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February 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Meaning-based Feedback to Support Students’ Written Language Development

Phil Chappell teaches on postgraduate Applied Linguistics and TESOL courses at Macquarie University, Australia. His main teaching focus is linguistics for language teaching and developing reflective practice. He also researches classroom talk and out-of-class language learning. Email: philip.chappell@mq.edu.au, http://www.philchappell.com

 

Orientation

It was lunchtime and several of us were sitting around a table, unwinding after morning classes, chatting and chilling. This was the time for re-energising after three or four hours of classes between 7 am and Noon. A couple more classes to go for many; off elsewhere for others.

Miss T strode in and sat down rather dramatically, slapping a pile of papers on the table. “Time to grade these papers”, she announced to no one in particular. Miss T selected the first paper and immediately commenced annotating it with her red pen. Words were circled. Errors were crossed out. Terse comments were added. A letter was added to the top right-hand corner and circled. It was an upper-case F. This process continued again and again, different annotations, different grades, same coloured ink.

A couple of weeks later, I was in my office waiting for Yim. Yim found learning English difficult. Writing was her Achilles heel, and I was giving her some additional out-of-class help. She needed to pass the “Level 8 test” and she had already failed it twice, which meant repeating a lower level for six weeks at a time. She would do some free writing, then we would look at it together, talking about her ideas, looking at her choices of vocabulary and her sentence grammar. Several days before, she had told me her homework task for her class was to write a review of a movie she had recently seen. It was an interesting movie – The Iron Ladies – about a group of gay and transgender athletes playing together in a volleyball team. She had told me the storyline and we had discussed the movie together for a while. Yim really liked that movie.

After her class, Yim came into my office in tears. I hadn’t seen her upset like this before. She showed me her movie review, upon which her teacher had given feedback. She told me how many hours she had spent writing the review. There was lots of blue writing across the page. “No participle”. “No feeling verbs”. “What tense is this? We did this tense last week”. And so on. On top of the page: “Fail. See me”. Mr P had given Yim his feedback. Yim was distraught. How was she to pass the “Level 8 test” with writing this bad?

These two recounts are from when I was working in an English language centre in Bangkok, Thailand. Students were adults and young adults who worked in downtown Bangkok, studied at nearby universities, or had other backgrounds including those that required English language skills. Having been a supervisor at the centre for several years, I can confidently say that this is not representative of how teachers gave feedback on students’ writing. However, both are, for me, critical incidents that have remained in my memory over the years. These two teachers – Miss T and Mr P – were working from a model of some sorts that informed their approach to communicating to their students about their writing. Whatever model they were using, it resulted in an approach that was clearly not supporting the language learning and development of the students in these teachers’ classes. It was not supporting student engagement. It was not supporting positive emotional involvement in language learning. It was not supporting students learning the skills of writing in English – clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts. I could go on, however I run the risk of sounding like Miss T or Mr P, with all these negative evaluations.

These days I am in a privileged position and am teaching postgraduate TESOL courses at a university in Sydney. One of the subjects I teach is Linguistics and Language Teaching. In one of the weekly topics, we work through a model and an approach to giving feedback to students on their writing. I wish I had developed and shared this model and approach years ago with Miss T and Mr P. I’d like to share it with HLT readers now.

 

Principles of effective feedback on students’ writing

Let’s start with a basic premise. We write in order to communicate with readers. Depending on the genre, we might be explaining something, describing someone, instructing people in how to do something, narrating a story, reminding ourselves to do things, and so on. For most of the time, in the real world, when we write, we have an audience in mind. We craft our words, phrases, clauses, paragraphs and whole texts around how we want our readers to respond to our ideas. Is this explanation clear for my audience? Are my instructions concise and easy to follow? Have I created a vivid orientation that will motivate people to read my narrative? In other words, we are first and foremost concerned with the meanings we are making, and how those meanings will be interpreted by our readers.

Miss T and Mr P failed to do what one would expect a reader to do after they have read a text. React to the content. “What an interesting story”. “I understand your arguments but am not sure I agree with your conclusion”. “This recipe looks easy. I might even try to make it myself”. These comments spoken to the student, or better still, written alongside the text, show the student that you have read what they have written, appreciated what they have written, and treated what they have written as a legitimate form of communication. This is the first principle for effectively responding to students’ writing.

  1. Focus first on meaning-based responses.
    1. How clearly has the student achieved the overall communicative purpose of their text?
    2. As a real-world reader, what are your responses to the student’s text?

Once we have made an assessment of the overall success of the text in terms of the student writer achieving their goal, and after we have responded in a genuine way to the content, we can move on to the next critical aspect of a written text – how it is organised. Texts differ in the way the writer has presented the different “bundles of meaning”. A narrative will usually be organised in a pattern similar to the following, where “>” signifies a different stage.

Orientation>Series of events>Complication>Resolution/Evaluation

A discussion will follow an organisational pattern such as:

Identification of issue>Arguments for>Arguments against>Recommendation

If one of these stages is missing, it is highly unlikely that the writer will have achieved her/his communicative purpose. There would be a sense of incompleteness. Similarly, if the stages get mixed up, for example, in a discussion, the student writer presents the arguments for and against in a random manner, readers may not follow the arguments and the recommendation stage is likely to appear implausible. A large part of the success of written texts comes down to how the “bundles of meaning” unfold in a coherent way. This gives us the second principle for effectively responding to students’ writing.

  1. Focus next on how the student has organised their text.

If the text is well organised, with clear staging, it is important that you tell the student this. If there are organisational problems, these should be explicitly addressed. Hopefully you have presented and analysed models of successful texts in your lessons, which you can refer the student back to.

Once we have responded to how well the student has organised the different stages of meaning in the text, we can work with the next important aspect of providing feedback. Are there any parts of the text that you can’t understand? This may be at word level, possibly due to spelling errors. Or it could be a phrase that is incorrect due to word order. Perhaps it’s a clause that contains a verb that doesn’t make sense. These parts of a student’s text that cannot be understood by readers need to be addressed. This reflects our third principle for effectively responding to students’ writing.

  1. Focus on any sections of the text where meaning is impeded/unable to be understood.

The most effective way to do this is undoubtedly to ask the student what s/he means. Quite often, students can articulate the meanings they are attempting in their writing by saying aloud what they want to mean. It is important at this stage of feedback that teachers do not take over, or appropriate, the student’s meanings. We need to give our students ample opportunity to encode what they want to mean into spoken and then written language.

Now that we’ve provided feedback and worked on any breakdown in meaning, we can move on to looking at the important language features that the student’s text requires and provide feedback on how successfully they have used these language features. This will partly depend on the model of grammar being used in the curriculum.

For ELT, I find functional grammar to be especially useful (see a brief overview here), together with knowledge about different text types. For example, the important language features in stories, or narratives, include human and concrete participants (nouns), past action processes (past tense verb groups), adverbials to express details of time, place, manner and the like. Narratives also contain a range of simple and compound sentences to connect ideas. These are experiential (using language to express ideas) and logical (using language to connect ideas) meanings realised in the lexicogrammar of field. Narratives consist mainly of declaratives and often contain reported speech. Evaluative language is often used to show emotion, make judgements and show appreciation of others and of what is going on. These are interpersonal meanings (using language to interact with others and evaluate the world) realised in the lexicogrammar of tenor. Finally, narratives are made cohesive by using strings of lexical chains (e.g. forest – the trees – the woods – the clearing – a hollowed-out tree), and the way sentences begin (themes) is varied to help the story unfold. These are textual meanings (using language to create cohesive texts) realised in the lexicogrammar of mode. Focusing on these language features reflects our fourth principle for effectively responding to students’ writing.

  1. Focus on how successfully the student writer has used the key language features for this type of text, and what language features need to be worked on further.

Underlying this principle is the notion that we should not overwhelm our students with too much language to work on. The art of successful feedback at the word, phrase and clause level is to focus. Focus the student writer’s attention on the most important grammar and vocabulary (lexicogrammar) for this text type. Keep in mind that our students are developing language proficiency. Not all errors need equal attention at the one time. I wish I were able to go back in time and tell this to Miss T and Mr P.

Up to this point, I have outlined principles and a process for giving feedback on students’ writing. We have worked through the student’s text, focusing first on the ideas, then on how well s/he has communicated meanings to achieve the overall purpose of the text, and then on any breakdown in meanings. We have also thought about the text type and the key lexicogrammar the student writer ought to be using in the text. Our final principle relates to what to do next.

  1. What can you say/do to support the student’s efforts to write a more successful next draft?

The first, very practical consideration, is how to communicate all the above to the student. In summary, I am suggesting feedback follows the following steps.

  1. Does the student achieve the overall communicative purpose of the text type?
  2. What is your reaction, as a reader, to the content of what the student has written?
  3. Is the text organised appropriately?
  4. Are there any sections of the text that where meaning is impeded, or is unable to be understood?
  5. What key language features need to be worked on, focusing on
    1. language for expressing ideas,
    2. language for connecting ideas,
    3. language for interacting with others,
    4. language for creating cohesive texts?

In a perfect world, we would have the time to sit with each student and go through each step methodically, negotiating meaning along the way, and ultimately leading to the student writing another more sophisticated draft. However, with time constraints, this is often not possible. Some suggestions are listed below, and I’m sure readers will have more of their own.

 

Providing feedback

  • In class, assign small group work (perhaps peer revision of each other’s texts) and have individual writing conferences with students at a table.
  • In class, present the above 5 steps (or a modified form), and have pairs review each other’s texts.
  • Out of class, make notes on a photocopied version of the students’ texts and return to them.
  • Out of class, use a digital whiteboard app to record your voice and also record your annotations of the students’ texts.

 

Conclusion

Supporting our students to mean what they want to mean in English as a second, or foreign, or additional language, should primarily focus on meaning-based feedback. Miss T and Mr P went straight for sentence-level grammatical correctness and evaluation rather than respecting the student’s text as a genuine piece of written communication. With the above principles in mind, we can provide meaningful, developmental, and consistent feedback that our students can hopefully use to improve their written language proficiency. Providing clear, explicit and focused feedback is an essential part of an English language teacher’s toolkit.

 

Please check the Creating a Motivating Environment course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the The Art and Skills of the Humanistic Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.

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    Phil Chappell, Australia

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