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  1. 1. COMMON GRAMMATICAL ERRORS IN WRITING: A STUDY ON ESL LEARNERS OFA BOARDING SCHOOLChapter 1Introduction1.0 IntroductionThis chapter is intended to provide an overview of what the study is all about includingthe background, objectives, statement of the problem, research questions and significance of thestudy. Several definitions of key terms are also explained in this chapter in order to presentcomprehensible research writing.1.1 Background of the StudyGrammar is regarded as the most fundamental element of language learning for secondlanguage learners. In Malaysia, the knowledge of grammar is a need for learners in all schoolsfor the fact that English is a subject taught in the curriculum. Previous studies have proposed thatin written form especially, English as a Second Language (ESL) learners committed commongrammatical errors showing their incompetency in some grammar aspects. Specifically, thisstudy is highlighting the common errors in writing by ESL learners of a boarding school; inwhich the learners are expected to have higher English competency than daily schools‟ students.As achieving competency in second language is a progressive process, common grammaticalerrors are continuously dealt by both learners and teachers using various techniques to improvelearners‟competency especially in producing the written form of the language. Besides focusingAnis Zulaikha bt. BasrahD20091034413
  2. 2. on the types of errors, this study would highlight the reasons why the same errors are committedby the ESL learners.1.2 Objectives of the Study1. To identify the most common grammatical errors in ESL learners‟ writing2. To find out the reasons why the common errors are committed in relation to the learners‟exposure to English language1.3 Problem StatementBased on the educational context in Malaysia, there is a need for ESL learners to beequipped with good grammar knowledge since the educational system relies very much onwritten examination as compared to other language skills. However, learners in secondaryschools, especially, despite having learnt English language since their primary schools, tend tocommit common grammatical errors in writing. Those errors are thus believed to be caused byseveral factors including first language interference, lack of grammar knowledge and ignoranceof learners on the grammar rules.1.4 Research Questions1. What are the most common grammatical errors committed by ESL learners in writtenform?2. Why do ESL learners tend to commit the common grammatical errors in relation to theirexposure to English language?
  3. 3. 1.5 Significance of the studyThis study is an attempt to provide an overview of most common grammatical errorscommitted by ESL learners in written form. It might be undoubted that ESL learners are taughton grammar more than any other language aspects especially in formal classroom context butthere is the need for learners to be informed on the common errors they commit. While previousstudies were conducted on unspecific groups of learners, this study would consider the ESLstudents of a boarding school with all the students are selected ones. In addition, it is worth forteachers to know the causes of the same errors committed by students so that ways to minimizethem could be figured out. Although this study is not focusing on the need to give feedbacks onthe errors, the researcher would still give the feedbacks for the sake of learning procedure inclass (task are given, students complete the task, then marked task is returned to each student)Thus, this study, even though in a small scale is hoped to be useful for teachers to findout the grammatical errors which are commonly committed by the students thus possible waysfor learners to improve their grammar as well as language competency based on their writingmight be later considered. Along with that, learners‟ performance in English examination paperis expected to be improved too. As for the school, it has always been a healthy competitionbetween the boarding schools that they compete to be in good positions in the schools ranking.This implies that this study might also contribute to finding alternatives in increasing students‟language performance in the written examination and place the school in a good rankingespecially for English subject.
  4. 4. 1.6 Definition of Key TermsThere are some key terms used frequently in this study that it would be useful to providetheir definitions in this introduction chapter. The definitions are mostly the operationaldefinitions; the ones which are based on the context of this study. Operational definition is alsousually defined as functional definition.Boarding schools – Schools which are under a specialized programme of the Ministry ofEducation; Sekolah Berasrama Penuh (SBP) in which the students are all selected from thosewho excel in UPSR (for Form 1 intake) and PMR (for Form 4 intake).Error – in this research, it refers specifically to the misusage of grammatical concepts instudents‟ writing.Error analysis – The study of the error which include the works of identifying and classifyingthe errors into categories.ESL – English as a Second Language; mostly learnt or used language after the nationallanguage. In Malaysia, English is regarded as second language after the national or officiallanguage, Bahasa Melayu.Grammar – The rules in a language for changing the form of words and joining them intosentences (Oxford Advanced Learner‟s Dictionary, 7thed., 2008).Intralingual transfer - A situation when language learners commit errors that Ellis (1997)states, some errors seem to be universal,
  5. 5. - A situation reflecting learners‟ attempts to make the task of learning and using the targetlanguage simpler; as cited in Erdogan (2005) of Mersin University Journal of the Faculty ofEducation).Proofreading – Proofreading means examining your text carefully to find and correcttypographical errors and mistakes in grammar, style, and spelling. (The Writer‟s Handbook:How to Proofread. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2012).
  6. 6. Chapter 2Literature Review2.0 IntroductionIn this chapter, the review of literature on theoretical and conceptual background arepresented which includes the learning of grammar, distinguishing error and mistake, givingfeedbacks on grammatical errors as well as findings of previous studies on the most commongrammatical errors committed by ESL learners in writing.2.1 Learning Grammar of the Second LanguageFor ESL learners to start learning new language, it is suggested as an essential part thatthey learn the basic grammar rules of the target language first. While it is easier to speak alanguage than to write and understand it (Jossiejk, 2007), learners‟ ability to write grammaticallycorrect sentences is put into much concern especially in an education system which relies onwritten examination to measure the learners‟ academic performance. According to Harmer(2007), writing provides learners with more „thinking time‟ than the one they experience fromspontaneous conversation. Due to that, writing offers more opportunity for learners to undergothe stage of language processing in which they will be thinking „about‟ the language – thegrammar. As compared to speaking, the ability to write grammatical sentences is not naturalsince grammar and writing demand a formal teacher and a structured taught education. Besidesthat, learning grammar implies that the language learning is directed to focus on form and that isthe issue argued by Krashen (1985) in Pazever and Wang (2009).
  7. 7. However, Pazaver and Wang in their writing have provided the proof that studiesconducted in foreign language context do indicate that students find grammar instruction witherror correction are helpful in language learning. The proof is extracted from the respondentswho are the ESL learners from seven different Asian countries including China, India and SriLanka. They responded to the interview question by stating that through writing, they couldapply their grammar skills and that when they made mistakes, corrections could be made easily.Upon answering is grammar really important for second language learners, Foppoli (2012)insists that it is indeed really important; quoting that grammar is the backbone of a language.Even lay people who are not in the field of linguistics would have agreed that grammarencompasses mostly on the structures of sentences which requires all sort of rules.2.2 Distinguishing Errors and MistakesWhile Foppoli (2012) has also discussed on how the knowledge of grammar should betaught, he suggests that there is no need to be afraid of using drilling since it could be very usefulespecially for new concepts to be fixed in their brains. The failure of the grammar rules to befossilized in the brains could be one of the reasons of the learners committing the commongrammatical errors. Meanwhile, Corder (1978) as cited in Ho (2003) has published an articledistinguishing „mistakes‟ with „errors‟ where the former refers to „unsystematic errors of learnersas opposed to the systematic errors of learners from which we are able to reconstruct theirknowledge of the language to date‟. Whatever it is, the underlying assumption implies thatlearners‟ errors made in grammar are systematic and classifiable.On the other hand, Brown (2007) has provided a clearer view upon distinguishing errorsand mistakes. Since the two terms are interchangeably used in daily conversation, they are
  8. 8. actually quite different from each other. Brown claims that every once in a while, all nativespeakers make mistakes or what he coins as “performance lapse”. He has also proposed that thekey to differentiate between mistakes and errors is the fact that mistakes can be self-correctedwhen addressed."A mistake refers to a performance error that is either a randomguess or a "slip", in that it is a failure to utilize a known systemcorrectly. An error...reflects the competence of the learner. Whilemistakes can be self-corrected, an error cannot be self-corrected."Brown (2007)Another scholar, Selinker (1992) as cited in Ho (2003) has insisted the vitality of error tolearners in his claim that errors committed can be regarded a device the learner uses in order tolearn. The claim is also supported by Carter (1997) as cited in Ho (2003); suggesting thatknowing more about how grammar works is to understand more about how grammar is used andmisused. In other words, the knowledge of grammar is not only mastered by knowing how toapply the rules by heart but also it demands the learners to be aware of the wrong application ofthe rules as well.2.3 Common Grammatical Errors by ESL Learners Based on PreviousStudies – A Highlight on Brown’s ClaimAs other studies have proven, common grammatical errors committed by ESL learnerswould include the usage of pronouns, apostrophe, lack of subject-verb agreement, count and non
  9. 9. count nouns, prepositions, incorrect or missing articles, and irregular verb error. While there aremany of them, the question on why do ESL learners commit such common errors has also beenpondered. As findings have suggested that one of the causes could be the interference fromlearners‟ first or native languages, Brown supports this cause by claiming that it is natural forlearners to at first apply the rules of their native language to the target language. Furthermore,learners‟ error is regarded as the result of the intralingual transfer; indicating the transition oflearners to move out from the beginning stages of learning (Brown, 2007). As another significantcause of errors, Brown put the responsibility on the teachers for the misleading explanation, theineffectiveness of materials as well as the drilling patterns which are based on memorizationrather that contextualizing the grammar concepts.Brown concludes his claim pertaining to the issue of error correction by addressing theinevitability of learners‟ error as a part of learning process. Despite the negative connotations ofthe word „error‟ itself, he insists that it should not be perceived as such. Instead, learners‟ errorshould be regarded as the tool of critical pedagogical feedback for ESL teachers to improve andreflect on their own deficiencies in knowledge, lesson plans and teaching methods (Brown,2007). Brown’s claim, in other words actually suggests that the term ‘students’ error’ or‘learners’ error’ is not merely referring to learners’ behavior of committing the errors butalso as the hint for teachers to reflect on their own teaching.Looking into the Malaysian context, there have been many studies conducted on commongrammatical errors in writing of ESL learners. Zanariah (2002) has presented almost the samefindings on the errors where she studied on Form Two students‟ compositions in a ruralsecondary school in Kuala Pilah. In her study, 40 students were chosen to write a compositioneach on the same given title. Among the reported errors were subject-verb agreement, usage of
  10. 10. pronouns, wrong or inappropriate choice of word, and problems in tenses. Based on her finding,several factors contributing to the errors were identified including the interference of students‟native language, lack of vocabulary and overgeneralization of some grammatical rules.For English as a Second Language (ESL) learners as well as teachers, learning andteaching grammar have always been regarded as boring which resulted in less attention ongrammar lesson in ESL classes (Nairn, 2003). This issue could not be left unattended sincegrammar lesson plays vital role in boosting learners‟ competency in the second language learnt.Furthermore, learners are considered as competent language users when they have sufficientknowledge about the grammar of the language which then enables them to perform in oral aswell as in written form. That is why Nairn (2003) has claimed that the drawback of neglectinggrammar lesson could be seen in the long term where learners‟ success in learning the languageis affected especially in the case involving examination and grading. Looking into the Malaysiancontext, teachers should not resist from conducting grammar lesson in an education system thatis very much based on learners‟ written performance in the examination.2.4 Providing Feedbacks on Grammatical ErrorsMost ESL teachers would agree that grammatical errors should be pointed out forlearners to notice what is lacking in their application of grammar. Another belief which iscommon to ESL teachers is that if a teacher points out the learners‟ errors, they are expected tounderstand, take note on them, and then they could improve their writing without repeating thesame errors. In contrast, Gray (2004) in his journal on grammar correction has stated that thisbelief is merely common sense shared between the teachers. This is due to the fact that solidresearch conducted in the last 20 years has proven it to be wrong that Gray has also suggested
  11. 11. some reasons to explain the finding. He finds that error correction has discouraged learners towrite that they tend to have negative feeling on writing as compared to those whose errors werenot corrected.In the same journal, Gray has insisted that despites the findings which have proven thedrawbacks of error correction, it does play its role in improving ESL learners‟ writtenperformance. Thus, the techniques of giving practical feedbacks should be put into considerationin order for learners to be informed on the errors they have made without affecting theirmotivation on writing the language. Some suggested possible solutions have included theusefulness of giving short grammatical lessons before class based on the learners‟ previoushomework and discussing some grammatical errors. Semke (1984) in Gray (2004) has come outwith an idea which implies the need for teachers to relate the errors in writing with the wholecontent of the writing itself. In other words, the errors should be put into contexts so that thelearners would have clear view on the causes of errors as well as learning the correct concept ofparticular grammar rules.2.5 Students’ Views on Teachers’ FeedbackFerris and Hedgcock (2005) have revealed several finding from various studies on theway the students perceive teachers‟ feedback on errors. It is found that students view thecomments made by teachers as extremely vital to an extent that they would be helpful for furtherimprovements. Besides that, the students also would really appreciate the comments on varietyof issues without focusing on language errors per se. This event supports the earlier claim bySemke (1984) in Gray (2004) who proposes that the teachers need to contextualize the errors;integrating them with the writing content.
  12. 12. Despite the appreciation by students, other studies have discovered that there are studentswho would feel frustrated while receiving teachers‟ feedback. The causes for their frustrationwhich have been claimed by Semke include the illegibility of the comments, the commentswhich are cryptic; consisting of incomprehensible symbols, circles, single-word questions, orcomments which are seen as confusing with the ambiguous questions, less practical alternativesor suggestions for improvement.Another review by Ferris and Hedgcock (2005) on several findings is the evidence ofstudents‟ open mindedness to receive the comments or feedback from the teachers. This findingwould give a perspective for teachers that there are students who would take teachers‟ commentspositively provided that the comments are constructive ones followed by teachers‟encouragement. In fact, the findings suggest that teachers‟ constructive criticism would not makethe students feel offended or even hurt since the students practically know it is for the sake ofimprovement in writing as well as in boosting their proficiency in the language learnt.
  13. 13. Chapter 3Methodology3.0 IntroductionThis chapter highlights on the research design, sampling, instruments being used, andprocedures of collecting and analysing the data. There are also some minor circumstances statedin this chapter which imply the limitations of the study.3.1 Research DesignThis is a qualitative research on learners‟ writing performance, specifically on grammarwhereby a case study was conducted in order to obtain the findings. The case study involved anindividual or group of people being observed in order to determine the outcomes. In this study,the common grammatical errors are the outcomes obtained from the students‟ writing. On theother hand, this research is considered as quantitative as well since it takes the number of errorscommitted into consideration.The advantage of this kind of research is that it includes the issue of flexibility in which itemphasizes on exploration rather than prediction. However, there was the tendency to foresee theoutcome before the research was conducted. For instance, in this study, the researcher couldsomehow predict the grammatical mistakes that the learners would possibly commit, based onthe previous studies by other researchers. Besides that, this study involved a survey as there wasa set of questionnaire being distributed for each respondent in order to get their feedbacks onrelated information..
  14. 14. 3.2 Sample and Sampling ProceduresThe researcher applied the procedures of convenience sampling in which the sampleswere selected simply because they were easily accessible to the researcher (Fook, Sidhu, &Singh, 2006). In other words, the samples consisted of the researcher‟s students in the Englishclass taught. Specifically, the study was conducted on 15 Form Four students of the weakest setfor English subject. This school has actually held a programme for English subject where all theForm Four students are divided into four sets based on a special test.The test is conducted once in every year as early as in the month of January. According toone of the Form Four teachers, Pn. Nidzra Radzwan, the aims of the test are to identify students‟proficiency levels and skills besides to identify students‟ maturity of thoughts. The duration ofthe test is one hour. In short, the samples were all from the last set in which the researcher wasteaching. Although they were from the weakest set, their level of proficiency is classified asintermediate based on their performance in class. It was only the marks that they scored in thetest were the lowest among the total of almost two hundred Form Four students of the school.3.3 Research InstrumentsThere were two instruments used in this study which were the students‟ writing on agiven topic and a set of questionnaire answered by each of the students involved. The title of theessay was chosen from past year question of SPM 2010, “It had been raining all day”. Therationale of choosing the essay question from the public examination is because the question isundoubtedly valid for students in terms of the context, theme as well as syllabus. Narrative essaywas preferred since it does not restrict the students‟ use of language as well as creativity uponperforming the language. For research purpose, the students were given 50 minutes to write an
  15. 15. essay of 250 words. The writing took place during school session, specifically in the two-periodEnglish class. The question for essay writing was given as follow:SPM 2010Write a composition of about 250 words on the following topic.Write a story beginning with:“It had been raining all day…”Meanwhile, the questionnaire was designed to collect the data on specific issues ofinterest or focus; in this case, it was on the students‟ behaviour, access and exposure to Englishlanguage. Comprising the related students‟ information on family background, access to Englishlanguage materials, and attitude towards the language, the questionnaire was answered by thestudents a month before they had to write the essay question. Basically, it consisted of close-ended questions (yes-no questions) and questions lead to quantitaive data such as the ones usingthe phrase „How often‟.3.4 Data Collection ProceduresSince the research is on students common grammatical errors in writing, the data wascollected in written form; the students‟ responses on the questionnaire as well as their writing.The rationale of having written data is the fact that it is easier to be analysed since it providesclear evidence of the expected findings which were the grammatical errors. Not only was thewritten data easy to obtain but also the fact that the data was easy to be presented on paper.Besides that, the written response from the questionnaire has enabled the researcher to get awider range of response from more students as compared to oral response which might limit the
  16. 16. range. Meanwhile, numerical data was also collected when it came to counting the errors andconverting them into percentage.3.5 Data Analysis ProceduresAll the 15 transcripts of the essays were collected right after the class ended and theywere marked later. Proofreading technique was sometimes used whenever appropriate to pointthe errors besides written comments at the end of the transcripts. Specific grammatical errorsmarked were extracted to be classified into several categories including parts of speech andtenses which were most commonly found based on the essays written. The analysing stageconsidered counting the number of errors according to the respective categories before thecomparison was made on the frequency of the types of error committed. The causes of the errorswere then analysed based on the responses from the questionnaire which was distributed earlier.The data was analysed to an extent that the students‟ tendency to commit grammaticalerrors could be inferred. For instance, the frequency of students speaking in English might beone of the factors which caused them to commit the errors. This is due to the fact that they arenot used to speaking the language, as well as the language structures in sentences. As thestudents communicate in Malay most of the time, they tend to apply the rules of the languageinto the second language which is English.3.6 LimitationsThe major limitation is the issue of generalizability of the findings that might not apply tothe larger scale of the boarding schools context in Malaysia. In precise, this study encompassedthe common grammatical errors committed by only 15 Form Four students of a boarding school,a number which do not represent the performance of the whole student population of the school.
  17. 17. This is due to the limited abilities and time of the researcher to be really focused and aware withevery single grammatical error made by learners and to record all the errors.
  18. 18. ReferencesBeach, D. (n.d). Avoiding common grammar mistakes. Retrieved on May 7, 2012 from, H. D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th ed.). New York:Longman.Chan Yuen Fook, Gurnam Kaur Sidhu & Parmjit Singh. (2006). A comprehensive guide towriting research proposal. Selangor, Malaysia: Venton Publishing (M) Sdn. Bhd.Editor of (2011). Correction symbols and abbreviations used in marking essay.Retrieved on December 1, 2011 from, V. (2005). Contribution of error analysis to foreign language teaching. MersinUniversity Journal of the Faculty of Education, 1(2), 265-266. Retrieved from, J. (2006). Oxford practice grammar: Intermediate with tests. Oxford, U.K: OxfordUniversity Press.Eubank, L., Selinker, L., & Sharwood, M. (1995). The current stage of interlanguage studies inhonour of William E. Rutherford. Amsterdam: John Benjamin‟s Publications.Exsemesdians Alumni. (2012). Sejarah SBP. Retrieved on May 21, 2012 from, S. (2003).Evergreen: A guide to writing (7thed.). London, U.K.: Houghton MifflinHarcourt.Ferris, D. R. (2003). Response to student writing: Implications for second language students.Marwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.Ferris, D. R., & Hedgcock, J. S. (2005). Teaching ESL composition: Purpose, process andpractice (2nded.). Marwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.Foppoli, J. (2011). Is grammar really important for a second language learner? Retrieved onMay 7, 2012 from, R. (2004). Grammar correction in ESL/EFL writing classes may not be effective.Retrieved on May 7, 2012 from, J. (2007). How to teach English. London, UK: Pearson Education Limited.Ho, M. L. (2003). Empowering English teachers to grapple with errors in grammar. Retrievedon May 6, 2012 from
  19. 19. James, C. (1980). Contrastive analysis. Essex: Longman Group.Kirklees Council. (n.d.). Research and consultation: Questionnaires. Retrieved on May 10, 2012from, L. (2003). Faculty response to grammar errors in the writing of ESL students. Retrievedon May 6, 2012 from Suzana Jaafar. (2000). Writing: Helping ESL learners to reduce global errors usingsystematic error analysis (Bachelor of Education‟s thesis). Universiti Pendidikan SultanIdris, Tanjung Malim.Pazaver, A. & Wang, H. (2009). Asian students’ perceptions of grammar teaching in the ESLclassroom. Retrieved on May 7, 2012 from, P. (2012). Frankfurt International School: Grammar mistakes. Retrieved on May 8,2012 from Beta (2009). History of second language acquisition. Retrieved on May 10, 2012 from Writing Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (2011). The writer’s handbook:How to proofread. Retrieved on May 10, 2012 from Pilus. (2002). Errors in English Composition Written by Form Two Malay students in aselected rural school (Bachelor of Education‟s thesis). Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris,Tanjung Malim.5 Most Common Grammatical Errors. Retrieved on May 5, 2012 from