To paraphrase Long (2007), some teachers think that almost all overt error correction is beneficial. Some theorists (see, e.g., Carroll, 1997; Truscott, 1996, 1999) claim that negative feedback plays no role at all. The view that a complex array of linguistic and psychological factors affect its utility seems the most reasonable.
After a review of recent research on L2 recasts, Long concludes that
implicit negative feedback in the form of corrective recasts seems particularly promising.
This contradicts Conti’s claim that
As several studies have clearly shown, recasts do not really ‘work’.
Conti’s argument is based on cherry picking bits of research and on crass claims about how memory works. Long’s argument is based on a rational interrogation of the evidence.
Long (2007) defines a corrective recast as
a reformulation of all or part of a learner’s immediately preceding utterance in which one or more nontarget-like (lexical, grammatical, etc.) items is/are replaced by the corresponding target language form(s), and where, throughout the exchange the focus of the interlocutors is on meaning, not language as object.
The important thing to note is that the “corrections” in recasts are implicit and incidental.
Long says that recasts are useful because
- They convey needed information about the target language in context where interlocutors share a joint attentional focus and when the learner already has prior comprehension of at least part of the message, thereby facilitating form-function mapping.
- Learners are vested in the message as it’s their message which is at stake and so will probably be motivated and attending, conditions likely to facilitate noticing of any new linguistic information in the input.
- Since they already understand part of the recast, they have additional freed-up attentional resources that can be allocated to the form-function mapping. They also have the chance to compare the incorrect and correct utterances.
Long gives a review of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of recasts in SLA and shows that there is clear evidence that the linguistic information recasts contain is both useable and used .
In his Summary (half way through the chapter), Long says that al the studies show that recasts exist in relatively high frequencies in both classroom-based and noninstructional settings observed. He goes on to say that learners notice the negative feedback that corrective recasts contain; that the feedback is useable and used, and that, while not necessary for acquisition, recasts appear to be facilitative, and to work better than most explicit modelling. He concludes that the jury is still out on recasts but that the results of studies to date are encouraging.
Long then moves to “The Sceptics”. He deals at length with 2 main objections by Lyster and Lyster and Ranta (see Long 2007 for the references or email me). They are:
- The function of recasts can often be ambiguous.
- “Uptake” as a result of recasts is sparse.
As Long says, both ambiguity and uptake are important considerations when evaluating any form of negative feedback and thus worthy of discussion.
Long argues that while the function of some recasts can be ambiguous, that doesn’t negate their usefulness. He notes, interestingly, that the risk of ambiguity seems to be greater in immersion couses and in some task-based and content-based lessons.
The “uptake” sceptism is more harshly dealt with by Long. His arguments are too detailed to be quickly summarised, but they make very interesting reading. Long challenges the way the construct of “uptake” is used by Lyster and others, and highlights weaknesses in both study methods and data interpretation. What’s interesting is how carefully and rationally Long scrutinises the work he discusses, and his discussion highlights just how tricky investigating aspects of SLA is. How can we operationalise the construct “uptake” so that our studies are as rigorous as possible? How can we best articulate the research questions that drive the study? How can we organise a study so that it focuses carefully on it’s well-articulated research questions? How can we use statistical measures to interpret the data? How else can we interpret the data? And so on. It makes instructive reading for all those doing post graduate work in SLA, and I have often pointed my own tutees to Long’s work as a good example of a critical scholar at work. (I also point out that Long is supremely well-informed, which helps!)
With regard to uptake, one point stands out for me in Long’s reply to the sceptics: no form of feedback will always have immediate corrective effects “least of all as measured by spoken production, which is often one of the very last indications of change in an underlying grammar, whether induced by recasts or otherwise” (p. 99). Given that data on the immediate effects by themselves are unreliable, how much weight do we give to different measures of the effectiveness of different kinds of correction? Long discusses these issues, of course, but they indicate just how difficult it is to study things like recasts. But onward thru the fog we must go, armed with rationality and empirical evidence, because otherwise we’ll be ruled by mere prejudice and the assays of bias, anecdotes, folk law, and bullshit, eh what? Just BTW, Long refers to work done by Oliver (1995; 2000) which is well worth reading.
Long’s chapter continues by looking at recasts and perceptual salience. The relationship between the the saliency of linguistic targets and the relative utility of models, recasts, and production-only opportunities, as studied in Ono and Witzel (2002) is discussed. If there’s any interest in this among readers, I’ll deal with it in a separate post. Perceptual salience is fascinating, don’t you think? No really, it is. What stands out when we’re learning? What happens to the non-salient bits? Does saliency explain putative fossilisation? Is trying to get advanced learners to memorise thousands of esoteric lexical chunks the answer?
Then Long deals with “Methodologial Issues” of research. Required reading if you’re doing post graduate work.
The final section of Long’s chapter is on Pedagogical Implications. He recommends the use of recasts in such a way that they match a raft of factors, but anyway, he recommends them. Now just imagine you read that in an MA paper! Ughh! My apologies to all; as Scott would say “Come on: it’s only a blog!”
If we want to teach well, we need a good grasp of the most effective way to give feedback to our students when they make mistakes. As always in ELT, there’s no definitive answer to the question “What’s the best way?” It depends, it really does. It depends crucially, as Long is keen to stress, on local factors that only the teacher in that situation can evaluate. Long stresses that precisely how teachers interact with their learners in their own environment is their decision. He highlights the hopeless inadequacies of current ELT practice, but he never, ever, tells teachers what to do.
Research suggests that coursebook-based teaching is unlikely to be as effective as teaching that pays more attention to learners’ needs. Research suggests that basing teaching on the presentation and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is unlikely to be as effective as basing teaching on real communication. And research suggests (sic) that recasts are an effective way of helping learners notice their mistakes and to make progress.
Against this, we have the unprincipled, over-confident assertions of a motley crew of ELT teacher trainers and gurus, all promoting their own commercial wares, who confidently say, with equal force, that recasts work and that they don’t. Among them there are real charlatans, and a bunch of well-intentioned fools. Too many of them talk ill-informed, populist nonsense on their blogs, publish “How to ..” books by the score, tour the world peddling their snake oil, and prey on teachers who haven’t had the chance to find out for themselves just how bad the advice they’re being sold really is. One way to fight them is through rational criticism.
I hasten to add that this last bit, the inevitable rant, has absolutely no approval from Mike Long, who fights his own battles with far more grace, not to mention knowledge, than I do.
All References can be found in
Long, M.H. (2007) Problems in SLA. Mahwah, Earlbowm.