How can I give constructive feedback on speaking tasks?
Speaking is often the language skill that learners most want to improve, so it is important that teachers give them plenty of opportunities in the classroom to practice, but just as important is providing meaningful feedback. In large group classes, students can sometimes get frustrated doing speaking activities with other students, as they may feel that they are not getting enough of the teacher’s attention. How we give feedback can help students appreciate the value of speaking tasks in the classroom, and improve their confidence, accuracy and fluency. What feedback to give and how to give it will depend on a number of factors, and using a variety of feedback techniques can appeal to different types of learners.
When to give feedback
Nobody likes being interrupted, and generally, it is probably better to give feedback immediately after an activity, so that learners do not lose confidence as they are doing the task. However, if you give feedback at the end of a speaking task, it can be good to then offer learners a second opportunity to do the same (or an adapted version) of the task straight away, to put it into practice.
As an example, you might ask students to simply talk about what they did at the weekend for a few minutes in pairs at the beginning of a class as a gentle warm up activity whilst students arrive. You can monitor this activity, and listen out for examples of good language and any errors. Here the focus might be on irregular past tenses for example. After a few minutes, if students are struggling with this, you could write a few of these verbs on the board, and ask students what the past tenses are. Then, you could ask students to swap partners and do the task again. Hopefully, having gently reminded them of the irregular verbs, they might be able to use them more effectively this time, as well as having the opportunity to speak to a different classmate.
How to give feedback
Feedback can be given in a number of ways. One way is to silently monitor speaking activities -if you can, move around the room without being too intrusive, so that you can listen in on different pairs or groups. Have a notebook where you subtly note down examples of both good language and errors. Try not to interrupt, but answer any questions that students have during the task. If you have a very large group, you can focus on different sets of students for each activity, so that all students feel included in feedback. At the end of the activity, you can simply write some of your samples on the board. Set a time limit for students to work in pairs to identify which are examples of good language and which could be improved or are errors, before sharing their ideas together, so that students are being active in error correction.
Another method is to carefully listen to different groups or pairs for a couple of minutes. As you listen, you can participate a little in the activity - asking questions to get students to expand their ideas. If you hear an error you can gently repeat back what the students have said, emphasising the mistake - e.g. “you GO to the cinema last Friday?” and see if they can correct the error. This needs to be done sensitively, but it has the advantage of letting students self-correct. At the end of the activity you can ask students to share what they were talking about with each other. They should feel more confident doing this, as you have already given them feedback “privately” in their small groups or pairs. Remember feedback is not only about error correction but also finding out what your students had to say about the task topic, giving and exchanging opinions and developing ideas. This leads to a more student-centred approach where the learners are doing most of the talking.
It’s a good idea to encourage students to make their own notes from any feedback, and let them choose what they want to write down- remember not all feedback will be relevant to them. Let students get used to self -reflection. If they can recognise their own typical errors, this is a great step towards them making less of them. Always include examples of positive language use too, and remind students that, if they see a mistake that they have made written down, or if you correct something, this doesn’t matter, as they are examples of typical errors that are common in this group or level and will almost certainly help the whole class. The idea of feedback is definitely not to shame anyone, and students should always feel that the classroom is a “safe space” for making errors or asking questions. It’s important to establish this idea from the start of a course.
What should we give feedback on?
It’s important students are clear about the objective of the task, and this will also determine what you give feedback on. If you are focusing on a grammar point, then obviously accuracy will be important and you should focus on mostly correcting errors with that particular grammar point. If you see that some learners don’t have any problems, then offer additional feedback on something like word stress or intonation. Offering differentiated feedback and encouraging learners to focus on what is most relevant for them means that all learners will be getting something useful out of the session.
If the activity you are doing is focused on fluency, then you shouldn’t correct every grammar mistake that you hear, but perhaps you might focus on things like discourse markers, or linking words.
One fluency activity is to ask students to talk about something that they know a lot about. You could use a 3-2-1 activity. Put students in pairs and firstly give them 3 minutes to talk about “a passion” - this could be anything - cooking, climbing, playing video games etc. Time the students and encourage their partners to ask them more questions. The idea is that students should be so familiar with their chosen topic that they have a lot to say. After 3 minutes, re-group students into different pairs and get them to repeat the same activity, but this time they have 2 minutes. The idea is that they include the same information but will have to be more succinct. After two minutes they swap partners again and repeat the same activity one final time, but this time they only have 1 minute. This activity focuses students as they are no longer thinking so much about the content of what they are saying, rather focusing on how they say it. At the end of each turn, you can put up some language samples on the board. Finally, ask the students to reflect and give feedback on if it was easier to talk for 3 minutes or 1 minute, and which time they felt they spoke more fluently, and how they achieved this.
Including a focus on pronunciation in any speaking feedback is also important, as it is unlikely that the main focus of a speaking activity will be pronunciation (unless you are doing some sort of drill activity). Remember to focus not just on word-level sounds, but also other features such as word stress and intonation, providing examples that students can copy.
Overall, focusing on positive and negative points in feedback, offering feedback on different areas of language (e.g. grammar and intonation), as well as taking a genuine interest in your students’ opinions and encouraging them in feedback to expand on their ideas (after all, speaking is about communicating!) will mean that your learners feel free to express themselves without worrying about errors. The goal is that they grow in confidence as we help them develop all aspects of their speaking skills.
Cath McLellan has been teaching English for around twenty years, mostly in Spain, but with short stays in Italy, Hong Kong and Japan. She is a coordinator on TeachingEnglish, has written materials for the Premier Skills English website, Learn English Print, as well as editing and writing articles on language and UK culture for the British Council Spain blog. In her free time she likes reading, cooking and getting out of the city for long walks.
Thank you so very much for such an insightful article. Loved it.
Important notice: don't interrupt learners, wait till they're done before giving feedback