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The nature of error in adolescent student writing

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This study examined the nature and frequency of error in high school native English speaker (L1) and English learner (L2) writing. Four main research questions were addressed: Are there significant differences in students’ error rates in English language arts (ELA) and social studies? Do the most common errors made by students differ in ELA and social studies? Are there significant differences in the error rates between L1 and L2 students in ELA? Do L1 and L2 students differ in how frequently they make the most common errors in ELA? Written work of 10th and 12th grade students in five states was collected. The sample included 178 essays (120 in ELA and 58 in social studies) from 67 students (33 10th graders and 34 12th graders; 49 native English speaking students and 18 English learners). Results indicate that there were significant differences in the frequencies of errors between ELA and social studies, with higher error rates in social studies. In addition, L2 writers had significantly higher error rates than L1 writers in ELA. Aside from a few types of errors (spelling, capitalization, and some punctuation errors), most types of errors appear relatively infrequently in school-sponsored writing. Moreover, the eight most common errors accounted for a little more than half of all errors, and these did not differ significantly between ELA and social studies writing or between L1 and L2 writers.

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We would like to acknowledge Steve Graham for his invaluable guidance with bringing this manuscript to publication and Drs. Applebee and Langer for forging the National Study of Writing Instruction in which this study was embedded. We also thank all of our colleagues who helped with the coding of the data including David Manarel, Andy Fogle, Christopher Mazura, Molly Fanning, and Liz Shiland.

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Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Kristen Campbell Wilcox or Fang Yu.

Appendix: Description of errors on coding instrument

Appendix: Description of errors on coding instrument

  1. 1.

    Missing Comma:

    1. (a)

      Missing comma before coordinating conjunction (e.g. and, but, or):

      Plagiarism is unfair to people who put their hard work and effort into a piece of work and it should not be stolen by someone else. [comma missing after second and]

    2. (b)

      Missing comma after introductory element (such as a clause or phrase):

      When a student turns in a piece of work that they have not created they are stealing someone else’s ideas and thoughts. [comma missing after created]

      Also I was starting school that fall. [comma missing after Also]

    3. (c)

      Missing comma before a quotation:

      Aldous Huxley once said “Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.” [comma needed after said]

    4. (d)

      Missing comma around parenthetical elements or appositives:

      When me second brother was born, we switched rooms so that the boys could share the larger room and I the only girl could have the small room for myself. [commas needed after I and girl]

      What is interesting though is that they never realized what they were doing. [commas are needed before and after though]

    5. (e)

      Missing comma with non-restrictive element:

      My brother who wasn’t wearing his seatbelt when he was pulled over received a ticket from the state trooper. [commas are needed after brother and over]

    6. (f)

      Missing comma(s) in a series:

      To complete the assignment you will need a pencil paper and an eraser. [a comma is needed after pencil; in academic writing, a comma is also needed after paper]

  2. 2.

    Unnecessary Comma:

    1. (a)

      Unnecessary comma separating sentence elements:

      The European nations are taking land from weaker nations, to increase their power. [comma is not needed after nations]

      Dr. Jekyll creates Hyde during an experiment, and discovers all the evil that festers within. [no comma needed after experiment]

    2. (b)

      Unnecessary comma with a restrictive element:

      The student, who receives the most votes, will win the election. [commas are not needed after student and votes because the relative clause “who receives the most votes” is a restrictive modifier]

  3. 3.

    Incorrect Verb Form:

    1. (a)

      Subject-verb agreement:

      The author use literary elements such as imagery to show an idea. [use should be uses]

      The use of her commas are strategic in the sense that they set the rhythm and flow of her prose. [are should be is because the subject (use) is singular]

    2. (b)

      Incorrect verb inflection:

      Last week he refuse to hand in his assignment. [refuse should be refused]

  4. 4.

    Wrong Word:

    1. (a)

      Wrong form of the word:

      In the first passage the boy was attractive by the natural world. [attractive should be attracted]

    2. (b)

      Incorrect or inappropriate word:

      She spent an incontinent amount of time on Facebook. [incontinent should be inordinate]

    3. (c)


      The rich nobles received the positive affects of the industrial revolution. [affects should be effects]

    4. (d)


      Its influence grows and spreads farther then ever. [then should be than]

  5. 5.


    Your not the person I remember. [Your should be You’re]

    Make sure you have you’re books with you. [You’re should be your]

  6. 6.


    Its not a good idea to go alone. [Its should be it’s]

    The dog had a serious wound on it’s hind leg. [it’s should be its]

  7. 7.

    Spelling Error

  8. 8.

    Comma Splice:

    My brother and I raced up the stairs to our rooms, these rooms had been assigned to us before we even saw the house. [comma before these must be either a semi-colon or a period, since a comma cannot separate two independent clauses]

  9. 9.

    Run-on (or Fused) Sentence:

    At first I was resentful I wanted to my old life. [there must be a period or semi-colon after resentful to separate the two independent clauses]

  10. 10.

    Faulty Sentence Structure

    With becoming a model, it means for teachers to be very specific about what they want their students to do. [the sentence structure makes this sentence unclear; it should read something like this: When modeling for their students, teachers need to be very specific about what they expect their students to do.]

  11. 11.


    Although, they were very interested in visiting that school.

  12. 12.

    Missing Word:

    It’s only when a worker stops and interacts with the product, admires and tests its utility that function and worth are born. [there should be an and after product; the comma is unnecessary]

  13. 13A.

    Incorrect Semi-Colon:

    Incorrectly used semi-colon:

    The mud becomes horrendous, and it gets everywhere; pants, short, hair. [semi-colon should be a colon]

  14. 14A.

    Incorrect Semi-Colon:

    Missing semi-colon:

    The internal resistance of the battery was found to be lower than it was in the other circuit, however, it still resulted in a significant difference in voltage. [comma before however should be a semi-colon]

  15. 15.

    Incorrect Possessive:

    Depression can invade all aspects of ones life. [ones should be one’s]

    The teacher returned the student’s papers. [If the sentence refers to more than one student, student’s should be students’]

  16. 16.

    Incorrect Singular or Plural:

    He owned four dog’s. [dog’s should be dogs]

    She had three brother. [brother should be brothers]

  17. 17.

    Unnecessary Word:

  18. 18.

    Capitalization Error:

  19. 19.

    Unnecessary or Missing Apostrophe (excluding possessives and its/it’s):

    He couldnt see what was right in front of him. [couldnt should be couldn’t]

    She had her own cell phone but she really like their’s. [their’s should be theirs]

  20. 20.

    Faulty Pronoun Agreement

    We put every tool back in their place. [their should be its because tool is singular]

  21. 21.

    Vague Pronoun Reference

    Bob explained to Steve that he wasn’t going anywhere. [the antecedent for he is unclear since he could refer either to Bob or Steve]

  22. 22.

    Misplaced or Dangling Modifiers

    As a future writing teacher, each student will bring to me their mind with both a very unique way of thinking. [the prepositional phrase as a future teacher of writing modifies me, not each student, and is therefore misplaced in the sentence]

  23. 23.

    Unnecessary Shift in Person

    Students should always edit their papers before submitting them, because careful editing will usually help you getter a better grade. [sentence shifts inappropriately from third person (students) to second person (you)]

  24. 24.

    Article Error (the or a)

  25. 25.

    Missing or Unnecessary Hyphen

    They participated in a year long study of student error. [a hyphen is needed between year and long: year-long]

    The twelve year old boy was still in the fifth grade. [twelve year old should be hyphenated: twelve-year-old]

  26. 26.

    Incorrect or Missing Colon

    Every sailor should carry basic emergency equipment, for example: a flare gun, a whistle, and a compass. [The colon after example is incorrect; it should be replaced by a comma.]

  27. 27.

    Incorrect or Missing Preposition

    The boy swam on the water. [on should be in or under or through]

  28. 28.

    Inappropriate or Missing Punctuation

    Nick and Gatsby themselves symbolize this type of West Egg “person”. [period should be inside quotation marks]

  29. 29.


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Wilcox, K.C., Yagelski, R. & Yu, F. The nature of error in adolescent student writing. Read Writ 27, 1073–1094 (2014).

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