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English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World)

English for Specific Purposes World

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Faculty perceptions of EFL student writing

David Camps

Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México

Tom Salsbury

Washington State University

This paper addresses tolerance for student errors in writing as evaluated by university faculty in an English as a foreign language (EFL) setting. Four different categories of professors were identified: (1) non-native speakers of English (NNS) teaching content courses in English; (2) native speakers of English (NS) teaching content courses in English; (3) NNS professors of EFL courses; and (4) NS professors of EFL courses. The research focused on tolerance for writing errors in content, organization, and mechanics. Significant differences were found between EFL instructors and content professors tolerance for errors in mechanics and content. No significant differences were found between NS and NNS tolerance for errors in any of the three areas. The paper provides example comments from the faculty participants and a discussion of the results.

Key words: redacción en inglés como lengua extranjera, inglés para fines específicos, inglés académico.

Faculty Perceptions of EFL Student Writing

1. Introduction

A study on the academic writing of 9 Mexican postgraduate students in British universities revealed that discipline-specific professors from Business, Systems, Education and Biology paid more attention to content in the students writing than they did to mechanics (Camps, 1999, 2000). The professors main focus was on errors affecting the content in the argument, analysis, and support of evidence. They deemed important that the students writing would have solid discussion and analysis of the topics they were writing about, and that these arguments were supported with enough theoretical evidence. The common policy among these professors was not to penalize the language errors except when they consistently appeared in the students essays or when these errors affected the communication of clear ideas, statements, analysis, and argumentation (Camps, 1999, 2000).

Similarly, other studies at US universities have showed that discipline-specific professors, especially from Social Sciences and Humanities, tend to focus more on errors in the content of non-native speaker (NNS) students writing than errors in the language (Vann, Meyer & Lorenz, 1984; Santos, 1988; Janopoulos, 1992). These studies have parallel findings in that they suggest that faculty members tolerate their NNS students errors in written form and that faculty make a distinction between the errors in content and the errors in language. According to these studies, NNS students need to focus on aspects that most directly affect content, such as organization, development and support of the ideas and arguments with sources (Santos, 1988).

Brown (1991) and Song and Caruso (1996) indicate that ESL professors may focus on grammatical features more than English professors do. The latter pay more attention to organization and development than they do to language use. The study by Song and Caruso (1996) suggested that more investigation in other universities is necessary in order to find out whether ESL composition of other linguistic backgrounds is evaluated differently from the rest of the faculty.

Recently, Zhu (2004) interviewed faculty from business and engineering schools at a US university with the purpose of understanding ESL students academic writing needs and the perceptions these faculty have on different writing aspects in relation to the ESL students content courses. The study reported two views from the faculty interviewed on academic writing: an autonomous view of writing and the specificity of each of the two disciplines in thought and communication process. Basically, the faculty focused on aspects related to content of their discipline rather than on form although feedback on form was not absolutely discarded when correcting the students papers. According to the study, writing instructors still play a vital role in the teaching of form in their courses so that students can develop academic writing more successfully.

However, in spite of the fact that the results of the studies on tolerance for errors suggest preference for content over form by discipline-specific professors, NNS students show concern for not having correction in mechanics. Camps (1999, 2000) found that NNS students at British universities expressed concern that their content professors do not focus on errors in mechanics. They would rather have feedback on these mistakes. They not only wanted to develop content in their academic writing, but they also wanted to demonstrate that they had command of these mechanical aspects in their writing, that they handled the content in their writing and that the communication of the ideas in the content would be clearer. Thus, the students saw the preference for language correction in the assignments from their content professors as a possibility to improve their academic English (Camps, 1999, 2000). Likewise, this concern has been expressed by other ESL university students and professors (Leki, 1991; Schulz, 1996; Ferris, 2002). Students welcome feedback on grammar that they perceive to help improve their writing in English, which involves comments on standard grammar, punctuation and spelling. These mechanical aspects become important for the students (Leki, 1991; Schulz, 1996; Ferris 2002).

The results obtained in the studies by Vann, Meyer and Lorenz (1984), Santos (1988), Janopoulos (1992), and Song and Caruso (1996) lead to three points relevant for teaching and researching on writing in English. First, content becomes the main focus of discipline-specific professors; consequently, NNS students in English-speaking universities should pay attention to aspects related to content. Second, NNS students express interest in performing better in their writing, but they need to receive feedback on both content and form from their professors so that their writing can be improved (Camps, 1999, 2000; Ferris, 2002). Third, these studies have been conducted in US and British universities; therefore, research on this area is needed in EFL settings. Specifically, in the Mexican context there has not been research to corroborate if the results obtained in ESL settings apply in order to suggest that professors of discipline-specific courses in English have preference for content in EFL students writing (Camps, 2000), and if the preferences of discipline-specific professors differ from EFL professors.

The purpose of this report is to discuss the research conducted at a Mexican bilingual university regarding how much discipline-specific professors teaching in English and EFL professors focus on mechanics, organization and content when evaluating student writing, and if the feedback that EFL professors give to their students is consistent with the criteria that content professors use to evaluate written work. The study discussed in this report focuses on four different variables:

1. NNS professors teaching content courses in English.

2. NS professors teaching content courses in English.

3. NNS professors teaching EFL courses.

4. NS professors teaching EFL courses.

2. Method

The participants in this study were 31 faculty members at a private university in Mexico City. The faculty came from the schools of Humanities, Engineering, and Business. For this study, the participants were divided into two categories: (1) type of course taught, and (2) native language. Seventeen participants were content professors teaching in English; e.g., faculty teaching engineering, business, and humanities courses where the medium of instruction is English. Of these seventeen faculty members, seven were native speakers of English (NS) and ten were non-native speakers of English (NNS). Fourteen participants were EFL instructors; e.g., faculty who teach university-level English as a foreign language. There were six NS professors and eight NNS professors. In order to teach in English at the university level, faculty are required to have at least an MA degree in the area in which they teach and a minimum Institutional TOEFL score of 600. All faculty members who teach in English at the university level were sent a message inviting them to participate in interviews with the primary researchers. Interviews were carried out in the spring of 2003 and then again in the spring of 2004. Participation was completely voluntary, and the participants were told that no information from the interviews could be used to identify them.

The interviews with faculty consisted of a series of questions related to student essays. The essays were written by students in an advanced English course at the university level (Institutional TOEFL 503 to 530). Students enrolled in the advanced English course studied various academic majors. In order to control for essay content, students were supplied with a prompt from a single-page, three-paragraph reading about shopping malls in the United States (See Appendix A). The students were shown the prompt on an overhead projector for several minutes. The projector was then turned off, and students were asked to write a composition based on what they read. The non-technical reading about malls served as a cue. We wanted to control for topic in order to have a comparable collection of compositions on which faculty participants could comment. Three model essays were chosen to present to the faculty participants in the study. The essays were chosen by the primary researchers to reflect the range of student abilities in the use of standard punctuation, spelling, subject-verb agreement, sentence structure, word choice, structure development (organization), and content-text dependence (main topic, synthesis, own words versus borrowed words).

The participants arrived at the day and time of the scheduled interview and were shown the three student essays one at a time. For each composition, the participants were asked to comment on specific elements of the writing such as Do you think this student could be a successful writer in your class? Where do you think the students greatest strengths/weaknesses lie, or Please specify what deficiencies most detracted from the overall quality of the essay? The participants were also asked general questions about writing in their respective courses such as What are the requirements in your course for a good written assignment? [1] (see Appendix B). Similarly, Where do you think the student's greatest strengths/weaknesses lie? requires non-EFL faculty to assume the role of writing teacher, since they cannot speak to the issue of what they look for in student writing within their respective academic disciplines. Responses were tape recorded and later transcribed by the primary researchers.

Each response was coded in an Excel spreadsheet under one of the following categories: general comment, a comment on mechanics, a comment on organization or a comment on content. Subcategories for mechanics, organization and content were assigned as follows:

1. Mechanics: vocabulary, spelling, punctuation and grammar.

2. Organization: planning, development, flow of ideas, and focus on topic.

3. Content: key concepts or main ideas, details, synthesis of ideas.

The criteria for the selection of these categories and subcategories was chosen on the basis of (1) the discussion in the literature and research previously reviewed on tolerance for specific types of errors, (2) the relationship or interaction between form (grammatical, orthographical, and lexical features) and content (meaning) (Coe, 1987; Camps, 2000), and (3) both researchers experiences in the teaching of EFL composition.

For the sake of consistency, the coding was done by the same principal researcher and corroborated by the second researcher. Inter-rater reliability was over 80%. The frequency of comments within each category was totaled, and mean scores were generated by native English speaker (NS), non-native English speaker (NNS), content instructor, or EFL instructor. The following section presents an analysis of the data along with excerpts from the interviews in order to illustrate the types of comments that the participants made.

3. Analysis

A Mann-Whitney U test was conducted to evaluate the hypothesis that median scores between EFL professors (N=14) and content professors (N=17) would differ along the variables, mechanics, organization and content. Pair wise comparisons for each variable are shown in Table 1. Significant results were found for grammar (z = -2.172, p<.030), other organization (z = -2.357, p<.018), and key concepts (z = -2.908, p<.004), where alpha is equal to .05. We include grammar under mechanics and both other org and key concepts under content. EFL professors had an average rankthat is, an average number of comments related to grammarof 19.89 while content professors averaged only 12.79 comments related to grammar. In contrast, content professors made nearly twice as many comments related to key concepts than did the EFL professors. Content professors, on average, made 20.21 comments related to the content of the essay in comparison to EFL professors, who averaged only 10.89. Since other org was a category reserved for comments on organization that we could not categorize more finely, we do not analyze this category further. The difference in the average number of comments between the two groups on all other sub-categories was non-significant, as detailed in Table 1.

Table 1. Content and EFL Professors Non-Parametric Mann-Whitney U Test






other mech

Mann-Whitney U






Wilcoxon W












Asymp. Sig. (2-tailed)






Exact Sig. [2*(1-tailed Sig.)]










log sequence


other org

Mann-Whitney U






Wilcoxon W












Asymp. Sig. (2-tailed)






Exact Sig. [2*(1-tailed Sig.)]








key concepts



other cont

Mann-Whitney U





Wilcoxon W










Asymp. Sig. (2-tailed)





Exact Sig. [2*(1-tailed Sig.)]






For the second non-parametric test, a Mann-Whitney U test was conducted to evaluate the hypothesis that median scores between native English speakers (NS; N=13) and non-native English speakers (NNS; N=18) would differ along the variables, mechanics, organization and content.

Table 2. NS and NNS Non-Parametric Mann-Whitney U Test  






other mech

Mann-Whitney U






Wilcoxon W












Asymp. Sig. (2-tailed)






Exact Sig. [2*(1-tailed Sig.)]










log sequence


other org

Mann-Whitney U






Wilcoxon W












Asymp. Sig. (2-tailed)






Exact Sig. [2*(1-tailed Sig.)]








key concepts



other cont

Mann-Whitney U





Wilcoxon W










Asymp. Sig. (2-tailed)





Exact Sig. [2*(1-tailed Sig.)]





Pair wise comparisons reveal non-significant results across variables as shown in Table 2. Only in grammar did the difference between groups approach significance (z = -1.909, p<.056), where alpha is set at .05. Native English speakers made an average of 19.65 comments on grammar in comparison to the non-native English speakers, whose average was 13.36. However, this is not a significant difference between the two groups.  

3.1 Interview Responses

In this section, we share several quotes from the interview responses of faculty members who address issues related to mechanics and content in the compositions of Student 1, Student 2 and Student 3. The first two responses from two NS EFL professors comment on the deficiencies that they found more distracting in the composition of Student 1.

I think it was clear, this one. [so there isnt anything...?] I mean in the other hand, on the other hand that doesnt affect me to make you feel in the most comfortable way as possible I know what that means. Its not perfectly grammatical, but I know what that means. (NS EFL professor 1, p. 1)

Just the occasional they dont have to go out of the mall I wouldve substituted leave the mall some things that I believe are Spanish thinking and that includes the punctuation problems, the use of commas excessively and that was the most noticeable. (NS EFL professor 2, p. 1)

Both responses from the EFL professors focus on the mechanical aspects of the composition. The comment from the first EFL professor pays more attention to the use of the transitional prepositional phrase in the other hand and the idiomatic expression of a sentence. In contrast, the second EFL professor focuses on three aspects in one single response: sentence structure, the influence of the students first language, and punctuation. In contrast, the second EFL professor never refers to the transition on the other hand as in the response from the first professor.

One NNS business professor and one NS humanities professor refer to the deficiencies in the composition of student 1.

I think it will be more towards the structure of how this student wrote, like mentioning the key issues, and maybe because he went and described some specifics, the student forgot about the big things that were mentioned. (NNS business professor 3 p. 2)

... Im more interested in the ideas they have rather than the grammar and the spelling. (NS humanities professor 4, p. 1)

The business professor pays more attention to specific aspects of the content in the essay, a relevant aspect to take into consideration. On the other hand, the humanities professor emphasizes more general ideas developed in the students composition. Both responses focus on the content rather than other aspects, such as mechanics and organization.

In their respective interviews, an NNS engineering professor followed by an NNS EFL professor discusses the composition of Student 2.

I think they should be more precise in what they say, they talk about good things and bad things but they never say what those are... (NNS engineering professor 5, p. 2)

Not like this because of some important grammatical mistakes, or grammar mistakes, like the use of have instead of has, which is basic, and some repetitions which are not necessary, and the use of verbs, so I think he needs more help... (NNS EFL professor 6, p. 1)

The engineering professor was interested only in the content of the students composition as opposed to the EFL professor who concentrated merely on the grammar.

One NS EFL professor and one NS business professor comment on the most distracting deficiencies in the composition of student 3:

I think just as I said some of the simple errors that I mentioned, and some interference errors, and some simple subject verb agreement problems. Ah, what complicates instead of which complicates they have problems with that, what and which, when to use them but I think those are minor. And something that Ive seen even in advanced writers, really advanced writers, they make very simple mistakes and thats common. You know, they re paying attention to the most complex structures of what theyre writing and then they lack the simplest thing and that doesnt bother. I think thats a real common phenomenon in second language learning... (NS EFL professor 7, p. 2)

He can write an assignment but the only thing is the same problems, the structure in the sentences, and the structure in ideas and thoughts (NS business professor 8, p. 3)

In these two last responses, the EFL professor is concerned only with the mechanical aspects of the composition whereas the business professors attention is paid to both the content and the form in the composition.

4. Discussion and final comments

The findings suggest that EFL professors tend to focus more on linguistic features rather than elements found in the content of a composition. These findings parallel the findings of the studies of L2 English writing in an ESL context, which have shown considerably more tolerance by content professors towards student errors in mechanics compared to content (Santos, 1988; Caruso, 1996; Camps, 2000). However, this is not to say that EFL professors are not interested in content, or that content professors are not interested in the mechanics of a composition. Participants generally found both grammar and content important when assessing the quality of the essays.

We interpret these findings in a couple of ways: First, whereas undergraduate students at universities in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries are usually required to demonstrate a minimum level of English proficiency to be admitted to the university, students at the large Mexican university where this study was conducted do not have to demonstrate a minimal English proficiency to enter the university. Students must take the Institutional Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) before entering the university, but the exam is used only to place students into an appropriate curricular English class (not, in contrast, to make decisions about admittance to the university). Students who place into one of the five levels of remedial English are not restricted from taking content courses taught in English. Thus, instructors who teach in English are often confronted with students in their classes whose English language proficiency is simply too limited to participate successfully in the course.

A second interpretation given to the lack of tolerance for errors in mechanics among EFL content and language professors is that the professors are dealing with a much greater number of non-native English speaking essays, and as such, repeatedly deal with comprehensibility issues in grading essays. Faculty reported having difficulty understanding what their students were trying to say. The issue of comprehensibility is more serious for professors in an EFL setting and, naturally, concern the facultythey ask how they can be concerned about content when they are not able to understand what their students are writing because of poor mechanics.

Language proficiency conspires with sheer numbers to further lessen the tolerance that faculty in an EFL setting have towards errors. Although faculty in an ESL setting also come across incomprehensible essays, written both by L1 and L2 English speakers, it is rare, except in a sheltered-English setting (Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 1989), to have an entire class of L2 English learners. However, this is precisely the case for professors who instruct in English at the institution where this study was conducted. The professors we interviewed, particularly those for whom Spanish was a native language, frequently resorted to instruction in Spanish, such as summarizing the material that they had taught in English. Students questioned openly the rationale for having class in English and challenged their instructors to simply teach in Spanish.

The final lesson from the study is that no significant differences were found along the NS/NNS variable. Increasingly, teachers and scholars question the nativenon-native distinction that exists in the second/foreign language learning literature. Bhatt (2005) discusses the habits of thought in TESOL such as notions of standardnon-standard, target-likefossilized, languageinterlanguage, and other dichotomies well known in the literature. His work is focused on nativized, local varieties of English in India, yet the lessons can and should be applied to other local contexts. Indeed, Ortega (2006) observes that research is increasingly taking bilingualism as a starting point to exploration of additional language learning rather than the canonical, monolingual learner/user of a second language. Thus, the non-significant results along the NS/NNS variable are consistent with the view of this distinction as a false dichotomy (Bhatt, 2005). The current study suggests that we cannot generalize tolerance for student errors in writing based on whether the instructor is a native or non-native speaker of English. We question making the distinction in the first place, whether it be for hiring purposes in language programs, evaluation of performance of the teachers in those programs, or for the purposes of research in language teaching practice.

5. Appendices

Appendix A

Reading about Shopping Malls in the United States

Although every shopping mall is a bit different in design, shoppers often quickly feel comfortable in a new mall. That is because malls usually share certain features. You can almost always find most of the following: a department store, a pharmacy, a toy store, a book shop, clothing shops for all ages, shoe shops, a bank, and places to eat. These businesses are all under one roof. Most malls are enclosed, so that shoppers never have to go outdoors once they get to the mall. A few malls sometimes also have doors to shops on the outside of the mall. Every mall is surrounded by a large parking area.

Malls are not all exactly the same. In a suburb of Chicago, where many wealthy people live, malls are quite large and beautiful. One of these malls is two stories tall and houses about 50 businesses. These range from specialty shops to large luxury department stores. The roof of the mall is made of glass and is twice as tall as the shops inside. Musicians play for the customers in the evenings and trees and fountains are found in central seating areas. In poor, rural town in southern Maine, however, a typical mall is plain and rather small.

While shopping malls have changed American life, not all of their effects have been positive. Most of shops and services found in malls are parts of large corporations. These businesses have taken away customers from smaller shops in the area and forced them to close. That has meant fewer individually owned businesses and less control over jobs. In addition, malls are harmful to the environment. They have sometime been built on land that is important for the survival of birds and wild animals. Wherever they are built, they cover large areas with buildings and parking lots instead of trees or grass. Thus, they contribute to the general loss of nature. And finally, malls are usually far from any town center, so people must use cars to get there. This results in increased air pollution and heavy traffic on the roads near the mall.

Appendix B

Interview protocol for faculty

A. Academic demands

1. Based on the prompt, do you think the student successfully handled the content of this particular essay?

2. Based on the essay that you read do you think this student could be a successful writer in your class?

3. Based on what you read, where do you think the students greatest needs for improvement lie?

4. Based on what you read, where do you think the students greatest strengths lie?

B. Language level

1. Based on the essay you read, do you think the students level of English is sufficient to fulfill the requirements of written assignments in your course?

2. Did language deficiencies affect the overall quality of the essay that you read?

3. Please specify what deficiencies most detracted from your overall impression of this essay?

4. What do you consider to be your level of tolerance towards errors in language use?

C. Criteria for assessment

1. What are the requirements in your course for a good written assignment?

2. Do you feel the criteria you use are in some way specific to this course?


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[1]Although the questions were intended to have responses based on a generic writing sample outside the professors specific disciplines, the researchers believed that both content and EFL professors could provide comments that would contribute to the understanding of what content professors and/or EFL instructors focus on more. Whether content professors will only provide comments or will only concentrate on discipline aspects of the students writing is still an ongoing debate (see Ferris, 1999, 2004 and Truscott, 1998). However, this is precisely what the study intends to corroborate in an EFL setting.


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