17 Best Ways to Provide Meaningful Language Feedback to Your Students
Teaching is an art, and nowhere more so than in giving feedback in language classes. I know I struggle with giving the right kind of feedback that will help my students the most.
The feedback you give—and how you deliver it—can be the difference between motivating a student who has an “aha” moment thanks to your correction and unintentionally discouraging a student who then becomes disengaged or afraid.
It’s a really powerful teaching tool when used correctly.
So how, when and what type of language feedback should you give to be a more effective language instructor?
Read this post to learn about 17 specific ways you can provide effective and meaningful feedback for all types of activities.
- Effective Methods for Corrective Language Feedback
- Positive Language Feedback Techniques
- Meaningful Language Feedback Methods for Oral Activities
- Meaningful Language Feedback Methods for Written Activities
- Guidelines for Successfully Providing Language Feedback
- How to Decide What Type of Language Feedback to Provide and When
Effective Methods for Corrective Language Feedback
There are six generally agreed upon types of corrective language feedback, where the goal is to help students be accurate in their active use of the language by giving them information as to what is correct (positive feedback) and what is not correct (negative feedback) in the target language:
are where you indicate to the learner that there is a problem with the language output: The answer was not understood at all. There was either a mistake in the answer that could lead to different understandings (and therefore, clarification is needed) or there is a grammatical or usage mistake that should be corrected for accuracy.
After hearing the learner’s output, you repeat the sentence, pausing at the place where a mistake was made, thus giving the learner an opportunity to correct his or her own mistake by concentrating only on that word, phrase or grammatical construction.
Simply provide the correct answer with this type of feedback. This should generally be reserved until after several failed attempts by the learner to provide the correct output and when no other students are able to help. You should accompany it with an explanation of how to form the correct response, whether this is review or new information.
Explicitly state that there is a mistake in the output and ask the student who made it or a classmate to find and correct the mistake.
Repeat and reform the learner’s output, correcting the mistake along the way. Ideally the student or all the students will repeat the recast at that time in order to provide reinforcement of the correct language form.
Repeat exactly what the learner has uttered, emphasizing the mistake that the learner has made with your volume or tone. This will indicate where the mistake is located, giving the learner a chance to focus on that particular part of the utterance and fix it.
In addition to instructor-led corrective feedback, peer-led corrective feedback is also possible. This is where students, working in pairs or in groups, help each other to learn by giving appropriate prompts, asking appropriate questions or providing appropriate explanations, when necessary.
Positive Language Feedback Techniques
There are four generally agreed upon types of positive language feedback: acceptance, acknowledgment, rephrasing and repetition. Here, the goal is to encourage the student to continue speaking, writing or otherwise using the target language or to indicate that the student’s utterance is correct or being understood.
Demonstrate to the learner that you have heard, seen or read the reply, utterance or other form of language output and that it was appropriate to answer the question, prompt or assignment given. Acceptance is indicated by using words such as “yes,” “good,” “okay,” or similarly appropriate words or phrases in the target language. On a written assignment, you might put a check mark or a smiley face.
This is non-verbal feedback, such as nodding or shaking of the head, making certain positive facial expressions such as smiling, giving a similar cultural-specific gesture or using verbal communication to indicate that you are listening and comprehending the student.
Respond to the learner’s output by restructuring the utterance to make it sound more natural, to introduce a new grammatical structure. You can also provide new lexical items or to add additional information that the learner either didn’t know or failed to provide. It is considered positive feedback because the original answer is still accepted as essentially correct.
Repeat the learner’s correct language output so that everyone can hear the correct answer a second time. Students may be asked to repeat the output themselves at this point for additional reinforcement.
Students, as well as instructors, can give positive feedback, and students should be especially sensitive to indicating that they are listening to their partner or within their group (i.e. using acceptance and acknowledgement as often as possible). Instructors can both model and explicitly discuss these types of feedback for their students.
Meaningful Language Feedback Methods for Oral Activities
Ideally you’ll want to create a situation where your feedback will help the students to correct themselves. With that in mind, let’s consider a few specific feedback strategies and accompanying language scenarios that might occur in a typical classroom to see how these situations might play out.
Pinpointing is where you will localize a mistake, helping a student to identify it, without explicitly correcting it or giving examples of correct answers:
Student: I’m going at the bookstore.
Instructor: I’m going …
Student: I’m going to the bookstore.
Cuing is where you will provide examples of correct answers to a struggling student:
Instructor: When is your interview?
Student: My interview is at, um …
Instructor: On Thursday? Friday?
Student: Oh, my interview is on Monday.
Providing an example answer
Providing an example answer to a student who is struggling to begin language output is another option:
Instructor: Where did you go on Saturday evening?
Student: I, oh, um, I …
Instructor: On Saturday I went to the grocery store. Where did you go?
Student: I went to the bar.
Rephrasing a question with correct answer options helps when a student completely misunderstands the question:
Instructor: Where are you going in June?
Student: I’m going on the 6th.
Instructor: Oh, okay, but where are you going? England? France?
Student: I’m going to Denmark.
With proper modeling, your students will pick up on the feedback cues, and, when they engage in pair or group work, they will be able to help their fellow learners in similar fashion, thus diminishing the role of the instructor and increasing the role of your students in their own language learning.
Meaningful Language Feedback Methods for Written Activities
Simply writing in corrections won’t work because experience shows that a student will only glance at the paper and put it away, without ever considering what an instructor has noted.
Providing a feedback code sheet
The best way to provide meaningful feedback on written assignments is to provide your students a sample feedback code sheet. Such a sheet provides explanations for the coding system that you will use, which will, in turn, help your students correct their own mistakes. It tells them what kind of mistakes they have made and where.
Asking questions in written comments
It’s also a good idea to ask questions within the essay in such a way that your students are encouraged to expand on what they have written or rethink they way that they have written it. This could be by asking to use more adjectives, to include more information through subordinate clauses, or to use more complicated (i.e., more mature or natural) sentence structures.
Rephrasing and rewriting errors
There are two options here: either help the student to write the same idea in a simpler form, i.e., using what they do know and are able to do, or make the correction for them. The latter is especially appropriate when a student needs to use a particular case that they simply don’t yet know. Correct it now; they will learn it soon enough.
Guidelines for Successfully Providing Language Feedback
Whether in a language classroom or in a natural second-language conversation, language feedback gives the student an indication of our attitude toward them:
- Are we listening?
- Do we understand?
- Are we interested in what is being said?
- Do we care?
Because of this, we should be sensitive to the types of language feedback that we give and how often we do so overtly.
Inside of a language classroom, giving too much language feedback, especially too much negative feedback, can discourage our students and keep them from wanting to speak up or even to continue learning the target language with us.
Thus, correctly using language feedback can increase our students’ motivation to learn, while incorrect uses of feedback can decrease their motivation.
A good general rule of thumb is to be selective in how much feedback you give a beginner student, while you should give much more to an advanced learner. Why is this so?
Beginning students will make a lot of mistakes, sometimes because they simply don’t remember a rule, word or ending, and sometimes because they are—enthusiastically—trying to push themselves beyond what they can comfortably accomplish at that stage. We don’t want to stifle their enthusiasm, but we want to ensure that they are understood.
- In essence, the best rule is to stop a student when whatever is said is completely incomprehensible. If you reach a point when you, the instructor, don’t understand at all what’s being said or what the student is trying to say, stop, give feedback asking for clarification or correction, and then continue.
- If the student makes a significant mistake with the topic being taught that day (grammatical endings, verbal agreement, tense, vocabulary), that would be a good place to stop as well.
- Otherwise, allow the student to continue, consider correcting some of the more egregious mistakes after the student has completed his or her utterance, and let the rest slide.
Intermediate and advanced learners
At this point, intermediate and advanced students should have a firm grasp on grammar, vocabulary, usage and style, and their goal is likely full proficiency with few or no mistakes. This means that very few mistakes should be tolerated, and an instructor (or a peer) should try to provide feedback to fix most, if not all of them.
- If an error occurs, something beyond the knowledge of the student—a new and complicated grammatical construction, for example, an exception to spelling, case ending, usage, etc.—then this should be used as a teachable moment for the entire class.
- Overall, you don’t want the amount of language feedback to be overwhelming for your students. Give them what they can handle, what they can learn from and what they can remember/use at that stage of their education.
How to Decide What Type of Language Feedback to Provide and When
In general, you should try to provide feedback for all mistakes on written assignments, unless there are so many that it would be simply impossible to provide feedback on everything. In this case, you should choose carefully.
Less feedback should generally be given during spoken work because any interruption could interrupt the flow of discourse output from the students.
Feedback on listening and reading assignments will either happen in written form, if the follow-up assignment is turned in, or as the students provide and discuss answers in class. Here there are many more opportunities to give meaningful feedback without interrupting flow, with the feedback being limited to what is essential to understanding the passage well enough to answer all related questions correctly.
Ultimately, decisions on when to provide feedback, how much and what kind to use, are based on feeling and sensing what your students need and when. Establish a positive rapport with them, so they always know that you are helping them, not criticizing them. No two students are the same; no two classes are the same.
Only through trial and error will even an experienced teacher learn how best to provide feedback for any class or student.
Come to think of it, this is exactly how our students learn their new language—through trial and error!