Beyond Grades: 5 Strategies for Giving ESL Students Feedback That Rings Loud and Clear

Have you ever seen “The Gong Show”?

This game show was popular in the 1970s, and for good reason.

For thirty minutes, acts of questionable talent performed in front of three celebrity judges for the daily prize.

What made the show interesting wasn’t score cards or red and green lights to indicate a great or gruesome performance. It was a giant gong sitting behind the judges’ table.

Any judge could hit the gong to eliminate what they thought was a terrible act. Often judges argued with one another about whether or not to hit the gong, even to the point of physically wrestling others away from the percussive instrument. It was funny stuff.

Thankfully the gong never made its way into ESL classrooms.

Though it might clearly communicate a student’s good or bad performance, it’s not what students want to hear. And sometimes traditional methods of grading and assessing aren’t what students want to hear, either.

Sure, an A at the top of a paper might make someone feel good, but what exactly does it mean?

The best feedback is more than just a letter on the page. It’s detailed, timely and practical. Even better, it’s easy to give.

Here are five strategies for giving feedback to your ESL students which fit those very characteristics. It’s feedback they want to hear.

5 Smart Strategies for Giving Feedback ESL Students Want to Hear

1. Sticky Notes

If you’re anything like me, you use sticky notes for everything from grocery lists to reminders on the bathroom mirror. But have you ever used sticky notes to give your students feedback on their in-class performance?

Believe it or not, a simple set of Post-its can simplify and streamline your grading life. This is especially true for class participation grades or speaking assignments your students do with their classmates.

You probably already make observations of students while they work with their peers. You might be listening from your desk or walking around with a clipboard. But now, try writing any strengths and weaknesses you see in your students on a sticky note.

As you walk around the room, each time you make an observation, write it on a sticky note. Be sure to be specific and if possible note the context of your observation. Write the name of the student you observed and then tear off the top paper and get ready to make another observation on a clean post-it.

When your lesson is over, continue with your day as planned. But at the end of your school day, take a look back at the notes you made while your students were working. If you want to, now is the time to transfer your observations into your grading records, but don’t just toss the paper when you’re done. You want your students to know how they are doing, too.

It takes just a second to put those sticky notes on your students’ desks. (Be sure you match the right observation to the right student desk.) That’s it. Not only will you have the notes you need when it comes time to submit grades, but your students will also have an indicator of how they are doing in class.

If you make a habit of Post-it-sized observations while you teach, your students might get several bits of feedback each week, feedback that you wouldn’t otherwise have time to sit down and give them. Try focusing on between three and five students each day rather than trying to make a note for every student, so you note something about everyone at least once a week.

And be sure that you write both positive things (Great use of this week’s vocabulary during the discussion today!) and areas students could use some work. (Looks like you would benefit from a review of the passive voice. Stop by after school if you want to go over it together.)

2. Email

If you aren’t using email to give your students feedback on their English performance, you should be. Not only is it quick and free, it’s one of today’s primary means of communication in professional as well as personal circles. And it’s a great way to give your students progress reports without having to take a ton of time with one-on-one conferences either after school or during your class periods.

To set your students up for email feedback, take time one day early in the semester to help them set up free email accounts through Gmail or another free email service. Be sure to make note of your students’ email addresses. Send out a group email and ask each student to reply to you individually to make sure their account is set up correctly.

At the midpoint in the semester, get out your grade book and think about the feedback you want to give each student. Start by sending out an email requesting a self-evaluation from each student. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply ask the following questions.

  1. How do you think you are doing in class?
  2. In your opinion, what are your two greatest strengths in class?
  3. What is one area you want to improve?
  4. Do you have any questions for me?

Announce in class that you sent out an email, and give students a deadline for completing their response.

After you receive a response from a student, reply with your thoughts on their performance. Include both positive observations and areas they need to work on. Try to keep the ratio at two positive things for every one area to improve. Include specific grades if possible, and note any work they are missing. Be sure to answer any questions your student sent in his or her email to you, too.

Ask students to respond to your progress report so you know they received it, and to include any questions they might have and whether they want to follow up with an in-person conference.

Email is great for students because it has such real-world practicality. They learn cultural norms of email while using it for practical purposes. Also, students generally have an easier time communicating through writing than speaking, especially lower level students. You will also have a written record in case you need to refer back to it when it’s time for final grades. And if you teach children, it’s a great way to communicate with their parents.

If you get your students in the habit of checking their email, it’s also a great way to send out reminders, notices, resources and homework assignments—though if possible it’s always good to make an announcement in class that you sent an email.

3. Rubrics

Rubrics are a great way to grade less quantifiable subjects such as speaking and writing. I have found that using rubrics to give feedback on essays is one of the most effective ways to show my students why they are receiving the grades I am giving them.

Rubrics may seem a bit intimidating if you have never used one before, but they are really just a simple list of skills and performance levels. Here’s a great resource on how to set up a rubric.

When students turn in a writing assignment, make a copy of your rubric for each student. Keep it next to you as you read through each essay. Make observations both on the essay as well as the rubric itself. You might circle specific grammar errors on the essay or circle and note any great choices in vocabulary.

On the rubric, circle the appropriate level of performance in each category. You can also copy specific examples next to your circles to show your student why you chose that performance level, and put a final grade at the bottom of the page. Staple the rubric to the back of your student’s essay.

When you turn back your students’ papers, they will have both their paper and your assessment of their writing. They can see specific examples of what they did right and wrong, and they will see a direct connection between their writing and the grade they received.

If possible, use the same rubric for subsequent essays so students know how you will grade them and in what areas they need the most improvement.

4. Smart Videos

The age of smartphones is great for teaching. Though texting in class is a no-no, you can use your students and their phones to give their English skills a boost.

Before using what I like to call “smart videos” for feedback in class, you’ll have to check that everyone has a smartphone. If not, you can still give feedback this way, you’ll just have to use your own phone.

Smart videos are best for giving feedback on pronunciation and other speaking and presentation skills. They are also great for giving students feedback on fluency and use of body language.

Before your next student presentation, ask if you can use your student’s phone to record their presentation. Record the student presentation on their own phone or on yours. Do this for each of your students as they present.

After the presentations, ask your students to watch their videos and score themselves on a scale of one to four with the following designations:

  • 4 — performed with fluency and accuracy
  • 3 — performed well
  • 2 — needs some improvement
  • 1 — did not perform well or was confusing

Give your students some categories to score themselves in, such as pronunciation, fluency, use of vocabulary, body language and overall presence.

If you recorded your students using your phone, either email the files to your students, text them or download all the videos to a classroom computer and let students access them during free learning periods.

Do your own assessment during the live presentation. Have students turn in their self-assessments and compare it to your assessment. Then have a one-on-one conference with your students to share what you observed and talk about any areas in which you and your student differed in scores by more than one point.

5. Indirect Monitoring

When you hear someone say, “We need to talk,” do you immediately put up your defenses? If so, it might be because even constructive criticism can seem like at attack if we are in the wrong frame of mind. That can happen with your students, too. Sometimes no matter how well you give them feedback, they may take it as a personal attack.

That’s one of the advantages to using indirect monitoring. It’s traditionally used for assessing student speaking performance, but you can really use it in any area of language learning.

When assessing student speaking this way, you make your way around the classroom as students are talking with one another. Instead of being obvious about who you are listening to and assessing, you listen in on the sly. Pretend you’re doing something else, or make it look like you’re listening to a different student than you really are. As you do, make notes for yourself on common mistakes your students are making.

Then after the activity is done, you do a general instructional lesson that addresses the errors you heard from more than one student. You don’t point out specific students or their mistakes, though you can use the actual errors you heard without attributing them to any specific student.

When you give feedback this way, it’s not personal. It’s business. No one will feel attacked because you didn’t address their errors directly to them.

You can also use this strategy for feedback on writing or grammar. Rather than marking specific errors on your students’ papers, simply cap your red pen and give a lesson on the topic instead. That might be all your students need to rectify an error that has become a habit.


Your students want to know how they are doing, but sometimes a single letter isn’t telling them what they want to hear. Try thinking out of the box (and grade book) when you give your students feedback. It will be music to their ears.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe