Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Empowering students to improve their written language accuracy in L2 (Italian)

Annalisa Orselli-Dickson
Department of Language Studies
Edith Cowan University
This presentation illustrates a technique I have developed to improve written accuracy in the second language by increasing the students' awareness of their own typical mistakes through a process of guided self-correction.

The technique, which I have experimentally implemented for a semester in two advanced classes of Italian at second and third year, is an attempt to address the problem that students normally seem to take little or no account of feedback given unless they are prompted to be actively involved in the process of correcting their own mistakes.

Through a system of assisted correction which I will describe in my presentation, students are encouraged to understand their own grammatical and lexical errors and to keep a map of their own recurrent typical mistakes. My findings are that students are actually able to easily correct the great majority of their own mistakes and that their accuracy improves through the process.

"They did not even bother to read it!"

Every teacher of languages, and not languages alone, must at some stage or another have experienced the terrible frustration of marking over and over the same mistakes, only to find them recurring not only across the class, but even in the same student: this in spite of our best efforts in giving the students detailed written and oral feedback.

How many, like me, have come to the conclusion that the students have not even bothered to read the corrections, explanations and comments on which so much time and care were spent? The principle that we learn only from trial and error and through our mistakes may be true, but somehow the desired effect of self-correction does not appear to occur spontaneously in language students. It is in response to this observation, and being determined to increase my students' written accuracy, that after many years of trials I have finally stumbled on a technique which seems to hold great promise and to allow the students to improve their performance by internalising their errors and empowering them to take responsibility for their own language development.

The critical element is exactly this, that no amount of advice will normally have the desired effect unless the student oneself is forced somehow to take a critical look at one's own performance, in order to become aware of the relative gravity of each individual deviation from the linguistic norm, to realise that in one's own recurring mistakes there is, indeed, an underlying pattern, and by learning to observe this closely, to put in motion the dynamics of self correction.

I am now going to describe the technique which I have successfully employed for two semesters in two advanced classes in the post TEE stream of Italian studies at Edith Cowan University. I am in the habit of setting a short written composition each week generally under the form of a reflective diary entry - which is marked and collected in a folio of homework as part of the final assessment.

When I mark the first weekly assignment, I make a note of the most common typical grammatical and lexical mistakes, and then I present to the class a random sample of these using an overhead projector. The first step is to get the students to collectively identify the incorrect linguistic traits and to suggest a better alternative. This done - we discuss the relative weight of different mistakes in order to map out a chart of errors and negotiate a system of marking. In my experience even third year university students may still be quite unaware of the marking criteria of their lecturers unless they are negotiated together, and what is even more serious is that they do not normally have a clue as to relative gravity of their own errors.

The following step is to warn students that next time they receive their assignments back, they will not find them fully corrected : each error will be signalled to them by way of agreed graphic devices, while the students will have to correct their own mistakes just as they collectively had done in the sampling demonstration. Of course they may use all necessary tools to find the right solution: dictionaries, grammars, and even group consultation and discussion. When an alternative is found, it is written down in pencil so the lecturer can easily check for correctness and, if necessary, suggest a better option. Later on, the students will do this at home and re-present their homework to the lecturer for confirmation or further discussion.

Some observations must be made at this point in time. The first is, that students generally, very easily, and sometimes in a matter of minutes, are able to find the correct solution in the great majority of cases, and that even when more time is needed for pondering, about 80% of mistakes are quite easily self corrected.

Second, the students with a generally higher degree of accuracy (fewer mistakes) are those who register a higher rate of successfully corrected mistakes. This obviously proves that the better students have also a better language awareness.

Finally, I have observed that over a period of time (we have 13 weeks in a semester) some of the most common, and repeated, typical mistakes decrease in frequency of occurrence, and it is this desired effect which is the key for a more permanent positive change in the process of language learning.

I also strongly encourage the students to keep a record of their own recurrent mistakes and to analyse them. A sample of just three assignments is generally sufficient for them to discover their own inner pattern and to become aware of their own weaknesses. Whether these are due to ignorance of a 'rule', to insufficient understanding, or to forgetfulness, the students become gradually quite skilled in looking critically at their own pattern of errors and start taking responsibility for acting on them.

It is this understanding and the internalisation of the mechanism of correction which acts against the inertia of the average student which otherwise results in the crystallisation of wrong linguistic habits. What actually precipitates the critical change, I believe, is the student's positive attitude in taking responsibility and the energy generated by being able to understand. Putting themselves somehow in the teacher's position also has a favourable emotional effect, while the barrier between learner and teacher is lowered considerably, not only by the student's effort to understand the logic behind the teacher's correction, but also by the teacher's effort to understand the logic behind the student's error. It is indeed a very satisfying process of mutual learning and discovery.

Appendix 1: Error analysis

1994 ( end of semester II) Post TEE class 2nd year

Sample of 8 students (6 of Italian background, 2 anglophones)
Task: Essay of 2000 words

Typology of errors incurred


wrong agreement
wrong gender or wrong number
verb (includes tense, mood, form, auxiliary)
wrong tense or mood
wrong verb form, conjugation or construction, including verb 'piacere'
wrong use of auxiliary
wrong or missing /unnecessary preposition , including articulated prepositions
wrong form of article (determ/indeter) or missing or redundant, including
forms of adjectives quello/bello
wrong lexical choice, including false friends
wrong spelling, including doubles, vowels, accents and apostrophe
wrong word order
other, incl. adverbs, relatives, possessives etc.

CategoryN. ErrorsPercentage


*Verb errors are divided as follows:

Total number of mistakes occurred in the 8 essays: 351
Average number of errors per student: 43.8
Range: from a minimum of N.5 per student, to a maximum of N.71 per student

Density of errors (total number of words in each essay calculated as 2000, divided by the average number of errors per student)

1 error every 46.5 words. On an average page of 250 words: 5.4 errors per page.

Appendix 2

Error analysis on a sample of 8 written assignments including a variety of tasks: translations, summaries, critiques, essays, reports, diary entries

N. errors and number corrected
Second year students
% corrected errors


Class 1 % of corrected mistakes: 79.9%

* There was no set number of words for each task (excluding a major essay of 2000 word) and the length of input varied considerably among students, which explains the great variation in number of mistakes occurred among different tasks and across different students.

The 8 assignment samples used for this table were chosen at random out of 14 different weekly assignments and they are not in any chronological order.

Please cite as: Orselli-Dickson, A. (1995). Empowering students to improve their written language accuracy in L2 (Italian). In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p199-202. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/orselli-dickson.html

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