A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Tracking Students’ Varied Growth Patterns in the use of Linkers to Fine–tune Teacher Feedback

Sruti Akula

Abstract

Appropriate and adequate use of linkers is a crucial element of any good written text. In ESL contexts, students need to learn to move from using only coordinate linkers to also using subordinate linkers and markers for sign posting. These aspects of language are a part of scoring criteria and therefore become the basis for teacher feedback. However, one size cannot fit all as everyone’s learning curves and writing patterns are different. If teaching is to be learner centred, there is a need to find out what kinds of linkers are used by each student, and track their individual growth patterns so that feedback can also be suitably modified. In this paper, there has been an attempt to use standardised analytic criteria to make assessment more objective and to offer specific feedback. However, using standard criteria to place students on a learning curve might not be beneficial to them, because the criteria will be too general and therefore will not incorporate significant individual details that could better inform the teaching-learning process. In fact, the class teacher is the only person who can observe the “small gains” of the learners and individualize feedback. In this paper, the writing samples of four students are examined to capture instances of their growth in the use of linkers in argumentative essay writing in response to individualised teacher feedback at the higher secondary level. The findings suggest that the growth patterns in terms of the type, variety, and level (sentence, discourse) of linkers used vary across proficiency levels, implying that there is a need for individualized teacher feedback.

Keywords: Argumentative writing, assessment for learning, CCE (Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation), individualised teacher feedback, small gains

Introduction

The purpose of evaluation is to provide both certification and feedback, but in mainstream classrooms the focus is more on certification. Examining the existing state of evaluation, the National Curriculum Framework stated that the “current processes of evaluation, which measure and assess a very limited range of faculties, are highly inadequate and do not provide a complete picture of an individual’s abilities or progress towards fulfilling the aims of education” (2005:72). Formative assessment was therefore introduced in the Indian school curriculum to maximize learning opportunities by making assessment and learning complementary to each other. “Assessment for learning” aims to provide ample opportunities for diagnosis, feedback, self-assessment and peer-assessment, thus effectively supporting learning.  However, teachers often tend to simply score learners’ performance and not go beyond the scores. Research on the other hand clearly shows the need to go beyond the scores to capture the “small gains” (Tharu, 1981) of the learners, which can better inform the teaching-learning process. Lee (2011)  suggests giving scores for instance, only for the final drafts and providing only feedback for the other drafts.as the author observed that giving scores distracts the learners’ attention from feedback and often demotivates them or makes them complacent.

“Summative feedback, designed to evaluate writing as a product, has generally been replaced by formative feedback that points forward to the student’s future writing and the development of his or her writing processes” (Hyland & Hyland, 2006:1). According to Nicole & Dick (2006), formative feedback needs to clarify what good performance is, facilitate self-assessment, inform learners about their learning, encourage discussions around learning, motivate learners, create opportunities to bridge the gap between current and desired performance, and shape subsequent teaching. Saito (1994), stated that from the different kinds of feedback such as teacher correction, commentary, error identification, peer-correction, self-correction, teacher-student conferencing, and feedback using prompts, learners preferred teacher feedback over self and peer correction. Further, teacher-student conferences, especially collaborative sessions during writing conferences were found to be the most effective in helping learners become aware of the important aspects of writing (Goldstein & Conrad, 1990; Zamel, 1985).

These findings imply that formative assessment should not be seen merely as a formal mode of assessment that happens during the academic year. On the contrary, it needs to be viewed as an informal, ongoing mode of assessment where the teacher can track and evaluate the growth of learners to help them learn better. Such feedback, however, will have to fulfil the dual purpose of capturing overall student growth in that particular class, and also document individual variations. Criterion-referenced assessment (Glaser & Klaus, 1962, cited in Bachman, 1990) can be used to fulfil these dual purposes but the criteria need to be learner-centred and task specific. Using such criteria makes learners collaborate rather than compete with one another as they are motivated to reach the same goal, and all those who reach the goal are rewarded uniformly. Scoring criteria are usually used as fair assessment tools but with modifications, they can also be used as effective pedagogic tools. They have been used to raise learners’ awareness about task requirements and genre features (Andrade, 2000, 2005; Cresswell, 2000; Dyer, 1996; Flynn, 2004; Hillocks, 1995). Thus, task-specific assessment criteria can play a dual role; they can make assessment more valid and objective;  when used as pedagogic tools they can inform learners about the task requirements.

Nature of the Study

The data for this study has been collected from a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Hyderabad, which follows the CBSE syllabus. The writing samples of 4 learners (part of a larger study, comprising 51 learners, which is part of an ongoing doctoral work) were analysed. These learners’ pre-test and post-test scripts (mixed levels of proficiency within the group) were analysed to track their growth in terms of the linkers used in their writing.

In this twenty-five hour study that was spread over 2 months, students wrote multiple drafts of three argumentative writing tasks. Awareness raising strategies such as sharing assessment criteria and the use of self-evaluation checklists were explained to the learners. The assessment criteria were given to the learners in a simplified learner friendly form to enable them to become aware of the specific features of argumentative writing. When required, the criteria were also explained orally to the students. Learner writers also got inputs on the different types of linkers (how linkers are divided into types such as additive and contrastive with examples and usage), structure of a paragraph (topic sentence, supporting statements, and concluding sentence), examples of thesis statements, and the general to specific pyramid (for instance, in an essay that discusses social networking sites, progressing from a general concept like communication to specific details like social networks as platforms for the same)    They were encouraged to use at least two new linkers in their writing each day. They received analytic scores for their final drafts as well as individualised feedback for drafts. In addition, teacher-student discussions were conducted to clarify issues and elaborate on suggestions whenever needed. The feedback focused on aspects such as organization, appropriateness of linkers, argumentation and style.  The feedback was modified according toe the proficiency of each learner, his/her cognitive level and specific needs.

Data Analysis and Interpretation

The pre-test and post-test scripts of 4 learners were analyzed to capture growth in linker use.

The pre-test scores of these learners ranged from 5 to 10, with a maximum score of 15. However, their organisation scores ranged from 2 to 1, where 4 was the maximum they could receive. Though the total scores of the learners are widespread, there were minute differences in their organization scores and thus these scores did not capture the learners’ organization skills accurately.  In other words, the organization scores per se cannot inform the stakeholders about the aspects of organisation that the learner has mastered, or is yet to master, or is not aware of. This information is better provided by an examination of the number of linkers used in the essay, along with their correct and incorrect use (table 1).

Table 1

Pre-test scores showing the organization score and the number of linkers used

Student

Pre-test score 15

Organization score 4

Linkers used

Vishnu

10

2

6 (Correct use)/335

1-Incorrect use (causative)

Debraj

7.5

1.5

4 correct use/304

1-Incorrect use (conclusive)

Raviteja

5

1

1 correct use/131

1- incorrect use (Contrastive)

Abroar

5

1

Pre 5 correct use/184

3- incorrect use(additive)

 

Post-Test Scores With Organisation Score and Number of Linkers Used

The post-test scores of the learners showed an improvement in the overall writing proficiency of the learners with regard to argumentative essays. The organization scores also showed a similar improvement. However, neither the total scores nor the organization scores are able to inform us about the kind of improvement that the learners have achieved. The numbers of the linkers simply indicate that the learner used more linkers compared to the pre-test.  

Table 2

Post-Test Scores

Student

Post-test score 15

Organization score 4

Linkers used/word length

Vishnu

12

3

10 (correct use) / 350

1-Incorrect use (pronominal)

Debraj

12

3.5

15Correct use/335

Raviteja

8.5

2

17 correct use / 226

Abroar

6.5

1.5

16 correct use / 264

 

Compared to the information we got by examining the number of linkers used in Table 1, when we examine the types of linkers used as presented in Table 2, we find that although Vishnu’s pre-test score was 10 (organization-2), the range of linkers used in his essay was limited to basic linkers such as “so, but, such and these”. This indicates a lack of awareness of different types of cohesive devices. Similarly, Abroar, who scored 5 (organization-1) in his pre-test, also used basic linkers such as “and, which, it, so”. Raviteja, who scored 5 in his pre-test (organization-1) used only one linker “this” in his essay.  By contrast, Debraj, who scored 7.5 (organization-1.5) in his pre-test used a relatively better set of cohesive devises, namely, “for example, so, this, but on the other hand”. It is clear from this pattern that written proficiency need not always be directly proportional to the knowledge of linkers. The organization scores of the 4 students in this study range from 2 to 1. Nevertheless, since organization gets manifested not only through cohesive devises but also through paragraphing and logical progression of propositions, this organization score might not be representative of the learners’ knowledge of linkers. Thus, the scores, though analytic, might not provide appropriate guidance to the stakeholders (learners, teachers, parents) in the teaching-learning process. For example, if a teacher wants to observe the scores and give feedback, the teacher might not focus on organisation and more specifically on linker use for these four learners, whereas all of them need feedback on linker use.

Pre-Test

Table 3

Types of Linkers Used by Learners in the Pre-Test With the Linker and Number of Occurrences

Student

Additive

Pronominal

Causative

Contrastive

Illustrative

Vishnu

 

 

Such questions-1

These-1

So-1

But-3

 

Debraj

 

This device-1

So-1

But on the other hand-1

For example-1

Raviteja

 

This-1

 

 

 

Abroar

 And-2

Which-1

It-1

So-1

 

 

 

The linkers used in the pre-test fall into five categories—additive (1), pronominal (6), contrastive (2), causative (3) and illustrative (1). The number against the category indicates the number of occurrences of that type in the four pre-test texts (not counting more than one occurrence of the same linker in the learner’s text). It is evident from table 3 that pronominal linkers were used the most, followed by causative, then contrastive, then additive, and illustrative linkers were used the least.

Table 4

Types of Linkers  Used by Learners in the Post-Test With the Linker and Number of Occurrences

Student

Additive

Pronominal

Causative

Contrastive

Illustrative

Conclusive

Sequential linking phrase

Opinion

Vishnu

And-1

 In addition-1

These sites-1

Through social media-1

However-1 Nevertheless-1

 

What this all ends up in-1

To sum up-1

Every coin has two faces-1

Looking at the other side of the coin-1

 

Debraj

Also-1

 In addition-1

 Moreover-1

This peculiar way-1

These very websites-1

They-1

These networks-1 These viruses-1

This-1

As-1

But on the other side-1, But-1

Though-1

For example-1

To sum up-1

 

 

Raviteja

And-5

Such websites-2 They-1

These websites-3

So-1 Because-1

 

For example-1

Some examples of such viruses- 1

We conclude-1

 

In my opinion-1

Abroar

And-6

In addition-2 Also-1

They-4

Their performance-1

As a result-1

 

For example-1

 

 

 

 

Table 4 captures the growth of the learners with regard to the use of linkers.  The linkers used in the post-test fall into the following categories: additive (9), pronominal (12), contrastive (5), causative (5), sequential (2), conclusive (4), illustrative (4), and opinion (1). The number against the category indicates the number of occurrences of that type (not considering more than one occurrence of a linker in the learner’s text) in the four post-test texts.

If we observe the growth of the learners in terms of linkers, there are some interesting patterns. All the learners used more types of linkers in the post-test when compared to the pre-test. Pronominal, causative and additive linkers, which were used in the pre-test, were used by all 4 learners in the post-test. However, contrastive linkers were used only by Vishnu and Debraj in the post-test. Vishnu and Debraj also used conclusive linkers effectively (e.g. to sum up). Raviteja attempted to use conclusive linkers but was not very successful (e.g. we conclude-relatively less formal). Abroar did not use any conclusive linkers at all. While 3 learners used intra-paragraph linkers, Vishnu was the only learner to use inter-paragraph sequential linkers. Among the 4 learners who had incorrect linker uses in the pre-test, 3 learners did not have even one incorrect use in the post-test.

Furthermore, Debraj used the most varied types of linkers effectively in the post-test. The variety of words used under each type of linker also gives us relevant data about the growth of the learners. While Vishnu and Debraj showed variety in the use of linkers, Abroar and Raviteja repeatedly used some of the basic additive and pronominal linkers in the post-test (see table 4). It is important to note that, while the number of occurrences of a linker is  indicative of the growth of the learner, the range and variety of linker use can be captured only thorough the analysis of the actual linkers used, along with number of occurrences. One needs to remember, though, that the growth of the learners in terms of their use of linkers also depended on their entry level knowledge of linkers, their cognitive abilities and their written proficiency. Nevertheless, learners exhibited significant growth in their writing in terms of linkers.

Such growth, in a short span of time, can be attributed to the individualisation of feedback. For instance, Vishnu was advised that he should use illustrative linkers and better contrastive linkers; for this he was introduced to advance level linkers within the types that he was already using. Debraj was asked to use additive linkers and to use them in a varied manner. Raviteja was told to use a variety of contrastive linkers and was even provided with examples of appropriate linkers that could be used in his draft. Abroar was asked to use contrastive linkers with examples from the draft.     

Such individualised and fine-tuned feedback was accompanied by a one-on-one discussion, where clarifications and explanations were provided, with varied discussion focuses.  The variations in focus were either because of the kinds of questions raised by the learners, or because of what they had written and what I, as the teacher-researcher felt they needed to be taught.  For instance, Vishnu sought reasons for the suggestions made to him and wanted to understand the logic behind them. Debraj on the other hand, needed to be motivated to edit the draft by being told the reasons for the improvements. Abroar needed clarifications in L1 and could better articulate his doubts in L1 probably because of the metadiscoursal nature of the discussions. Thus, So, although the content of feedback that the learners received had a similar focus, (use of linkers) it was varied in terms of the depth of feedback given, the number of examples provided and the revisions made by the teacher. The high proficiency learners were given suggestions and indications while the low proficiency learners were given suggestions and more examples so as to make the feedback relevant and comprehensible to each learner.

This study has demonstrated that students with different capability levels and growth (within the same class), may have similar gaps in their awareness of linkers. Nevertheless, when they receive tailor-made inputs and individualised feedback, all of them gain in different ways. Furthermore, the scoring criteria, though analytic, might not capture the “small gains” of the learners in terms of specific aspects such as linkers. Teacher observations, an element of formative assessment, accompanied by task specific criteria, and learner focused feedback  can capture these kinds of gains so that learners’ attempts (whether successful or not) can guide subsequent learning sessions.

Conclusion

Individualised feedback in the form of analytic scores, teacher comments, conferences and whole class or group discussions at various stages of the writing process are invaluable in the learners’ writing development. While task-specific criteria can guide feedback to an extent, they cannot become the sole means of assessing growth. When learners’ cognitive abilities and growth patterns are different, the amount and kind of feedback relevant to them also varies. Teachers’ observations of learners’ growth patterns can help make feedback more specific and thus more effective. 

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Sruti Akula is a Ph.D. research scholar and a teaching assistant at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Her areas of interest are language testing and academic reading and writing.

ssshruthisyamala@gmail.com