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Empowering L2 tutoring: a case study of a second language writer's vocabulary learning.

Because of the increasing diversity of writers in our classrooms, especially international and resident bilingual students, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) has recommended that all US writing teachers also see themselves as teachers of second language writing (see "Statement"). In addition, the field of second language (L2) writing has recommended that all second language writing teachers see themselves as language teachers as well as writing teachers (Williams). It would follow then that those same recommendations hold for writing center tutors-that they should see themselves both as second language writing tutors and as second language tutors.

But why second language issues, along with all the other concerns writing tutors must address? One reason is that writing tutorials have enormous potential as sites for language learning. Because of their collaborative and interactive nature, tutorials have all the elements necessary to foster second language acquisition: opportunities for the negotiation of meaning (Gass and Varonis; Long and Robinson; Lyster; Lyster and Ranta; Pica); opportunities for comprehensible input, that is, language that the student can understand and process (Krashen); and opportunities for learners to practice and "push" output or production in both speaking and writing (Mackey; Swain and Lapkin; Swain).

However, the claims we make in the writing center literature about the second language learning that happens or could happen in writing center tutorials are often based on theorizing about the potential of those elements and about indications of possible learning which, although helpful and practical for tutors, are usually experiential and anecdotal (Minett; Linville; Severino) rather than empirically based. By contrast, studies in second language writing involve research-based indications of language learning, for example, writers' significant error reduction after teachers' error feedback (Ferris, "Does Error") or a writer's increasingly accurate use over an academic year of an increasing variety of lexical phrases acquired from various sources, including feedback from tutors and teachers (Li and Schmidt).

Error reduction in response to feedback (Ferris, "Does Error"; Truscott and Hsu) and the acquisition of vocabulary from different sources over time (Li and Schmidt) are empirical language results that influenced the focus and design of the present case study. By employing multiple perspectives, methods, and tools, our tutor-research case study presents a detailed, complex portrait of how a second language writer in a US writing center learned and used vocabulary; how he employed his tutor's face-to-face and online feedback on his vocabulary errors to further his vocabulary learning; and how he perceived his vocabulary learning and his college learning in general. The study demonstrates the importance of extensive reading for learning new words as well as the complementarity of face-to-face and online feedback, especially to help with learning what is termed the lexicogrammatical component of words.

L2 Vocabulary and the Writing Tutor

Vocabulary concerns have often been overlooked in the writing center literature. Sarah Nakamaru points out that writing centers have falsely dichotomized discourse into content vs. grammar or into higher order or global concerns (i.e., assignment fulfillment, argument, development, organization) vs. lower order or local concerns (i.e., grammar), also called later order concerns. The level of language that occurs in the middle--variously called vocabulary, wording, expression, or lexis--has often been neglected (Myers; Nakamaru) even though vocabulary concerns move through all levels of discourse. If middle is interpreted as center, then vocabulary concerns are indeed central to writing, radiating out to both higher order concerns (HOCs) and lower order concerns (LOCs). L2 writing scholars Grabe and Kaplan have emphasized the importance of vocabulary because of its intimate connection to other levels of language, especially syntax and grammar. L2 writers themselves have reported that learning vocabulary is one of their chief preoccupations (Leki and Carson). Finding the right words to express their thoughts is one of their biggest challenges because they frequently lack access to relevant L2 linguistic knowledge (Murphy and Roca de Larios); thus, L2 writers often make more lexical than grammatical errors (Myers). Nakamaru argues that "if tutors had more information about the ways lexical strengths and needs affect students' writing, and how to contend with these during sessions, they would feel more empowered to talk about lexical issues and would do so more effectively" (109). A major purpose of this study, then, is to help empower tutors with information about lexical issues so they can better address the lexical needs of L2 writers in the writing center.

How Do International L2 Writers in the Writing Center Learn and Use New Vocabulary?

Indeed, the international L2 students who come to our writing centers are still English language learners, as it can take up to or more than seven years to become academically proficient in a second language (Collier). College students must know between 8,000 and 9,000 word families in order to function academically (Nation), but most college second language writers do not even come close to knowing this number. Every day they are enlarging their vocabulary's breadth, or lexical diversity, and depth, or how much they know about each word and how words relate to others in semantic networks (Meara). What sources and strategies do they use to increase their vocabularies, especially words they use in their college writing? If tutors can attend more to international L2 students as language learners, working with them to discover how they best learn new words and solidify their knowledge of partially known ones, tutors can better facilitate their vocabulary learning. In this study, we sought to understand how one such international L2 student used sources to enhance his vocabulary knowledge and use.

What Kinds of Errors Are Made by International L2 Writers?

Another reason that vocabulary should be considered a central concern of writing tutors is that lexical inaccuracy in L2 writing has been found to inversely correlate with holistic evaluations of writing quality (Engber). Ferris (Treatment) found that 22% of all L2 students' errors were lexical, the second most important category of error after sentence structure. Knowing the kinds of vocabulary errors to expect will also help tutors facilitate vocabulary learning. Tutors often feel overwhelmed when they first read the writing of non-native speakers of English. Categorizing errors can reduce what seems to be an enormous number of errors into a few types. Are they vocabulary errors of the "wrong word" variety, for example, using the word "laborious" instead of "hardworking" to describe someone with a good work ethic? Are they errors in word form (e.g., "beautiful landscape" vs. "beautifully landscape"), errors in idiomatic phrases (e.g., "of same ilk" vs. "of the same ilk"), sound-alikes (e.g., "another words" vs. "in other words"), or errors in count/non-count confusion (e.g., "many researches")? Tutors should attend to these vocabulary issues, although not to the neglect or detriment of traditional higher order concerns such as assignment fulfillment, argument, and development, which can be addressed at the same time, an approach that the tutor followed in the current study.

What Kind of Tutor Feedback Better Facilitates Vocabulary Learning by L2 Writers?

Since providing feedback, either face to face or online, is one of the primary functions of a writing center tutor, what effect would a tutor's feedback have on the learning of vocabulary as measured by uptake of the tutor's corrective feedback, that is, by the student's correcting the feature in response to the tutor's feedback? And which feedback mode, face-to-face or online, would lead to more uptake and possible short term learning, as indicated by the number of features the student successfully changes in response to feedback? Would the more consistent, neat, and readable mode of online written feedback (in this case, a short cover letter and Microsoft Word's commenting feature with the corrections) result in more indications of vocabulary learning than face-to-face feedback, in which both the tutor and the student may sporadically make notes and corrections on the page, creating a text that is difficult to decipher? (See figure 1 below.) Also, in face-to-face mode it is easy to forget to write down comments and corrections when tutor and student are caught up in discussions of content, culture, and rhetoric.

For the purposes of this study, vocabulary learning means acquiring new words and expressions and knowing more completely how to use partially learned ones as shown by their accurate production in writing. We assess vocabulary learning through an interview, counts of student-corrected features in response to the tutor's corrective feedback, and performance on a cloze test. It should be noted, however, that lack of uptake (e.g., not correcting features based on the tutor's feedback) does not automatically indicate a lack of learning; a student's not using feedback may be due to other factors, including not noticing the feedback for reasons such as distraction or oversight. By the same token, uptake or correction does not necessarily indicate learning; the student could mechanically correct the feature without thinking of the rule if the feature is rule based, or, if the feature is not rule based, the student could easily make another error when the feature is produced in a new context.


A Tutor-Research Case Study

Drawing from the previous discussion, the questions we set out to answer with our case study about vocabulary learning, lexical error, and feedback mode were

1. How does an advanced L2 writer learn and use L2 vocabulary through different sources (e.g., course work, extensive reading, and his tutor's feedback), and what are his attitudes toward these sources and toward his college learning in general?

2. What sorts of vocabulary errors does an advanced L2 writer make in his writing during a Rhetoric course?

3. Which kind of feedback on vocabulary error will result in more vocabulary learning by an advanced L2 writer--asynchronous online tutoring, because of its greater stability and legibility, or face-to-face feedback that includes written comments by both the tutor and the student? (See figure 1.)

In order to answer these research questions, we employed a tutor-research case study method. Tutor-research, that is, tutoring and researching at the same time, is analogous to teacher-research, a type of experimental action investigation frequently performed in composition (Ray) and in other classes. The rationale for tutor-research is that tutors need to know as much as possible about their students as writers and learners to tutor them better; this knowledge is then communicated as research to tutors in similar situations with similar students. We chose the case study because, as Harvey Kail and Kay Allen as well as Stephen North have pointed out, the individualized nature of tutoring and the one-on-one relationship between tutor and student make the writing center an excellent site for case studies, which can be easily integrated into daily center activities and normal tutoring procedures--a definite advantage for busy tutors.

In its largely narrative presentation, our research follows in the tradition of rich writing center case studies of individual writers: Elizabeth Robertson's study of Colleen, Nancy Welch's study of Margie, Lynn Briggs' study of Mary Ann, and Brian Goedde's case study of Lorraine. These are case studies not only of the focal student's psychology, motivation, and learning, but of the interactional dynamics between the student and the tutor, in other words, the tutorial relationship. This study, therefore, not only focuses on the case study student and his vocabulary learning, building a complex portrait of him as a student, a writer, and a person; it also focuses on the relationship between the student and the tutor as she learns from him about his vocabulary learning as applied to his L2 writing.

Whereas a larger scale study or one with many subjects could lead to more generalizations, Nakamaru argues that "it is through in-depth interactions with individuals rather than generalizations that writing center staff build expertise and awareness" (96, her emphasis). The strength of case studies, she notes, is that they examine the experience of particular people in particular contexts as they engage in authentic activities. In addition to employing qualitative case study methods such as a background questionnaire and interviews, we also use quantitative methods such as error and uptake counts in order to paint a fuller picture of the learner and his learning.

The Subject, the Writing Center, and the Rhetoric Course

The subject of this case study was a twenty-one-year-old male undergraduate native speaker of Mandarin Chinese named Fan (a pseudonym) who had taken six years of exam-oriented English as a Foreign Language classes in school in his home province of Wenzhou, China. At the time of the study, he was a sophomore who had been studying at a public research university in the Midwest for three years. He had tested out of the university's ESL courses, qualifying him as advanced in English proficiency rather than intermediate. Other factors that qualified him as advanced were his extensive independent reading, both academically and for pleasure, and his interest in learning new words, especially erudite ones. On a language background questionnaire that the authors designed, he self-rated his English writing and speaking as Good and his English reading, listening, and vocabulary as Excellent. A history and finance double major, he aspired to enter a master's program in public policy at a prestigious university. Having already completed Rhetoric I, he was taking Rhetoric II during the summer the study was conducted.

Fan registered in the university writing center's Enrollment Program--regular face-to-face tutoring with the same tutor--in order to receive help with Rhetoric II, the only course he was taking that summer. Carol, the first author, tutored him an average of twice a week throughout the eight-week summer session on his papers and speeches for Rhetoric and, in the third week of class, asked him to participate in the IRB-approved study.

At this public research university, Rhetoric is the equivalent of first-year composition in its focus on comparison of different points of view, on analysis, and on argument, but it includes as many oral presentations as papers. Because the Rhetoric Department does not have a prescribed syllabus, Rhetoric teachers, most of whom are graduate student/teaching assistants, design their own courses, choosing their own readings and constructing their own speaking and writing assignments according to guidelines from the department's teacher education program.

Fan's teacher Gina (also a pseudonym), a teaching assistant pursuing a PhD in literature, had organized this eight-week, four-credit course around excerpts from twenty different memoirs, which she had assembled into a coursepack. Some were fictional, for example, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. Most were non-fictional, including excerpts from a wide range of memoirs--by Frederick Douglass, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Lance Armstrong, and Barack Obama. One memoir was a series of poems by Frieda Hughes, daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The poems were accompanied by Frieda Hughes' paintings, which students could access on a website. Students wrote fifteen journal entries in response to these memoirs and took turns leading class discussion on an assigned memoir. For the class discussion, they had to construct a handout with questions and a rhetorical analysis of the memoir. The handout constituted part of their grade for Speech 2, along with the performance of the discussion leading itself. Gina had recently attended a seminar on civic and community engagement and believed that students spoke, read, and wrote better when they were engaged with local issues and audiences. Her emphasis on the local is reflected in her assignment choices and Fan's choices of topics in response to them.

The following is a summary of Gina's assignments for the three speeches and the three papers and the topic Fan chose for each. The twelve, fifty-minute, face-to-face tutoring sessions, plus online tutoring on five drafts, were focused on fulfilling the following six formal assignments. (* indicates a project analyzed for vocabulary error in the study.)

Speech 1: Persuade your fellow classmates to attend a local event from three different points of view.

Fan's choice: Arguments to attend a local festival of music and culture to raise money for cancer research--from the points of view of Lance Armstrong as a former cancer patient; of the director of the local Chamber of Commerce; and of folk musician Greg Brown, a guest artist at the festival.

Paper 1: Tell the same story, fictional or not, from three different points of view.

Fan's choice: fiction--a story of the narrator's relationship with a campus drug dealer from three points of view that are neutral, unsympathetic, and sympathetic to the drug dealer.

Speech 2: Lead a discussion on an assigned memoir with a * detailed handout of analysis and questions.

Fan's assignment from Gina: Frieda Hughes' poems and paintings. * Paper 2: Write an annotated bibliography on a controversy. Fan's choice: gay marriage in Iowa.

Speech and *Paper 3: Advocate a position on the chosen controversy.

Fan's choice: pro-gay marriage, urging Iowans to prevent a conservative backlash that would reverse the Iowa Supreme Court decision.

The fact that this study focuses on vocabulary should not give the impression that vocabulary was the singular focus of the tutoring sessions between Fan and Carol; they also discussed the cultural content and implications of each assignment and controversy. In response to Fan's expressed interests, Carol introduced US-oriented cultural phenomena to him, some of which he used in his speeches and papers (musician Greg Brown and the notion of a chamber of commerce in Speech 1, and "cocaine overdose" for Paper 1 about the campus drug dealer), thus simultaneously teaching about culture and vocabulary. For Speech 2 about Frieda Hughes, they had to close-read her poems together so that Fan would understand Hughes' pain and rejection more deeply as well as her problems with anorexia and other self-destructive behaviors which Carol had to explain to Fan. For Paper and Speech 3, there were gaps in his knowledge of US gay politics and the common arguments used to support gays' rights (e.g., to their partner's insurance, hospital visitation, inheritance--rights that marriage would ensure). It became clear that the US has particular cultures of charity festivals, drugs, victim discourse, and gay politics that differ from those that may exist in China.

Data Collected and Multiple Perspectives Taken

Similar to the goals of the Rhetoric assignment to compare multiple perspectives, we triangulated the data analysis by seeking the points of view of 1) Carol, the first author; 2) Fan, the student subject himself, whose attitudes, feelings, and opinions were sought throughout the study and who also read and responded to a draft of this article; 3) Elizabeth, the second author; and 4) Gina, the Rhetoric teacher. Next to each type of data are the number and a brief description of the research question it relates to:

1. Language Background Questionnaire (question 1: vocabulary learning)

2. Drafts of his Rhetoric papers and speeches (questions 1: vocabulary use, 2: errors, 3: feedback mode)

3. Carol's, Fan's, and Gina's written comments on those drafts and Carol's online comments on some of them (questions 1: vocabulary use, 2: errors, 3: feedback mode)

4. Carol's tutoring logs, one for every face-to-face session (twice a week for six of the eight weeks) (questions 1: vocabulary use, attitudes; 2: errors)

5. Summary of Carol's interview with Gina (question 1: vocabulary learning and use)

6. Carol's audio-recorded interview with Fan (questions 1: vocabulary learning and use; 2: errors, attitudes; 3: feedback mode)

7. Elizabeth's written observations about salient themes in the interview (question 1: vocabulary learning and use, attitudes)

8. Numerical comparisons of uptake of Carol's face-to-face vs. online feedback on his vocabulary errors (question 3: feedback mode)

9. Results of a fifteen-item cloze test (see appendix) based on errors that Carol corrected in his writing (questions 1: vocabulary learning, 3: feedback mode)

Carol and Elizabeth looked for themes, patterns, and correspondences in these types of data both together and individually. To answer research question 2 about the types of errors Fan made, together they classified 15% of Fan's errors in the target papers to reach a consensus on vocabulary features/errors to be included in the study vs. those which were solely grammatical errors, such as missing past tense inflections (e.g.,--ed), and should therefore not be included. To answer research question 3 about whether face-to-face or online feedback resulted in more uptake of corrective feedback, together they classified 15% of his vocabulary errors on subsequent drafts as corrected, not corrected, or rephrased/eliminated, the latter of which were not counted. Carol then classified the remainder of the error/uptake data herself.

The sections that follow are organized by research question with two sections for the third question, one section on uptake counts, the other on cloze test results. Each section contains methods and results, followed by an interpretation and discussion through which a portrait of the writer and the writer-tutor relationship gradually emerges.

How Fan Learns and Uses Vocabulary (Research Question 1)

According to Carol's and Fan's face-to-face tutoring sessions, his background questionnaire, and the interview, Fan learns vocabulary by engaging in extensive reading for academic assignments and for pleasure, an activity that Stephen Krashen has claimed best promotes L2 acquisition. On the Language Background Questionnaire, in response to the question of how he learns English vocabulary, Fan compared his formal, exam-oriented English-as-a-Foreign Language training in China to his academic and pleasure reading as resources for learning vocabulary:

The teachers taught me a lot of expressions, but I forgot most of them. But I read a lot.... I remember all the English words in my classfor exam and it's not quite effective. But I learned my vocabulary through the reading, and although I couldn t speak it, but I definitely learn the meaning of it. (Our emphasis)

When Carol asked him in the interview about his extensive reading as sources of vocabulary learning, he gave many examples: books four through seven in the Harry Potter series, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, James Joyce's The Dubliners, David Sedaris's Barrel Fever, Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, and works by Proust, Mills, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, some of which he read in Introduction to Philosophy. When she asked him about magazines and newspapers, he mentioned The Economist, the end-of-the-year issue of Time, and the university's student newspaper, but he also said he reads GQ, Esquire, and People for fashion, and the first two for men's cologne samples.

What he wrote in his questionnaire about knowing the meaning of certain less common words but not being able to pronounce them ("although I couldn't speak it") was corroborated during the interview when Carol and he discussed the words he had underlined in the coursepack of memoirs: "distraught," "debonair," "tryst," "mimosa," "tousled," "twangy," "nebulous," "potency," and "exasperate," among others, many from Nabokov. However, he was not sure how to pronounce them. He had not written down the meanings of these words either in English or Chinese, but Carol's questioning revealed that he did know the meanings of most of them. In the course of discussing what the words meant, if Fan pronounced them incorrectly, Carol corrected him.

These more literary words, which Fan referred to in his interview as "interesting expressions by famous authors," were not just part of Fan's receptive vocabulary, that is, his vocabulary for reading and listening. Taking risks, he made an effort to make words like these part of his productive vocabulary as well, but only in writing, the same medium in which those words were received, because, he said, if he tried to use them in speaking, he would sound "silly." An example of his lexical variety and sophistication is one of his discussion questions from his handout on Frieda Hughes' memoir: "Frieda Hughes' childhood is heavily overcast by pain and loss, why does happiness elude her?'

Another example of his lexical risk-taking is from his fictional story about the drug dealer. Less common, more literary words are in italics.

I felt the infinite agitation approaching me, rippling every flesh I possessed from my neck to mind inside, and took the ego I had inside me out and beat it ... I was stifled ... I kept hearing the sound, hissing in my ears, Whispering something I will never forget, it was from him, he was chasing me, his truculent eyes, his vigilant smile, his agony breath.... (Our emphasis)

Despite her status as a native speaker of English with a PhD in English, Carol had to look up "truculent" (fierce) along with "cretonne" (glazed cotton), a word Fan used later in the story. The more literary words he used appropriately, at least for the flowery style of Paper 1, a piece of fiction that imitated Nabokov's Lolita. Ironically, however, he had trouble with more everyday words: the more common "flesh" is non-count and cannot be used with "every," and "agony," a noun, should be "agonized," an adjective to modify "breath." These were lexicogrammatical errors that were typical of many of the vocabulary errors Fan made and a major theme of the study.

Following Li and Schmidt's study of how Amy learned lexical phrases, when Carol asked where Fan learned "cretonne," he said he learned it from Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. She also asked how Fan had learned other less common words that he had used in his writing. The word "composure," he said, was from David Sedaris and "free spirit" was from Nietzche. He did not know where he had learned other words and expressions she asked about ("social convention," "consummate," "quivering," and "cherished"), but maybe they were from "some novel I read." Fan said that when he reads for school and encounters an unfamiliar word, he either "Googles" it or uses an online bilingual dictionary to find out what it means. But when he reads for pleasure, that is, mainly for content, he said he just wants to relax on his bed and not look up words. Carol, who reads in Spanish as her L2, agreed with Fan that the effort of looking up words and writing down their definitions can take some of the pleasure out of pleasure reading.

Fan seemed less interested in Carol's questions about how he learned more common words. An example she gave was the word "flatter," which was used in class by Gina when she asked the class to be sure to "flatter" a guest writer she had invited to class to read from her work. Elizabeth noticed from analyzing the interview that Fan seemed to have a hierarchy of words, from "everyday" ones used by common people, such as "flatter," to those "interesting expressions by famous authors," such as "cretonne." In fact, during his interview, he seemed embarrassed that he had underlined the short, simple word "crib," but then explained it as cultural: "I do not have 'crib' in my life."

Fan's attitudes toward college learning in general in his various courses were quite complex. Elizabeth also noted from the interview that Fan's lexical hierarchy paralleled his academic hierarchy of universities (with Ivy League at the top) and his hierarchy of academic disciplines, from "bottom" fields that were either less complex and more formulaic such as accounting, finance, and economics; upwards to political science and then to philosophy, (which "you mainly need to feel," he said, "rather than to know"); and finally to the highest discipline of history, his first major, in which, he asserted, one needs careful instruction in order to learn. He also believed there was a hierarchy of teachers (teaching assistants and professors) at the university, and that the best professors were Ivy-League educated; hence, he tried to make sure in his course- and teacher-shopping that he chose the best and got his money's worth, a characteristic, Elizabeth noted, that has been identified as a consumer mentality of Millennials (Howe and Strauss). Most important for this study's focus on feedback, he believed in a hierarchy of feedback types with feedback from peers the lowest ("I learn from them, but I don't find it quite useful. It's not bad, but I have my own style. They don't really understand my work."), to synchronous online feedback (which to our knowledge he had never received but equated with chatting, which he thought too informal and didn't respect), to asynchronous online, and finally to face-to-face (which he thought was better than online feedback because of the opportunities to interact, discuss, and clarify both big picture and smaller issues).

Also in terms of hierarchies, in Carol's interview with Gina, she said that considering both the five native and seven non-native speakers of English in her summer class, Fan was at the top because of his vocabulary, his critical thinking, and his ability to deal with complex issues, ideas, and sentences. She added, however, that he sometimes struggled to make himself clear, both in speaking and in writing. Gina's assessment corresponds to Fan's own assessment of his speaking and writing as Good, compared to the Excellent self-rating of his reading, listening, and vocabulary.

Classifying Fan's Lexical Errors (Research Question 2)

L2 vocabulary expert I.S.P. Nation reminds us that productive knowledge of vocabulary for speaking and writing requires more actual learning than receptive knowledge of vocabulary in listening and reading. He explains that knowing a word for written production involves much more than just knowing its meaning and use. It also means knowing 1) what word parts and word forms are needed to express the intended meaning; 2) in what syntactical and grammatical patterns to use the word; and 3) what words or types of words are used with the word, that is, knowing the entire expression or collocation. Hence, we can say that Fan's productive knowledge of the words "agony" and "flesh" was incomplete because he had used "agony" as an adjective and "flesh" as a count noun, violating 1) and 2) respectively.

When we analyzed the lexical errors in eight drafts of three papers (one literary-critical on Frieda Hughes and two legal-political on gay marriage), we found that Fan's lexical errors occurred in four categories that map onto Nation's. The first word or expression, in italics, is the error, and the second, the correct form:

1. Errors in meaning: twelve errors out of seventy-five, or 16% of vocabulary errors, e.g.,

came vs. went

make vs. establish

illustrate vs. state

rhythm vs. rhyme

lowered vs. reduced

provoke vs. pronounce

widespread vs. widely

2. Word-form errors (usually from confusion between the noun and adjective forms): twenty-two out of seventy-five, or 29% of vocabulary errors, e.g.,

poem style vs. poetic style

a humanity point of view vs. a human point of view

3. Pattern or word behavior problems: eight out of seventy-five, or 11% of total, e.g.,

Parents want to educate their morality on their child By showing how it would fail their guide work as parents. They will persuade people to know...

Not knowing when passive forms are required for reflect, include, and base

4. Collocation-type errors (many with prepositions): thirty errors, or 40% of total, e.g.,

claim for vs. claim

commented her work vs. commented on her work

regarding to this issue vs. regarding this issue

look law vs. look at law

the hard time in life vs. hard times in life

civil right/human right vs. civil and human rights

on the other hands vs. on the other hand

become daydreaming vs. become a daydreamer or start daydreaming

5. Miscellaneous (spelling): three errors, or 4% of the total

A major finding is that 80% of Fan's lexical errors had a grammatical or syntactic component and can therefore be categorized, according to Nation, as lexicogrammatical. From these results we can see that Fan possesses more vocabulary breadth or diversity than depth or knowledge about the words and their families (Meara). Fan is still developing a mastery of word forms and contexts.

Face-to-Face Feedback, Online Feedback, and Language Learning (Research Question 3)

In line with the nature of the study as naturalistic tutor-research, Carol let Fan decide when he wanted feedback online by email because that is how enrollment tutoring usually works in the center. The three instances in which he requested online feedback were related to due dates for drafts; that is, there would have been no occasion to meet face-to-face, for example, on a weekend when the paper was due on Monday morning or when Carol had to participate in an out-of-town workshop. On two projects, the Frieda Hughes Handout for Speech 2 and Paper 3 on gay marriage, Carol responded online to a second draft after she had responded face-to-face to a first draft. On Paper 2, an annotated bibliography Fan sent the day before she left for the workshop, she responded to a complete draft only online. The vocabulary errors in Paper 1 were not analyzed because Carol never saw the entire final draft before Fan handed it in, as he had completely changed the plot, the characters, and the points of view several times in response to feedback from Gina and Carol before deciding what story he wanted to tell.

Carol tried to be as consistent as possible with corrective feedback, directly correcting in person and online the errors she noticed. Supplying direct corrections, that is, giving the correct word or form, rather than using another strategy such as underlining errors and/or coding for what Ferris calls "treatable" word-form errors (29% of Fan's total) can be considered controversial because the writer is perceived as doing less of the problem-solving and therefore possibly learning less. In this study, however, direct correction was employed in the desire for parallel and consistent feedback experiences between the online and in-person conditions. Another justification for direct correction was that the other more arbitrary, idiomatic categories of Fan's errors in Nation's scheme would be considered "untreatable" and, thus, according to Ferris (Treatment), deserving of direct correction. In the face-to-face condition, if an error or error type was persistent and Carol sensed it was an oversight on Fan's part and/or easily correctable, she would first prompt him to correct it himself before she wrote in the correction he came up with. If he couldn't produce the correction, she corrected the feature herself and wrote it down.

Drafts 2 and 3 were examined to see if there was uptake on the corrections Carol had supplied on Drafts 1 and 2. If the expression had been rephrased or omitted by Fan, it wasn't counted. Features of pure grammar (tense and agreement) were not included either. Table 1 below shows the face-to-face and online uptake (correction) percentages.

As can be seen in Table 1, for the Handout for Speech 2 and Paper 2, online feedback resulted in high percentages of uptake (86% and 81%), but in Paper 3, with only seven lexical errors, four were corrected, for an uptake percentage of 58%, seeming to indicate the superiority of online feedback. However, in face-to-face tutoring on Paper 2, for twenty-seven of the thirty-two errors, feedback was uptaken at 84%, also a high rate.

The summary uptake figures are face-to-face feedback at 76% uptake (31/41) and online feedback slightly higher at 33/42 or 79% uptake--non-significant differences that indicate that neither mode is superior to the other. Note the uncannily similar number of lexical errors corrected by Carol in each mode--face-to-face 41 and online 42, and then uptaken by Fan at 31 and 33 respectively. We had not expected such equal results because of the greater legibility and neatness of online corrective feedback. Thus, both feedback modes seem to promote similar levels of vocabulary learning as measured by uptake.

Construction and Results of the Cloze Test (Research Question 3)

To corroborate these error and uptake counts, we chose to follow a line of research in which correct answers to cloze (fill-in-the-blank) tests are considered an indication of L2 language learning (Oller; Alderson). To this end Carol constructed a cloze test (see appendix) to see if Fan could produce the appropriate form of lexical features she had previously corrected. Cloze tests are advantageous because they assess both productive knowledge of vocabulary and productive and receptive knowledge of the sentence contexts. Also, Fan highly valued and respected tests, taking great pride in his test-taking ability. For Fan, taking the cloze test was an authentic and engaging activity. For Carol, it was an experiment with a new instrument.

For each chosen problematic word or phrase, Carol composed two different fill-in-the-blank sentences, that is, two different contexts that would prompt the same word or phrase in the same form, thus testing productive vocabulary knowledge. From Fan's vocabulary errors, she chose fifteen higher frequency lexical items that she predicted Fan might use again in other writing. She chose no more than fifteen items because of the potential fatigue factor. Because of his test-taking background in China, Fan is very serious about accuracy when taking tests, more serious, he admitted in the interview, than he is about accuracy when writing papers.

Five of the fifteen chosen items for the test were based on errors that received face-to-face feedback only, five of the items were based on errors that received online feedback only, and five were based on errors that received both types of feedback. Dividing the items into these feedback categories was a corroborating attempt to find out if there was more uptake depending on feedback mode.

The results were that all fifteen of Fan's fill-in-the-blank responses were correct and fit the sentences' meaning appropriately. However, only five of the fifteen were the particular features Carol was trying to elicit, that is, features that had been incorrect and that she had corrected in Fan's writing. For example in item 2, she was attempting to cue "argued against," which Fan had originally written without the preposition as "argued," but Fan had filled in the blanks with "didn't agree with," which fit in well with the rest of the two sentences. Not producing the exact word or expression Carol was attempting to cue was an unanticipated but understandable outcome, as Carol did not tell Fan until after the test that the test items came from his vocabulary errors, just as she didn't tell him that the case study focused on vocabulary. The purpose of not revealing more about the nature of the test and the study was to avoid making him unnaturally focused on words and word forms.

Of these five words/phrases that matched what Carol was trying to elicit, one was from online feedback only, and four were from both face-to-face and online feedback, suggesting again that neither mode is superior, and the potential effectiveness of using both kinds of feedback to reinforce learning of vocabulary. Fan said that he found online feedback more "efficient" for making revisions and corrections, but that in-person feedback was better for attending to and remembering vocabulary features that were discussed. Interacting about and hearing the correct features were more conducive to remembering and learning, he said, whereas online feedback was too easy and tempting to ignore in the process of revising. In other words, face-to-face feedback seemed to promote more memory of and accountability for the recommended changes.

Carol asked Fan about each of his five responses that matched what she was prompting. As she had asked about the words underlined in the memoirs, she asked how and where he had learned those features: From English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classes in China? From that summer's reading for Rhetoric? Fan seemed somewhat defensive when Carol told him how she had constructed the cloze test--that she had included those particular vocabulary items because he had previously written them incorrectly. He would have rather believed that she had chosen those features because he had spoken them incorrectly out of nervousness or carelessness. He seemed less inclined to face up to his written errors, which he seemed to view as more face-threatening than his spoken errors.

For example, about item 7 ("even though" vs. "even," learned in China), he said, "They are totally different words. I would never do that [confuse the expressions]." "But you did," Carol said. "That's why it's there on the test. It's a common mistake though," she added, trying to help him save face by relating how often she sees this error in L2 writing. He also seemed incredulous about item 9, "a lot of," which he had written in the draft as "a lot." He remembered "a lot of" from EFL in China because the teacher had told students that they could use it either for count and non-count nouns. He claimed that he would never get it wrong on a test although he said he might get it wrong in his writing. In other words, short answer tests seem to be higher in the hierarchy of assessments for Fan than writing for classes. Carol told him she had included item 12 because he had used "religion" as an adjective, whereupon he insisted he had heard the expression "religion" beliefs before and that it was therefore correct. item 14, "ears of wheat" vs. "grains of wheat," was an error she had corrected in a metaphor he used in a draft for his last speech; Fan said the error was due to his lack of direct cultural (or agricultural) experience with wheat and corn. Thus, Carol helped him solidify his knowledge and control over the expressions "ears of corn" and "grains (or kernels) of wheat."

Carol and Elizabeth realized that two factors could have contributed to Fan's vocabulary errors: a cognitive process factor and a social ownership factor. When Fan and Carol talked about his writing processes, he noted that he was always looking ahead to writing the next sentence: "I don't really look back. That's my philosophy of writing," he claimed proudly. At that time, Carol just listened without responding with a lecture on the writing process, but in tutoring Fan the following three semesters, she made sure he revised and edited his drafts himself before she looked at them either in person or online, emphasizing that revision and editing by necessity involve "looking back." Social ownership is an attitude that plays a part in his errors because due to his extensive reading and some blogging he had done in English, he felt a certain ownership of English; therefore, he was confident about his English knowledge and use. He felt free then to reject Carol's suggestions, which she assured him was acceptable because writing center feedback is offered on a "take it or leave it" basis. As an example of this rejection, she had commented to him online that using the expression "taking their rights away," referring to legislators' depriving gays of the rights to marry, did not make sense because gays had never had those rights to marry in the first place. When she asked Fan in the interview why he hadn't incorporated that feedback and eliminated or changed that expression, he said he had read "take their rights away" numerous times in his research. Thus, what he remembered from his reading, the major source of his vocabulary knowledge, trumped his tutor's feedback.

Significance and Limitations of the Study

We believe this tutor-research case study results in a rich and complex portrait of a L2 writer, the sources of his vocabulary learning for writing, and his attitudes toward vocabulary learning and college learning in general. In fact, when Fan read the draft of our article, he commented to Carol that we had captured him well in print. "It is quite of my thinking," and "I feel you wrote my personality out!" he remarked. The study suggests the importance of extensive reading for vocabulary breadth and the complementarity of the two modes of face-to-face and online feedback, especially for vocabulary depth, which includes the lexicogrammatical component of words.

Yet the study has numerous limitations, two of which have to do with the dual nature of tutor-research and with the lack of time to study vocabulary and writing development longitudinally. Although the naturalistic quality of the study was advantageous for the tutor component of tutor-research, it might have been a disadvantage to the study as research because of some inconsistency. For example, unlike the other drafts, a draft of Paper 2 did not receive face-to-face feedback. Also, online feedback came after face-to-face feedback each time both types of feedback were given. Future studies could ensure that all major projects examined receive both types of feedback and vary the order of types of feedback for different projects.

The second main limitation was the short duration of the study--only eight weeks. Carol proceeded to tutor Fan for three more semesters on an as-needed basis, but she did not collect or analyze his papers. In reading Fan's history papers for eight courses and his honors thesis, she noticed how much his writing was improving on all levels--in argumentation, vocabulary, and syntax--mainly because his knowledge about historical content and methods was improving; that is, as he learned history, he learned to write it better. Future studies could look at vocabulary growth over the course of an entire year, as did that of Li and Schmidt, and in the context of the growth of disciplinary knowledge.

Such studies should also look at more students from more language backgrounds, as did Naramaku's study of the tutoring of four L2 students, two international and two resident bilinguals. Fan was perhaps unusual in the amount of extensive and pleasure reading he did, the kinds of vocabulary risks he was willing to take in his writing, and the ownership of English he assumed. Future research might also focus on L2 students who are average readers with average vocabularies.

Implications for Future Tutoring and Research

Writing center tutors play a key role in advancing L2 writers' language learning because the tutorial interaction involves the introduction of new language and vocabulary at the point of need or interest, for example, suggesting "cocaine overdose" when Fan was writing about drugs. The tutor can respond with feedback when writers haven't made the best word choices ("stuff" vs. "phenomena"), when they have chosen the wrong word ("rhythm" vs. "rhyme"), or when they have made an error in an expression ("civil right issue" vs. "civil rights issue") or in a word form ("history account" vs. "historical account").

When writing center tutors take on the role of L2 tutor, what are some strategies they can use besides encouraging extensive reading to ensure a greater probability of enhanced vocabulary learning? First, they can acquire a vocabulary about vocabulary, terms such as receptive vs. productive knowledge, lexicogrammatical errors (Nation), and depth vs. breadth (Meara), a pair that can be used with students during tutoring sessions. Second, they can use both forms of feedback, face-to-face and online, to complement and reinforce each other. Third, they can ensure more engagement from the writer in both the corrections and in the meta-discourse that explains them. For example, Carol could have asked Fan a question to prompt meta-discourse about his lexicogrammatical errors, such as, "Why should you use 'look at' rather than 'look'?" Then Fan could have responded with an answer such as "Because I need the two-word verb with a direct object." Such a dialogue promotes "noticing," bringing the lexicogrammatical error to conscious awareness, fostering explicit and purposeful learning in addition to the implicit, incidental learning of extensive reading. Future tutor-research studies could examine the effect of eliciting the writer's meta-discourse about vocabulary error on lexicogrammatical accuracy.

With L2 writers, teachers and tutors cannot ignore language issues or relegate them all to lower or later order concerns (Nakamaru). Vocabulary is a central concern related to other levels of discourse, to readers' comprehension and evaluation, and to L2 writers' ability to function successfully in a second language academic environment. L2 writers need to learn more vocabulary and learn the words and expressions that they partially know more completely. Without a doubt, the writing tutorial with a prepared tutor is an excellent site for such language learning.

APPENDIX: Cloze Test

For Fan: Please fill in the blank with the words or word you think best fit the sentence in meaning and in grammar. These are all words and expressions that I noted and corrected in your drafts, either in person or over email. Please try your best to remember them, but don't worry if you can't. If you can't remember the particular feature from our work together, try to choose another word or expression that fits in meaning and in grammar.

Important: Make sure you use the same word or expression for both the a and the b sentences, and try to be as accurate as you can about word forms. Thanks!

1a) In Rhetoric, the students were--the idea of local civic engagement.

b) At the party, I was--new foods from Japan.

2 a) Conservative Christians--the separation of church and state.

b) Republican senators--Obama's stimulus package.

3 a) This class gave me a chance to--issues from many vantage points.

b) We will read her poems and--her paintings.

4 a) Blacks are entitled to--under the law.

b) The Supreme Court made its decision on behalf of minorities on the basis of--.

5 a) What is the basic,--definition of "work"?

b) Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are--rights.

6 a) Poems that are in free verse have no--.

b) The words to that song don't--.

7 a) College graduates are able to find high-paying jobs--we are in a recession.

b)-- he is sick with the flu, he still came to class today.

8 a) His--family life and caused many psychological problems for him when he was growing up.

b) The--economy causes the stock market to go up and down.

9 a) When he was young, he made--money and became rich.

b) I don't have--patience with my children these days.

10 a) July has been a(n)--cool month compared to other years.

b) Statistics is--hard for many students who are not math-oriented.

11 a)--society is extremely diverse in race, religion, and culture.

b) The--flag is red, white, and blue with stars and stripes.

12 a) Christians, Muslims, and Jews have different--beliefs.

b) The conflicts between groups in Iraq, India, and Ireland are -in nature.

13 a) When we talk of different races of people and how they look, we often talk of their different--.

b) In the film, you can see that all the international children singing "We are the World" have different--.

14 a) The farmer gathered up all the--of wheat.

b) Corn has ears and kernels but wheat has--.

15 a) Segregation laws that prevented blacks from using the same public facilities as whites were--.

b) Hiring the candidate who is less qualified because he is your friend is--.


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An Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Carol Severino directs the Writing Center and the Writing Fellows Program at the University of Iowa where she teaches tutor training courses, travel writing, and research on second language writing. She serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Second Language Writing and Learning Assistance Review and is a reviewer for Writing Center Journal. A 2008 Fulbright Scholar in Ecuador, she wrote about that cross-cultural experience in an essay called "Falsos Amigos, Primos Hermanos, and Humitas con Cafe," which recently appeared in Writing on the Edge.

Elizabeth Deifell is a PhD student in Second Language Acquisition at The University of Iowa. Her research interests include L2 digital writing and the use of online tools during the writing process. She has volunteered with refugees through AmeriCorps/VISTA, worked in the Appalachian mountains with poets from Madrid, and taught a wide variety of Spanish courses at several post-secondary institutions. Elizabeth holds an MA in Spanish from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and recently presented research there and at the University of Hawai'i on the examination of discourse, authority, and community in the online dictionary
Table 1. Face-to-Face and Online Uptake Percentages on Errors in
Fan's Projects

Project          Feedback Mode                           # Errors

Handout for      Draft 1 [right arrow] Draft 2 f2f       4
Speech 2                                                 12
                 Draft 2 [right arrow] Draft 3 online
Paper 2          Draft 1 [right arrow] Draft 2 online    17
                 Draft 1 [right arrow] Draft 2 f2f       27
Paper 3          Draft 2 [right arrow] Draft 3 online    4

Summary uptake   f2f                                     31

Summary uptake   online                                  33

Project          # Uptake   Percentage
Handout for      9          44%
Speech 2         14         86%

Paper 2          21         81%
                 32         84%
Paper 3          7          58%

Summary uptake   41         76.%

Summary uptake   42         79%
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Author:Severino, Carol; Deifell, Elizabeth
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Date:Mar 22, 2011
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