Some Advice on Giving Written Feedback to Learners
One of the most rewarding experiences during my PhD candidature was receiving respectful, thoughtful, critical and detailed feedback from my supervisors, Dr Jean Parkinson and Dr Elaine Vine. Their feedback has shaped how I give feedback to my students.
What is feedback?
Feedback in an EFL classroom can be defined as any form of response, either written or spoken, from teachers or learners to others’ work. In this article, my discussion will focus on written feedback.
Issues around giving feedback
Although feedback is arguably the most important aspect of teaching and learning, I suspect most teachers need more exposure and support in this area.
In some countries, not all EFL teachers go through formal training in language teaching. Based on my observation, many of them adopt the trial and error approach. Others rely on common sense and prior experience, based on the feedback that they received when they were in school.
Teachers who are trained to teach English language are not immune to this problem. Although some teacher training programmes introduce principles of giving feedback in their ELT methodology courses, this component usually forms only a small part of the course. This situation suggests that teacher mentors should play an important role in teaching practicums. This apprenticeship model should allow trainee teachers to observe how their mentors give written feedback to learners’ essays. However, is this what you have experienced?
Can teachers learn how to give feedback from their peers?
Can teachers benefit from observing how their colleagues give written feedback? My immediate response is yes. Teachers can most certainly learn from their colleagues. According to the Sociocultural Theory of Learning, human beings learn from others, not necessarily from experts (Lantolf, Thorne, & Poehner, 2015). Unfortunately, in reality, observing other teachers’ written feedback on students’ essay is not common for two reasons.
Firstly, teachers usually return their students’ essays almost immediately after they are marked.
Secondly, teachers may not feel comfortable sharing marked essays with their colleagues. This is partly because they themselves are not sure whether the way they give feedback is appropriate and/or up to par. It is understandable that some teachers would prefer not to risk having their colleagues question their credibility. This is, in my view, an unfortunate situation because written feedback becomes a mystery. Nobody knows how others give feedback.
I strongly encourage EFL teachers to develop trust among their colleagues. This might help them feel more comfortable in sharing how they give feedback.
Written feedback on learners’ essays can be categorised according to whether it is cognitively or affectively oriented. The former addresses writing related issues (e.g., This paragraph needs a topic sentence.), and the latter focuses on the affective aspects (e.g., Your writing has improved a lot. Well done!).
Is grammar correction effective?
There is an ongoing debate on the effectiveness of grammar correction (e.g., Ferris, 1999; Truscott, 1999). Personally, I do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. Grammar correction, either explicit or implicit, can be helpful to learners. In deciding whether to correct learners’ grammatical errors, it is worth prioritising our feedback based on their needs. I tend to focus on the writing issue, such as the lack of coherence and organisation of ideas. However, this is not to say that I think grammar is unimportant.
Feedback for today and tomorrow
Written feedback should be a response, not a reflex. It is important for teachers to be clear about their feedback-giving goals. Written feedback can address specific issues (e.g., lack of coherence) in a particular essay, but let me suggest that the primary focus of written feedback should be to help learners develop transferable writing skills (Bitchener & Ferris, 2012, p. 163). In other words, written feedback should help learners become better writers in future.
In order for written feedback to be useful for future writing, it is important to be aware of what transferable writing skills entail. See Bitchener and Ferris (2012) for the list of the transferable skills. Rather than focusing on grammar, teachers should focus on organisation of ideas (e.g., using topic sentences, providing relevant examples) and coherence (e.g., using linking words), for example.
When giving feedback on students’ essays, it is important to keep in mind the big picture, that is, helping learners improve their writing skills, rather than editing their essays.
Checklist for giving feedback
You might want to use the following questions as a guide for giving written feedback:
I often remind myself that learners are human beings that have feelings and emotions. I always make it a point to make sure my feedback is respectful and tactful. I also consider the amount of feedback I give because I do not want to overwhelm my students with my feedback. This means that I write my feedback as if I were the recipient.
Because I want my students to revise their essays based on the feedback I give, I try to make sure my feedback is clear enough for that purpose.
What does useful feedback look like to you? Does this article reinforce what you believe about written feedback? How would this article enhance the way you give feedback?
Bitchener, J. & Ferris, D. (2012). Written corrective feedback in second language acquisition and writing. New York: Routledge.
Ferris, D.R. (1999). The case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes. A response to Truscott (1996). Journal of Second Language Writing, 8(1), pp. 1–10.
Lantolf, J. P., Thorne, S. L. & Poehner, M. E. (2015). Sociocultural theory and second language development. In B. VanPatten & J. Williams (Eds.). Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (pp. 207-226). New York: Routledge.
Truscott, J. (1999). The case for “the case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes”: A response to Ferris. Journal of Second Language Writing, 8(2), pp. 111–122.