Effective mistake correction in writing and an application: The Maltepe project

Written by: Mahir Sarigül, Instructor, Teacher Trainer
Maltepe University, Istanbul

ABSTRACT

Effective Mistake Correction is the key to being an effective writer in a foreign language and by using a self-correction technique, writing process can be made into a voyage of self-discovery, a principle means of learning, and a skill the learners can use with some confidence. In this study, a self-correction technique in writing has been applied to a group of students studying at English Prep Program of a foundation university under the name of  “Maltepe Project”, and it was aimed to improve their writing skills in terms of accuracy. To this end, a six-week  “Ladder Technique” has been employed and the data obtained were analyzed.

The palest ink is better than the sharpest memory.
Chinese Proverb

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1. Introduction

Educating competent enough writers both in L1 and L2 is a long, winding, bumpy road where travelers have to sweat a lot and unlike speaking, accuracy is a sine qua non for being an effective in either of them. While a speaker has a great range of expressive possibilities at his/her command – apart from the actual words he/she uses – such as intonation and stress which help him/her to show which parts, for instance, they wish to be taken seriously. It is also possible to re-phrase what he/she is saying or speed up (or slow down) depending on the feedback he/she gets from the listeners. Moreover, the speaker has the opportunity to use his/her body, gestures, mimics, etc. to get his/her ideas across to the others (Harmer, J. 1983), and a speaker can also be understood well by his/her listeners even if he/she is not the master of that language. There are, for example, a long list of fillers in English like “er…”, “uhm…”, “You know…”, “What I mean…”, etc. They all help the speaker express him/herself in one way or the other and a mastery of such linguistic techniques to cover up a fairly weak knowledge of the language often provokes initial admiration on the part of native speakers such as, “How well you speak English!”, “You’re almost a native speaker!” and so on (Byrne, D. 1980. Cited in Smith, M.S. 1976).

However, when it comes to writing, things get more serious as there is no listener, no gestures or mimics, etc., and the learner is forced to concentrate on communicating his/her ideas, feelings in the target language. Only then does that so-called “fluent” speaker understand how vital to increase the time spent on practicing to write.

Bearing all the above-mentioned issues in mind, accuracy is still the prevailing issue in writing in L2 starting from the early stages to the advanced. Unlike speaking in which mistakes can be tolerated, a piece of writing, however, in Harmer’s terms (1983), with mistakes and half-finished sentences, etc. would be judged by many native speakers as illiterate since it is expected that writing should be “correct”.

However, most language learners find the writing a difficult-to-acquire skill and rather time-consuming. So do the teachers. Besides the enormous workload of reading the written work, teachers usually think correction process is almost always a futile effort since most of the corrected written work is tucked away into the books or notebooks and forgotten there. Moreover,  this kind of spoon-feeding approach might leave students disarmed in the future as they will not be fully aware of the mistakes they have made at each stage of writing process such as copying, doing exercises, guided and free writing.

Correcting students’ written work is , then, surely a painstaking effort and when the feedback is not very much fruitful, it could lead both the teacher and the students to frustration, so it is essential that correction process should be, in Brumfit’s (1980) terms, a genuine learning process by using an effective self-correction technique through which learners will become skilled mistake-recognizers.

Therefore, this paper aims : 

(1)   To have learners recognize the mistakes for a specific set of criteria by correcting their classmates’ written work,

(2)   to minimize the number of  pre-determined mistake types after seeing and correcting them repeatedly,

(3)   to contribute to developing oral fluency practice while discussing in groups or in pairs over a correction or a mistake in the written work

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3.  Advantages of Self-correction

As Brumfit (1980) stated, there are a number of advantages in students’ correcting their own work after they have undergone certain steps in doing so.

First of all, practice in looking for mistakes in other students’ work helps a learner to pinpoint mistakes in his/her own work more easily and it might also help him/her find out that something he/she has considered correct until then, can be proved to be incorrect.

Secondly, doing the correction immediately after the written work will provide  more meaningful learning  since the points studied are still fresh in the learner’s mind.

Thirdly, group or pair discussion can also contribute to students’ oral fluency practice as they talk over the mistakes and try to reach a consensus among themselves.

Finally, for teachers it is a constructive activity rather than a passive criticism and judgement, devoting hours for scribbling over them for hours at home. So putting more of the responsibility on students for correction develops a sense of self-sufficiency. It also helps some “wean” students from dependency on the teacher for correction (Wood, N.M, 1993).

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4. THE “LADDER TECHNIQUE”  (Adapted from Brumfit, C.J. 1977)

Although Brumfit (1977: 12) developed this technique to employ at the most advanced stages of free writing, I suggest that this technique should also be employed in language classes with students of intermediate, pre-intermediate or even elementary levels provided that it is adjusted accordingly. By this method, not only are the student expected to become competent writers in English language but also it is aimed to reduce the amount of guidance that the teacher offers to a minimum.

It is a six to twelve-week scheme in which students undergo a process of writing steps, each of which lasts one to two weeks(See Table 1). The teacher follows a writing syllabus or it can be squeezed in a skills course or main course syllabus in which most writing falls in a continuum from controlled to semi-controlled to free writing.

Table 1. A six-week “Ladder Technique” (Adapted from Brumfit’s correcting

errors in written work, 1980)

Step 1 : Underline the mistake and identify it in the margin w/w    sp    She did many mistaks.
Step 2 : Underline the mistake but do not identify She did many mistaks.
Step 3 : Identify the mistake but do not show where the line in which the mistake is w/w    sp    She did many mistaks.
Step 4 : Simply put an arrow in the margin for each mistake She did many mistaks.
Step 5 : Put an arrow for each line with a mistake (but do not show how many) She did many mistaks.
Step 6 : Hand the work back to the groups for discussion without correcting it at all She did many mistaks.

4.1. Step 1

At the first step students are asked to write a piece and hand it in the teacher who by using a correction table, corrects only the mistakes made at structural level. While doing so, the teacher underline each mistake in each line and identify it in the margin (the writing papers either with a margin line about 4 cm width either prepared by the teacher to form a standardization or the students are told to do so) by using correction codes.

The next lesson before handing back the written work to the students, the teacher explains what each symbol stands for he/she gives a demonstration of how the mistakes will be corrected on the board by presenting a few sample sentences, and then, putting the students into groups of three or four (depending on the class size), the papers are handed to the groups to do the correction work. However, at this point, the teacher has to pay special attention in paper distribution in such a way that no student’s paper should go to the group of which he/she is the member (thus offending or embarrassing that student by his/her peers is avoided).

During the correction process(particularly at this level) the teacher plays a monitoring role by simply walking around the class without interfering directly, but offering help when asked.

Upon completion of the correction task the papers are recollected and the final check is made by the teacher. Then papers are given to the owners to see their mistakes and are asked to rewrite it. Both the first and the last version of the written work are kept in a file to be later recorded on self-improvement record sheets. This procedure is repeated at every stage afterwards.

4.1. Step 2

At the second step of the Ladder Technique, the teacher  simply underlines the mistakes, but does not identify what the mistake is. This step seems to be a bit more confusing as students might be at a loss and need (especially at lower levels) a  “knower’s “ help more. Then, if that were the case, the teacher is welcome to provide help for the students.

4.1. Step 3

At the third step the teacher identifies the mistake, but does not show where the line in which the mistake is. Here the things are getting more complicated since students, though know what type of mistakes have occurred in the line, do not know which is wrong. The major drawback at this stage is that the students, due to their background knowledge, may underline and correct the parts which are already correct, which is something to be tackled with immediately. Therefore, teacher’s role is now far from only monitoring, on the contrary, he/she has to play a more active role in leading the students to the correct ‘incorrect’ in the line!

From this step onwards, though the students presumably have become efficient correctors, teacher’s role has to gain mileage until the last step of the process.

4.1. Step 4

At the fourth step, the teacher just puts an arrow in the margin for each mistake and expects the students to find, identify and correct it.

4.1. Step 5

Here the teacher puts only an arrow before each line with a mistake but does not show how many.

4.1. Step 6

At the final step which is the sixth, the teacher’s initial role is at its minimum, handing the work back to the groups for discussion without correcting it at all. This step is the riskiest of all since the groups, literally, are on their own. However competent the groups are, the responsibility still falls on the teacher to give a quick look at the written work afterwards and perhaps it is more time consuming on the part of the teacher.

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5. THE MALTEPE PROJECT (ISTANBUL)

5.1. THE STORY OF THE RESEARCH

Maltepe University, founded in 1997 in Istanbul is the last link of Marmara Educational Institutions Foundation with  more than 3,000 students.  Although the medium of instruction is Turkish, there is an intensive one-year English Language Prep Program.

The program functioning under the Department of Foreign Languages aims to enable the students to

  • understand an English text they read or hear
  • learn the English grammar and use it accurately
  • express themselves both in orally and in written forms
  • interpret and evaluate graphics, and schemes in English related to their fields of study
  • do note-taking from a text they hear or read, make a summary and write essays in their fields of study
  • do academic studies and researches in English.

5.2.1. How it started

As it can be understood from the above-mentioned objectives, students at Maltepe University are expected to be competent writers in English. However, since the medium of instruction is Turkish except their ESP (English for Specific Purposes) Courses in the preceding years of their education, it is essential that they be given some sound skills in writing. Unfortunately, based on  observation made by the teachers teaching ESP classes, a small number of the students who leave the prep school can retain efficient writing skills in later years. So I have thought that it is best to have the students acquire firmer skills in writing and to do so I have decided to start a piloting class of 27 subjects.

5.2.2. The profile of the subjects

The project has been conducted with the students at Prep School for a period of six weeks. A group of 27 subjects have participated in the project, 11 of which are girls and 16 are boys aging between 18-23.  The group had already taken a proficiency test on which they were not able to get a score of 50 / 100, a prerequisite required to be exempted from prep class and on the replacement test ,too, given afterwards they scored  very low . Therefore, they were streamed as  C Level (Beginners) students.

5.2.3. The coursebook and the Materials Studied

The project started as a part of skills course that ran parallel to the main course which mainly focuses on grammar and language functions. Skill  Zone Elementary (OUP, 2002) was the course book in which the writing activities are controlled and accuracy is of primary importance. In addition to the coursebook, some supplementary materials in the form of worksheets were provided so that each writing task would be reinforced.

5.2.4. The Type of writings done

Writing activities done with the group were as follows:

1st week

  • sending an e-mail and telling about oneself to a friend
  • sending an e-mail on behalf of someone

2nd week

  • a thank-you letter/e-mail to a friend / a relative for a present

3rd week

  • writing about a celebrity
  • describing a person

4th week

  • writing about one’s daily routine
  • writing about one’s favorite place

5th week

  • writing about an important day in one’s country
  • writing a guided opinion essay

6th week

  • guided story writing

5.2. Evaluation Criteria

Since the subjects chosen for the project were all students at elementary level, the correction criteria used were restricted to eight specific language areas and the subjects were asked to focus on them. In the beginning , a class hour was devoted to explaining the symbols to-be-used for correction later in their written work and thus the subjects became familiar with them.

5.2.1. Correction Symbols

The following symbols presented in the table below indicate the most common language areas where the learners at elementary level are likely to make mistakes. The list could have been extended, but to avoid too much confusion, it was kept them at minimum.

Table 2. Correction Table

Symbol Meaning
SVA Subject-Verb Agreement
W / W Wrong Word
Sp Spelling
Pl /Sing Plural / Singular
ARt Article
Pnct Punctuation
Prep Preposition
T Tense

5.2.2. Self – Improvement Record Sheet

SIRSs were developed to closely observe each subjects and see how much progress h/she  made during the process. Each object was supposed to write two pieces of writing at each step(See Table 3).

Table 3. Self-improvement Record Sheetk (SIRS)

Step  : ….. Number of Errors
Name  : ………….
……………………
SVA W/W Sp Pl / Sing ARt Pnct Prep T Total
1st writing
2nd writing

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6. RESULTS OBSERVED

Although motivation was a major problem, the subjects were talked into how important  writing was as a skill, particularly in the exams they were going to take (since they were all exam-oriented, this worked!).

Save for the sixth stage, at each stage the written work was collected by the teacher and corrected according to the procedure mentioned here above and handed back to the subjects to do the correction in groups of three or four (sometimes  in pairs due to the number of the subjects present in class at that time).  During the correction process, the teacher acted as an “ombudsman” whenever the groups had a dispute or when the discussion over a correction came to a deadlock.

After each step was over, the papers were handed to their owners and asked to go through their work and to have a look at the errors they made.

Then the papers were recollected by the teacher so that the number of errors could be tallied and recorded in the self-improvement record sheet (SIRS).

6.1. analysis of DATA

Starting from the first step of “Ladder Technique” all the written work was scanned and the total number of errors for each correction symbol at each stage was recorded and then its percentage was assessed (See Table 4).

Table 4 – Percentage of errors at each step

Type of errors 1st Step 2nd Step 3rd Step 4th Step 5th Step 6th Step
Subject-Verb  Agreement (SVA) 9% 9% 57% 18% 16% 12%
Wrong Word (W /W) 20% 17% 15% 8% 12% 15%
Spelling (Sp) 25% 11% 8% 13% 14% 12%
Plural/Singular (Pl /Sing) 5% 5% 1% 23% 17% 10%
Article (Art) 21% 9% 1% 17% 11% 9%
Punctuation (Pnct) 8% 9% 1% 5% 4% 3%
Preposition (Prep) 8% 21% 15% 9% 22% 21%
Tense (T) 0% 13% 0% 1% 0% 15%

6.1.1.Subject-Verb Agreement (SVA)

Of the six writings the number of mistakes on SVA made a peak in the third writing by 57% due to the nature of the writing activity. Here the subjects were asked to write about describing a person and using third person singular pronoun was a problem, particularly for learners at elementary level. However, there has been a decline in SVA error in the following writings.

6.1.2.Wrong Word (W/W)

Correct word usage has been a problem all through the writing steps and shows a ascending  nature towards the end of the sixth step. It only tends to decrease at the fourth step by 8% due to the fact that the subjects were asked to write about their daily routine and since they are not expected to use a wide range of vocabulary, the number of errors in Wrong Word has decreased.

6.1.3. Spelling (Sp)

While in the first writing the spelling subjects consist of 25% of total errors, starting from the second writing they show a decline and with a slight increase in the third and fourth writing,and they levelled off in the fifth and sixth. However, there has been no decline observed in spelling errors due to the increasing number of new words learned both in main course and skills classes. When the learners attempt to use a new word, they usually misspell it. Nevertheless, looking at the graph, from an optimistic point of view, spelling is on the decline by 12% in the sixth writing.

6.1.4. Plural / Singular

Though plurality and singularity do not seem to be a serious problem in the first, second and third writings, the number of mistakes in Plural / Singular nouns rises sharply in the fourth writing by 23%. Then it starts falling gradually in the fifth (17%) and sixth (10%) writings.

6.1.5. Article

The rate of mistakes related to article usage climbed to 21% in the first writing, but plummets in the second and third. An amazing rise can be observed in the fourth  and a gradual fall followed in the fifth and sixth writings.

6.1.6. Punctuation

All through the writing steps  punctuation was always of a minor issue with an average of 5%; highest in the second (9%) and lowest in the third(1%). And right after the fourth writing it had a gradual decrease.

6.1.7. Preposition

Mistakes in preposition usage have been on the increase starting from the first writing and a sharp rise can be observed after the fifth writing (22%) and continued in the sixth (21%). Unfortunately, there has been no decrease in the number of preposition errors except the slight fall in the fourth writing.

6.1.8. Tense

Tense usage showed the most irregular pattern among the types of mistakes the learners made. Those sharp rises and falls indicate, points of time when they met a new tense (such as present or past simple or as in the sixth, past progressive). So the sixth writing took the first position by 15% in tense errors.

6.2. STUDENT QUESTIONNAIRE

During the application of the “Ladder Technique” (at some point half-way) a questionnaire was given to the subjects to see how effective / ineffective; fruitful / unfruitful the technique was and how the subjects felt about it. Ten questions were included in the questionnaire and the subjects were asked to answer on a basis of five choices ranging from “Certainly Yes” to “Certainly No”.  The questionnaire was given in Turkish (L1) to avoid any possible problems in understanding the questions.

The questionnaire was given to the objects at one sitting and at that time there were only 19 subjects were present. To make them feel more relaxed and stress-free (and surely more frank!) they were told that they did not have to write their names on the questionnaire.

Table 5. Analysis of the data

CY Y NS N CN

1. Writing in English is absolutely a difficult skill.

10% 52% 15% 15% 5%
2. Writing in English is more difficult than speaking. 10% 42% 15% 26% 5%

3. Assignments and class activities help improve my writing skills

36% 47% 5% 5% -

4. Correcting the mistakes in my classmates’ papers is an effective  study.

15% 47% 26% 5% -

5. Group work is motivating

21% 47% 26% 5% -

6. I feel more self-confident knowing that the teacher will help when needed.

52% 36% 15% 5% -

7. It is embarrassing to see my mistakes and the correction on my paper.

- 5% - 42% 52%

8. It is best if the teacher corrects my mistakes and  return it to me.

10% 10% 52% 15% 10%

9. I am rather reticent to discuss my opinion in the group.

- 15% 15% 31% 31%

10. At every stage of this application I feel more confident.

29% 36% 26% 5% -

1. Writing in English is absolutely a difficult skill.

While a total of   62% had a preconception that writing was a difficult skill, only 20% said it was not, and 15% of the subjects  were not sure whether it was difficult or not.

2. Writing in English is more difficult than speaking.

As opposed to 52% of  the learners saying writing in English was more difficult than speaking it, 36% disagreed . This justifies the first question that writing is a difficult skill.

3. Assignments and class activities help improve my writing skills

More than 80% of the learners agreed that assignments and classroom activities contributed to developing their writing skills, which indicates that encouraging the learners to do more practice would yield positive results.

4. Correcting the mistakes in my classmates’ papers is an effective study.

Though 26% of the learners stated that they were not sure was a useful activity, 62% of them opted for  “Yes” and “Certainly Yes”.

5. Group work is motivating.

26% of the learners remained indecisive on the benefits of group work while two thirds of them said it was a motivating activity.

6. I feel more self-confident knowing that the teacher will help when needed.

A crushing 88% thought teacher’s  assistance helped the learners develop a firmer self-confidence. This is a reflection that they need to refer to a “knower” in case they encounter something they could not handle. Here, the teacher’s presence was a mere resource book rather than an intimidating figure interfering all the time telling what to do, and how to do.

7. It is embarrassing to see my mistakes and the correction on my paper.

Perhaps some reticent learners (5%) felt rather embarrassed upon seeing the errors in their written work and the correction of them by their classmates might have disturbed them. On the other hand, 94% of the learners were quite happy with the application. This indicates that the majority of the subjects are no longer scared of making mistakes.

8. It is best if the teacher corrects my mistakes and  return it to me.

52% of the subjects  were not sure if this were a good idea. Perhaps this is a sign that half of the subjects still think that they are not capable enough mistake correctors. Nevertheless, 25 % of the learners still believe that they would benefit more if they, themselves, involved in correction process.

9. I am rather reticent to discuss my opinion in the group.

This received 63% of “No” and “Certainly no” answers while  15% “Not sure”, and 15% “Yes”. The data showed that there were students who had lack of confidence and were self-conscious when it came to expressing and discussing their ideas.

10. At every stage of this application I feel more confident.

This last question was given a remarkable 65% of “Yes” and “Certainly yes” answers and only 26% of them said they were “Not sure”. What was worth considering here was that none of the subjects wrote “No” or “Certainly no” as one of the major aims of this project was increase learners’  self-confidence.          

6.4. SHORTCOMINGS ENCOUNTERED

6.4.1. Learner-oriented problems

Learners’ motivation was a major problem since the medium of instruction is Turkish at Maltepe University and even if the students fail in prep class, they have the right to start their undergraduate studies but they are required to pass the proficiency tests given twice every year until they graduate. So in order to motivate them the subjects were slightly ‘threatened’ in the way that they would not be able to get graduated unless they passed the prep class in four years.

As a starting point, I had to talk them into being an accurate and efficient writer in English and explained that the writing section in all the tests is valued by 25 points out of 100. That helped some except a few totally reluctant, resistant and hopeless ones.

The second problem was the learners’ unfortunate L1 experiences in writing. The majority of the subjects stated that they devoted very little or no time to writing activities in their secondary and high school education and the only ‘serious’ writing activity they did was free writing as they were assumed that they were ‘competent writers’ in Turkish. They hardly had any proper writing skills in L1 to be transferred in L2.

6.4.2. Application-oriented problems

During the application of “Ladder Technique”, the main problem encountered was absenteeism and due to this fact, a proper SIRS (Student Improvement Record Sheet) file could not be kept. Though some benign and determined learners later handed their writing, a good one-third participated class activities irregularly. Thus, instead of each subject’s writing twelve pieces for six weeks, some remained at seven or eight. Since all of the writings and all the correction steps were done in the class, attendance was of vital importance.

The second problem was that some of the subjects, while working in their groups usually took the initiative and without discussing with the group members did the correction. Those subjects were usually the ones whose level of English was well above the other members in the group. To minimize this, the teacher walked more in the class as a monitor interfering upon seeing one-man show in a group.

The third problem was mainly of classroom time devoted to writing activities. Seven hours a week was not enough to complete the project in six weeks satisfactorily due to reading, speaking and listening skills included in the skills course syllabus. Had there been more class hours, the “Ladder Technique” would have been much more effective.

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7. IMPLICATIONS

The importance of self-correction is unquestionable as it allows the learners to become skilled in recognizing their mistakes and to be competent writers in a foreign language learning process once the specific correction symbols / codes are determined.

At this point, The Maltepe Project on self-correction employing the “Ladder Technique” on a piloting group of 27 subjects reached its aims not fully, but mostly.

Firstly, the project aimed to have learners recognize mistakes for a specific set of criteria by correcting their classmates’  written work. This aim was achieved by the careful reinforcement of each criterion repeatedly, thus the subjects became skilled in recognizing mistakes for a specific set of criteria which, in this case, was limited to eight language areas.

Secondly, it was aimed to reduce the re-occurrence of mistakes in writing to a minimum and in five out of eight mistakes types, a remarkable decrease was observed. Subject-verb Agreement(SVA) mistakes were reduced to 12%; Spelling (Sp) mistakes to  12%; mistakes in Plural/Singular(Pl/Sing) to 10%; Article (Art) mistakes to 9%; and Punctuation(Pnct) mistakes to 3%.

Thirdly, the aim was to contribute to learners’ oral fluency practice as they discuss in groups during the correction process. Since all of the subjects were at elementary stage in English, it was not very likely to have them speak English during the group work. Yet, they were encouraged to use expressions like, “No, I don’t agree with you,” ; “Yes, I agree.” ; “What about this?”; “That’s not correct.” ; “I think it is correct.” etc., but still most of the discussion in group work activities was conducted in L1,which was tolerable at this stage.

Finally, the questionnaire given to the subjects during the project showed that they found self-correction useful (63 %) and helpful in building self-confidence(62%). Furthermore, the subjects saw the whole  process as a contribution to their writing skills (83%) and accepted the fact that making mistakes was a natural outcome of writing in a foreign language so they overcame the fear of seeing their mistakes corrected in their paper (94%).

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8. REFERENCES

Allen, J.P.B – Corder, S.P (1974). TECHNIQUES IN APPLIED LINGUISTICS. Oxford University Press, London.

Allen, J.P.B. (1975). SOME BASIC CONCEPTS IN LINGUISTICS in J.P.B. Allen and S. Pit Corder (Eds. THE EDINBURGH COURSE IN APPLIED LINGUISTICS. Volume 2. (OUP, 1975). Pp.26-27. Cited in Byrne, D. (1980), ENGLISH TEACHING PERSPECTIVES, Longman.

Bowen, T. – Marks, J. (1994). INSIDE TEACHING, Heinemann. Great Britain.

Harmer, J. (1988).  THE PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING. Longman. Hong Kong.

Smith, M. (1976).   A Note on ‘Writing versus Speech’ English teaching Journal XXXI. 1976. Pp 17-19. Cited in Byrne, D. (1980). ENGLISH TEACHING PERSPECTIVES. Longman.

Wood, N.M. (1983). ‘Self-correction and Rewriting a Student Composition’. Teaching Forum. July-September, 1977. Vol.31. No.3. Pp. 38.

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