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My approach to conferencing with students reflects my background in second language acquisition.

In the 1990s, an applied linguist called Skehan came up with the idea of fluency vs accuracy vs complexity, highlighting that any improved performance in one area comes at a cost to the others because cognitive load is limited (i.e., students can only attend to one thing at a time). He was talking about oral production, which happens in real time, so this trade-off is not necessarily appropriate to writing: if I produce something that is fluent but not accurate or complex, I can revise it for accuracy and complexity.

Whether students revise their writing assignments for grammatical accuracy or sentence complexity (and other issues of style), or even for the sake of more global issues such as organization and content, is a matter of individual motivation beyond the scope of this discussion. What I am getting at is the kind of instruction required to improve fluency, accuracy, and complexity.

It has in fact been found that fluency improves just by practice; teachers don't even have to be teaching particularly well or giving any particularly helpful feedback. If students are forced to write, and write more than they are used to writing, the writing fluency (i.e., the word count) of the vast majority of students improves over the course of a semester or a degree program (Knoch, Roushad, Oon, & Storch, 2015). 

However, grammar accuracy is another matter. The famed L2 writing scholar Dana Ferris and her colleagues found that only individual conferences with students, taking place over a sustained period of time, and concerning the students' own essays, improved students' understanding of the grammatical points that confused them (Ferris, Liu, Sinha and Senna, 2013). The ESL students in their study were actually Generation 1.5, meaning they grew up in the U.S. but tended to write the way we speak in everyday conversation. Since written conventions are not the same as oral conventions, these kinds of conferences are very important for a diverse range of students, e.g. Generation 1.5 students, international students, native speakers who lack experience with written academic discourse, etc. Cognitive-interactionist perspectives on language acquisition suggest that students need to be able to negotiate their understanding of the language, and this is not something that whole-class instruction can allow.

The third issue is complexity. You need to have one-on-one conferences with students to improve sentence complexity for three reasons. First, you want to suggest sentence structures for the student to use that are just above their current level of development (Krashen's input hypothesis). Second, students won't be "pushed" to get to the next level of grammatical complexity unless they see, in very concrete terms, how it will help them get a particular meaning across in a particular communicative context (Swain's output hypothesis). The third reason is that the best structure for a sentence, and the corresponding level of complexity, is context specific. What's the best reformulation: "Even though Will and Anne were eight years apart, they found a lot to talk about and fell in love," "Will and Anne found a lot to talk about and fell in love, despite the eight years age difference," "Will and Anne, who were eight years apart, nevertheless found a lot to talk about and fell in love," or any one of an infinite number of different options if you consider all the possible synonyms and sentence structures? The optimal choice of course depends on the author's main point (the argument they want to get across to the reader by discussing Will and Anne) and the surrounding sentences, so it needs to be talked about. The student needs to be led to think about it too, and eventually make the choice themselves, for the desired linguistic development to occur.

Students can get additional practice to increase their accuracy and complexity by working together in small groups (collaborative writing). In this way, they can pool their grammar knowledge and also suggest reformulations to each other that each individual could not think of. If students are at the same level, they can still come to a better product than any single one of them could have produced. If they are at different levels, feedback might occur not unlike that in teacher-student conferences. It is important to foster a class environment where people are helpful and supportive of each other so that everyone feels comfortable giving and receiving this kind of feedback.


Ferris, D. R., Liu, H., Sinha, A., & Senna, M. (2013). Written corrective feedback for individual L2 writers. Journal of Second Language Writing, 22, 307-329.

Knoch, U., Roushad, A., Oon, S. P., and Storch, N. (2015). What happens to ESL students' writing after three years of study at an English medium university? Journal of Second Language Writing, 28, 39-52.

How to use the resources: Read the PowerPoint "The Magic of 7 & 13" for yourself to prepare yourself to give 1-on-1 conferences based on the principles of descriptive and generative (rather than prescriptive) grammar. Print the 2-page handout as a reference for yourself and/or your students.

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