be a definite article before “relationship.” But definite articles in English usually don’t add much to a sentence’s meaning. Because articles are notoriously difficult to learn, second-language writing researcher Deborah Healey has ironically pointed out that articles serve only to distinguish between “native” and “non-native” English speakers. In addition to the unidiomatic usage of articles, this sentence also has problems with word choice (“high-developed,” for example).

But despite these slips, I understood the writer’s point. In fact, I admired it. For example, note how the writer here makes use of an analogy, “needle and thread,” to represent visually the interdependence of technology development and resources. The second sentence further develops this idea, articulating the nature of this interdependence: energy resources are needed to develop technology. In other words, in the context of this paper, these two sentences elaborate and clearly communicate an important idea. Moreover, the assignment’s main goals did not call for perfect idiomatic prose. My goal for the paper was for students to write an organized, well-researched, persuasive argument, which this student succeeded in doing. Plus, this paper contained other sentences where errors did interfere with meaning where I chose to concentrate. If I were to mark anything on these lines, then, it might be the following: “Good point. Well explained.”

Rebecca says:

When responding to multilingual students’ writing, consider creating a hierarchy of writing concerns—writing issues in order of their importance—that will be a priority for you in your class. My own looks like this:

  1. Understanding the assignment, purpose for writing, and audience
  2. Clear focus, theme, argument, and/or thesis
  3. Clear, logical organization
  4. Fully supported and developed ideas
  5. Discipline-appropriate style, tone, and voice
  6. Clarity of usage and mechanics
    1. Correct sentence boundaries (run-on sentences, fragments)
      Even though she was still sick. 
    2. Appropriate subject-verb agreement
      He walk every morning.
    3. Correct, consistent verb tense and form
      I was working on my paper since 6am.
      I was cook dinner last night when you called.
    4. Agreement between singulars and plurals
      I have turned in all my homeworks this week.
      I set up six more desk for the afternoon class.
    5. Correct word order and form
      I’m happy to live in a democracy country.
      I feel very confusing this morning.
    6. Correct spelling
    7. Appropriate prepositions and articles
      We must protect the nature. 
      “to mention about” or “to discuss about”

When commenting on a multilingual student’s writing, this hierarchy of usage and mechanics is especially important for me—prioritizing error in this way helps me remember not to mark everything and to focus on patterns of error that interfere with meaning. Depending on the student’s writing development, progress in the class, and understanding of the assignment, I choose to respond to the most frequent errors, those highest on the hierarchy, or the ones students have pointed out to me they struggle with the most.

I incorporate this hierarchy into my evaluation criteria—students can see the priorities in my rubric—and actually print it out as a list and keep it next to me as I write comments. Specifically, I ordered the “clarity of usage and mechanics” hierarchy according to what language acquisition research has shown us: 1) Certain errors interfere with communicative meaning more than others, and 2) we should prioritize errors that language learners can improve over the course of a semester (rather than the course of a lifetime).