6 Tips You Should Know When Giving Feedback to ESL Students
We live in a society with a perfectionism problem.
This can be a major roadblock if you’re a teacher trying to give feedback to a student who has internalized the perfectionist ideal.
Sometimes it even leads you to believe that intermediate students are at a lower level than they actually are, because they don’t show their true skills. They might be so afraid of making a mistake that they don’t say anything at all.
As a teacher, how are you supposed to deal with that and give feedback to those students? And how can you give them that feedback while still encouraging them to keep trying?
What your language learners don’t realize when they receive feedback is that while striving to be the best you can is a great personality trait, sometimes it shoots you in the foot more than it helps you.
Why? Because what we think of as “mistakes” or “failures” are part of the path to real progress. Besides improving at languages or a new skill, giving up perfection can actually make you more holistically happy, as well.
You want your class to get to a place that allows your students, especially the shyest ones, to play around with the language, without the fear of making mistakes.
After all, as John Steinbeck said in “East of Eden,” “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
Here, that means being good emotionally and good at what you’re learning.
“Okay, but how does all this relate to giving feedback to my students?” you’re asking yourself.
You know that one student that sits in the back of the classroom, hunched up, diligently taking notes but never speaking?
Surely you do. We’ve all had that student or even been that student at least once. That reserved person lives a little bit in all the people you teach. Everyone is slightly shy at least sometimes, and that’s normal.
However, that language learner represents the person who is most challenging for a teacher to give feedback to. But if you can reach that person, you can reach anyone.
Your job is to motivate that timid lurker in the back so that they go from being just okay at English to being great at it, simply because they’re enthusiastically participating and learning, without the fear of mistakes.
Here are a few ideas to help you give feedback to all your ESL students, even the most reserved ones.
Nobody’s Perfect: Giving Good, Clear Feedback to ESL Students
1. Give Balanced Feedback
“The teacher is always criticizing me.”
“I don’t understand this, but I also don’t want to look stupid by asking.”
“What if I say something wrong and the others laugh at me?”
These are some students’ worries when they’re in a group setting or even in a private class.
However, if you balance corrections with praise, your students won’t automatically associate your comments with failure. In fact, a combination of positive and negative feedback can facilitate better learning.
When giving positive feedback you can say, for example: “You used the third conditional perfectly there. You can always use it that way when talking about regrets.” Or: “You pronounced the ‘t’ like a native speaker—great job! Keep pronouncing it like that.”
Make sure to provide details, ensuring that students know exactly what they did right. Obviously, you still need to correct errors. But try to do it in a relaxed way, so as to create an atmosphere where making mistakes is no big deal and simply part of the learning process.
When it comes to correcting errors, you’ll have to get a feel for what works best in your particular setting. Generally, it helps to highlight one or two things a student is doing correctly, before constructively pointing out their mistakes and how to fix them.
2. Get into a Relaxed State
Even before you give feedback, you need to create a positive, welcoming environment for your students to receive it.
People in general, not only language learners, are more receptive to being evaluated when they’re calm. You definitely want to avoid any unnecessary stress in the classroom. Being relaxed can facilitate the absorption of information, but stress can block it. Excess levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) have even been shown to block the retrieval of memories.
Some short-term stress is okay. When taking tests, for example, most students will feel at least a little stress, which can be a motivating factor that pushes them to the next level. But you should still make sure that the daily classroom environment is laid back.
Some ways you can do that are by encouraging bonds and teamwork between students. Periodically change things up by playing fun games or kicking back and watching a movie, all while incorporating learning activities and exercises, of course.
3. Don’t Always Correct in the Moment
Another way to make students feel a little more at ease is to just let them speak, without the immediate need for feedback.
Of course, everyone has different learning styles. There are people who get nervous if you don’t correct them right in the moment or almost immediately afterwards. However, if you’re correcting your students every third or fourth word, they’re bound to get discouraged and eventually might not even want to participate.
I remember that in one of my advanced Spanish classes, the teacher used a technique I liked: She called on various people in the class to contribute to the conversation. After the discussion ended, she corrected general mistakes, but didn’t refer to the person in particular who made them. That way, everyone felt safer speaking.
You don’t have to use that specific method, but it’s good to reflect on the timing of your feedback and brainstorm about how to create a welcoming space for everyone to participate. If you have private students, you can ask them directly which method they prefer.
4. Refer Back to Something Students Already Know
There are ESL purists who think that all classes should be an English-only zone, with total immersion. But let’s get real here. Whether you’re learning math or Chinese, it can feel comforting to link new information with something you absorbed in the past.
If you’re not one of those purists, then you might want to throw in words or concepts in the students’ native language as a reference.
For example, when teaching pronunciation for the phrase “Nice to meet you,” I mention that “meet you” sounds like “michu,” which is almost how you say michi (kitty) in Argentine Spanish.
Or when I’m teaching vocabulary and defining a new word, I try to use the synonym that’s closest to the equivalent word in Spanish, so my students can understand it more quickly. For example, when defining the word “careful,” I would say it’s similar to “prudent,” which sounds like prudente in Spanish.
And when teaching grammar, I highlight the similarity or difference between English and the students’ native language. For example, in English we use the verb “to be” to talk about one’s age, but in some Romance languages like Spanish or Portuguese they use the verb “to have” instead. Making these pathways and connections helps.
Furthermore, if you have advanced students, you should also refer back to English concepts and vocabulary they already know because that will be a point of reference for them. Or if you have non-advanced students, you can still build on everyone’s vocabulary by teaching and using “international” English words that are already recognized by many beginners throughout the world.
5. Sometimes You Need Focus on the End Goal, Not Just on the Immediate Language Production
Sometimes it’s good to be a stickler for proper grammar and correct pronunciation—there’s a time and place for everything, after all.
However, we should also remember that language, especially basic language, is normally used to meet a goal: You need food, you want to rent a car or you need a recommendation for a good coffee place, to give just a few examples.
In some cases, your students will even already have a quite concrete purpose for why they’re learning English.
So remember to focus on the appealing objective, whether that’s a piece of cake (literally) or making new friends. If your feedback isn’t always about the nitpicky structural details, but rather about how to best get what you need or want, your students’ ears may perk up a little more. After all, they’re only humans who need to be loved (and who want some yummy comestibles) just like everybody else does.
6. Remember to Listen to Students’ Feedback Too
You could be the best teacher in the world but if you don’t listen to how your particular students learn best, your excellent techniques might end up being worth nothing. You might even need to consider totally restructuring your lesson, depending on the particular dynamic of your language learners.
Whether you teach big groups or have private students, it’s important to check in periodically to see if there’s anything you should change or add to the classroom dynamic. You can do this through written surveys if you have a big group, by taking part of class to have a check-in chat if it’s a smaller group or by directly asking a private student. Use your intuition.
Good luck on your journey as you constantly fine-tune and evolve your teaching techniques.
Since you were quite possibly a language student yourself earlier in life, remember what it was like for you and how you liked to be taught, as well as any challenges you might have had with teacher feedback. Also remember the feedback techniques in this article when you’re feeling stuck and unsure how to encourage your students’ progress.
And—of course—remember one more thing: Nobody’s perfect!
Ariadne is a North American expat residing in Buenos Aires, the city of tango, mate and pizza overdoses. When not writing and munching on pizza and mate (hey, she’s still a North American who combines pizza with everything), she can be found Instagramming cats or taking long walks on the flat city terrain.