Sandy Millin: The importance of feedback

As a CELTA tutor, one of the main areas I notice candidates struggle with is what to do after a task is complete.

As a CELTA tutor, one of the main areas I notice candidates struggle with is what to do after a task is complete. How many times have you moved on to a new activity and the students are still asking questions about the previous one? Feedback is essential to give students a sense of closure and to validate what they have just done; otherwise, why did they bother doing it?

The way that you give feedback depends on the kind of task that the students have done. These can loosely be divided into ‘closed’ and ‘open-ended’ tasks. ‘Closed’ tasks are anything with fixed, clear answers which are unambiguous and where you can say ‘I have the right answer’, for example a reading or listening task, or a controlled practice exercise after you have introduced language. ‘Open-ended’ tasks are ones with no unambiguous correct answer, normally writing or speaking.
Feedback on closed tasks
The default setting many teachers start with is this:
T: What’s number 1?
S1: C.
T: Yes, C. What’s number 2?
S2: F.
T: No, it’s A. What’s number 3?
…and so on.
This has a number of disadvantages:
  • Ÿ It’s slow.
  • Ÿ Not everyone will necessarily catch all of the answers, and you may end up repeating them.
  • Ÿ It relies on the students’ listening skills.
  • Ÿ It’s pretty dull.
  • Ÿ The teacher is doing most of the work.
  • Ÿ There is no explanation for why particular answers are right or wrong.
  • Ÿ The teacher often moves around the room in a circle, calling on each student in turn. Students only concentrate on the answer they’re going to give and don’t pay attention to the others. Once they’ve spoken, they stop listening.
  • Ÿ If they allow anyone to answer, more confident/louder students will tend to dominate.
  • Some teachers may add a little variation by calling on students at random, or by asking students why a particular answer is correct, but it’s still unlikely that this is the most efficient use of anyone’s time.
Here are a few tweaks you can make to this approach:
After any task where students have worked alone, add a peer check. With the simple instruction ‘Check together’ or ‘Do you have the same?’, students have the chance to speak more (increase STT), check their answers, fill in any blanks they don’t have, and improve their confidence before having to answer the questions in open class.
Put the answers on the board as you go through the task. This provides visual support and avoids you having to repeat the answers because someone hasn’t heard. Note: this isn’t really necessary if there are only 2 or 3 questions.
Even better, have the students put the answers on the board. It’s a good task for fast finishers. Be wary of having one student writing for a long time while everyone is watching – try to get multiple students up at the same time, for example by putting the numbers into columns. Rather than telling the students exactly what is right or wrong, ask them to check whether they have the same as what is on the board or challenge them: ‘There are two mistakes. Can you find them?’
Written support is particularly important for any task where students have had to write an answer, not just a letter or number. Examples include putting words into the correct order to make a sentence, or writing words next to pictures when introducing vocabulary. Oral feedback is not enough here, as students need to be able to see that they have the right spelling/word order, and they need time to process it. I’d also recommend having students swap books when checking tasks like this, as they are more likely to notice a spelling mistake in somebody else’s work than they are in their own.
You can find many more alternatives to open-class feedback, including much more student-centred ways of approaching it, in Amanda Gamble’s post on OneStopEnglish.
Whatever you do, you need to be sure that all of the students have all of the correct answers by the end of the task.
Feedback on open-ended tasks
Monitoring is key when students are writing or speaking. Remember that to monitor effectively you need to take notes, so always have a pen and paper handy during these tasks. No matter how good your memory is, it’s impossible to remember everything you hear correctly, and by taking notes you can select the most important areas to give feedback on.
For open-ended tasks, you need two types of feedback:
  • Feedback on content
  • Feedback on language
Feedback on content is about validating what the students have just done, and taking it beyond just being something they did because the teacher told them to.
In speaking tasks, the simplest way to do this is to ask students to summarise what they spoke about, for example:
  • Did you have similar experiences?
  • What did Maria tell you, Fatih?
  • Who heard a good story? (Be prepared to hear silence at this point and have a follow-up question prepared!)
Not everyone needs to tell the whole class at this stage, as the pace is likely to drop. Monitoring closely should tell you who is likely to have something to say. Encourage students to make eye contact with everyone, not just direct their response to you. Task set-up is key here, as students need to know what kind of feedback they’re going to be required to give so they pay attention to those things during the task. It should also be clear whether they can take notes while listening or just have to remember the information.
The way you set up the task can also make feedback on content more rewarding and engaging. For example, rather than just setting a question for them to discuss like “Describe your perfect house”, add a level of challenge and giving them a real reason to listen: “Describe your perfect house. Listen to your partner and decide if you want to live in their house.” During feedback, you question will then be: “Whose house do you want to live in?”
This is true of writing tasks as well. You can display texts in a gallery around the walls, or switch papers between groups. By giving students a real reason to read each other’s work, they will engage on a deeper level. Avoid the question “Choose the best text.” as there are no criteria here and it is entirely subjective. For example, if students have written brochures advertising their city, you could ask them to choose which one the city should use. They will be more likely to give concrete reasons here, than if they’re simply asked to choose the best one. Make sure they know that this is the purpose of the task before they start writing!
Feedback on language is ultimately what the students are in the room for. One of the most common things students request is to be corrected more.
While monitoring, whether of speaking or writing tasks, make notes of both successful and unsuccessful uses of language. The simplest way to give feedback is to put three to four examples of the language on the board and number them:
  1. I recommend go to the museum.
  2. When there is strong rain, stay at your hotel. Don’t go out!
  3. Why don’t you go to the mountains?
Include enough context to help the students understand the problem. They work in pairs to decide whether the sentences are correct or not, again increasing student talking time and helping you to see who has problems with what. Then elicit the answers, and correct them clearly on the board, preferably using a different colour. It’s important to include particularly good uses of language, not just mistakes, as this will make students take notice of it and justify them experimenting with language.
Of course, the focus here is primarily on isolated uses of language, and it’s also important to provide feedback on areas such as turn-taking and interrupting in speaking, or paragraphing and layout in writing, but that would make this post even longer!
This is just scratching the surface of giving feedback, but I hope the tips are useful, and feel free to add other ideas to the comments.
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