Reformulating Second Language Writing

The English proficiency level of the students at my current school varies greatly. This presents a challenge when dealing with corrective feedback on writing assignments because we don’t know exactly what each of our students knows; we know what they were taught in 7th grade (I teach 8th grade), but with new students coming in all the time, it only helps so much. Corrective feedback on structural and/or grammatical topics the student has never learned gets them nothing except more confused, as it does with oral correction. We needed a way to help the student notice their errors, provide corrective feedback, and NOT overwhelm them with a page or red ink.

The answer to our question was first presented in 1978 by Levenston. I wasn’t around then, but it was a great year – Darkness on the Edge of Town and Van Halen were released, so ‘reformulation’ is in good company. Reformulation is when a native speaker rewrites a student’s piece of writing. The native speaker writes to make the piece sound more natural, making organizational and grammatical corrections while preserving the content of the original text. For more information on the history of reformulation and present status of reformulation research, read “Reformulation, Noticing, and the Development of L2 Academic Writing” by Jackie Dannatt.

We chose to use this technique with our struggling writers because it is naturally scaffolded and student-centered (Reid, 1994, Cited by Tardy, 2006). As you can see in the example below, we ask the student to do several things. First, they have to identify the change and write the original text and reformulated text in the table. Next, they have to describe the change. What I like about this is that it allows all students to comment on the change. The student could say something like ‘moved words’ or ‘fixed fragment’, depending on how much they understand. Finally, they have to check yes or no to let us know if they understand the change. This will help us plan follow-up support for the student, in groups or individually.

wp_essay reformulateAfter getting the completed tables back from students and doing this on future writing assignments, we’ll be able to plan more appropriate practice as students pre-write and draft.

I’ll be updating this post in the next few weeks with some samples of the completed tables so please check back.


Levenston, E.A. (1978). Error analysis of free composition: The theory and the practice. Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 1–11.

Tardy, C. (2006). Appropriation, ownership, and agency: Negotiating teacher feedback in academic settings. In K. Hyland & F. Hyland (Eds.), Feedback in second language writing: Contexts and issues. New York: Cambridge University Press.