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Chapter 3 Paths to Improvement “Written commentary on student papers is, of course, intended to produce improvement, but what constitutes improvement is not so clear. Much of the research on intermediate draft interventions only looks at improvements in students’ subsequent drafts of the same piece of writing. In other words, there is little information on long-term improvement in writing.” (Leki, 1990) “Teachers and researchers hold a widespread, deeply entrenched belief that grammatical correction should, even must, be part of writing courses. But on what do they base this belief?” (Truscott, 1996) “Good Writing: I Know It When I See It” (Title of article by Leki, 1995) “[F]or the student, genres serve as keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community.” (Miller, 1984) “[W]riters often fit their words better to outside readers when they put those readers out of mind for a while and write privately to try to make sure their words fit themselves and their own experience of things.” (Elbow, 1999) “Sentimental realism . . . is a corrupt, if extraordinarily tempting genre.” (Bartholomae, 1995) “One of the language educator’s responsibilities in college language classes is . . . to provide students with meaningful opportunities for some kind of intellectual engagement with ideas and issues along with their language practice.” (Casanave, 1995) 63 L E A D I N G Q U E S T I O N S • In L2 writing classes, what do we mean by “improvement ”? How can teachers best help students improve? • In what ways is practice in fluency and accuracy linked to improvement? Are these practices really incompatible? • What are the central arguments in the process-product debate? • Of the many kinds of responses to student writing, is there evidence that error correction leads to improvement ? Introduction to the Issues Perhaps the most consuming of all dilemmas for L2 writing teachers is how to best help their students improve their writing . The dilemma involves not only the need for teachers to have a sense of what they mean by improvement but also an idea of what the diverse and sometimes competing and controversial opinions are about the approaches and practices that best lead to improvement. To help teachers make decisions about how to help students improve their writing, I present in this chapter several issues related to improvement that have been debated in the L1 and L2 writing literature. The first two issues are related: the tensions between the goals of fluency and of accuracy in writing, and the process-product debate, which lingers on in evolved and newly labeled forms. The third issue encompasses a more volatile debate on the role of response—error correction in particular—in helping students improve their writing (Ferris, 2002). Many L2 writing teachers cannot imagine not correcting at least some of students’ errors, and many L2 students apparently feel the same way. What will not be considered controversial is the widely accepted belief that writing of all kinds, by all kinds of writers, improves with practice. Thus, regardless of what 64 Controversies in Second Language Writing beliefs writing teachers hold about the controversial paths to improvement in their students’ writing, practice, and more practice, is considered essential. As I recommend for issues in other chapters in this book, I urge readers who are unfamiliar with some of the influential literature in the various debates about improvement to read some of the original arguments and opinions, discuss the issues with colleagues, and consider all of the arguments in the context of their local teaching and research activities. Before introducing these three issues in more detail, I discuss briefly the difficulties we face in trying to figure out what we mean by improvement. Broadly, improvement can be defined as positive change over time. However, a fundamental dilemma, one that influences how writing teachers approach specific paths to improvement , concerns how researchers and teachers identify specific characteristics of improvement in writing (Currie, 1994). To do this, we need to have some idea of what we consider “good writing” to be. It turns out to be quite difficult to characterize good writing in a clear and unambiguous way that would allow teachers to apply the characterizations to writing pedagogy. As Leki (1995) and others have noted, instructors in universities often hold tacit views of what good writing in their fields is. In other words, they can recognize it when they see it, but they have trouble explaining their criteria . Li (1996) is one of the few writing scholars to...


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