How to Provide Positive, Meaningful Feedback to Your Foreign Language Students
To correct or not to correct? That is the question…
Whether ‘tis better to provide the correct answer,
Or to give enough information so that students have the tools
To correct their own mistakes themselves, and therein–we hope–to end them.
Ah, to dream…
Teaching is an art, and nowhere more so than in giving feedback in language classes.
The feedback you give—and how you deliver it—can be the difference between motivating a student who has an “a-ha” 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?
We’re going to look at six types of corrective feedback, four types of positive language feedback, and then specific ways you can provide meaningful feedback in oral, written, reading and listening activities.
What Is Language Feedback?
Language feedback is information provided to a student by an instructor or by another student that helps both that student and others in the classroom understand how well they are using the target language. It can be used to give a general indication of proficiency in any particular skill (speaking, writing, listening or reading) or it can be used to hone in on specific topics (grammar, vocabulary, etc.) that are new or are in need of review.
Everything that happens in a language classroom, from spoken to non-spoken acts, can be used and understood as language feedback.
- Non-verbal acts could include gestures, body language, facial expressions (smiles or frowns, for example) or the use of red pens while grading.
- Verbal acts could be emphasis or intonation when speaking, positive/negative reinforcement or explicit correction.
Without language feedback, students cannot learn the target language because they would otherwise have no idea whether or not they are using it correctly! Thus language feedback indicates whether they are on the correct path, whether they understand a specific point or not, and, if not, how to use the language properly.
What Are Good Guidelines for Successfully Providing Language Feedback?
Whether in a language classroom or in a natural second-language conversation, language feedback gives the interlocutor an indication of our attitude toward him or her:
- 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, i.e., verbally.
Non-verbal feedback is, at times, outside of our control, as it’s often reactive to the moment. We might, for example, sigh or roll our eyes before we realize we are doing it, while it takes an additional moment to come up with what we want to say and then say it out loud.
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. What should be done?
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. That is the topic of the day, so it should be emphasized and the mistake fixed.
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. There will be another day to correct those additional mistakes, and they will reappear soon enough!
What about advanced learners? At this point, they should have a firm grasp on grammar, vocabulary, usage and style, and their goal is likely full proficiency with few or no mistakes; i.e., they are trying to work at the level of a native or near-native speaker. 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, so that they can move forward with learning the target language.
Mistakes vs. errors
Note that you do need to make a distinction between mistakes and errors when considering how to provide feedback.
Mistakes are performance errors, where the learner knows the correct rule, word, ending, etc., but in this instance has performed incorrectly. As an instructor, you want to direct your language feedback toward correcting mistakes because this is what your students should be able to do in the target language.
Errors occur in the learner’s interlanguage because a learner does not yet know the correct rule, word, ending, etc., and they are making a guess, often based in combination with their native language and their current knowledge of the target language. The knowledge to perform correctly has not yet been imparted to the learner in this instance.
Unless you don’t understand what a learner is saying or writing, especially at the beginning level, these do not need your immediate attention. At the more advanced levels, it depends on the error and what you want to accomplish in that particular class or lesson.
The 6 Basic Types of 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: clarification requests, elicitation, explicit correction, metalinguistic feedback, recasting and repetition.
- Clarification requests 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.
- Elicitation is where 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.
- Explicit correction is where you simply provide the correct answer. 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.
- Metalinguistic feedback involves explicitly stating that there is a mistake in the output and asking the student who made it or a classmate to find and correct the mistake.
- Recasting is where you 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.
- Repetition is where you repeat exactly what the learner has uttered, somehow emphasizing the mistake that the learner has made. 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.
The 4 Basic Types of Positive Language Feedback
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.
- Acceptance demonstrates 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 word or phrases in the target language. On a written assignment, you might put a check mark or a smiley face.
- Acknowledgement is any type of non-verbal communication, 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 language output. Examples of verbal communication could be “uh-huh,” “mmm” or any similarly appropriate word or phrase in the target language.
- Rephrasing is when you respond to learner output by restructuring the utterance to make it sound more natural, to introduce a new grammatical structure, to 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.
- Repetition is simply when you repeat the learner’s correct language output so that everyone can hear the correct answer a second time, thus providing additional input for the language learner. 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.
Providing Meaningful Language Feedback in Oral Activities
The majority of work done in the language classroom will be in the form of oral language production. Students will answer questions from you or from each other, complete drills or other similar activities, or create dialogues or other such assignments in pairs or in groups.
With such a wide variety of possible speaking activities, a talented instructor needs a number of options for language feedback, including instructor- and peer-led varieties.
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.
Providing Meaningful Language Feedback in Written Activities
Most writing assignments will be completed at home, and feedback will likewise be done outside of class. Therefore you will need a solid strategy of how to provide meaningful feedback so learners can understand what is wrong in their written work and what they need to do to correct their mistakes solely with the information they are provided in written form.
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. Even if the student is required to turn in a corrected version, if all an instructor has done is to correct everything, a student will just recopy it all, word for word, corrections and all, most likely without actually learning anything because they haven’t been put in the position of having to think about their mistakes.
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. In this way your students can concentrate on fixing those mistakes you have indicated and for which you have given a clear indication as to what is wrong.
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.
What about errors? What about those times when a learner tries to write something that they simply are not yet able to do? 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.
Ultimately, of course, you can sit down with individual students, work through their essays with them, and give individual oral feedback about their written work through give-and-take discussions. In many cases, and at all levels, it is advisable that you do exactly this: Take the time to work one-on-one with your students to improve their writing!
Providing Meaningful Language Feedback in Reading and Listening Activities
Reading and listening activities are commonly believed to follow the same learning process. Therefore, it makes sense that similar feedback strategies will work for both.
Essentially, most reading and listening assignments will result in either written or spoken language output to answer questions and demonstrate comprehension of the text. Thus, many of the strategies cited above for providing feedback for oral and written activities will work here as well, with the caveat that you are working toward comprehension of written and listening texts rather than emphasizing grammatical accuracy in the students’ production of the language.
Therefore, feedback should be focused on helping your students—or having them help each other—to learn how to hone in on specific words or phrases, look at specific constructions, and understand how to read (or listen) between the lines to understand the larger text. Here you are concentrating on developing different learning strategies through your feedback.
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 (to prevent students from getting lost or discouraged trying to understand 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!
Jonathan Ludwig has 25 years of foreign language teaching experience. He has successfully directed language programs, taught and mentored current and future teachers, and is always looking for new and exciting ways to engage and educate his students.