National Writing Project

Book Review: Response to Student Writing, by Dana R. Ferris

By: Gabriela Segade
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: Segade reviews Dana R. Ferris's Response to Student Writing, which surveys the research on teacher response to second-language writing and discusses how the findings translate into classroom principles and practices.


Few things cause me more anxiety than waking up to a full set of essays, knowing I must read and respond. This is not just because responding is the most time-consuming activity in writing pedagogy. The seemingly infinite number of unknown factors in responding makes it an extremely complex exercise as well. Because my students are learning English as adults, to the list of doubts any writing teacher experiences in responding I must add questions peculiar to second-language writers. As I read a set of papers, I wonder: Will my students benefit from my comments? Will they even understand them? Is there a better way to approach this task? For about thirty minutes, I labor over a paper, reading, underlining, writing numbers, typing comments, biting my fingernails. By the twentieth or twenty-fifth iteration, I have inevitably begun to question the wisdom of my career choice.

Given the amount of effort and time that goes into responding, it is imperative that we find response practices that make sense and learn how to change those that don't. While searching for answers, I was pleasantly surprised to find a book devoted entirely to this issue, Dana Ferris's Response to Student Writing: Implications for Second-Language Students. In this volume, Ferris attempts a comprehensive critical review of the existing research in responding to second-language writing. She tackles this task in the first two-thirds of the book, with a series of chapters that summarize research findings on teacher commentary, error correction, peer response groups, and student views on different forms of response. For those of us looking for confirmation that our efforts are not in vain, Ferris's conclusions are encouraging. She tells us, for example, that second-language writers appreciate the responses they receive from their teachers and that they take the feedback seriously in revising their work. Ferris also concurs with the findings of research and the claims of writing project advocates: that when we respond to intermediate rather than final drafts, students are more likely to pay attention to our comments and use them to revise. Ferris also concludes that error correction—correction of grammatical, mechanical, and lexical errors—is clearly beneficial to second-language students because it enables them to improve their accuracy between drafts and over time. Regarding peer response, Ferris tells us that, according to the research, developing writers often give each other useful suggestions for revisions. Students value their peers' suggestions and sometimes incorporate them in their revised drafts.

Perhaps the most controversial position Ferris takes is that teachers need not save error correction until the final stages of the writing process. Given the process approach emphasis on fluency and content in the early stages of writing, teachers often avoid drawing students' attention to grammar and mechanics until later drafts. This practice, Ferris argues, deprives students of valuable input that they sorely need in order to improve. Since students are able to attend simultaneously to both content and language errors, Ferris contends there's no reason to withhold correcting mechanics until late in the process.

In the final third of the book, Ferris devotes three chapters to a discussion of how the findings she has reviewed translate into classroom principles and specific classroom practices. At the end of each of these chapters, Ferris includes as appendices a number of worksheets and sample handouts that illustrate grammar minilessons, error correction logs, peer feedback sheets, and even a student paper with teacher comments—a pleasant surprise in a volume devoted to a discussion of research findings. Ferris, who is a researcher, teacher trainer, and teacher of second-language writers herself, has the broad perspective that allows her to make the transition from theory and research to practice.

Ferris's work fills an important niche in looking at response across a broad continuum, from theory, to empirical findings, to classroom principles, to actual lessons and classroom handouts. Few composition teachers at the college level, especially second-language teachers, have the opportunity to go through extensive formal training in writing instruction. The writing pedagogy courses that are typical in M.A. programs for second-language teachers rarely allow for in-depth discussion of response, much less extensive hands-on training. Reviews of research and theoretical discussions often leave teachers wondering how issues translate into actual classroom practice.

Will reading Ferris change my practice? In some ways, it will. Reading Response to Student Writing drew my attention to areas in which I need to be more consistent. I realize, for instance, that my attention to error needs to be more systematic. I will more consistently follow her recommendation to identify common error patterns in my students' work. I will also point out and perhaps identify types of errors to my students, but I will let them figure out how to correct them, following Ferris's suggestion that indirect error correction is at least as effective as direct error correction. I will probably also allow my students in-class time to read my comments and ask questions, a practice I have occasionally but not systematically followed.

But as I read Ferris's discussion of research I found myself unsatisfied in a way I often am when I read literature review pieces. Would I agree with her recommendations if I had spent months immersed in the same literature? Ambitious reviews force the reviewer to be selective—if not in reading, at least in reporting. The selection process is guided by the arguments that the reviewer is constructing and glosses over much of the nitty-gritty details that make the teacher respond with the enthusiasm of new understanding. To her credit, Ferris does acknowledge that some of the research is contradictory and incomplete. But her conclusions obscure much of the complexity that is important for teachers to understand. For example, to support the conclusion that teachers can respond to both language errors and content at the same time, Ferris discusses the findings of research conducted by Fathman and Whalley (1990). When I read the description of this study, I was struck by how structured, even contrived, the writing task was. The researchers showed students a set of pictures and read a summary describing the images. Students then had thirty minutes to write a description of what they saw in the pictures. At a later meeting, they received their papers with comments and were asked to revise. Students revising this type of writing are likely to have to add or clarify details rather than rethink large sections of the drafts. Other types of writing tasks—those involving text analysis or synthesis of several texts, for instance—are much more likely to require student writers to rethink their entire argument, as Ferris recognizes. This latter type of revision is one that students are less likely to do successfully, according to some of the research that Ferris reviews. If researchers had asked students to do this type of revision, students might have had more difficulty addressing both content and language errors simultaneously. To make decisions about when to introduce error correction, teachers need to understand the context and particulars of the research on which conclusions are based. These details are lost to readers as reviewers work toward their conclusions.

Other research Ferris reviews suggests that there may be a real foundation to our fears that correcting grammar and mechanics early on gives students a way out of dealing with more substantial revision. In a study by Russikoff and Kogan (as cited in Ferris), students who received comments only on their content improved their writing "far more substantially than did the content-plus-grammar-feedback group" (29). This latter group's improvement in content was only slightly higher than that of groups that received no content feedback. It is clear to me that adopting the practice of correcting grammar and mechanics errors on first drafts would be premature. And, again, who knows how many of Ferris's other conclusions I would take issue with if I were to carefully examine the research she reviews.

This is not to say there is no value in Ferris's text. The main value of research reviews for teachers may not be in providing all the answers but in raising questions that we can attempt to answer by examining our practice. Now that I am more aware of some of the factors raised in the research literature, I am going to be much more observant about how these factors play out in my teaching context and with my students. For those of us trained in second-language instruction with little emphasis on writing pedagogy and those who have a composition background but find themselves with a growing number of second-language writers in their classes, simply understanding what has been at issue in responding can lead us to the right questions, which will inevitably result in better teaching. Ferris provides an excellent overview. This can be a valuable tool to help us examine our practice, especially if we take her conclusions with a grain of salt.

Fathman, A., and E. Whalley. 1990. "Teacher Response to Student Writing: Focus on Form Versus Content." In Second-Language Writing: Research Insights for the Classroom, edited by B. Kroll. New York: Cambridge University Press.

About the Author Gabriela Segade is an ESL instructor at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California, and a Bay Area Writing Project teacher-consultant.

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