Feedback On Students' Written Work - seminar notes
by Seamus O'Muircheartaigh
Seamus is an ELT consultant, as well a Life Coach & NLP Practioner, based in Madrid.
the four skills (reading, speaking, listening and writing)
it is fair to say that the writing skill has, for a long time,
been ignored or been treated with less respect than it deserves.
More often than not, it was seen to be something to do outside
the classroom and at best a chore. As regards giving students
feedback on the written work they do, again the same lack
of interest has often been prevalent, with teachers limiting
their often cryptic comments to one or two words or alternatively,
splattering the piece with red ink and in the process, killing
any motivation that the students might have had. We would
therefore suggest that some training for both the teacher
and the learner would be appropriate. In this seminar we propose
to look at some of the factors to take into consideration
when dealing with students' written work as well as describing
a number of different techniques for giving useful and effective
Role of the Teacher
When looking at your learners' work it has been suggested
that the teacher take on three very distinct roles, that of
reader, writing teacher and language expert. Let's look at
these in a little more detail.
This involves interacting with the written work and reacting
to the content and ideas as a simple reader or interested
party. It might include comments such as "I've seen that
film as well and I didn't like it either"; "Something
similar happened to me last year when I was on holidays in
This obviously involves helping students grapple with the
writing skill as a whole and with its different sub-skills
such as focusing on genre, working on text organisation and
coherence, helping with discourse markers and linking words,
grammatical skills etc. Remember that we cannot take for granted
that students are good writers in their own language. Neither
can we forget that the writing sub-skills, strategies and
styles may not be the same over different languages. Even
on the occasion that they are, it is not always easy to make
the jump and apply these successfully in a foreign language.
Here the teacher is in the more traditional role, helping
the learners with lexis, grammar, spelling etc and correcting
any problems or other language errors that they might find.
to take into consideration when correcting and giving feedback
on students' written work
Your learners' previous learning experience
Your group might not be used to doing much writing, or to
doing writing in the classroom. A mini-talk on the methodology
behind why you are doing things the way you are would obviously
be very helpful.
Your learners' attitude to written work, re-drafting and correction.
Do your learners have much time to do written work? Do they
have time to rewrite material that you have looked at ?, Would
they want to?, Do they see it as beneficial?
· How often your learners write
It is often suggested that the more students write the better
they get at it. Even if your group don't have much time to
write outside the classroom, the more you do in class, even
if it is only getting as far as brainstorming ideas, or preparing
an effective plan, the better.
What/How much to correct
Your learners might also expect you to correct every mistake
they make. However, you might decide against correcting everything,
focusing only on problems the group as a whole are having,
on other specific problems, recurring errors or things you
have dealt with recently in the classroom.
Who should correct
Your learners might not be used to the idea of anyone else
other then the teacher looking at their written work. Talking
the learners through the advantages of peer correction would
Your learners' cultural background
This obviously plays an important part. Different learners
will have different problems and need different types of help.
The type of tasks that you do with your learners
Your learners' real-life needs will play a big part here.
You will need to maintain your students' motivation with interesting
and realistic tasks.
is a Questionnaire you might like to give to your studnets
to find out about their writing habits & to raise awareness
of the different aspects.
at the questions below with a partner. Discuss your
answers and talk about why you think what you do where
Do you like writing in your own language, and in English?
· What type of things do you write in your own
· Do you have to write in English because of
your work, study, hobbies or pastime activities?
· Who do you write to?
· What type of texts do you write?
What sort of writing activities have you done in English
class in the past?
· Did you find them difficult?
· Which ones did you like, which not? Why?
· Do you expect to do much writing in class?
· Do you have time to do much writing at home?
What do you think makes a good writer?
What things do you think of before you start to write
· Do you think of who you are writing to before
· Any advantages of doing so?
How do you help yourself get started when you begin
a piece of written work?
· Do you make a plan before you start to write?
· Is your planning accompanied by any note-making?
How many times do you write the piece before you hand
in the written work?
· Do you often stop and read over what you have
· How often do you read from the beginning when
· Do you cross things out and/or add in extra
sentences or ideas?
Do you keep your written work in a special notebook?
How do you expect your teacher to correct your written
work?, to correct all of the mistakes and problems in
your written work?, to mark only the important problems?
What do you do with your written work when you get it
back from your teacher?
· Do you make a careful note of the corrections
or do you simply look at the grade and not worry about
any of the comments?
Would you like the other students to look at your work
and give you some comments and feedback?
and Feedback Techniques
When we assess a piece of written work we can look especially
at four different areas...
This focuses on...
· the organisation of the piece as a whole
· how well the piece is presented and how coherent
the ideas are
· whether the set task has been achieved or not
· whether the work is within the set word limit
· if the message is coherent and intelligible
Appropriacy of style, register of the language and general
Range of lexis, syntax and expression
Accuracy and control of language including lexis, syntax,
expression, spelling, punctuation and use of cohesive devices.
we are going to look at different correction and feedback
techniques. We suggest that you try out different ones and
decide which work best for you and your students. A combination
often works well, maybe a tick chart as well as a written
or taped commentary. On the other hand, varying the correction
technique from time to time can also be very effective as
the group is exposed to different ways of improving written
codes seem to be the most popular way to deal with learners'
written work. They involve placing little symbols beside the
problem that there is in the piece and letting the student
try to work out what the correct version might be. Here are
= Wrong Form
= Wrong Word
= Word Order
= Wrong Verb Form
Join the ideas, you don't need a new sentence
= I'm not sure what you want to say
= New Paragraph needed
codes can be very useful for surface errors and for problems
that students might be able to easily self correct. They can
however, become cumbersome if you try to have a lot of different
symbols for a lot of different problems. Also there are some
types of errors, problems or deviations such as paragraphing,
style, register etc that would be very difficult to categorise
within a code.
B. Tick Charts
can be designed in a variety of ways. Here is a sample.
Feedback Tick Sheet
and general force of content
development and coherence of ideas
A clear sense of audience and purpose
of style and register of language used
and complexity of grammatical structures
of grammatical structures
of cohesive devices
and appropriate layout, general presentation and handwriting
C. Individual/Group Conferences
involve face to face conversations between the teacher and
the student. So as your learners don't come in cold, you would
be best advised to give the learners some questions to think
about beforehand. Useful ones might be ....
What is the main point of your written piece?
· Who are you writing to?
· What is your audience?
· How have you organised things?
· Do you feel that you have achieved the set task?
· What specific area(s) do you want me (the teacher)
to look at?
· Are there any parts that you feel insecure or unhappy
the conference the learners could rewrite the work and hand
in both versions.
With group conferences you can let the students look at their
work as a group first of all, using the same or a similar
questionnaire and then intervene a little later.
With individual conferences you will need to think of what
the rest of the group are going to be doing. However, both
group and individual conferences do at least have the advantage
of helping to make the learners more independent and autonomous
as well as being quite a realistic activity e.g. as in an
editorial meeting or a committee preparing a document etc.
this technique the students do the written work at home and
then bring the piece to class. They hand it to their partners,
who then assess the work and give comments. A good idea is
to give the group some type of questionnaire to work through
while they are reading the written work. This can be done
by giving the students guidelines or structured checklists
that can be focused on a specific set of criteria such as
paragraphing, linking words, punctuation etc. The learners
then talk each other through revisions and comments, asking
you for clarification or arbitration when necessary. Again
this idea helps learner autonomy and it is positive that the
teacher is not always the only audience for the written work.
Peer reviews can also be very effective, as the learners themselves
can oftentimes be a lot more honest with each other than you
might decide or dare to be.
Afterwards, if you have time in the lesson itself, you could
get the students to rewrite the piece, taking the comments
into account and then hand you in both versions to look at.
Here is a sample questionnaire
look at your partner's work and while you read it think
about the following questions. Make some notes and when
you are finished give your partner some feedback.
the piece well organised?
-Are the ideas well presented and coherent?
-Has the piece achieved the set task?
-Is the audience and purpose of the piece clear?
-Is the overall message clear, coherent and intelligible?
-Does the work follow the guidelines for the word count?
the style and the register of the language used appropriate?
there a wide enough range of lexis and expression used?
-Is there a wide enough range of syntax used?
on the accuracy of...
-Use of cohesive devices
Self -Monitored Writing
is a very simple technique to implement. The learners number
the parts that they are unhappy/unsure about as they write
the texts and at the bottom of the page they then explain
in a bit more detail what the problem they are having is e.g.
"I'm not sure whether I should say 'to play aerobics
or to do aerobics' ", "Should I use the Present
Perfect or the Past Simple here? ", "Is it a good
idea to start a new paragraph here?", "Does my conclusion
have enough effect or do I need to add something else in?".
This could even be done in the learners' first language if
they were at a lower level.
When the teacher receives the work they can easily respond
to the questions/comments and add in any extra feedback. The
technique gives the teacher a good insight into their students'
intentions and problems. It also means that if the learner
themselves indicates where they would like feedback, the motivation
to act on that should be a lot higher. With this idea students
are also taking more responsibility for their learning as
well as looking critically and analytically at their own work
as if they were the reader.
F. Written Commentary
you can see from the example below, this involves writing
detailed comments on the problems that exist in the learners'
work. The idea is to guide the learner so as they can try
to self-correct. At times this may not be easy or possible
for them so you might want to give them the correct version
or advise them on where in their dictionaries or grammar books
that they could find the correct answer.
Here you will be giving feedback on both content and language.
As a result, it is probably best to read over the piece once
or twice, thinking about what areas you are going to focus
on most before putting pen to paper. An alternative is doing
this type of feedback by e-mail and/or using the Insert Commentary
facility in Microsoft Word
is very similiar to a written commentary but that here instead
of writing your comments on paper, you record them onto a
tape. The learners can buy the tapes themselves and give them
to you with each written piece. When you give the written
work and cassette back, the learner listens to your comments
and thinks about the corrections afterwards. This technique
is a lot faster than written commentaries and has the advantage
of helping students with their listening skills as well. While
this type of feedback can be difficult to organise, it is
a nice personalised touch and students appreciate the extra
This type of feedback works well for focussing on the learners'
writing as it develops, where confusions arise, where the
logic or structure breaks down as you read it etc. Alternatively
and as we saw above, you could easily read over the written
piece once and then as you read the second time, tailor your
H. Minimal Marking
technique is similar to using correction codes but not as
obvious. Instead of having different symbols for different
types of problems, the idea is that you write an X in the
margin for every language error in the line. I.e. two errors,
two X's. The learners not only have to find the problems,
but work out what type of problems they are as well. From
the teacher's point of view the technique is a quick one and
this idea again works well with surface errors. On the other
hand, students can find it a lot more frustrating than the
correction codes, thinking that it would be a lot quicker
and more efficient to be given just a bit more guidance.
for some of the above: ELTJ Oct '90, vol 44 &
'Writing' by Tricia Hedge (OUP).
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