Introduction: Setting the Context
In ESL classrooms, academic skills such as reading and writing get a lot of prominence, but the learning of writing is mostly seen as a product. Hence, it is expected that students produce texts that are well formed every time they are given a writing task. Furthermore, they are expected to show knowledge of writing on various genres. They are given tasks such as essays, letters, and notes and are expected to express a variety of language functions such as informing, narrating, describing, explaining, elaborating, exemplifying, expressing opinion, and arguing. Their scripts are evaluated and scores are awarded and this is done some three to four times in a year. ESL teachers rarely ever treat writing as a process because this means showing an understanding that the skill would gradually develop over a period of time. However, to treat writing as a process is not easy as it requires teacher involvement at every stage. It needs that the teacher look for smaller gains and not treat the script as a finished product on which he/she can mark errors.
Writing to express meaning is therefore a complex process and involves a lot of inherent sub-parts such as:
- genre knowledge or who are the likely readers of the text
- task specific vocabulary, grammar, and language functions
- discourse structure knowledge or how to communicate ideas coherently
- topic knowledge and its integration from sources
The aim of this paper is to look at the different ways of giving feedback to students on their writing and treat the learning of the skill as a process and not as a product. In this regard, a few ideas have been presented for teachers to consider how to make feedback effective.
What is Feedback?
Feedback is a very useful strategy that teachers can use to enhance student writing. To give feedback, teachers need to engage with the script at various levels. They need to take note of what a student is capable of doing and contrast it with the sub-skills which need to be further worked upon. Thus, feedback is essentially an estimate of student capability and may be used to appreciate what has been achieved and give support to what needs to be further acquired.
Based on his/her estimate of what needs attention, the teacher can provide feedback at two levels: general feedback on the writing aspects (e.g., language, coherence) and specific feedback on instances of errors in the student’s text. Feedback on specific features will direct the student’s attention to those errors and make him/her rectify them for a specific text. In the long term, such feedback would help the writing knowledge of students grow and make them self-reliant.
How to Plan Feedback?
As writing is a complex skill made up of various micro skills. Teachers therefore first need to plan bearing in mind the following points:
- What are the different parts involved in writing a text?
- How to give feedback on problems related to each part?
- How to keep an account of the type of feedback each student needs?
- How to understand that a student has been able to incorporate the feedback?
Teachers need to create a mechanism to provide feedback. This can be done quite easily by creating a simple framework that is suited to the current levels of the students as well as the demands of the writing task at hand. Thus, for every writing task, three sub-parts can be considered for feedback –
- text organization
As a second step, teachers need to consider a writing task and create a bank of ideas pertaining to each of these sub-parts for that task. The “idea bank” will comprise of ideas that the teachers expect to find in the students’ writing for a specific task. Let us consider how a teacher can do this for a pre-intermediate level task described as follows:
Your class is being taken for a summer camp to a place outside of your city for a week. Write a letter of apology in about 150 words to your class teacher for not being able to go for the camp. Give appropriate reasons why you cannot join.
Table 1: Idea bank
Cue questions to generate ideas
What ideas to include in the letter?
-I am sorry to inform you that…;
-I regret to inform you that…;
-I apologize that I won’t be able…;
-parents did not give permission/parents have planned a trip to…/
-plan to visit grandparents cannot be cancelled/some guests are expected to come/we will have a family function
-Next time would like to join; talk to classmates after they get back
-How many parts will the letter have? (assuming that the students already know the format of a formal letter)
-Introduction – express apology
-Body – cite a reason or two
-Conclusion – express willingness to go the next time
-What tense do you need to include?
-Use present tense to state your inability and express apology.
-Use simple past tense to cite reason(s): My parents have already booked tickets to visit…
-Pay attention to subject-verb-agreement
-How to connect ideas? Use linkers to express addition (and, also), contrast (but, although), give reason (because, as, so)
One of the easiest ways of making the idea bank is by asking cue questions that would draw the students’ attention to specific details of the task and the sub-parts of writing. This is shown in table 1. To keep an account of every student’s capabilities, the teacher can add a third column to the table and make notes for each student on each aspect.
How to Give Feedback?
The style of giving feedback is very crucial. Usually teachers provide corrections of grammar and vocabulary. This is the most direct form of feedback. Teachers adopt this style because they believe that the aim of feedback is to correct errors. While this style is the easiest for the teacher to adopt, every time he/she corrects an error in a script, the student misses out on an opportunity to consider the mistake and work it out on his/her own. The learning therefore remains incomplete and the student continues to rely on the teacher for error correction. Also, this kind of structural feedback fails to improve the writing quality, especially coherence.
In real life, parents or caregivers mostly give feedback to “show” how to do a job better. In school, this can translate to giving a report to the students of what they have been able to do. This appreciation is to motivate them, since the school is a formal learning context. The other role of pedagogic feedback is to “enable” learning by giving suggestions that may help students do the task better. The feedback would serve as a guide for the students to work a way out of their mistakes on their own and to attempt writing an improved version. Only then can writing knowledge emerge. So in this section, we will discuss a model of feedback that can “enable” students to become self-reliant and show them “how to monitor” their writing continually.
To turn a mistake into a learning opportunity, teachers should make their feedback as indirect as possible. Their written comments followed by oral feedback should help students arrive at correct form and express meaning better. I have listed the steps of feedback, beginning with the most indirect form where less help is given, to levels where more help is given by directly providing the corrections and supporting exercises.
1: Look at the script and comment on what has been achieved and what has to be worked upon. You may need to give feedback mostly at the discourse level. This is the most indirect feedback.
2: Use a strategy to make your students notice the problems. Try not to identify the exact error. Underline the problematic parts and give general comments in the margin beside each paragraph. Some examples of comments are: “Is there anything wrong here? You need to review/rewrite this section. Here the link is missing.” This feedback is a bit more direct, and can largely be at the discourse level with some language suggestions.
3: Ask direct questions for each problem: “Is this correct? Why have you used this word here?” (Refer to the idea bank in table 1) This will help you identify the error more directly than the previous two stages. If the student is not able to answer, give some cues or alternatives. Help him/her arrive at the corrections independently. This feedback can be both at a discourse and language level. If the student comes up with a nearly correct answer, appreciate him/her: “That’s correct! That’s a better answer! Now your text reads better, isn’t it?”
4: At this level, you can point out the errors directly. But explain with examples the reason behind each error and what needs to be done to rectify it. For language errors, you can give the correct forms. For idea level problems, ask questions such as: “What can you do to improve your writing? Can these two ideas be linked? How? You may need to work with all three parts listed in table 1.
5: Those who have recurrent problems with grammar, vocabulary, linkers, and sentence construction need to practice some tasks for each aspect. For instance, if a student has problems in maintaining uniformity of tense, give texts with tense errors and ask him/her to edit them. If they have problems in the content, give them some topics and ask them to prepare a list of ideas for each topic. Tell them whether the ideas they have listed are appropriate or not. Provide an explanation about ideas that may form “a set” for a topic. Allow the use of L1 when required (Mukhopadhyay, 2016) on the use of L1 for feedback on L2 writing.
A point to be noted here is that the “degree of directness” in the feedback will depend on students’ level of proficiency. For instance, at beginner and pre-intermediate levels, teachers can give more direct feedback, i.e. use steps 4 and 5 more often.
How to record growth?
In classes, teachers mostly deal with a large number of students and to give individual feedback is daunting. It is even more difficult to record individual growth patterns. So, teachers may not attempt this task often. However, they can do it occasionally to get a sense of how the writing skills of their students have developed over a period of time. While recording growth, teachers can use the idea bank and keep a note of each student’s progress across a series of tasks in a given course. Then across tasks, comments for each student and the correction carried out can be collectively tabulated and interpreted. This will give a student specific assessment of growth in each sub-skill. Also, the frequency of use of the steps—indirect to direct—can be collected for each student. In this way, teachers can systematically build estimates of student growth over time and understand the process of writing better.
To conclude, in this paper I have outlined the different ways of giving balanced and systematic feedback to help students understand what they have achieved and the areas where they still need to work. I have looked at writing as a process—one that can be developed based on the feedback received. I have also tried to explain the distinction between direct and indirect feedback for the benefit of the teachers. The ideas presented in the paper, especially the ones on recording student growth can be taken up for further research to study the impact of feedback on student writing.
Durairajan, G. (2015). Assessing learners: A pedagogic resource. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.
Mukhopadhyay, L. (2016). Countering the ‘two-solitude’ instructional mode in ESL writing. In M. K. Mishra & A. Mahanand, (Eds.). Multilingual education in India: The case for English. Delhi: Viva Books.
Lina Mukhopadhyay teaches in the Department of Materials Development, Testing and Evaluation, The English and Foreign Languages University. Her research interests are in academic writing, SLA, bilingual education and language testing.