Helping Students with Word Choice: Recommendations for Online Writing Tutorials

…[F]or many second language writers, the writing process may be less effective, less recursive, and more laborious because their preoccupations with choosing the right words to fit their purpose and audience slow them down (Williams, 2005). –Severino and Prim “Word Choice Errors” p. 116

Words are important. They’re like little Lego bricks of language that we stack together in interesting ways in trying to move some message from our minds to the minds of others. This makes picking the right words for given context rather important. For example, turning to someone you fancy and telling them, “I like you,” will elicit a rather different response than “I love you,” which will get an even more radically different reaction than “I lovey wovey wove you schnookums!” Word choice is so important, and it’s interesting to listen writers talk about their struggles with. One of my Purdue professors once told me that he would often spend weeks reworking a sentence to make sure that it said exactly what he wanted it to say—agonizing over each word, its place in the sentence, and the work that the word was doing. For second language (L2) writers, the challenge of word choice can often seem insurmountable. Year after year, students in my first-year composition and in my graduate professional writing seminar list “increasing my academic/professional vocabulary” among their top concerns, higher even than improving their grammar. So, this means that helping our students develop their word choices is a critical task for L2 writing teachers and for writing center professionals.

Before we can discuss strategies for helping out students develop their vocabularies, it is helpful to understand some of the root causes of the word choice errors. A recent article by Carol Severino and Shih-Ni Prim from the writing center at the University of Iowa provides some key insights in this regard. In their article “Word Choice Errors in Chinese Students’ English Writing and How Online Writing Center Tutors Respond to Them,” Severino and Prim outline six common word choice error sources for L2 writers:

  1. Translation – making errors in moving from the L1 to the L2.
  2. Wrong Context – using a word in a context it’s not typically used in.
  3. Synform – confusing words that look or sound alike.
  4. Idiomaticity – making mistakes in set phrases, expressions, or figures of speech.
  5. Precision – choosing words that over/under-generalize
  6. Register – selecting words more common to spoken vs. written text.

What’s interesting about this list is that only translation errors are reported to be grounded in the L1. All others seem to be rooted in issues in the L2 linguistic system. When it comes to how often these types of errors occur, Severino and Prim’s sample showed that the majority (about 37%) were tied to using words in contextually inappropriate ways. An example that they give is when a student writes something like “I had to accommodate my time (p. 129).” Register errors were relatively rare, accounting for about 6% of the sample, while all others were almost tied with occurrences ranging between 18% (translation) to 12% (idiomaticity).

So, how can we help students with their word choice errors? There are some options, and below, I’ll talk about two. The first is through online writing tutorials from writing center tutors. The other is by scaffolding student agency by teaching them to use online tools target at word choice, like the free-to-use Writefull app. I’ll discuss both a little more detail below.

There are a couple of methods for online tutorials, but they fall into one of two broad categories—synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous tutorials happen in real-time over platforms like Skype or Google Docs. While asynchronous tutorials usually involve students emailing their papers into the writing center and get feedback a few days later after a tutor has read and commented on the students work. While the synchronous tutorial does a good job of replicating a typical writing center tutorial, asynchronous tutorials have lots of value, especially for L2 writers. Because these tutorials require tutors to write extensive comments on student work, it gives the L2 writers something that they can refer to while they revise. This means that if something doesn’t make sense right away, the student can look back at the comments and discuss those observations with tutors in the lab or with their peers to make better sense of them. However, these comments must be adequately made. Severino and Prim identified five common strategies that tutors had for responding to students’ word choice errors:

  1. Correction – the tutor just corrects the error with a more appropriate choice.
  2. Questions – the tutor will ask a leading question to the writer to get them to think about their word choice.
  3. Explanation – the tutor will explain why the word choice doesn’t work.
  4. Error indication – the tutor will merely mark the error with a highlight or comment bubble.
  5. Options – the tutor will offer alternative word choice options to the student writer.

Now, each of these strategies has (de)merits. For example, just correcting the answer gives the student a more appropriate word choice; but, it also encourages students to just swap out the answers, which means that learning might not happen. Merely marking the error forces the student to think about what might be wrong with the marked word or phrases, but it might be beyond their abilities to correctly identify the kind of error or how to correct it. Asking question is fantastic because it gets the student thinking. However, other research on feedback suggests that L2 students might not understand the point of the question as marking an error. There’s really no silver bullet response to the most efficient way to handle commenting on word choice errors. Rather, a variety of these strategies should be used. Severino and Prim, recommend relying more on strategies like asking questions and offering options or explanation, and less on just making the correct—even if it may seem easier to just edit at the time. Doing the editing for the student actually takes away both a valuable learning opportunity and a student’s agency over their own writing. Severino and Prim also point out that word choice errors make up a notable portion of errors in L2 writing, so it’s important to point students towards resources that they can use to tackle making difficult word choice decisions.

One tool that writers might find useful is the new Writefull App. Writefull works from corpora of texts to allow writers to see how different words are used in context in other texts. Students can even put in a small collocation (e.g., ontogenesis from) to see check if that collocation occurs in the corpora. If not, it may mean that they need to change one or more parts of it. I’ve just started playing around with Writefull, so I can’t say much now—but, I will in a future update—but, I can see some real potential here. One thing that makes it seem so promising is that it provides examples of word choice that come from live texts. This provides crucial contextual information that actually helps with what Severino and Prim have identified as the leading source of word choice errors for Chinese L2 writers.

Source Articles

Severino, C., & Prim, S. (2015). Word choice errors in Chinese students’ English writing and how online writing center tutors respond to them. Writing Center Journal, 34(2), 115-143.

Williams, J. (2005). Teaching foreign and second language writing. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

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