Writing as a Form of Feedback in the EFL Classroom
Nevena Popovic, a teacher of English at the Bridge English Language Centre, a first-time author and an aspiring actress. She is in her final year of studies at the University of Philology and Arts in Kragujevac, Republic of Serbia. She put her academic career on hold in order to focus on her teaching career, but is looking forward to going back to the basics. She is a mother of two boys and her teaching experience goes beyond the classroom and she`s always looking forward to expanding her horizons.
There is a growing trend in the ELT world to pay attention to speaking, which results in teachers designing lessons where students have to produce a fair amount of spoken language. In training and conferences, even during the preparations for a certificate in Language teaching, they instruct teachers to pay attention to STT (student talk time) and TTT (teacher talk time).
Conversational lessons are in vogue. When we ask students which particular skills they want to hone they answer - speaking.
While I can agree that speaking is one of the primary principles of language reproduction, we should not, both as speakers and teachers of any language, focus less on other aspects of language acquisition and reproduction.
As the majority of adult learners take language courses (either in language schools, in learning and educational centers for adults or, nowadays online), and as their primary focus is on speaking and the development or improvement of speaking skills, teachers focus less on the writing.
When it comes to expressing their opinion, giving feedback or even writing a descriptive text, student literacy tends to below. Especially when it comes to analyzing content, interpretation and critical thinking. We can say the same for feedback.
This focus on writing in my lessons comes from two great passions of mine, reading, and writing. When I say writing, I do not mean academic research writing, but a creative one, as I have been doing that since I was a child. It helped me a lot during my studies in college.
Reading was an essential part of that process. I reckon my vocabulary would not be as rich today if it had not been for the books I have read. There is something more verbose in written expression than we can find in the spoken one. This is true if we live in a country where English is not the primary language of communication. Whenever I talk to my intermediate level students, I see the struggle when they try to express themselves in English. But when I tell them to express those thoughts in their mother tongue (even though I am not a speaker of the same) I can spot the difference.
I have focused on writing as it is an art of language reproduction. It might not be as “vocal” as speaking is, but it provides, both the teacher and the student, a lot more information about the student. Their level and their specific needs. At the same time, there are more and more papers on feedback, how to give it and how to ask for it from your students.
Most of the research done focuses on academic writing. Or on the development of writing skills in young learners. So far, I haven`t found much information on how to develop both skills in adult learning in language schools and lifelong learning contexts.
I have to note that I base my observations on teaching language in both private school and online settings, which focus on the development of speech and correct grammar, as well as vocabulary building for everyday purposes. This might account for the limited scope for writing. They use written English in business communication or to reply to their teacher`s emails. We associate writing and literacy to the volume of reading. And the time students will give to the development of these particular skills.
As the majority of adult learners take language courses (either in language schools, in learning and educational centers for adults or, nowadays online), and as their primary focus is on speaking and the development or improvement of speaking skills, teachers tend to focus less on the writing one). Then they want, either to change the course or to focus on something else.
Due to this, teachers do not put too much emphasis on developing writing skills and giving feedback. As it is not obligatory, students will rarely have the motivation to do extra work on the development of these skills.
Teacher trainers and scholars encourage teachers to give their students feedback on their learning progress, and give advice on future development. But they rarely ask for one for a variety of reasons. There is a difference between the ways teachers give feedback when they have a group or one-on-one lessons. Teachers give it in an oral form rather than a written one, unless they run a writing course. They give written feedback, usually at the end of the course, or the end of the academic year. It includes students who showed some progress, as well as areas for improvement.
But, when do we, as teachers, ask our students to give us written feedback on our teaching?
I have to be honest and say that the thought never occurred to me up until last year. I had a discussion with Mario Rinvolucri on the topic of written and oral surveys, writing letters to students and getting replies from them, during the ELT Forum in Bratislava. It gave me an idea on how to reflect on my teaching style and techniques. And to help my students express their own opinion in a way that would not be too direct or in some way intrusive. My experience, when it comes to teaching students from a culture different to my own, is that they will rarely be so open in verbalizing their opinion. This is something I have never encountered while teaching students in my country of origin. There were a few, although rare, examples when I received negative feedback. I have to note that those comments I value more than positive ones. Even though the positive feedback might be more encouraging. But, how will we improve if we don`t hear what are we doing wrong in our classroom?
I would also like to note that there are different types of feedback, as well as different forms. We regard written feedback from the teacher to the students as the best method, because it gives more opportunities for students to improve. We especially consider this a valuable form of feedback when it comes to written assignments.
Most authors state that students prefer indirect to direct feedback as it invites students to draw on their linguistic knowledge when attempting to correct the errors that we identified. The same authors also state that indirect feedback is more valued by the more advanced students while lower-level students benefit more from direct feedback.
In the environment in which I have been teaching, and based on the level of the majority of my students, I have used direct written feedback. A revelation came, when it comes to students` reflection on their studies and learning, as well as the feedback given about the teacher, from an article I found while researching the topic of feedback. The author stated, that if students do not make the effort to do their best on their assignment, he does not believe that they have the right to complain about their teachers.
I have discussed this with several of my colleagues and other ELT professionals, and most of them have never done that. I do not think it is about asking for feedback, but also how much we focus on teaching writing, apart from what is in the course books.
Well, I have asked several of my groups to send me, or bring me a “Dear teacher…” letter in which they would express their view on our lessons during the various courses that they had with me. I asked the same from several of my one-to-one students as well. I have to thank Phillip Kerr for giving me the tool, an activity he had presented to us during one of our teacher training sessions.
The results were more than satisfying, at least for me, as I received open, honest and direct feedback on what my students like or don`t like. I asked them to write one in the middle of our course, and one more at the end of the same.
When it comes to the content of the letters, the feedback was there, both the good and the bad. I got what I wanted. Open, honest feedback. Omit the language and the grammar, this was more valuable to my students. They did their best to cover up their mistakes, but most of them were there. And they correlated with the mistakes they make while speaking.
I read the letters, and in the first lesson after receiving the letters/emails (the form in which they wanted to write it I left to them). I thanked them all for being honest with me and we had a discussion on whether some things are necessary or not inside the classroom. And how to still have some of those things incorporated in their learning process. Opinions were unanimous, which showed me that they talk about our lessons.
Then, I reread the writings and corrected (commented on) the mistakes they made. I made a copy of the letters and printed the emails with my corrections and comments and gave them back to my students together with my reply, thanking them for doing this. I also asked them if they would like to have more written homework assignments. It would give them more time to practice their language skills, and would expose them to more reading materials during homework preparation, unlike the usual: “listen, watch this or that…”
The letters and emails that I`ve got in the middle of the course I used as reference points for the second feedback at the end of the course. And in the meantime, they worked on various projects and written assignments. They had to write CVs, cover letters, short stories, short newspaper articles, reviews, essays, etc. and that homework followed a particular vocabulary or grammar lesson. When it came to replying to business emails, I asked them to use authentic emails, omitting, of course, all the confidential data or names, if they were showing the email to me. It helped me and them to focus on specific problems in business email writing. I also asked them to check emails they received for errors and to try and correct them for their benefit.
This way of introducing writing had an aim to encompass the majority of topics and areas where they use written English. And at the same time, it improved the way they express their opinion on a variety of topics. They felt more comfortable speaking their minds. They opened more debates in lessons. It also gave me, as a teacher, more opportunities to correct them and follow their progress.
Most of them improved both in their writing and speaking. Vocabulary has grown (by how much is very individual), as well as the proper use of grammar. We (both me and the students) followed their progress in real-time (we didn`t have to wait for the end of the year/course to check how much they improved).
How much somebody progresses depends a lot on the motivation of the individual. But this was a good way for me to give them an extra push and motivate them to work on their language skills outside of the classroom setting. People who work in an international environment, or use English on a daily or weekly basis have more motivation (both intrinsic and extrinsic) than people who only learn English as a hobby (where levels of intrinsic motivation tend to vary as there is less extrinsic motivation).
In the same way we, as teachers and scholars, approach giving feedback, we should encourage our students to do the same. To pay attention to the coherency, to state facts and express opinions based on their observations, and some research (where this is applicable). And when it comes to their accuracy, it will come as long as we continue to provide them with good quality feedback (both positive and negative) and continue to follow their progress as long as they are with us.
In conclusion, I wanted to write this article, as I felt that there isn`t that much focus on writing in ESL classrooms. And they encourage us to use the communicative approach and humanize our learning, I found that a great way to do that might write, as it is student-centered and if developed it is one of the most personalized ones. It goes beyond simple corrections and filling in the gaps with the right word or tense. It can expand someone’s vocabulary and it is also a great way to reflect on both teaching and learning. Instead of copying what is on the board and forgetting about it after a week, this might be a good way for them (and in the end for us) to have a personal, intimate record of their learning (and for us teaching) process and progress.
Writing descriptive texts is one of the most universal ones, as it incorporates most of what we ask of our students when we want them to communicate their thoughts to us. It asks of them to create something new and unique to them, they transform old ideas into new forms, which in turn gives them more pleasure as they are making it personalized, and they can exercise playing with some of the ideas.
In feedback writing, they are using some of the elements of the descriptive writing. They also practice the precision of the written expression, critical thinking and stating their opinion. It improves both student and teacher self-reflection. The students are using self-reflection on their learning. And the feedback from students provides teachers with more material for their own self-reflection. In that case, both students and teachers are reaping the benefits of their labor.
Whatever research or approach you decide to follow, it is important to coordinate with your students and their preferences when it comes to feedback. That`s what I have been doing so far, and my results, so far have been positive.
This is, by no means an experiment conducted under strict and controlled conditions. I would like to point out that I am still developing the right way to give and receive feedback while encouraging my students to use writing as a form of language practice, I based this article more on my observations in the classroom, written hoping someone might find it useful.
Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.
Formative Assessment: Opportunities and Challenges in Secondary Language Education
Anna Jancová, Slovakia
Writing as a Form of Feedback in the EFL Classroom
Nevena Popovic, Serbia