The Focused Rewrite Technique
Copyright © 2002 by Ashley Hastings and Brenda Murphy

The Focused Rewrite Technique (FRWT) is a method of providing feedback on written work to second language students. Its purpose is to promote the acquisition of high-intermediate proficiency in the written language.

Although few studies have been done on the effectiveness of FRWT, the information that we do have suggests that this is a powerful technique for accelerating second language acquisition. Hasting (1995) found that ESL students with whom FRWT was used on a regular basis gained three times as many points on a C-Test as students in another program who did not receive any FRWT feedback. Yu (1998) found an even larger advantage for FRWT in a similar comparison.

This article describes FRWT, explains the circumstances under which it would be appropriate, and discusses the assumptions that underlie the technique. It concludes with some practical suggestions and an example of a focused rewrite.
 
 
What is FRWT?

The Focused Rewrite Technique is a one-to-one interaction between a student and a teacher. It consists of several distinct steps:
 

    STEPS IN THE FOCUSED REWRITE TECHNIQUE


  1. WRITE. The student writes a composition, on any topic. It is important that the student choose the topic, which should be something that he knows and cares about.

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  3. FIRST CONFERENCE. The teacher reads the composition and confers with the student. In this conference, the teacher discusses the information and ideas in the composition and seeks clarification of any points that may have been obscure in the student's text.

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  5. FOCUS. The teacher chooses a portion of the student's composition for rewriting. The choice will be based on a number of factors (see Some Practical Suggestions).

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  7. REWRITE. The teacher rewrites the selected portion in good, idiomatic English, taking care not to add, remove, or change any of the meaning, but making sure that all features of grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation are as they should be in standard written English.

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  9. SECOND CONFERENCE. The teacher goes over the rewrite with the student, making sure that the intended sense has been preserved. If the student detects any changes in the ideas expressed, the matter is negotiated and the teacher then returns to step (4), amends the rewrite, and goes on again to step (5).

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  11. READ. The student is asked to read the rewrite several times, until he is thoroughly familiar with it.

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  13. THIRD CONFERENCE (optional). The student may meet again with the teacher to ask any questions that occurred to him while reading the rewrite.

 
When is FRWT to be used?

The Focused Rewrite Technique was originally designed for use in FOCAL SKILLS intensive ESL programs, with a specific pedagogical purpose and a specific type of student in mind. We believe it could be used in other environments, but we would urge anyone who might be considering FRWT to note the following:
 
    CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH THE FOCUSED REWRITE TECHNIQUE IS APPROPRIATE

  1. Students are at the intermediate level of reading ability. If their level is too low, they are unlikely to read or write well enough for the FRWT processes to work. If it is too high, FRWT is likely to be a relatively inefficient way of providing feedback.

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  3. The pedagogical objective is progress in the written language, not in the art of writing. FRWT is effective for helping students acquire better control of sentence structure, spelling, vocabulary, and other mechanics of written communication. Rhetorical skills, academic writing conventions, creativity, and other important elements of effective writing are best addressed using various other pedagogical techniques.

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  5. The person providing the FRWT feedback has an excellent command of the written language. This technique is not for the non-native foreign language teacher who cannot write the language fluently and idiomatically.

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  7. Ample time is available. FRWT seems to work best when each student can submit and receive timely feedback on at least one piece of writing every day.

 
What assumptions underlie FRWT?

We believe that the Focused Rewrite Technique is consistent with a number of reasonable assumptions about the nature of language acquisition and literacy development. (Some of the terms and concepts used below are taken from the work of Krashen; see, for example, Krashen 1984, 1985.)
 

ASSUMPTIONS UNDERLYING THE FOCUSED REWRITE TECHNIQUE
  1. Most of the deviations from the standard language found in intermediate student writing are interlanguage phenomena, not careless mistakes. We hold that the errors in student writing signal parts of the language that have not been fully acquired. Therefore, the familiar practices of marking errors in red or using rubrics like "grammar violation" are of limited value, since they presuppose that the student should be able to self-correct once the mistake is pointed out. To the contrary, FRWT assumes that the student needs more comprehensible input that can further his acquisition of the language.

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  3. The student's errors point toward his current "i+1." Language elements that the student has not yet begun to acquire are unlikely to appear in his writing, even in rudimentary form. Elements that the student has fully acquired are likely to be used correctly. Therefore, the elements that appear as candidates for rewriting are likely to be those on the cusp of acquisition. If this reasoning is correct, then FRWT furnishes the student with a rich source of input from his own "i+1," prime material for language acquisition.

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  5. Nothing is more comprehensible than one's own ideas. FRWT provides the student with input that reflects his own ideas back to him in good standard written English. This is comprehensible input of very high quality, since the student already knows exactly what it means.

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  7. A low affective filter makes comprehensible input more effective. FRWT is a kind of collaboration between the student and the teacher. It is initiated by the student's writing and it is centered on the effective expression of his ideas and opinions. By placing the student's writing in this featured and respected position, FRWT should help maintain a very low affective filter.

 
What are some practical guidelines for using FRWT?

Naturally, every environment presents its own unique combination of challenges and opportunities, so we cannot hope to anticipate everything that might come up when FRWT is used. Here, for what they are worth, are some thoughts based on our experiences with FRWT.
 
SOME PRACTICAL GUIDELINES FOR USING FRWT
  1. Use computers! The advantages of word processing over handwriting are many: clarity, ease of exchange, ease of text manipulation and revision, convenience of storage and retrieval. The sheer bulk of writing that can be generated with FRWT intensifies all these advantages.

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  3. Make sure staffing is adequate. It is extremely hard for one teacher to keep up with more than 8 or 10 productive students using FRWT, if the goal of daily feedback is to be achieved.

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  5. Use class time for FRWT. We feel very strongly that it is best for both students and teachers to do their FRWT work during class. This creates an atmosphere of cooperation and concentration, and makes all phases of the process available at the same time.

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  7. Keep the students reading. Their continued growth in literacy acquisition depends on a steady diet of reading. The input they receive from the focused rewrites is high in quality, but it cannot provide the quantity of input they need.

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  9. Work alongside the students. When the teacher is working on rewrites at her computer, most students seem to feel more motivated to do their own work.

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  11. Don't try to rewrite everything unless you really have time to do so. Some teachers seem to become almost addicted to the rewrite process. You need to keep a balance between what you undertake and what you can achieve within the allotted time.

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  13. Get rewrites back to students as soon as possible. The fresher the feedback, the more effective it is likely to be.

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  15. Short and frequent is better than long and infrequent. A short piece from each student every day, with feedback received no later than the next day, creates a positive flow of work and helps with the focus.

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  17. Focus carefully. Find a passage that really needs rewriting but that is not too hard to understand as it is. Look for errors that suggest partial command of a structure; be alert for situations where the student was obviously groping for the right word and just missed it. With experience, this will become easier.

 
A sample of FRWT

Here is a sample essay transcribed from an ETS publication (Educational Testing Service, 1996). We have written a focused rewrite to demonstrate the technique. This example does not represent an actual interaction between a teacher and a student.
 
The original essay: Our focused rewrite
(based on the first part of the essay):
Telephone is a very great invention. Telephone have had an important effect on our lives. We can not live without telephone. We use telephone everytime, everywhere. Therefore telephone exist everywhere. For example, house, school, department, company, down town, up town, everywhere. We can send our information speedy. Speed of telephone is faster than that of letters.
   Recently NTE started DENGON dial system. This system is very useful. If I can not announce my information to someone, I put my information in DENGON dial. Someone who know information number can hear my information from everywhere. I use this system every day with my lover.


The telephone is a very great invention which has had an important effect on our lives. We could not live without telephones. We use them all the time, wherever we are. Therefore, telephones are installed everywhere: in houses, in schools, in department stores [NOTE: This is a guess that would need to be checked with the student], in companies, downtown, uptown, everywhere. We can send information much faster by telephone than by letter.
 



Notice that our rewrite has also addressed some sentence structure issues that are not errors, strictly speaking, but involve stylistic shortcomings such as short, choppy sentences with redundant elements. We have combined some of these sentences to create a more fluent text, using structures that the student has apparently not yet acquired. This is a natural extension of the FRWT.

References

Education Testing Service. 1996. TOEFL test of written English guide. Fourth edition. Princeton, New Jersey: ETS.

Hastings, A. 1995. The FOCAL SKILLS approach: an assessment. In F. Eckman et al. (eds), Second language acquisition: theory and pedagogy. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 29-44.

Krashen, S. 1984. Writing: research, theory, and applications. Torrance, California: Laredo Publishing Company.

Krashen, S. 1985. The input hypothesis: issues and implications. Torrance, California: Laredo Publishing Company.

Yu, B. 1998. A comparison of English proficiency gains in one FOCAL SKILLS and two traditional ESL programs. Winchester, Virginia: Shenandoah University master's thesis.