Feedback (and Forth)

I gave back some work to my 16-18 ESOL learners yesterday, and as it was a kind of diagnostic assessment (the first piece of extensive writing for me) I gave quite extensive feedback. And yes, lots of it was critical and yes, I used a red pen.

What was interesting about this was not the feedback, nor the presence of feedback, but the open and explicit horror on the students’ faces. One learner in particular was aghast. “So many mistakes!” she exclaimed (no really, actually exclaimed), so horrified that briefly, very briefly, I felt guilty.

The guilt passed, mainly because I knew what I had written included praise and encouragement as well as suggestions for improvement. This says a lot about me as a teacher, of course. For one, I can’t be bothered with different coloured pens, well done stamps and so on. Much, much more important for me is that learners take some time to read through the mistakes (which they did in the class) and suggest, with peer and tutor support, improvements and alterations themselves (which they did) before rewriting the task again (which they also did). I use a clear marking code, (T = tense, P = punctuation, Sp = spelling, etc.) to support learners in this. And perhaps I am heartless and insensitive to my learners. To which I can say only that if you think that is the case then you clearly haven’t met me.

This reaction, however, also says a lot about the learners, and reflects something of the calculated, point scoring mentality they bring to the classroom. For them, at the moment, receiving and responding to feedback is not a constructive and developmental process, but a series of marks against which they are being punitively measured. In a sense, they are suffering from the worst elements of performance management. What is the goal? Have you achieved that goal? Why haven’t you achieved that goal? You are not a success, and need to work harder. And so on. They are focussed not so much on their learning, but on themselves, their performance and the opinion others hold of them, as if knowledge and learning is some digital, on-off process where you either know or you don’t know. This particular class are also teenagers, and being and teenager means a certain degree of self-centredness and a delicacy of ego, if I remember rightly, but I have seen the same reaction in adults. It is only as you get higher up the language levels in ESOL, and the learners get more aware of learning, that you can confidently mark every error in a piece of writing and not expect the learners to be horrified.

So what can we do as teachers? As I was writing this I realised I was being a bit unfair on stamps and different coloured pens. Perhaps two pens might be one way of doing it, a “this is good” pen and a “you could improve this” pen (I’d like to include a third pen: a “what on earth?” pen. Perhaps stamps and different coloured highlighters could work. I remain unconvinced, however: I considered once using different coloured highlighters instead of a marking code but it took longer and added nothing to the process, apart from an admittedly pretty rainbow of colours on each learner’s page.

I know as well that when correcting errors you do not, as a rule, correct every error. You let some slide, for a number of reasons: the writing might be so awful and littered with errors that you simply confuse and, of course, upset the learners unnecessarily. You should select errors according to the learner’s needs, and praise appropriately. For example, if a learner at entry 1 makes a mistake with the present perfect (for example “I have been there yesterday”) you might choose to simply correct that directly (by writing the correct language above the mistake) because you simply wouldn’t expect that learner to be able to use present perfect or perhaps even the past simple. So you correct appropriately. The same goes for speaking, of course. You don’t interrupt a learner in the middle of a free speaking activity for mispronouncing a word, and give them a disruptive, humiliating and depressing drill! You might note errors and feed them back later. I observed a teacher continuously error correcting in what was clearly a fluency-based task and I criticised him quite harshly for it, as the learners became increasingly dispirited.

Feedback needs to be appropriately judged and carefully used. Learners also need know what to do with it and understand that that feedback deserves their time and their classroom time. Not because I don’t think learners will check their feedback at home (some will, some won’t) but because learners need to know that receiving and responding to feedback is a crucial part of the learning process. I include feedback time in my lessons, and it can be an incredibly rich and productive time in terms of language development. So I will continue with the red pen, simply because it’s a different colour to the pen the learners used to write with, and I happen to have one on my desk, and make sure that they do something with it instead.

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