22 Jan Giving Feedback in the Language Class: 5 Essential Tips
Author: Ilinca Stroe
On some CELTA courses, the trainees are taught that, irrespective of the lesson type they teach (whether it’s skills, vocabulary or grammar), there is a lesson stage they should always include in their planning: “post-activity correction slot” (PACS). The term, although not universally used on CELTA courses, speaks volumes of a general reflex we do have in TEFL: to provide correction after an activity. Of course, correction is good and necessary: students need to know what they do wrong and they need to fix their mistakes, especially fossilised ones. However, just error correction can make learners feel singled out, ashamed or insecure. In order to build confidence, too, what we need to give after an activity is feedback. The difference between correction and feedback is that the latter is a little more complex, including praise besides just correction, and highlighting good, not just flawed language. So what we should actually plan for after an activity is… “PAFS”.
Funny terminology aside, probably the first thing we should know about post-activity feedback (whether that activity is a roleplay, a conversation, a game, an information gap, etc.) is that it ought to be based on thorough monitoring: that is to say, on notes the teacher took while listening to the students carry out the task. Depending on the teacher’s own technique or habits, the notes may or may not include the students’ names, but they must necessarily include samples of learner output (i.e. examples of the language s/he used) – both good and wrong. Which takes us to the first essential tip about giving feedback in the language class.
Be balanced. Make sure you bring up the mistakes made during the activity, providing due correction for all of them, so that the students’ accuracy and language awareness are improved. But make sure you signal good language too, examples of well phrased sentences or correct grammatical structures. When you do that, be balanced from another point of view: the words you use. Don’t resort to exaggerations, vague terms or platitudes (e.g. “that was fantastic, well done!”), because in time students might feel you’re just flattering them, instead of competently assessing their performance.
Be specific. While general comments can make a good start to post-activity feedback (e.g. “That was great!”), they should always be followed by specific examples collected during monitoring. Don’t hesitate to quote the good samples of language you’re praising (as well as, of course, the mistakes you’re correcting), because they work both as models everyone in the class could emulate (or avoid), and as reasons why exactly you appreciate (or are critical of) a student’s contribution: “That was great! Your use of the ‘I wish’ structure, as in, quote, ‘Oh, I wish that was true!’, came naturally in conversation and was absolutely accurate.”
Touch on content, not just form. As language teachers, we find it all too natural to give our feedback a primarily (when not exclusively) linguistic focus: we tell students about the correct or incorrect language they produced. However, the students are so much more than just “language machines” in the language class: when they perform a task, they contribute ideas, emotions, behaviours and attitudes. Address those, too, in your feedback: were the solutions they put foward during the roleplay clever, efficient? Did they demonstrate good team work during the game? And how did they manage to have such productive interaction during that brainstorming? Do mention all that in your feedback.
Focus on “what”, not “who” when you correct, and viceversa when you praise. If a mistake was made, when you give feedback it is a lot more relevant for the whole class to focus on what the mistake consists of, rather than who made it. Error correction should be non-nominal, as our goal here is not to point at the learner whose language is flawed, but to highlight that language in order to improve the class’s accuracy. On the other hand, nominate the students who produced good language, so that they feel appreciated and confident about their level, but also because they can be regarded as role models by the class – it’s called the power of the example.
Be useful. Never lose sight of the core objective of giving feedback: we correct and praise in order to enable our students to become better (i.e. more accurate, more confident, more independent) users of the language we teach them. Ultimately, feedback is about upgrading their language and equipping them with a higher and higher degree of awareness which allows them to use that language increasingly more autonomously. As long as you keep that goal in mind, your feedback should stay really learner-centred, constructive and empowering.
So is feedback the end of it? The last lesson stage, the end of the class? You can look at it that way, but then again you could add a little “coda” to it: picking up on this or that language sample, maybe a structure that the students used or attempted to use during the previous activity, and which they obviously need, are interested in or ready to start studying, you can wrap up the “PAFS” with some reactive teaching. Zome in onto that structure to review or even to give the students a sneak preview of a grammar point, for instance. That way, feedback, rich as it is in relevant language, can serve perfectly as a launch pad for taking your students’ linguistic competence to the next level.
International House Bucharest runs regular CELTA and DELTA courses for teachers of English at its Teacher Training Centre, as well as training events online, onsite or at partner locations. To sign up for a course or event, contact [email protected].