I often joke that the difference between an ESL specialist and an English teacher is like the difference between an engineer and an artist: The ESL specialist is concerned with the mechanics of language to solve problems, while the English teacher focuses on the meaning behind the prose.
The more I discuss the difference with colleagues, the more I come to realize that the answer for best feedback often lies in-between—we can use science to determine what is right or wrong, but we need to take an artful approach when showing how it affects the overall meaning of the message. That means we have to consider what to correct (marking up every error is, in my experience, ineffective, time-consuming, and overwhelming for teachers and students alike) to get our students to the next level.
To make this happen, here are some questions you may want to ask yourself about how you deliver feedback.
Explicit or Implicit?
When you see an error, how do you address it? Do you show the mistake and explain it to the student explicitly, or do you make a note with the term to imply there is an error so students can study the rule themselves? To answer this question, you need to answer another one: Can you trust your students to understand the rule without your explanation?
It can be tempting to remind the students of the rule they are breaking each time they write, especially if it’s one you just went over in class, but this will give you a sore wrist and them a lot of discouragement. Conversely, letting too many mistakes go can lead to fossilized errors in the students’ developing language. If you ask the students, the more honest ones will tell you they prefer indirect feedback compared to being told they’re wrong, but teachers still need to be sure the most important rules are taught.
Perhaps the best answer here is to consider the students’ levels (Peregoy & Boyle, 2008). Language-learning beginners should focus on being able to write sentences and basic paragraphs and may need explicit feedback on fundamentals such as capitalization and sentence structure, but otherwise correction should be kept minimal. In my personal experience, it helps to reinforce the idea that a sentence is someone/something doing/being something, so as long as there is a subject and a verb they have the parts most vital to being understood. For more intermediate students, focus on their most consistent errors consistently while subtly recasting or correcting the forms that show up less often. Don’t count on students asking for help with their errors—even if you have a great rapport, they may simply not be aware of the correct rules.
Grammar or Content?
I learned in college that the only thing worse than getting a paper back with lots of red marks and corrections was getting a paper back with nothing but a bad grade and negative comment for completely missing the point of the assignment. Either way, getting overwhelmed or told I outright failed did little to improve my writing.
When it comes to grammar, remember that you are not editing, you are showing students where to improve. Sometimes it can be better to show students where an error is with a brief question about what is wrong to encourage student self-discovery (McCord, 2012). If possible, note how the mistake changes the meaning of the sentence or paragraph into something the student didn’t intend.
As for the content, focus on the students’ organization, use of logic and relevant details, and overall structure. The key here is to be consistently affirmative and even positive with your feedback, because some students may have negative associations when criticized by anyone in authority (McCord, 2012). That’s not to say you can’t point out errors, but take some time to also show the students what they are doing right when it comes to forming their ideas.
Revision or More Revision?
The comments shouldn’t be the end of feedback. When possible, take the time to have a conference with the students to find exactly what they are struggling with and give them goals to improve their writing (Williams, 2003). These can serve as the basis for the next draft and give you and them something to look for.
It’s important for students to learn the value of rewriting and correcting errors, but it is—to be totally honest—a tedious process. Students will get sick of a paper they wrote after reviewing it the third or fourth time. In my writing experience, it helps to stagger out the goals through different styles of writing, such as a position with logical organization and then a descriptive writing assignment on a different aspect of the same subject. This allows the students to draw on familiar knowledge while applying it to new writing situations.
McCord, M. B. (2012). Exploring effective feedback techniques in the ESL classroom. Language Arts Journal of Michigan, 27(2).
Peregoy, S. F., & Boyle, O. F. (2008). Reading, writing, and learning in ESL. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Williams, J. G. (2003). Providing feedback on ESL students’ written assignments. The Internet TESL Journal, 9(10).