Have you ever watched “American Idol”?
You know, the show where the singer performs in front of a crowd and is judged on the spot by a panel of experts.
Talk about terrifying!
Performing for a large audience is already one of people’s top fears. Throw judges on top of that, and it can be enough to scare off even the bravest souls.
Then you have the different types of judges, which initially consisted of “the mean one” (Simon), “the nice one” (Paula) and “the helpful middle ground” (Randy).
It makes for very entertaining TV. But in the real world, especially as ESL teachers, this is not an environment we would strive to replicate.
Trying to speak a new language in front of your peers can feel a lot like that spotlight is shining down on you, highlighting and magnifying every word or, gasp, error you make.
Your goal as a teacher is to create an environment where students can learn and succeed. This is very hard to do if they feel like every word is judged and criticized. However, neglecting to provide adequate critiques will not help students either because they will have no idea how to improve.
Instead of the teacher either sitting in as a “judge” or simply applauding everything, we can create an environment of continual learning that is improvement-oriented.
This is where constructive feedback comes in.
Randy would be proud.
Why Is Quality Feedback So Important?
Feedback helps to bridge the gap between a student’s abilities and potential. Specifically, feedback helps to:
- Create a positive classroom environment. When progress is rewarded, goals are explicit and concrete steps are laid out for improvement, students will be motivated to succeed. This results in a learning-friendly classroom environment and is accomplished by giving students encouraging, forward-focused feedback.
This type of feedback motivates students by making the “next level” much more tangible to them and showing them what steps they need to take to get there—and encouraging them.
- Go beyond grades. Students’ skills will eventually be judged. There is always a quiz or exam lurking around the corner. But helping them succeed at these assessments requires a lot more than just grading.
A grade on a worksheet or activity might help students see where they are at, but it does not show them how to grow. Helpful feedback goes beyond evaluation and gives useful information for improvement. It also makes class about learning rather than just getting results.
This encourages students to become lifelong learners who value continual improvement over momentary “perfection.”
- Accelerate learning. It is this mindset of improvement that ultimately empowers students to succeed. If a student gets a low mark on a paper, they might feel deflated or question their intelligence. But by showing them how to do better in the future, you will empower them to move forward and take clear steps toward improvement.
- Set attainable goals. Providing forward-focused feedback—besides being a great tongue twister—allows students essentially to compete with themselves and to strive to be better every day. If a student is failing a course, a reasonable expectation is not for him or her to simply ace the next exam. But by setting attainable goals based on specific skills, you can help students gradually and consistently improve.
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What Types of Feedback Can You Give Your ESL Students?
You probably spend more of your class time giving feedback than you realize. It is not all about your red pen. Some of the most useful forms of feedback include:
- Written feedback. This includes writing a few takeaways on a paper or worksheet, typically alongside a traditional letter grade. Written feedback gives students notes about what they are doing well and what specifically they can work on. It might even include a suggestion on how to improve a particular skill.
- Verbal feedback. This is particularly great in classroom activities. It allows a teacher to give an immediate critique. It is important to keep it positive since it is in front of the class. Giving a simple pointer on how to better pronounce a word or use the correct pronoun can be very helpful in the moment.
You can even highlight a specific skill that a student has executed very well. Giving specific, real-time pointers allows students to immediately enact your guidance, making it memorable and effective.
- Nonverbal feedback. If a student is in front of the class trying to communicate in English, sometimes a simple nonverbal nod of encouragement to show that they said a difficult word correctly is all it takes. A smile can communicate that they used the right word or a head shake can indicate that they are moving in the wrong direction without having to turn it into a lesson.
- Individual feedback. Sitting down with a student one-on-one can be invaluable. It gives you as the educator a chance to work out a plan of improvement with that particular student in a way that is not possible in front of the class. You can answer any questions they have and give personalized critiques.
What Are the Qualities of Helpful Feedback?
While there are many types of feedback, helpful feedback of any kind generally has the following traits:
- It is constructive. Telling a student that something is wrong does not help nearly as much as showing them how to make it right. Constructive feedback builds students up by showing them how to improve.
Sometimes this means pointing out errors and helping students to correct these errors. But it is also important to show students what they are doing right. Students need to know what they are doing well, what they need to work on and what steps they can take to improve.
- It is specific. Telling a student that they need to improve their use of prepositions is not nearly as helpful as telling them that they are confusing “from” with “of.” Identifying specific areas for improvement narrows the scope of what they need to improve. This allows students to take focused steps to master a specific problem area rather than trying to grapple with a broad, abstract concept.
- It is concrete. It is not enough for students to simply know that they should improve their use of the conditional tense. They also need to know specifically what steps they can take to do so.
Maybe there are extra worksheets they can do to practice it or maybe there is a different explanation of the tense so that they can better understand how to use it. Giving concrete feedback is indispensable because it turns big ideas into actionable steps.
- It is practical. Most importantly, feedback must always be practical. This means giving feedback in a timely manner so that the ideas are still fresh in students’ minds. It also means taking into account their current proficiency level.
If you set goals too high, students will not be able to reach them and may get discouraged. But if you make goals realistic and achievable, then students can succeed.
Preparing to Give Good Feedback
Prior to delivering evaluations of student work—or even before a particular activity or assignment begins—it is important to create an environment that will foster quality feedback.
Ahead of time, it is a good idea to:
- Set clear goals. Showing students what success looks like with a particular project gives them clear aims and eliminates confusion. Before students begin work, make sure you have explained what the learning goals are and what a successful outcome should look like.
It is a good idea to also indicate what skills or methods students can use. Showing students how they can be successful gives them the framework to execute the skill set without being weighed down by ambiguity.
- Provide a rubric. To further provide a clear framework for success, you can set explicit standards by creating a rubric. A rubric is useful because it distinguishes between different levels of work, further helping to clarify what you are looking for and also showing what you are not looking for.
Examples of A+ Feedback You Can Give Your ESL Students
Here are some tips to giving quality feedback in any ESL class setting, plus examples you can apply to your own classroom.
Be Smart with Your Red Pen
Written assignments provide a great opportunity to carefully examine students’ work in a way that is not always possible with presentations or activities. To make the most of written feedback, pay attention to:
- Grammar: Specifically, it is important to look at the grammatical skill set that your class is currently working on. This will help you to prioritize corrections rather than filling an entire paper with red pen! It is not the end of the world if students are not correctly using tenses they never learned. But they do need to master the skills you are actively teaching.
Instead of simply marking up a paper or worksheet, you can also provide a couple of brief takeaways at the end identifying the primary grammar concepts that should be reviewed.
- Student-driven corrections: You already know grammar, which is why you are teaching it. It is not a useful exercise for you to make the corrections for students.
But you can empower students to learn by having them correct their own errors instead of doing all the work for them. You do not need the practice; they do! When students are responsible for their own mistakes, they are more likely to learn from them and not repeat them, thereby saving themselves from making the same corrections in the future.
- If you are grading a paper, you could write something like, “Great job organizing your ideas. You used the new vocabulary words very well. There are a few times where you confused the past simple tense with the past perfect. Please make the corrections where indicated and turn in your corrected paper by Friday.”
This shows students what they are doing well and gives them a specific skill to improve, along with an opportunity to practice it.
- Do not be afraid to use underlining and highlighting or even draw small stars or other marks. It is also helpful to have consistent abbreviations that show students what kind of corrections they need to make. Perhaps something like “sp” for spelling, “vt” for verb tense, “pr” for preposition, “wc” for word choice and “ar” for article.
Not only does this technique clue students in to the specific changes they need to make, it helps train their eyes to pick out errors in written texts.
Work One-on-One to Create Personalized Strategies
Sitting down with a student one-on-one is a great chance to give individual feedback and can help students with:
- Strategy. This is a smart time to look at some of the bigger goals students might have for the class. Perhaps they want to master conversational English because they are planning to study abroad in England and want to be able to communicate effectively. Highlighting what students want out of the class is a good first step, and then you can discuss strategy for getting there.
- Improvement steps. Sometimes quality feedback goes beyond helping a student with a specific skill. Instead, you might need to help students change their learning approaches, whether they are prioritizing the wrong things or prone to cramming rather than consistently studying.
- Discuss with students how they are studying, what their priorities are and what they spend less time on. This will help quickly identify problem areas and how to address them.
Maybe a student excels in written work but never speaks during class. He or she could find a conversation partner to practice speaking with a couple times a week or join an English club to practice conversing with other students. Maybe a student always turns in homework but struggles to remember vocabulary words on tests. He or she might need to adjust test preparation to involve more flashcards or practice using vocabulary in writing.
- Identify whether students’ studying habits match their learning style. In any given class, you will have some visual learners who need to associate new vocabulary with images, conceptual learners who rely on mnemonics and creative learners who need to apply lessons in their own way. Speak one-on-one with your students to identify their learning styles and discuss whether they are studying in a way that matches them.
Explain in Real Time
Save this one for your group work, classroom activities and post-test games. These informal settings provide a great opportunity to give feedback on the nuances of English, especially pronunciation.
Getting down the correct pronunciation of a new language can be challenging even for those who have studied it for years. Taking every opportunity to improve pronunciation as early as possible will help students succeed and eliminate some of the uncertainty of, “Am I saying this right?”
Remember to also keep your real-time feedback specific to the topic you are currently teaching. Chime in when students misuse key vocabulary or get tripped up on a relevant concept, rather than interrupting and possibly confusing students by correcting every single mistake.
- When your class is split up for group work, take the opportunity to drill pronunciation. Go around to each group and work on correctly pronouncing the English phrases they are using. Have them repeat after you a few times until they are saying it correctly. You can also explain how it sounds when they say a given word or phrase compared to how it sounds when you say it so that they can hear the difference.
- Use your real-time feedback to impart some cultural insight. There are some cultural phenomena that students will need more feedback to understand. For example, if your students are from Spain, they might struggle to understand American punctuality.
If your topic is time and a student mentions showing up 20 minutes late to lunch, you have the chance to introduce them to a different culture’s perspective. Then you can have them make a sentence that is culturally accurate as well as grammatically correct.
Put Students in the Driver’s Seat
Sometimes, giving students the opportunity to play teacher can be quite rewarding. After all, we sure learn a lot while teaching! Student-directed feedback can include:
- Self-assessment. It is always important for students to take responsibility for their own learning. As teachers, we can facilitate the process, but ultimately, students will learn as much as they choose.
- Peer responses. Likewise, it can be a useful activity to have students critique one another. It is important to keep it positive because students might be apprehensive about criticizing their peers.
- Have students grade themselves. Whether as a written assignment or in a one-on-one conversation with you, ask students how they think they are doing, whether they feel they are getting the grades they deserve and what they would like to improve. Having students grade themselves can play an important role in changing their outlook on learning. They might have realizations about their own role in the class.
- Have students fill in for you for a few minutes and write what feedback they would give themselves. Have them come up with three areas they think they can improve, along with a step to take for each of those areas. They could also draw up some questions for you regarding skills they are struggling with to further their learning.
While a self-assessment is not a good idea for every class, at least once a quarter it is a good opportunity to put students in the driver’s seat of their own education.
- Have students exchange papers with one another and fill in as the teacher. They could write a couple of things they think their classmate does well, a couple of things they think their classmate could improve and a couple of overall suggestions for how they might make the paper even better.
This type of feedback encourages students to think critically while helping one another to improve. They do not necessarily need to grade one another’s papers; it is more important for them to analyze a student’s work to see what makes it good and what could make it better.
This is a useful skill that they can use when doing their own work as well. When students are able to give themselves feedback on their own work, they will continually improve. Feedback will be an integral part of their learning.
And just like that, you can save “American Idol”-style judging for the TV and give continual learning critiques in the classroom.
And One More Thing…
Looking for an endless array of interesting ESL topics and videos? Then you’ll love FluentU! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities. You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
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