Exploring how individuals succeed to acquire L2 reading and writing literacy has always fascinated the SLA theorists and researchers. They seem keenly interested in assisting the L2 learners to overcome the recurrent patterns of errors in the process of L2 writing. The case of under-achieving L2 writers raises the critical question about how errors should be treated; in other words, either should errors be taken as harmful acts to be interrupted or as productive acts to be responded, because of the highlighted awareness they raise about a learner’s level of language acquisition, and the way they can speed up acquiring the explicit knowledge of language forms.
Solid evidence on the necessity to focus on language form was denoted in the French immersion programs in 1974 in Canada, when researchers came to believe that despite the French as a second language (FSL) learners progressed in fluency, communicative abilities, and their confidence in using French, they commonly failed to master French grammar use even after years of extensive exposure (Harley & Swain, 1984). The majority of educators had to unequivocally accentuate the need to respond to the L2 learners' language production with corrective feedback. The focus-on-form movement (Long, 1991; Long, Inagaki & Ortega, 1998) which called for the L2 teachers’ immediate but brief focus on students’ errors of language form in the midst of meaning-focused tasks was only one of the ways to achieve such a disregarded goal. L2 teachers were encouraged to respond with detailed and comprehensive feedback to students’ writing with the hope of engaging them with WCF and improving their grammatical accuracy.
Seemingly, a variety of WCF practices have been used to heave up L2 learners’ attention to linguistic structures and to trigger constant self-monitoring of their process of language learning (Hyland, 2002; Storch & Wigglesworth, 2010). Successful awareness-raising techniques in WCF, such as “holding one-on-one writing conferences” (Hyland & Hyland, 2006, p. 90), keeping an “error log” (Ferris & Roberts, 200, p. 162) or metalinguistic feedback (Hartshorn et al., 2010) are also known “to encourage proactive self-analysis of language learning needs” (p. 45). Since the WCF research has a direct relevance to the work of L2 writing teachers, a systematic approach seems pivotal to examine the reality of WCF in L2 writing context. The literature review in this research paper distinguishes five sets of alternatives in the degree of Exposure to WCF (direct versus indirect), amount of WCF (focused versus unfocused), learnability of WCF (revision versus re-writing the corrected errors), WCF strategies, and error types in WCF (treatable versus untreatable).
Exposure to WCF
By definition, direct corrective feedback is a practice of “providing some form of explicit written feedback on linguistic form or structures, above or near the linguistic errors” (Ferris, 2003, p. 113). Direct WCF can take the form of crossing out of the unnecessary word(s), inserting missing word(s), and providing the correct form(s) or structure(s) on a written assignment. Direct WCF can also include “metalinguistic feedback (i.e., the provision of grammar rules and examples of correct usage) and sometimes “oral form-focused instructions to clarify the written metalinguistic explanation provided” (Ferris, 2011, p. 294). Indirect WCF, on the other hand, is a kind of notice the teachers give to their students to indicate the occurrence of an error but they intend not to provide any correction henceforth. Indirect WCF is usually provided either by “underlining or circling an error, or by recording in the margin the number of errors in a given line” (Ferris, 2011, p. 297).
Those researchers recommending direct WCF reassure the writing teachers that it is more constructive to L2 writers as it (1) slims the chance of bewilderment that students will usually experience if they fail to recollect the received indirect feedback; (2) grants them a toolkit to predict and prevent future errors; and eventually, (3) seems more intriguing and immediate to the students in writing classrooms (Bitchener & Ferris, 2012). On the other hand, in the absence of teachers' explicit and direct error correction, the L2 writers are expected to resolve and remove the noted errors by themselves. Therefore, the SLA researchers and L2 teachers advocating indirect WCF believe that this approach is more efficient since it provokes the L2 writers to immerse themselves into self-guided language learning and autonomous problem solving. Hence, it will allow greater cognitive engagement and enhance long-term writing improvement (Ferris, 2004; Hashemian & Farhang-ju, 2018).
As a popular indirect WCF strategy, metalinguistic WCF involves affording language learners some form of coded comments about the essence of the committed errors (Bitchener & Knoch, 2010; Ferris & Roberts, 2001). A number of studies have compared metalinguistic WCF to other strategies and reported contradictory findings. Lalande (1982), for instance, argued that the L2 German learners improved their writing performance after receiving metalinguistic WCF in terms of underling errors, whereas a group who received direct WCF made even more errors in their future writing. Later, however, Robb, Ross and Shortreed (1986) who implemented a systematic error coding feedback in their research, reported the metalinguistic WCF as less practical to both teachers and students than other WCF strategies (i.e., direct, electronic, and reformulation feedback). Ferris (2003) also conducted a longitudinal comparative study about the impact of metalinguistic WCF on the frequency of errors in her students’1st and 4th essays in a writing course and her findings showed “improvement in total error numbers and verb errors but not in noun errors, article errors, lexical errors, or sentence errors” (p. 230). Overall, there is no conclusive evidence to imply that metalinguistic WCF can consistently benefit the L2 writers to achieve writing accuracy over time; hence, further experimental research seems inevitable.
Amount of WCF
Processing and acquiring all corrected errors are challenging for most L2 learners after receiving comprehensive (i.e., unfocused) WCF if they have to attend to all committed errors at the same time. While to several researchers, unfocused WCF is detailed and authentic; many more blamed it as an unsystematic WCF strategy which overloads L2 writers' working memory capacity (Ellis et al., 2006). The writing teachers, therefore, are encouraged to select a single or a few rule-governed error categories for giving feedback, such as articles, verb tense or subject-verb agreement. On the other hand, the unfocused WCF is favored for its benefit of “addressing a wide range of errors, so while it might not be as effective in assisting learners to acquire specific features as focused WCF in short term, it may prove superior in the long run” (Gholami & Narimani, 2012, p. 51).
Focused or selective WCF seems more manageable and practical as the learners can examine several corrections of only one error type and receive abundant evidence they need to both notice and understand their errors (Bitchener & Knoch, 2010). In other words, “if learning is dependent on attention to form, then it is reasonable to assume that the more intensive the attention, the more likely the correction is to lead to learning” (p. 42). In the same vein, focused metalinguistic WCF may benefit the L2 learners in many ways as it endorses both L2 learners’ attention and realization of the nature of their errors (Sheen, 2007). The majority of studies in L2 context have examined only the unfocused type of WCF (e.g., Hashemian & Farhang-ju, 2018; Ferris & Roberts, 2001; Semke, 1984) which impress the researchers to counter-examine the efficacy of these two WCF strategies in classroom writing practice.
Learnability of WCF
A critical issue in examining the impacts of WCF is how L2 learners respond to the received feedback. In a process-writing classroom, L2 learners’ uptake is expected in terms of the error-free revision of the initial draft (e.g., Hashemian & Farhang-ju, 2018; van Beuningen, de Jong, & Kuiken, 2012). However, in the majority of writing tasks in the product-oriented out-of-class or online contexts, it is compulsory for the students to simply pick out the corrected errors and re-write them, irrespective to the students' constructive engagement with the feedback (e.g., Ferris & Roberts, 2001).
Several research findings suggested that WCF is instrumental and productive only if it is responded to the interim rather than terminal drafts (Bitchener, 2008; Ferris, 2011). In a renowned experiment, for instance, Ferris (2011) collected 146 ESL students’ revised compositions and found that after receiving WCF, more than 80 per cent of the errors were eliminated in the revised essays by “(1) correcting the error; (2) deleting the text containing the error, or (3) making a correct substitution” (p. 649). The study strongly supported the role of WCF as an intervention strategy which encourages the L2 writers to notice the gap between what they can produce and what they aim to produce. In terms of language acquisition, however, such a conclusion seems marginal so as Truscott and Hsu (2008) argued, simply reporting WCF can assist students to correct errors and revise their writing has no solid implication in whether they have acquired the corrected errors or whether they can control them notably in future. The concerning issue of L2 writers' uptake is so pivotal that it often restricts the teachers' conventional choice of strategies in favor of alternative forms of WCF such as peer feedback, self-editing and mobile and computer-assisted WCF.
Alternative WCF strategies
In recent years, mobile-assisted language learning (MALL) has made entrance to most educational settings, especially L2 learning/teaching context. So far, the power of wireless technologies has improved markedly, “especially with smart mobile phones which have incorporated the functionality of hand-held computers and audio-video recorders and players” (Jalilifar & Mashhadi, 2014, p. 110). Among the pedagogical merits of mobile language learning are its adaptation to the students’ learning styles and preferences (Dashtestani, 2015), versatile multimedia capabilities (Kukulska-Hulme & Shield, 2008), “ubiquitous Internet connectivity, interactive and dynamic learning environment” (Jalilifar & Mashhadi, 2014, p. 112), increasing “students’ motivation, cost-effectiveness, and student-friendliness” (Milrad & Jackson, 2008, p. 86), and growing teacher-student communication (Stockwell, 2010; Walker, 2013). Such countless benefits have provoked a number researchers and educators to see MALL as an abiding type of learning facility and to shift their attention from e-learning to m-learning (Petersen & Divitini, 2005). Likewise, several studies have surveyed the L2 learners’ attitudes towards mobile-mediated WCF, and reported their indisputable support for m-learning as an invaluable instructional medium for improving writing skills (Arnold & Ducate, 2011; Burston, 2014; Dashtestani, 2015; Ho & Savignon, 2007; Jalilifar & Mashhadi, 2014; Yeha & Lob; 2009). They also studied the viable effects of WCF in MALL environment on teacher-student and student-student interactions (Mohammadi, Jabbari & Fazilatfar, 2018). Yet, there are a few empirical studies (Anaraki, 2009; Begum, 2011) that have closely examined the virtual L2 teachers' WCF practice responding to the L2 writers in the mobile-mediated contexts.
Error types in WCF
Although there has been plenty of research (e.g., Hashemian & Farhang-ju, 2018; Ferris, 2003; Ferris & Roberts, 2001; Pearson, 2020) which supported the role of WCF in improving L2 writers' control over rule-based, treatable grammatical forms and structures, the extent to which various WCF strategies might be helpful in treating other linguistic forms such as non-rule-governed (e.g., lexical choices, word order) and more complex (e.g., discourse markers) structures have remained unknown and demand further research. On the other hand, a long-term preoccupation with language forms has made many L2 writing teachers ignore the multifaceted nature of writing competence and the fact that the real ability to write requires the L2 learners to control the content, to practice creativity and to use language for communication at discourse level.
As Hedge (1988) restated, among the critical factors that make writing effective are the well-established organization of ideas, high accuracy with complex discourse devices, besides the proper use of vocabulary and a suitable style according to subject matter and prospective readers. In other words, although mastery of vocabulary and grammar is unquestionable strength in L2 writers, what makes a piece of writing more appealing is having cohesion at lexico-grammatical and coherence at pragmatic levels which cannot be accomplished through rule-governed grammatical structures per se (Dergisi, 2010; Mohammadi, Jabbari & Fazilatfar, 2018).
Halliday and Hasan (1976) believed that discourse markers are critical means of generating coherence in a meaningful stretch of spoken or written discourse. Conjunctions, which Halliday and Hasan (1976) termed as discourse markers (DMs) are defined as connective elements, which glue different parts of a text at various levels of clauses, sentences, and paragraphs. They divided DMs into four types of additive, adversative, causal and temporal devices. On one hand, recent studies on L2 pedagogy have demonstrated the considerable impacts of instructions to using DMs on L2 learners’ accuracy of spoken and written performance (Alraddadi, 2016; Assadi Aidinlou & Shahrokhi Mehr, 2012; Daif-Allah & Albesher, 2013, to name a few). On the other hand, such accuracy in using DMs has been promoted through either teaching them directly/explicitly or raising awareness in L2 learners by analyzing their committed DMs errors in their oral or written discourse (Hamed, 2014; Vickov & Jakupcevic, 2017). In either case, the experience of learning DMs is commonly generated in actual classroom setting, where the teacher and learners are involved in face-to-face interaction, with a few such attempts in computer-assisted or mobile-mediated L2 learning virtual environment.
The current study benefited from both qualitative and quantitative data which were collected and analyzed concurrently to examine the raised research questions. Adopting the convergent mixed-methods design (Creswell & Creswell, 2018), the researchers’ questions in this study investigated (1) to what extent metalinguistic WCF affects EFL learners’ accuracy of four types of DMs in their writing performance, and (2) how metalinguistic WCF affects EFL learners’ accuracy of DMs in their writing performance over an eight-week period. The metalinguistic WCF exclusively addressed four types of additive, adversative, causal and temporal DMs (Halliday & Hasan, 1976) typology, as by several research reports, they have been proved as necessary devices to elevate coherence and comprehensibility in writing performance (Alraddadi, 2016; Jalilifar, Shooshtari & Mutaqid, 2011). Meantime, the metalinguistic WCF was given and received only through the mobile application of WhatsApp messenger as the pedagogical mobile-mediated environment.