5 Ways to Make the Most of Written Feedback

Do you remember getting papers back from your English or composition teachers that were covered in red ink? Did you take the time to decode each individual marking, consider every error, and diligently redraft your paper until it was flawless? Really? You did? Because I remember scanning for my grade, then fixing the mistakes marked by symbols as disinterestedly as if they were math problems—but only when revisions were required. The most frustrating part was that I made mistakes when I knew the correct rule, but somehow I just tapped the wrong key or picked the wrong word.

Many years later, I tried writing a narrative in Chinese characters. My teacher understood what I wanted to say, which gave me a sense of accomplishment, but once again I got a piece of paper returned with many red marks. Even though my teacher took the time to go over each correction with me, I felt so overwhelmed that I was hesitant to try writing anything in Chinese characters again.

These experiences made me consider how I handle written feedback for my students. My inner editor is tempted to cover their papers in red marks while I think of how to explain the errors, but then I remember the frustration and overwhelmed feelings I experienced and I wondered if there was a better way. So I did some research and reflected on my own instructional practices to learn that writing teachers should:

  1. Not correct everything at once. Instead of marking every error, I decided to make one form an objective of the lesson and teach it along with the content. For example, when working with Spanish speakers who were taught different rules for capitalization, I’d take time to explain the rules for capitalization during the lesson and make it clear that would be the focus of the written assessment through a rubric or other announced grading criteria. This sort of “restrictive editing” can help students to monitor those particular areas (Balderrama & Diaz-Rico 2005).
  2. Focus on errors, not mistakes. Anyone can make mistakes, such as a misspelled word or the wrong use of “your” or “their” when it is used correctly a few sentences down. But when you see this done consistently, you’re looking at an error. You can solve this directly by showing the student what the error is and explaining the rule, or indirectly by commenting on how there is a problem and letting the student find it (Ferris 2005). In my experience, though, direct feedback works best on all but the more advanced language learners, as they often simply don’t know the rule.
  3. Mark locally, read globally. Once you’re done focusing on the errors you’re trying to help the students solve, consider if the writing is actually effective for communication. Think about if the information answers the question, if you can understand what the student means, if points are supported, and if it’s organized overall. It may be worth your time to allow some “local errors” that don’t affect how well the reader can understand the point so you can focus on the “global errors” (Ferris 2005).
  4. Make revision part of the assignment. The overall goal is to have students monitor their own output instead of proving to them that you can be a critical editor. If you can, have students submit first and even second drafts of essays or other writing projects, it may even help to make global errors a priority the first time and then focus on the local errors for a draft before the final submission. That will allow you to see how much progress they are making when it comes to monitoring their errors and possibly alleviate the stress that comes from “all or nothing” grades.
  5. Be supportive with your feedback. Before writing out your corrections, remember how daunting it can be to write in your nonnative language. This is a good time to add a few comments about what the student is doing right, particularly if students start to monitor what used to be tricky errors. They may never see lots of red marks as good things, but you don’t want them to dread being overwhelmed or harshly criticized for their hard work.


Balderrama, M. V., & Diaz-Rico, L. T. (2005). Teaching performance expectations for educating English learners. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Ferris, D. R. (2005). Treatment of error in second language student writing. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
This entry was posted in TESOL Blog and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to 5 Ways to Make the Most of Written Feedback

  1. Corinne says:

    You make some very good points about our focus as teachers to sometimes overwhelm students with our overcorrecting of written pieces. I think we can all relate to your own childhood experience with writing and that experience didn’t leave us with a love of writing. I love your point about being strategic with corrections and having a focus with each piece of writing. That one focus would really help those EL students as they develop their understanding of the English language. I wish an instructional practice that would have been developed more with this blog post, would have been the craft of their writing. If students are communicating their thoughts well and writing creatively, then I would let some of the more minor errors slide. When providing your written feedback, I think students would find a lot of intrinsic motivation to keep pursuing writing if feedback includes positive discussion on reaching writing goals for effectively putting their thoughts on paper.

  2. Heather Drane says:


    Thank you for your insight. As a middle school English teacher, I have found it very difficult to put aside the dreaded “red pen.” It has taken no small amount of discipline to read through student work for meaning and effectiveness while resisting the urge to turn into a copy editor. I do use the strategy of focusing on one skill or a small group of skills at time. It actually makes it easier for me to grade, and more meaningful for students. I also try to focus on the strengths in a student’s writing. I use the feedback model “two grows and a glow” to be sure that I highlight what students are doing well in their writing along with criticism.

  3. Yvonne says:


    I can appreciate your perspective as I clearly remember myself receiving those same papers being returned to me with red marks when I was in school. It did feel a bit overwhelming and sometimes, if the teacher required that we re-submit with errors corrected, I would simply do so for the sake of doing it, not taking the time to actually reflect on what I did wrong and how I could improve. I do remember, I had at least one teacher that would encourage “peer” editing. That way, we as students felt the importance of having the responsibility of correcting a paper, and also was forced to think critically about what mistakes/errors our peers made.

    I really like points 1 and 2 you made. I hadn’t thought about selective editing and I think that’s a great way to help narrow the field for students. Defining things are also important, and I appreciate that you differentiated between a mistake and and error.

  4. AHMAD says:

    Hi Nathan
    It is really my pleasure to benefit from such kind of those steps as they are really helpful for all ELT and ESL teachers as well. In fact, we still need to see how evaluation takes place among the ability and performance of students and we have to take into consideration that any other out language definitely affect the other and it is really bit difficult to write and as a teacher to assess because of the content and meaning. Some othe samples that have been written by students take the content under the expance of meaning which in turn makes it senseless and it needs much more effort to correct and grasp what the smart student is attending to write!!
    Hope this experience finds you well as I like your post and I am greatly appreciated and support you with the full sense of the word!
    Cordially regards

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.