June 2003 — Volume 7, Number 1
Response to Student Writing: Implications for second language students
Dana R. Ferris (2003)
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. xiii + 194
ISBN 0-8058-3657-8 (paper)
$22.50 (paper)(also available in cloth $45.00)
Prospective readers of Dana R. Ferris’s Response to Student Writing might wonder how it differs from her recently published Treatment of Error. While Treatment of Error focused on error correction, Response to Student Writing encompasses the broader arena of response. This expanded discussion includes various other types of response, such as a detailed treatment of peer response and teacher feedback strategies. Response to Student Writing is divided into two main sections: research and practice.
Part I: Research
The five chapters which comprise the first 115 pages of this volume (“An overview of L1 composition research on response and its influence on L2 writing theory and practice,” “Teacher feedback on L2 student writing,” “Error correction,” “Research on peer response,” and “Student views on response”) present a wealth of previous research on various aspects of response. Both the chapter-level organization of material and the organization within each chapter are well thought out and make for an effortlessly smooth transition from topic to topic. Major studies are offered for consideration alongside some less well known research. With a mind toward readers’ convenience, Ferris makes extensive use of tables which summarize and compare previous research (see pp. 10, 18, 20, 54-58, 64, 71, 74, 76, 77, 79, 81, 87-91, 95-96, 97-99, 101, 105, 109) as well as in-text itemized lists of major points.
The most impressive feature of Ferris’s prodigious discussion of previous research is not the ease with which it can be read, however, but the incisive critique which she applies to these studies. An exemplary problematization of the unquestioned application of L1 writing scholarship to L2 writing situations sets the tone for Ferris’s persistent analysis. Especially noteworthy is the treatment of error correction studies in the third chapter. Ferris not only dismantles and offers for inspection the research designs of previous studies, but she even puts forth “A Framework for Analyzing Error Correction Studies” (44). The guidelines suggested here are extremely valuable, as well as practical. Readers might even be inspired to fashion a document template based on her framework in order to economize their own literature reviews in the future. Ferris’s introduction of a framework may have been a necessity for understanding her perspective, but I appreciated its inclusion as a surprise bonus: a practical approach to extracting essential details from research studies. [-1-]
In writing a review, one wants to be sure to warn potential readers of possible shortcomings of a text, but I simply have nothing even remotely bad to say about Part I of Response to Student Writing. In the weeks before I heard of this book’s publication, I was reviewing many of the studies Ferris discusses. While reading this volume, I noticed a few gaps in my own reading, and benefited from some observations and comparisons which Ferris drew, but which I likely would have missed on my own. Moreover, having just read the same primary research myself, I found Ferris’s review to be objective, thorough, and impeccably clear. Ferris’s diligent cataloging and critiquing of available studies alone makes this volume an asset to any writing teacher.
Part II: Practice
The final three chapters take a practical turn and offer direct suggestions based on the body of research reviewed in the previous section, as well as Ferris’s own experience in dealing with these issues. It is here that practices briefly mentioned in the review of research are elaborated on more fully.
In Chapter 6, “Preparing teachers to respond to student writing,” a list of “Guiding principles” is included (119), as is a “Sample essay feedback checklist” (120), both of which, when used in the context provided by the text, promise to be powerful tools for managing one’s own approach to feedback. Even veteran teachers who know intuitively the principles itemized in these lists might appreciate the convenient reference (a copy of which they might even choose to keep paper-clipped to their bundle of papers-to-be-graded).
Ferris’s experience in training TESOL graduate students to respond to student writing surely makes her one of the most qualified of contemporary scholars on the issue, and in the short sub-section “Preparing teachers to respond to student writing: A training sequence” (131-132) she passes on some of her insight through a series of clear, practical steps. “Guidelines for conducting teacher-student writing conferences,” which appears just afterward (132-134) is another indispensable resource for teachers wishing to apply some of the principles and strategies for response in their own classes. The appendix to Chapter 6 must not be overlooked, either, as it contains helpful teacher resources.
Chapter 7, “Suggestions for error correction,” directly addresses questions as to what kind of error correction should be implemented — advice openly tempered by Ferris’s own predilection toward error correction, in general, and certain types of error correction, in specific. This chapter (along with Chapter 3) shares the most in common with Treatment of Error.
Chapter 8, “Implementing peer response,” includes steps to use to train students for peer response (169), as well as guidance on forming student pairs for response sessions, providing structure during the sessions, and monitoring the sessions. A key inclusion here is advice on making students take responsibility for the peer response process.
My single complaint about these three practical-minded chapters is that they just are not long enough. That is not to say that they are not comprehensive, but that even more detailed advice might prove helpful. Certainly, anecdotal accounts of successes or alternative approaches regarding the advice offered here could have contextualized the prescribed methods to let readers understand the basis for their inclusion. [-2-]
Second language writing studies are clearly at a point when an inventory of the past needs to be taken. The past few decades have produced a plethora of informative observations on response to L2 writing, and the present seems like the ideal moment to compile those perspectives into a convenient volume. For all the strengths that collections like Cooper and Odell’s Evaluating writing or Tchudi’s Alternatives to grading student writing hold due to the diverse experiences and perspectives of the various authors, Response to Student Writing clearly owes much of its strength to being written by a single author. And while texts like Assessing second language writing in academic contexts, edited by Liz Hamps-Lyons, offer a fabulous spectrum of assessment-related topics, Response to Student Writing goes into great depth and breadth of issues keenly relevant to the writing classroom.
I plan to keep my copy of Response to Student Writing on a handy bookshelf somewhere between Lindemann’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers and Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations. I’ll put it to good use when designing writing classes, contemplating my own response strategies, and writing articles related to response to writing. And, whenever a colleague asks if I know any good books on response to student writing, I will recommend this volume wholeheartedly.
International Graduate School of English
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