Accuracy in written work is important, but how can we help our students to become accurate writers? In this article, Adrian Tennant tries to answer this question and provides some practical activities that focus on accuracy.
When students produce a piece of writing, one of the first things they want to know is, ‘Is it okay?’ By this they usually mean, ‘Have I made lots of mistakes?’ In lots of teaching situations there is an emphasis on getting things right – on accuracy. It may be that as teachers we want to focus on something else, i.e. whether they enjoyed doing the task, how long it took them, whether they found it easy to come up with the ideas, etc. But, in many cases, both students and teachers are looking for a piece of work that doesn’t have too many mistakes.
In this article we’ll examine what exactly we mean by accuracy in writing and how we can help our students become more accurate writers.
Are there different types of accuracy?
The simple answer is ‘Yes’. When we talk about accuracy in writing, we are not just referring to whether the correct choice of tenses was made. There are lots of different mistakes that can be made in writing and, sometimes, grammatical accuracy is not as important as one of these other aspects. Of course, that doesn’t mean that grammatical accuracy isn’t important, but it is only one of many levels of accuracy. Here are a few examples:
- Spelling: In many cases spelling can be crucial. Not only does bad spelling have a negative affect, especially in formal situations, but it can sometimes impede communication. Often people who are not good at spelling are also labelled lazy, although there can be many reasons for poor spelling, especially in English. However, in many cases spelling mistakes are simple ‘slips’ that could be corrected if, and when, the piece of writing was reviewed. Encouraging students to read through anything they have written and just check the spelling will often lead to immediate improvements.
- Register: Students need to think about who they are writing for, what their relationship is to the person (social distance) and the purpose of the piece of writing. Discussing these questions and thinking about the degrees of formality will help students become more accurate. Awareness-raising activities as well as exposure to different registers will help students improve their writing.
- Organization and layout: Many types of writing in English follow a fairly well defined structure. Looking at the organization and layout of different kinds of writing – from messages to letters, discursive essays to postcards – will help students when it comes to their writing. We often spend time looking at the layout of letters: for example, where to put the addresses, how to start, how to close, etc. but fail to look at the way to structure each paragraph and then how to link these paragraphs together to make a coherent and cohesive letter. Therefore, looking at these aspects on a micro level, as well as a macro level, is important.
When should I focus on accuracy?
In most cases after a fluency stage. Initially students should review their own piece of writing. Then the focus can shift towards improving accuracy. It may be that students begin to organize their ideas, deciding which ones to use and how to link them together. This is a form of accuracy work, focusing on organization, layout and structuring. There can be a number of stages where different aspects of accuracy are the focus: stage one is organizing the ideas, stage two is linking them together, stage three is checking the tenses, etc. stage four is looking at the register, and so on. These don’t necessarily all have to be done in one lesson, but may be spread over a period of time. Using the portfolio idea mentioned in Speaking matters: Developing fluency gives students a chance to return to pieces of work and to continually improve on what they produce.
What should I correct and when?
The first thing to do is to consider the purpose of the writing. Who would read the writing in the real world? How would they judge the writing? If the piece conveys the information required in an appropriate way, then this needs to be acknowledged. For example, if the register chosen is correct but there are some basic grammar mistakes, then these will probably not be the focus of any correction. It also depends on the target you set your students and their level.
Secondly, decide on whether you need to make the corrections or whether you are just going to indicate that some mistakes have been made, where, and of what type, and then get the students to self-correct their work. In the long term, self-correction may be a far more useful strategy.
Does it matter if I don’t correct everything?
No, not at all; in fact it can be counterproductive. Too much correction can be as bad as no correction at all. Nothing is more disconcerting for a student than receiving a piece of writing covered in red pen and comments. Choose what to focus on, preferably before you set the task and let the students know. Targeted correction is far more beneficial.
Will a focus on accuracy stop students from enjoying writing?
Not unless it’s overdone. Usually the problem is that accuracy becomes the main focus rather than simply one aspect of writing. When this happens students become so concerned with getting things right that content suffers; seeing writing as a means to an end is lost and students find writing tedious and hard work.
How can I find time to correct my students’ writing?
The first thing is to consider whether you should be the one correcting their writing. As was mentioned earlier, self-correction may be far more beneficial than the teacher always correcting everything.
Encourage students to read through things before they hand them in to you. Don’t accept work from your students if you think they haven’t done their best. Give it back to them and ask, 'Is this the best you can do?' When they answer, 'Yes!' then accept the work.
Peer correction is also a good thing. Put students in pairs and groups and get them to look at each other’s work. Tell them to talk to each other about any mistakes they find or things they don’t understand. This is better if it is focused and targeted so that students know what kinds of things are important in each piece of writing.
Some practical ideas
1. Looking at spelling
There are lots of activities that can be done on spelling, but here are a couple:
- Activity 1 – Type out a short text with a number of common spelling mistakes in it. Put students in pairs and hand out the text. Tell them that there are ten spelling mistakes (or any number you have decided) and that they should write out the text and correct the mistakes. Encourage them to work together, discussing their ideas. This works really well if the mistakes are ones taken from the students' own work.
- Activity 2 – Dictate sentences with tricky words that are commonly spelt incorrectly. I’ve used this activity a lot for homophones.
These are often seen as grammar-focused activities, but are also a form of structured writing where accuracy is paramount. They can vary from sentence gap-fills to paragraphs and often look at tenses or word formation.
3. Marking codes and error sheets
Make sure your students are aware of any marking codes you use, i.e. T = tense mistake, sp = spelling, w/o = word order, etc. Ask students to keep an error sheet where they record the type of mistakes they make. So, for example, if they make a spelling mistake they can record the word they spelt incorrectly. Or, if they keep on missing out articles they can record this and then, by glancing at their error sheet, can know immediately what areas they need to work on.