Overt Teaching: Setting the Stage for Effective Feedback
Mark Heffernan has taught English for over 18 years. From the very beginning, he shared lesson ideas and started to run CPD sessions. He spent many years focusing on exam teaching before moving to Queen Mary University of London in 2016, where he teaches EAP and is a module convenor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
David Byrne has worked in EFL for over a decade and in that time has taught all the ages, levels and exams he could find. He’s worked in Ireland, England, Spain and South Korea, but the majority of his career has been spent in the U.K. where he currently works for EC English.
A challenge that perhaps every teacher has experienced in class is being able to give feedback that is personal to each student and their needs. It is a challenge for a number of reasons. Firstly, for many of us class size can make this a challenge. One teacher and many students can make this labour intensive, and this can mean that when it comes to giving effective feedback, we either don’t have the time to really go into it or quite simply we don’t have the student output clear enough in our heads in order to be able to give meaningful feedback. Another challenge can be that we as teachers speak a different language to our students. We live in a world of meta language; we understand what we mean when we talk to other practitioners but know that these conversations are off limits in the classroom. At IATEFL we delivered a talk that aimed to offer some solutions to these two problems in the form of what we call Overt Teaching.
Picture this scene. I (Mark) have set up a speaking activity and the students are happily using some of the target language. I am doing my best impression of a ninja and creeping around the classroom, trusty notebook in hand. I jot down some things to use in feedback, noting initials so that I know who said what. I’m midway through writing something when I hear a clanger from the other side of the room. Ears instantly prick up into dog mode and I frantically try to transcribe the mistake. I have managed to take notes on about 5 students’ speech but notice that 3 pairs have by now stopped speaking. I give the 1-minute warning and start to move to the board to write up some of the feedback. 3 minutes later, my feedback is written beautifully on the board. I stand back and survey my word. I notice it is primarily grammatical but am pleased to see there is a pronunciation vowel sound issue on there too. All good!
However, what was the aim for the speaking exercise? Was I doing speaking to practise grammatical accuracy? Was it instead to work on pronunciation of vowel sounds? Was I focusing on fluency? On recycling new lexis? Was it about functional language?
Surely the feedback I give should match the task. But how?
For us, this starts at the beginning of the lesson, with aims and objectives which are discussed with students. Bringing them into our intent can allow them to understand why we are looking at a grammar point they think they already know. Explaining the functionality of target language or skill gives them a personal stake in acquiring it. This is the first step. During the lesson we constantly elicit, prompt, and explain the micro-aims of the lesson stages and seek to relate it to the student’s life outside. It is also important though that we give them space for reflection on this, as who knows the student’s intent better than the student?
With students onboard with our aims and objectives it is time to move to the second part of our focus: Feedback. As discussed above, with the best will in the world as teachers we are not omnipresent omnipotent beings able to assess all class members at all times. So what we need is students who have the skills to be effective listeners and feedback givers. The benefits of this are two-fold. If students are listening with a purpose, we can avoid the situation I am sure you might have sometime had where students are waiting for their turn to speak. By setting them with a criteria, more on this to come, we give them a task as they listen. That means the listening is functioning as a model for them to learn from and reflect on. Two people are learning as one speaks. Secondly, by allowing this feedback to happen student to student it can be better focused on what the students actually feel they need to improve. Personalised, focused feedback. Not generic feedback on grammar.
However, in order for that to happen, we need to have discussed what success might be with our students. For a lot of our ideas on this we are indebted to Hattie and Clarke, whose research in this area is incredible. Outlining what we think a good model should include, via elicitation or just explaining gives students something to aim for and avoids the issue of students only correcting grammar, which may or may not be accurate. I love to ask students to listen for things like the range of structures, or the tone – how did you feel as you listened. These types of tasks act as a mirror for the students’ own production. Crucially, the students also must be given a chance to repeat the task. Without this we are left with feedback to no purpose. Why care about the feedback if you can’t then go and do something with it.
So, what as the teacher are you doing here? The same that you were doing before, monitoring, listening, noting, praising and cajoling. Offering increased levels of challenge to some; scaffolding for others. However, the stress to board everything is gone. You are able to oversee and see over the work. Noting things that are good to provide beneficial models. Pick out interesting points as you hear them. Your students also know why these are the aspects you are focusing on as you have discussed it with them, so you have moved away from the notion that feedback is about grammar mistakes.
The result of all of this is that we have a teacher who is less stressed. Students who are empowered to put the lesson into action outside the walls of our classroom. Students who have increased the time spent learning due to them now being active participants when others speak. An increase in meaningful feedback being given, which in turn means more learning opportunities. Students able to control which aspects of a task they focus on and better assess their own progress, which can be especially important from B1 onwards when students believe their progress has plateaued.
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