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Review of  Response to Student Writing

Reviewer: Laurel D Reinking
Book Title: Response to Student Writing
Book Author: Dana R Ferris
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.111

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Date: Sat, 15 Jan 2005 16:18:18 -0500
From: Laurel Reinking
Subject: Response to Student Writing: Implications for Second Language

AUTHOR: Ferris, Dana R.
TITLE: Response to Student Writing
SUBTITLE: Implications for Second Language Students
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum
YEAR: 2003

Laurel D. Reinking, English Language and Linguistics, Purdue University


Second language composition instructors, researchers, and theorists
continue to debate the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of responding to
student writing. This debate continues in part because of the amount of
time and energy instructors devote to responding to students' writing and
in part because of the conflicting conclusions based on studies examining
this issue. Ferris provides a much needed analysis and synthesis of and
critical commentary on research, theory, and discussion on response to
student writing. In the first part of her text, Ferris reviews the
literature on response to student writing examining several pertinent
areas including teacher feedback, error correction, and research on and
students' reactions to peer response. In the second part of her text, she
suggests effective strategies to be used by second language composition
instructors responding to student writing. All in all, Ferris provides a
thoughtful and helpful text for second language composition instructors,
researchers, and theorists grappling with the issue of response to student


Second language (L2) composition instructors, researchers, and theorists
continue to debate the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of responding to
student writing. This debate continues in part because of the amount of
time and energy instructors devote to responding to students' writing and
in part because of the conflicting conclusions based on studies examining
this issue. Ferris, a Professor of English at California State
University, Sacramento, has written extensively on response to student
writing (Ferris, 1995a, 1995b, 1995c, 1997, 1998, 1999a, 1999b, 2001a,
2001b) in addition to co-authoring many texts on the same topic. Thus,
Ferris brings much experience to her much needed analysis and synthesis of
and critical commentary on research, theory, and discussion on response to
student writing. Her target audience includes researchers interested in L2
composition and those interested in differences between first language
(L1) and L2 composition. Additionally, Ferris's target audience includes
practitioners working with second language writing and writers and teacher

In Part I, Ferris reviews the literature on response to student writing
examining several pertinent areas including teacher feedback, error
correction, and research on and students' reactions to peer response. Her
sources include ''published books and book chapters, journal articles,
printed annotated bibliographies on second language writing, various
computer databases, master's theses, doctoral dissertations, and
conference papers .. ''(p. xii). Although Ferris does include unpublished
work in her analysis, she states, ''[A]t no point, is an unpublished,
unrefereed source used by itself to argue for a particular conclusion or
pedagogical practice'' (p. xii).

In Part II, Ferris suggests effective strategies to be used by second
language composition instructors for error correction, in peer response,
and in response to student writing in one-on-one teacher-student
conferences. The numerous charts and appendices provided in this section
are especially informative and useful to both the researcher and the
practitioner. All in all, Ferris provides a thoughtful and helpful text
for second language composition instructors, researchers, and theorists
grappling with the issue of response to student writing.

Part I: Research

In Part I, Ferris looks at the theoretical underpinnings of response to
student writing. Additionally, she extensively reviews the research
literature on this topic.

Chapter 1: An Overview of L1Composition Research on Response and Its
Influence on L2 Writing Theory and Practice.
Response to student writing became a significant issue to composition
instructors in the early 1970s with the advent of the ''process approach''
to writing. Ferris notes that L2 composition has been greatly influenced
by research in L1 composition. Thus, in this chapter, Ferris begins her
review of literature on response to L1 student writing starting with the
1980s. In particular, Ferris focuses on the work of Knoblauch and Brannon
(1981, 1984), Sommers, (1982), Hairston (1986), and Sperling and Freedman
(1987). Conclusions of their work suggest that the following are
ineffective or demotivating to students: Focus on errors and grade
justification, vague rather than specific comments, excessively
controlling instructor comments, lack of establishment of common meanings,
and instructors' imposition of the ''Ideal Text'' paradigm on students'
writing. Findings also note that instructors need to respond in a variety
of ways other than just written comments. Finally, research on response
needs to take into account the larger context in which the commentary is
given, i.e., more goes on in the conversation between instructor and
student than can be understood by an outsider reading comments on a
student's draft.

Ferris continues her review of research on response to student writing by
examining the L1 literature of the 1990s. Here she argues that
research ''moved toward more empirically grounded descriptions .. .'' (p.
11). She primarily discusses the work of Straub (1996, 1997) and Straub
and Lunsford (1995). One significant finding of their research suggests
that ''student writers [do] not seem to mind teacher suggestions as long as
they [are] helpful and framed positively and respectfully'' (p. 13).
Finally, synthesizing the research on response to this date, Ferris writes
that research concludes that students revise based on instructors'
feedback; however, researchers disagree on whether or not students benefit
in the long term from feedback.

Ferris concludes this chapter by examining the effects of L1 composition
research on L2 composition (Zamel [1982, 1983, 1985, 1987] is singled out
as an example) and the development of L2 composition research. Positions
on the interrelationship between L1 and L2 composition pedagogy range from
those (e.g. Zamel, 1987) who believe that what works for L1 writers also
works for L2 writers to those (e.g. Silva, 1993) who believe that L2
writing is significantly different than L1 writing and thus L1 composition
pedagogy needs to be carefully examined within the L2 context to determine
its applicability. Finally, Ferris suggests that L1 composition research
on response to student writing and L2 composition research ''have come full
circle'' (p. 17) because, for example, both have developed similar
analytical models for teacher commentary. (See Figure 1.5, ''Similarities
between L1 and L2 analytic models for teacher commentary'' [p. 18]).
However, Ferris warns that it is important that L2 composition research
not isolate itself from L1 composition research because of its substantial
body of literature with its ''strengths, weaknesses, successes and
missteps'' (p. 18) from which L2 composition researchers can draw.

Chapters 2 - 5 review, analyze, synthesize, and critique studies on
instructors' written and oral response, peer response, local (grammar and
conventions of Standard Written English) response, and students'
perceptions about response.

Chapter 2: Teacher Feedback on L2 Student Writing
This chapter deals specifically with what studies instructors focus on and
with the methodologies researchers use. First Ferris examines the results
of research on the focus of response, which concludes that instructors'
primarily (85% of comments) focus on global issues, ''students' ideas and
rhetorical development'' (p. 22). However, Ferris cautions that
researchers do not agree as to when in the writing process content (global
issues) and form (local issues) should be addressed. While the process
approach to composition pedagogy has encouraged response to global issues
in early drafts and response to local issues in later drafts, Ferris
argues that L2 writers may need response to local issues at earlier stages
in the writing process. She claims, first, that no research supports that
student revision suffers from response to both local and global issues.
Second, Ferris asserts that ''form'' and ''content'' might better be seen as
components on a continuum of types of responses, rather than be
categorized as oppositional binaries. Third, Ferris argues that decisions
on the type of feedback a student receives should be based on that
student's individual needs. And, finally, Ferris contends that for
pragmatic reasons L2 writers need an abundance of feedback on form.

Studies have found that the written forms used by instructors to provide
feedback include marginal and end comments on drafts. Additionally, the
forms consist of questions, imperatives, cryptic notations, jargon,
general and direct/specific comments, and more extensive comments. Direct,
specific suggestions with examples seem to provide the most effective
feedback; however, Ferris cautions that some problems, because they are so
complex, may be best addressed in face-to-face student-teacher conferences.

Ferris moves on to respond to the question of whether or not ''written
teacher commentary help[s] students at all'' (p. 28). Ferris concludes
that it does. She bases her assertion on the following synthesis of
results of studies: L2 writers revise based on the type of feedback they
receive (i.e., local or global). If the feedback addresses content or
meaning, writers' content improves over time. The type of change
suggested and the writer's ability affect the success or failure of
appropriate revision. And, finally, some revision fails, and some
revision may worsen a text.

In the second part of Chapter 2, Ferris examines and critiques
methodologies used in studies of response to student writing. She asserts
that ''a number of methodological questions .. . must be considered in
assessing the state of the field to date and in designing future research
programs .. .'' (p. 31). Studies must be analyzed and evaluated based on
the following criteria:
1) Participants' demographics, motivations, and writing experience
2) Type of institution and composition class
3) Type of writing
4) Instructor's pedagogy
5) How and on what does the instructor comment?
6) ''How are effects on revision measured'' (p. 35).
7) ''How is improvement measured'' (p. 37).

Finally, Ferris discusses alternative forms of feedback such as student-
teacher conferences and audiotaped and computer-based feedback. She
cautions that there is not much research on the latter two forms of forms
of feedback and that all three might pose problems for both students and
instructors in a variety of situations.

Chapter 3: Error Correction
Ferris begins the chapter on error correction research by situating it
within a conversation between Truscott (1996, 1999), Ellis (1998), and
Ferris (1999b). Truscott argues: ''[T]he existing research on grammar
correction provides no evidence that it helps student writers; .. grammar
correction as it is currently practiced ignores important insights from
second language acquisition (SLA) research; and .. . insurmountable
practical problems related to the abilities and motivations of teachers
and students mandate against the practice of grammar correction ever being
effective.'' (p. 43)

Ellis and Ferris disagree with Truscott primarily on two points: One,
results of studies on error correction finding it to be unhelpful are
inconsistent, and two, even if the evidence were consistent, it is not
adequate to support Truscott's assertions. Ferris devotes the remainder of
this chapter to support for these two assertions. In order to do so,
Ferris first constructs a framework within which to analyze the many
studies on error correction. The framework consists of three parts: basic
parameters, instructional procedures, and research design. On page 54,
Figure 3.2, ''Summary of error correction studies,'' Ferris presents one of
the first of many helpful charts. In Figure 3.2, Ferris lays out the
sixteen studies reviewed in this chapter and analyzes each based on the
three parts of her framework for analyzing error correction studies. On
page 64, Figure 3.3, ''Major issues in error correction studies,'' in the
first column of the chart, Ferris synthesizes the studies' research
questions, which follow:
1) ''Does error correction help student accuracy in revision and/or over
2) ''Do direct and indirect feedback have different effects on accuracy?''
3) ''Do students respond better to feedback on certain types or categories
of error?
4) ''Is there a difference in outcome depending on whether indirect
feedback is coded or uncoded?''
5) ''Does revision after correction help student accuracy?''
6) ''Does maintenance of error logs lead to improvement in accuracy over
7) ''Does supplemental grammar instruction (along with error correction)
make a difference in student accuracy?''

In the second column of the chart, Ferris lists each study's findings. As
a result, without reading Ferris's interpretation of the results of each
study, the reader is able to form an overall general idea of the
discrepancy of the findings among the various studies, thus highlighting
one reason why error correction remains a topic of debate among L2
composition instructors and researchers.

Although Ferris provides an insightful analysis of each study presented,
because, as she complains, ''the results of the ... studies ... have been
conflicting and not always well designed or clearly described ...'' (p.
67), her conclusion does not support the efficacy of error correction.
However, her thoughtfully designed framework for analyzing error
correction studies provides the researcher with a useful construct within
which to design a study. Furthermore, as she does throughout her text,
Ferris suggests further areas for research. For example, regarding
research in error correction, Ferris asserts that ''[T]he most critical
need, . , is to contrast the effects of error correction over time with
the effects of no error correction'' (p. 67).

Chapter 4: Research on Peer Response
Because the efficacy of using peer response in the L2 classroom continues
to be a subject of debate among L2 composition instructors and
researchers, Ferris devotes the chapter to review of the topic. She
begins by summarizing practical benefits of peer response suggested by
1) ''Students gain confidence, perspective, and critical thinking skills
from being able to read text by peers writing on similar tasks.''
2) ''Students get more feedback on their writing than they could from the
teacher alone.''
3) ''Students get feedback from a more diverse audience bringing multiple
4) ''Students receive feedback from nonexpert readers on ways in which
their texts are
unclear as to ideas and language.''
5) ''Peer review activities build a sense of classroom community.''

However, in spite of the overwhelming theoretical support in favor of peer
response, results of studies are mixed. As in her chapter on error
correction, Ferris constructs a framework by which to analyze and evaluate
the studies. The main categories include:
1) ''Subjects and setting''
2) ''Peer feedback procedures ''
3) ''Research design issues''

Organized according to the above categories, Appendix 4A, included at the
end of the chapter (pp. 87-91), summarizes the fourteen studies critiqued
in chapter 4. Results of the studies show that peer response is a complex
social activity and that peers sometimes revise and sometimes do not
revise and that these revisions may produce either better or worse
drafts. Additionally, studies show that students who are trained to
respond to their peers' drafts not only respond more effectively but also
enjoy responding more than students who have not received peer response
training. Other factors complicating peer response include cultural
expectations and knowledge shared by peers about the writer's topic.
Finally, some evidence suggests that writers revise differently and with
different effects depending on whether the responder is a peer or an

Chapter 5: Student Views on Response
Results of research on students' perspectives on response is especially
important because, while evidence about the effectiveness of response
remains ambiguous, clear evidence does exist that students like and want
feedback. In this chapter, Ferris first discusses eleven studies
investigating students' perceptions of response to both content and form.
In several, well-organized charts, Ferris categorizes the studies.
In ''Appendix 5A: Student Survey on Teacher Feedback,'' (pp. 115-116),
Ferris provides an example of a form instructors can use to survey their
students' views on teacher feedback. In Figure 5.1, ''Survey studies on
teacher commentary,'' (pp. 95-96), the studies are categorized by ''Research
Questions'' and by ''Subjects.'' Ferris states that several researchers
modeled their studies on Cohen's (1987) study of 217 college students in
which he asked:
1) ''What does teacher feedback deal with?''
2) ''How much of teacher feedback do students process?''
3) ''What strategies do students use to cope with teacher feedback?''
4) ''What problems do they have interpreting teacher feedback?''

Figure 5.2, ''Summary of survey findings on teacher commentary,'' (pp. 97-
99), categorizes findings by:
1) ''Student Preferences of Reactions about Feedback''
2) ''Student Reports of What Teacher Feedback Covers''
3) ''Student Problems with Feedback''
4) ''Student Strategies for Teacher Feedback''
5) ''Other Findings''

Results of the studies show overwhelmingly that students like feedback;
they even like and want feedback on local issues. Furthermore, students
will revise based on instructors' comments; however, they require specific
instructions regarding that revision. In other words, if the instructor
does not require revision or offer strategies for revision, the student is
less likely to revise. However, students indicate that they are willing
to accept responsibility for revision in collaboration with help from the

In the second part of chapter 5, Ferris looks at four studies that focus
solely on students' perceptions of error correction (local issues/grammar
and conventions of Standard Written English). Results indicate that L2
writers believe they need to write accurately and that instructors' error
correction helps them toward this goal. Additionally, students prefer
instructors to note all errors by type; however, students believe that
they benefit more if they correct the errors themselves.

In the next section of this chapter on student views on response, Ferris
discusses seven studies that explore students' perceptions about peer
feedback. Questions asked in these studies include:
1) ''Do ESL writers enjoy peer feedback sessions?''
2) ''Do they find peers' comments beneficial when they are revising?''
3) ''Do they value peer feedback as much as teacher feedback?'' (p. 108)

Results of the studies show that while students prefer teacher response to
peer review, most students like peer review and find it helpful;
furthermore, they prefer it to ''self-evaluation.'' From the results of
these studies on student views on response, if we believe that affective
factors-specifically students' motivation-contribute significantly to
students' ability to learn, we can infer that instructor response is
beneficial to students because they believe it is beneficial.

Part II: Practice

In Part II, chapters 6 - 8, Ferris applies results of research critiqued
in Part I to specific and practical pedagogical strategies (many come from
her years of experience as a L2 composition instructor) for instructors
who want to help their students maximize the benefits of response to their
writing. Additionally, Ferris provides numerous, helpful appendices,
e.g., forms for peer response.

Chapter 6: Preparing Teachers to Respond to Student Writing
Ferris begins this chapter by detailing how instructors can implement
effective strategies for response. Her major points listed in Figure
6.1, ''The process of teacher response,'' (p. 118), follow:
1) ''Identify sound principles for response to student writing.''
2) ''Examine student texts and identify major feedback points.''
3) ''Prioritize issues on various essay drafts.''
4) ''Construct feedback that is clear and helpful.''
5) ''Explain your feedback philosophies and strategies to your students and
be consistent.''
6) ''Hold students accountable for considering and utilizing feedback.''

Each of these main points is followed in the text by clearly
understandable, specific sub points or suggestions and numerous examples
for implementing the primary strategies. Summaries of sub points are
provided in figures on subsequent pages. Additionally, Figure
6.3, ''Sample essay feedback checklist,'' (p. 120), provides a useful tool
for instructors who struggle with how to respond effectively with limited
time constraints.

Because teacher-trainers comprise a portion of Ferris's target audience, a
short section of this chapter is devoted to a helpful outline of Ferris's
own procedures in training instructors to respond to student writing. In
addition to this text, Ferris suggests the following sources as helpful
for instructor in training: Ferris (1997) and Ferris and Hedgcock (1998).

In the third section of the chapter, Ferris suggests strategies for
effective student-teacher conferences. One of the more important
strategies suggested is that instructors adequately prepare students for
conferences by explaining rationales for conferences and by requiring
students to plan ahead.

Finally, Ferris provides appendices including an essay response form that
can be used by instructor or peer reviewer and as an example, a copy of a
student paper with instructor's comments.

Chapter 7: Suggestions for Error Correction
Though, as shown in chapter 3, evidence on the effectiveness of error
correction is not conclusive, Ferris--based on the premise, supported by
results of studies examined in chapter 5, that students like and believe
they need error correction-proceeds to suggest strategies for error
correction that seem to be most helpful to students. Referring back to
the results of research summarized in chapters 3 and 5, Ferris presents 6
categories of what she considers to be the most crucial issues and options
in error correction:

Issue 1) ''Direct Versus Indirect Feedback'' (pp. 141-146): Direct feedback
means that the instructor not only indicates that there is an error but
also corrects the error as well. Examples of direct feedback include
deletion, insertion, substitution, and reformulation. Indirect feedback
means that the instructor indicates there is an error but does not correct
it. Ranging from most direct to least direct, options for indirect
feedback include marking the error using error codes, underlining the
error, simply check marking the line on which the error occurs, or the
instructor may, in an endnote, suggest the writer revise looking for
specific types of errors such as verb tense errors. Overall, students
seems to benefit more in the long term from indirect feedback; however, at
a lower competency level, students seem to need direct feedback until they
have a better grasp of local issues. Ferris suggests instructors consider
progressing from more direct to less direct error correction feedback
throughout the semester though she cautions that choices must be based on
factors such as students' L2 competence and their prior experience with
error correction.

Issue 2) ''Varying Feedback According to Error Type'' (pp. 146-150): Not all
errors can be treated similarly. Ferris labels some types of complex
sentence structure errors, idiosyncratic, idiomatic, and not-rule-governed
error types as ''untreatable,'' meaning that regardless of the type of
feedback provided and the revision practiced by the student, no
improvement in the error type is evident in the student's writing. Thus,
Ferris suggests that for these types of errors, which include lexical and
preposition errors, the instructor either correct the error or ignore it.

Issue 3) ''Coded Versus Uncoded Error Feedback'' (pp. 150-152): The crux of
this issue concerns if indirect feedback is given, should the error be
labeled or simply located? Evidence shows that ''error location may be
adequate and even ... beneficial to [most] students'' (p. 151).

Issue 4) ''Revision after Correction'' (pp. 152-154): Here Ferris discusses
the optimal stage in the writing process in which to provide error
correction. Contrary to what is practiced by most process-approach
composition instructors, Ferris asserts that student do benefit from
receiving comments on both content and form on the same draft.

Issue 5) ''Using Error Logs'' (pp. 154-155): Although Ferris suggests that
using error logs might help students improve their accuracy, no evidence
to date conclusively supports that error logs benefit students any more
than any other strategy used.

Issue 6) ''Supplemental In-Class Grammar Instruction'' (pp. 156-157). As
with error logs, no evidence exists that supplemental grammar instruction
improves accuracy. Nevertheless, Ferris provides suggestions for grammar
mini-lessons and in Appendix 7B, she provides ''Sample Mini-Lesson
Materials,'' (pp. 162-163).

As noted previously, one of the better features of Ferris's text is the
summary she provides in various figures. This chapter is no exception in
that Figure 7.10 provides an excellent summary of the eleven most
important strategies suggested in chapter 7 for instructors concerned with
error correction.

Chapter 8: Implementing Peer Response
In the final chapter of this text, Ferris proceeds on the assumption
(based on the results of some studies discussed in Chapter 4) that
students benefit from peer response. Her suggestions for strategies are
listed in Figure 8.1, ''Guidelines for peer response in L2 writing classes''
(p. 165):
1) ''Utilize peer feedback consistently.''
2) ''Explain the benefits of peer feedback to students.''
3) ''Prepare students carefully for peer response.''
4) ''Form pairs or groups thoughtfully.''
5) ''Provide structure for peer review sessions.''
6) ''Monitor peer review sessions.''
7) ''Hold students responsible for taking peer feedback opportunities

Helpful forms are again provided within the text itself and as
appendices: ''Appendix 8A: Peer Response Forms - A Sample Sequence'' (pp.
177-178), and ''Appendix 8B: A Peer Response Lesson Sequence'' (pp. 179-180).


My only reservation about Ferris's thoughtful and well-researched text
concerns her bias toward the effectiveness of response to student writing.
This bias may have affected her characterization and interpretation of
some of the research presented. Furthermore, there are forms of feedback,
such as error correction, for which research does not clearly support its
effectiveness. Nevertheless, Ferris continues to champion its use. It
seems inevitable that she would do so because her area of research
interest for at least the previous 8 years has been in instructors'
response to student writing. Thus, if it were clearly established that
response to student writing did not help students improve their writing,
Ferris would need to find another research area. Nonetheless, this is a
small bone to pick in an otherwise comprehensive and thoughtfully written
text. The organization of the text is superb. Each assertion is
carefully supported, and evidence is well-documented. The same
information is provided in several forms-in the main body of each chapter,
in end of section and end of chapter summaries, in charts that summarize
and analyze studies and their findings, and in end-of-chapter appendices.

Additionally, Ferris responds to concerns and questions raised by
composition researchers and instructors. For example, to the question,
''Does feedback help my students become better writers?'' Ferris responds
that it depends on the form in which the feedback is given, the amount of
feedback, when the feedback is given, how frequently it is given, how
feedback is defined, and who gives the feedback. If feedback does help,
what kinds of feedback are the most effective? Instructors' written comments?
Peers'/students' written comments? Instructors' oral comments (in
one-on-one or group conferences)? Peers'/students' oral comments?
Instructors' audio taped comments? Comments using electronic forums, e.g.,
MOOs and email? Summative, formative, global, or local comments? Ferris
responds to each of these questions with support from the body of research
on response to student writing. However, nowhere does Ferris suggest that
response to student writing is easy. Rather, she warns the instructor eager
to implement her response strategies that effective response requires a
significant investment of time and energy.

By providing a history of response to student writing and a thorough
review and critique of the literature, Ferris addresses most concerns
composition researchers and instructors might raise. Furthermore,
throughout her text, Ferris notes gaps in the literature where further
research would be beneficial. For example, in Chapter 2 Ferris
states, ''[T]here has been very little empirical work done on the nature
and effects of writing conferences in L1 writing classes, and almost
nothing in L2'' (p. 39). Nevertheless, one gap Ferris does not address is
the writing center conference. An additional chapter or section on
research on this topic would help make Ferris's text more nearly
complete. However, little research has been done on L2 writing center
conferences. Thus, this seems to be another area in which further
research is needed.

Because Ferris grounds her suggested pedagogical strategies in the
research previously reviewed, her text provides the reader with a more
complete understanding of the underlying rationale for the suggested
strategies. Moreover, unlike many texts that review and critique the
literature but leave the composition instructor wondering how what she has
just read can be applied to her classroom practices, Ferris provides
clear, specific, and realistic strategies and examples for the composition
instructor to implement. All in all, I highly recommend this text to
anyone interested in the subject of responding to student writing.


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Laurel Reinking is a third-year Ph.D. student at Purdue University in the
English Department where her primary area is English as a Second Language
and her secondary areas include Linguistics and Writing Program
Administration. Laurel considers herself a sociopragmatics applied
linguist, and her research interests include second language speakers and
writers, writing centers, one-on-one writing conferences between tutors or
teachers and L2 speakers (tutees or students), writing for academic
purposes, and the relationship between silence and (im)politeness. Laurel
has taught both undergraduate and graduate L2 writers.

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