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Giving 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.

Of 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 feedback.

The 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.

· Reader
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 Vienna" etc.

· Writing Teacher
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.

· Language Expert
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.

Factors 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 help.

· 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.

· Any others?

Here 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.

Writing Questionnaire

Look at the questions below with a partner. Discuss your answers and talk about why you think what you do where appropriate.

· Do you like writing in your own language, and in English?
· What type of things do you write in your own language?
· 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 in English?
· Do you think of who you are writing to before you start?
· 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 written?
· How often do you read from the beginning when you've finished?
· 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?


Correction and Feedback Techniques

When we assess a piece of written work we can look especially at four different areas...

1. Communicative Competence
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

2. Appropriacy of style, register of the language and general language used

3. Range of lexis, syntax and expression

4. Accuracy and control of language including lexis, syntax, expression, spelling, punctuation and use of cohesive devices.

Correction techniques

Here 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 work.

A. Correction Codes

Correction 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 some ideas.

WF = Wrong Form
WW = Wrong Word
Sp = Spelling
T = Tense
WO = Word Order
‡= Word Missing
P = Punctuation
V = Wrong Verb Form
<>= Join the ideas, you don't need a new sentence
?? = I'm not sure what you want to say
NN= Not necessary
// = New Paragraph needed

These 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

These can be designed in a variety of ways. Here is a sample.

Writing Feedback Tick Sheet

  Excellent Good Adequate Inadequate
Interest and general force of content        
Organisation, development and coherence of ideas        

A clear sense of audience and purpose
Overall task achievement        
Appropriacy of style and register of language used        
Range and complexity of grammatical structures        
Range of vocabulary        
Accuracy of grammatical structures        
Accuracy of vocabulary        
Use of cohesive devices        
Effective and appropriate layout, general presentation and handwriting        

C. Individual/Group Conferences

These 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 about?

After 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.

D. Peer Reviews

With 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

Now 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.

-Is 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?

-Are the style and the register of the language used appropriate?

-Is there a wide enough range of lexis and expression used?
-Is there a wide enough range of syntax used?

Comment on the accuracy of...
-Use of cohesive devices

E. Self -Monitored Writing

This 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

As 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

G. Taped Commentary

This 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 individualised attention.
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 comments accordingly.

H. Minimal Marking

This 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.

Sources for some of the above: ELTJ Oct '90, vol 44 &
'Writing' by Tricia Hedge (OUP).

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