When I first started teaching writing, I remember asking myself questions that Joy Reid addressed in her article “Responding to ESL Students’ Texts: The Myths of Appropriation” (1994): “When might I interfere with their objectives or crush their creativity? In what ways might I assume control or ownership over their texts? What might I say that would deter them from becoming independent writers?” (p. 277).
I was confused by the two seemingly contradictory objectives of feedback. On the one hand, I knew I had to provide students with guidance and suggestions, and offer my recommendations on how they can improve their writing. On the other hand, I was supposed “not to interfere with their writing, not to impose control or authority over their […] writing” (Reid, 1994, p. 277). Then I turned to my own writing experience in English and realized that I wouldn’t have learned how to write if I hadn’t received meaningful feedback on my papers.
An impressive amount of work on feedback in the TESOL field provides evidence of the importance of this issue; many studies have proved that properly given feedback can positively influence the quality of student writing (Ferris, 2011). Unfortunately, far too often teachers have a fear of interfering with students’ work or coming off as someone who imposes authority over students’ learning processes. This doesn’t only relate to writing. Sometimes teachers are afraid to hurt students’ feelings by correcting their grammar or pronunciation mistakes, in a speaking class, for example. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this issue, nor do I impose my own opinion, but somehow I don’t think it should be about “hurting” or “not hurting” someone’s feelings. School is a place of learning—learning by trying, making mistakes, being corrected, and eventually improving and growing.
I believe that in a comfortable learning environment, with a positive and caring teacher attitude and trusting teacher-student relationships, a teacher can, and should, make positive changes in students’ learning by guiding, advising, and correcting—yes, correcting. From my own teaching practice, I have learned that positive teacher-student relationships also allow students to develop a sense of agency or ownership of their writing. And I believe that students can definitely challenge feedback that they receive on their papers.
1. Promote Interactivity With Writing Conferences
In fact, revision has to be interactive; therefore, teachers should involve students in the dialogue about their writing by giving them a chance to voice their opinion. For example, I found that writing conferences offer a great opportunity for me to establish a productive interpersonal relationship with students: They help me avoid giving irrelevant suggestions based on the misinterpretation of students’ ideas, and they also provide my students with the opportunity to articulate their writing intentions.
2. Allow Students to Request Feedback
In addition to one-on-one conferences (which are not feasible in some teaching contexts, as we know), I give my students a chance to request feedback. To illustrate, I ask them to provide a reflective note for each draft they submit, in which they identify strengths and weaknesses of their draft and ask for specific feedback on certain elements of the draft. Among many positive outcomes of implementing these reflective notes, I realized that they help me meet individual students’ needs and provide an appropriate amount of feedback without taking too much control over their writing (Shvidko, 2015). Students’ notes often contain questions about the concepts that they did not fully understand or needed more help with. For example, one time, several students expressed their difficulty to appropriately integrate quotations; another time, a few students asked me in their notes to give them feedback on the use of essay-level transitions. These kinds of requests and questions raise my awareness of what students need, and they also help students realize that the teacher is not controlling their writing, but providing the kind of feedback they asked for.
3. Balance Praise and Critique
Finally, I found that the right balance between praise and critique could also help me avoid appropriating students’ work. I believe that through my genuine compliments on their writing, students are able to recognize the progress they make and perceive me not only as an evaluator but also as an interested reader.
I can certainly see how feedback can turn into the appropriation of student writing, or the imposition of teacher authority and control over students’ creativity and agency. However, I believe that encouraging advice and pedagogical guidance have nothing to do with appropriation.
Shvidko, E. (2015). Beyond “giver-receiver” relationships: Facilitating an interactive revision process. Journal of Response to Writing, 1(2), 55–74.
Ferris, D. R. (2011). Treatment of error in second language student writing (2nd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Reid, J. (1994). Responding to ESL students’ texts: The myths of appropriation. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 273–292.