The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Feedback in the teaching of second language writing

Question:

Submitted by Dian Riany,  Indonesia

What is the role of feedback in the teaching of second language writing?

Dr Richards responds:

An important issue in the teaching of writing is how to give students feedback on their written work, when to give it, by whom, and how. Nothing is more discouraging for a teacher than to have the daunting task of reading and commenting on 40 or 50 students essays as a weekend chore. Some help is offered by word-processing programs if students prepare their writing on a computer, since software is available to identify spelling and simple grammatical problems. However intervention by the teacher cannot easily be avoided. Such feedback may include comments on any aspects of piece of written work, including spelling, grammar, style and organization. However the effect of such feedback is not always easy to determine. Do students learn from it or do they simply pay minimum attention to it and move on to their next assignment?

Some teachers use checklists in which a score is given for each different aspect of a composition, such as content, organization, vocabulary, language and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, paragraphing).

The kind of feedback the teacher gives may depend on what stage in the writing process the writing represents (e.g. drafting, composing, editing) and feedback should both encourage students (through praise for ideas, originality etc) as well as guide them towards needed improvements.

Peer-feedback is an alternative to teacher feedback and is an important feature of a process approach to writing instruction. With this approach student read drafts of each other’s compositions and may use checklists or question sets to help them read and respond to their partner’s writing.  Not all teachers and students appreciate the value of peer feedback however. Teachers may feel that students comment on the wrong things or give incorrect feedback. Students may not value their partner’s views or comments. However it does offer a more comfortable feedback process and is usually supplemented by teacher feedback as well.

The following is a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to feedback on students’ sentence-level errors in their writing:

Feedback method Advantages Disadvantages
1 Complete reformulation of errors by teacher Students receive accurate and comprehensive feedback, which specifically addresses their language needs. Time consuming for teacher. Does not encourage cognitive processing of errors by students so there may be no long-term benefits. The quantity of corrections may discourage students.
2 In-class peer feedback Reduces teacher’s workload. Provides a wider audience for students’ work, which can have a motivating effect. Encourages greater cognitive processing of errors by students and promotes learner independence. Encourages collaboration and negotiation of meaning in the classroom. Students require training in how give constructive feedback, which takes time away from actual writing practice. May be perceived as less valuable feedback by students themselves. Time-consuming in-class activity. Feedback can be (a) wrong or (b) less helpful than teacher’s comments.
3 Selective feedback by the teacher on specific issues or target language of current concern. Reduces teacher’s workload. Feedback can be tailored to ongoing themes in the class. Less comprehensive feedback provided which may not address students’ particular concerns.
4 Minimal marking (marking codes, underlining problem areas etc_ Reduces teacher’s workload. Encourages greater cognitive processing by students. May not provide sufficient support for less proficient students to correct errors by themselves.
5 No feedback on errors Reduces teacher’s workload. Increases the amount of time for actual writing practice, which should benefit students’ writing fluency. Provides no support or encouragement for students to correct errors. Goes against students’ desire for feedback and may cause frustration.