Most classroom exercises, certainly in an ESL environment, conclude with feedback.
This is your chance to check the students’ answers and make sure they’ve absorbed the target language. But feedback can be so much more than a dull recitation of the answers; it is an opportunity to give the students another type of practice, something more spontaneous and natural, while you truly establish whether the material has been learned.
I explain my tactics to my students like this: I’m greedy. It’s not enough for me that you’ve practiced together, or written the answers in your notebook. I want to see living, spontaneous proof of genine language acquisition and a newly competent fluency in the target language.
I’ve observed a lot of teachers now, and I’ve seen this kind of thing far too often:
|Teacher:||What’s the answer to number three, Katie?|
|Teacher:||Good. And number four, Ron?|
|Teacher:||No, it’s B.|
Perhaps I don’t have to tell you how dreadfully ineffective and wasteful this is. The language is being entirely forgotten in favor of a feedback style which focuses purely on the answers. In this age of test-oriented teaching and score-obsessed administrators, we need to guard against this kind of dull and stunted exchange. Instead, here are my tips for getting excellent, useful and genuine feedback from your ESL students:
Embrace 4 Simple Ideas of Organizing Effective Post-Practice Feedback
Feedback Is a Production Opportunity
It’s not just about the answers. Your students have now had time to practice the language and here’s where they can excel, showing you their new competence. Make sure that, in each answer, they are trying to use the target language; even if it’s wrong, everyone will learn something from that. One way of doing this is to encourage full sentence answers. Here’s an example from my classroom in Boston:
Teacher: OK, how about number six. Satori? (Note the cold-calling… more on this later) Satori: True. Teacher: Awesome. Why is it true? (Perhaps my favorite classroom question) Satori: Because it says so in the article. Teacher: Ah, right. Remind me what it says? Satori: That the… (reading from the article) ‘The construction project was underfunded.’ Teacher: So, they had enough money, right? (Checking the target language) Satori: (Momentarily confused). No… Not enough money. Teacher: So, if it did have enough money, what could I call it? Satori: Erm… funded? Teacher: How about an adverb for that? (Waits five seconds). Maybe, ‘well funded’? Naomi: ‘Fully funded?’ Teacher: Nice, Naomi! That’s a good opposite for ‘under funded.’ Thanks, Satori. What’s next?
From an answer which could simply have been left at ‘True’ - a single word, without context, divorced from the target language - we generated a little discussion of the target word and its antonym. Satori produced twenty words instead of one, and we learned some useful vocabulary. She demonstrated an understanding of the word and its use which went far beyond the unthinking recitation of a short answer.
Feedback Is an Opportunity to Listen to Individuals
Practice time can be noisy - at least, we hope it is! - and it’s therefore often difficult to hear one student amid the din. Close monitoring is a good way to address this; another is to elicit feedback from individuals, especially those who might have been on the quiet side during the practice period.
This can be done in a variety of ways but I recommend cold-calling. Though it may sound unpleasant or even punitive, there’s no substitue for eliciting production from everyone, no matter their level or aptitudes; this is a way to offset the inevitable effects of the variance in student abilities - to level the playing field - and I recommend that you have your students become used to cold-callling virtually from the beginning.
Feedback Is a Confidence Builder
The flip-side of the cold-calling issue is that, especially when the answer is correct, individual and spontaneous responses to questions quickly build confidence. You can help by praising correct answers - and by praising solid effort, even if the answer isn’t great - and making it clear that mistakes are an inevitable and even welcome and necessary part of the language learning process. Address the problems and then shrug them off; a big smile helps to defuse the shame which some students feel at having answered incorrectly.
Feedback Is Sharing
It is very positive for students to hear the answers of their classmates, and to compare not only their responses but their pronunciation and use of language. This will happen naturally during feedback, but you can add to the process by encouraging alternative answers. Here’s an example from the feedback to an error correction exercise:
Teacher: OK, who’s got the next one? Michelle? Michelle: I’d change it to “She could have been ill”. Teacher: Sure, that works. Any other ideas on that one? (Open-handed gesture to the class) Rodrigo: Maybe, “She might have been ill”? Teacher: What do you think, gang? Can we use ‘could’ and ‘might’ in the same way there? Class: Yes / Same Teacher: I agree. Good answer, Rodrigo. What if we said, “She must have been ill”? Is that the same? Class: No / Not same Teacher: Ah, really? Why not? (Gestures for hands up) Su-Mee: ‘Must’ is more strong. Rodrigo: Yes, is too strong for here. Teacher: Why is it too strong? (Looks around, hoping to bring in more students) Hannah: We don’t know if she was ill. Class: Right / Can not know. Teacher: Excellent, guys. What’s the next one?
Again, we’re eliciting greater detail, more answers and more words in an environment where the opportunity to do so could easily have been missed. If a student makes a mistake, we analyze it quickly and move on, but the public airing of that problem is instructive for everyone.
Feedback is about much more than the answers; it’s an opportunity to discuss why a particular answer is right, and why others are wrong.
I encourage you to treat feedback like another production and practice opportunity, and to engage the students on a deeper level, discussing the nuts and bolts of the language and exposing important truths about its nature and use.