Dialogue on Writing: Rethinking ESL, Basic Writing, and First-Year Composition

By Geraldine Deluca; Len Fox et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 17
Errors: Windows Into the Mind
Ann Raimes

Ann Raimes is Professor of English at Hunter College, where she has taught writing, rhetoric, and ESL for nearly 30 years. She has published several textbooks, most recently Keys for Writers (Houghton). Her articles have appeared in TESOL Quarterly, Language Learning, College English, College ESL, and in many anthologies. The following article is from College ESL, 1, December 1991.

Imagine a classroom. The teacher tells the students to take out paper and pencil to write a paragraph. Johnny waves his hand and calls out “I ain't got no pencil. ” “No, no Johnny, ” the teacher admonishes. “I don't have a pencil, he doesn't have a pencil, we don't have any pencils, they don't have any pencils. ” Johnny interrupts in disgust, “Ain't nobody got no pencils?”

(Adapted from Brown, 1987, p. 31.)

This is a familiar classroom scene: the student attending to communication, to saying something for a purpose; the teacher attending not to what is said but to whether it is grammatically correct. We all know that error correction in the middle of a conversation is intrusive. It cuts across real communication; it negates the point the speaker wants to make.

Communicative speech is not the best situation for us to help students correct their errors in English. Writing provides a more appropriate setting. The nature of writing is such that we produce a visible record of what we say. We can write our ideas, then look at them, reflect, monitor, make changes, add, delete, edit. Peter Elbow (1985) has said that writing is “the ideal medium for getting it wrong”(p. 286). It's also the ideal situation to learn to get it right. When language students write, they have time on their side: time to test hypotheses, to take risks, to make errors, and then to correct them.

When looking at a piece of writing, teachers have to respond to grammatical errors as well as to rhetoric (content and organization). In the 1960s, we had an avoidance policy on error. Based on behavioral principles and audiolingual habit-formation theories, we asked students to perform

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