This is a somewhat off the cuff post, having been asked by a UK based non-ELT teacher as to how ELT teachers tend to give feedback.  Obviously I can’t answer for the whole profession, but this is what I think probably happens….

Context is important

There are many teaching contexts where the focus of instruction is primarily form-focused and in these contexts, I suspect the feedback is essentially aimed at error correction.  The problem with this is that it takes the perspective that the learner is essentially deficient from a “perfect” model, and it is those deficiencies that are highlighted.  Recognition of positive examples of language are less likely to occur – I should say that giving positive feedback on positive language – a nice turn of phrase or a good example of grammatical structure – is something I also struggle with and I do try to do, but not as consistently as I would like.

Other teaching contexts take the perspective that it is important to engage the learners in the process of learning.  These contexts encourage learners to participate in a reflective cycle where learners review their performance and evaluate themselves (and each other).  This can come in a spoken feedback sharing slot in class, or more formally as a written up reflection that forms part of the formal assessment.  For me the drawbacks with this is that it firstly requires “buy-in” from the teachers who need to firstly see it as a valuable process and who secondly need to know or be trained into managing the process effectively, otherwise it inevitably becomes a box-ticking exercise.  Thirdly, it may not be what students, who are probably more used to the first context, expect.  They may well take the position that the teacher is there to be the expert and the arbiter of correctness.  They may also have difficulty in pin-pointing their strengths and weaknesses.  I should say that in my experience, students are often pretty good at knowing what they are good at (or not), but often what they lack is specificity; they will describe themselves as being weak at speaking but not really have a clear idea of why.

Most language school contexts, I suspect, fall somewhere between these two extremes, or offer a combination of them in some way.

Product or Process?

This may be a personal characterisation, but I would suggest that “correction” is more related to “product”, while “feedback” is more related to “process”.

In this characterisation, “product” refers more to the language that the learners produce – our standard error example of “Yesterday, I goed to the cinema.”  The correction is then focused on the form of the verb.  Or from a more advanced class “You can’t rely in him to do everything.” (Dependent preposition error for “rely on”). 

“Process” therefore relates more to the manner in which the students produce the language and may include things like technique in the context of specific language exams, or task fulfilment, register and appropriacy.  We don’t want to see an “OMG, I’m totally gonna send you the info asap!” in a formal letter, though this could also be considered linguistic.  Personally, I find descriptive feedback quite useful for feeding back on both speaking performance and written work, and it is also incredibly useful to have a set of criteria to work with before beginning to give feedback – these criteria should be communicated to the students in advance of the task, otherwise it is unfair for students who don’t know what they are aiming for.  This is somewhat easier with exam focused classes as the criteria are clearly outlined in the exam handbooks, but is easy enough to create and negotiate with students in other classes and levels – it can begin simply enough in the task set up by asking the students “What does a good answer to this task look like?  What needs to be included?  What doesn’t?”

This can then be elicited and reformulated to the board and then become the standard by which the task is evaluated.

Coming back to descriptive feedback for a moment, this is an example of feedback I gave to a student recently:

Hi student, this is an effective essay.  In terms of the task, you clearly signpost the topic areas in your introduction and you divide the essay into clear paragraphs that deal with each topic area in turn.  The reader has a clear idea of your answer to the question and why you think that.  The organisation is very good at a text level, though it is not always clear how the ideas in your paragraphs link to each other.  Finally while your grammar and vocabulary is mostly very accurate, I notice you are relying more on simple tenses and structures.  This is OK, but you need to try and use more advanced structures.  For example in the second paragraph you have the sentence “The school should spend the money on a new break room.  This would give the students a place to relax.”  You could combine these sentences in a number of ways:  (1) Having spent the money on a new break room, the students would have somewhere to relax.  (2) If the school were to spend the money on a new break room, the students would have somewhere to relax.  I have highlighted in green, parts of the essay where you could upgrade the language in a similar way.  Have a look and see what you can come up with.

Where does the error come from?

Again, I will hold my hands up and say that this is not something that I consider all of the time.  Again, I do try to remember to think about the causes of error, but very often when up against deadlines and a large stack of writing tasks that need to go back tomorrow – it goes unconsidered.  I am going to sidestep this issue, on the grounds that I don’t have the space to deal with it effectively in this post – and it’s not really the focus today – but I would direct you to Hanna Touchie’s excellent “Second Language Learning Errors their types, causes and treatment.” (PDF download in link).

When to correct?

I was reminded the other day of “The Insensitive English Teacher” sketch from the TV Smack the Pony…  (Thanks Dan!). 

A good example of a situation where the message is more important than the medium and that in these circumstances, correction is not warranted!  But the same is true about a student breathlessly telling you they’re auditioning for “Got Talent” or more simply what they did last weekend!  Authentic examples of communication in English are often very rare for students and it is a shame (and counterproductive) to rob them of these opportunities, just to correct a wayward irregular verb. 

So we have the distinction between “hot correction” and “delayed feedback”.  Many students like hot correction, but I am not personally a fan.  If I’m listening to a discussion and a student is having trouble finding the right word I might try and supply it for them (input at the point of need), but I will rarely correct grammar or pronunciation in these situations, I will leave it to the end of the activity, at which point I will mercilessly drill my students on pronouncing their vowel sounds until they sound like a troupe of chimpanzees auditioning for Fifty Shades of Grey. 

Delayed feedback also has the advantage of anonymising error.  Not to the student that made the mistake, most students will remember that they said the sentence and some will even own it “That was my mistake!”, but it gives those students who are less certain or less confident, the opportunity to be corrected without having to feel embarrassed at their mistakes – something that is more important with some cultures than others.  About ten years ago I co-gave an input session on different feedback activities, which I wrote up into a longer post:  you can find those ideas here:

Over to you….

What are your thoughts on feedback?  What have I forgotten to include here?! J

Any top tips you can share?  All advice gratefully received!

Image credit: Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash