We all know that giving writing tasks is one of the key ways that students learn the language. Through processing the language into a written form, they have to make decisions about which words to put together to express their meaning. This reinforces the connection between the words in their minds and develops their written fluency – from fluency of recall to fluency of writing. We can only learn a language through doing.
One of our jobs as teachers is to respond to their writing output and give feedback and help them learn from their mistakes and successes, and there are a number of ways we can do this. In this article I am going to outline a number of ways we can do this and a suggest one improvement to two of the standard techniques.
As always, a key factor is how much time this will take us, so let’s think about this first.
A technique might not be appropriate for a class of 30 students just based on the amount of time it would take. It would, however, be perfectly justified for a one-to-one class. In general though I suggest that we work towards allocating our time in a different way. I think we should be spending as little time as possible in properly preparing our lessons, in order to maximise the time we have after our lessons to respond to their writing and speaking tasks. We shouldn’t be spending hours planning a class; we should be spending a considerable time giving feedback on productive tasks – writing tasks and recorded speaking tasks.
So, let’s look at the possible ways we could respond to writing, with the most time consuming first.
1. Electronic feedback on word-processed work. If our students send their work in electronically, we can use screen-capture software to go through the work, recording our interaction with the work as a video. We can highlight good points, talk through errors, suggest improvements and so on – showing this on the screen by manipulating the text and talking through our thoughts. This video file can then be sent back to the student for them to review. This is a very effective and detailed approach but very time consuming.
2. Feedback Form. In this technique you use a form to give feedback on. This could be a list of tick boxes but more usefully it could be a simple form like the one I use. It is an A4 sheet of white paper divided into three rows. The topmost row is for the 'Overall Comment' which I used to focus the student's attention on the overall success of the writing and the positive things I say about it. The idea is to always to find something positive to say here. The middle row is for 'Good Points' where I highlight good language use or task completion e.g., mentioning all the necessary points, using an appropriate style etc. The final (and biggest) row is for 'Points to Consider' which is where I highlight problem areas which I want them to focus on. The limitations of space means that I might not be able to focus on all the errors but have to choose which are more important to deal with. The key idea is that you do not write on the script itself. You only make comments on the form; the student has to look back at their work while referring to the form. This shows respect for their work – you don’t ‘deface’ it with a red or green or blue pen. This is also quite a time-consuming technique, to be honest and not something I would like to do with a class of thirty.
3. and 4. These last two are variations on a theme – using a correction code. Here you write on the script using the colour of your choice and mark with a code [v = vocabulary; gr = grammar, and so on] what the problems are, and you probably write a comment at the end of the work as well. The difference between 3 and 4 is that in one you write the code and underline where the problem is, and in the other you write the code at the end or beginning of the line where the problem is – the students have to find the exact problem. These are the most time effective ways of responding to writing, short of just writing a comment and giving no particular feedback on discrete language points. However, with the students poor writing [and squared paper!] and your comments and code and underlining on top, the script does start to look messy – this was my driver to use the feedback form and to not write on the script.
This problem can easily be solved and this is the improvement that I suggest that you make. There is a slight cost though – like everything there is always a cost. However, as writing is so important to learning it is worth paying the cost. The solution is simple – instead of the students writing on any old piece of paper they have available, often squared [which is an abomination for language learning], they should use lined paper like the sheet below.
In this sheet there are two kinds of line. The white lines for the student to write on and the grey line for you to use to write comments, underline words or mark your code markings and so on. There is the marginal cost of the sheets of paper, but the improvements in legibility are enormous. It just gives you more space to respond and keeps your response separate from the student’s script.
So, we have a range of techniques to use when giving feedback on student writing. We can choose which is appropriate depending on the class size and the time available. The most important points I’d like you to take away from this though are that we have to give writing tasks, we need to provide developmental feedback, and we need to give ourselves time to do this, which means that we should spend less time on preparing for classes and allocate more time for responding to what students do in the lessons and do as homework.
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Thank you! Very useful!