Tag Archives: Feedback

To praise or not to praise – that is the question

This week I’ve read two fascinating posts on giving praise to our students. The first was a guest post from Tereza which appeared on Sandy Millin’s blog. You can read it here. In a nutshell, the author questions the benefit of giving praise, especially in excess. Originally from the Czech Republic, Tereza’s now living in the US and she’s been puzzled by the amount of excessively positive feedback she’s got from her teacher who was “super impressed” with anything she did. It would seem she was an incredibly talented genius – at least if she was to believe all the feedback.

Tereza then goes on to argue that too much praise can be counter-productive. She writes:

“I have already lost the sense of what is meant honestly […]. I basically have no measure whether I did well or bad because I always get a perfect evaluation. You have no idea whether people like you or how high they think of you because they always say you did a fantastic job. At the beginning, it makes you feel good, like you are really special, you do really so well. But with time, you get tired of that because you already see through it”.

On the other hand, the second post by Lawrence Hilton, which can be read here, praises praise, even if it’s to be excessive. With a beautiful analogy to desert flowers, Lawrence argues that positive feedback is like rain – it can turn a desolate, sandy landscape of a desert into a beautiful see of blossoming flowers. He would rather err by giving too much rather than to little praise to his students. After all:

“If they are not going to get praise and encouragement from the teacher at every step along the way, from where are they going to receive it?”

I was taken by both articles, because they persuasively argue their points. They were also very thought-provoking and they led me to reflect on my own teaching practice a bit.

I think both Tereza and Lawrence are right. Giving feedback is much more complicated than we might initially think, and there are good lessons to be learned from both articles.

It is definitely true that giving too much praise can be counter-productive. Students will very quickly see through it. They know they didn’t put much effort into their homework, but the teacher still was “super impressed”. This can lead to one of two things:

  1. I don’t need to work hard to get good grades/positive feedback, so why bother making more effort?
  2. Maybe my teacher is right and I’m simply the best, so why bother making more effort?

In both cases, the result is a rather negative one. Other students will also probably realise that all are getting super positive feedback, despite varying quality of their work. It can’t be motivating for a very strong student if the teacher is equally super impressed with their work, as with that of a very weak student.

As Lawrence, points out, though, if we don’t praise our students, who is going to? We do need to encourage them:

“Foreign language students have to overcome their own feelings of insecurity, lack of confidence, feelings of shyness and fear of making mistakes. […] A teacher has to instil the confidence and how can one do that without complimenting and praising the efforts that we are witness to in class?”

I agree with Lawrence that there are times when excessive praise (if given sparingly and judiciously, though) can work miracles. Sometimes you meet students who are terribly shy, lacking in confidence and their own abilities to the point of  “I will never succeed” attitude. As a teacher, we need to encourage them to become more (but not too) self-confident. And a good way of doing it is by giving them slightly more positive feedback than they deserve.

However, we need to stop somewhere. We can’t continue praising if there’s nothing to praise for. But when and how?

In my opinion, we should be honest with our learners. We need to give praise when praise is due, but moderate it according to the student’s performance. Students need to know what they did right, and what went wrong. Otherwise, if they only hear positive feedback, they won’t know what to do to improve and do better next time. And if whatever our students do is fantastic and brilliant, we will be in a serious need of inventing even “more impressive” adjectives to praise them.

I also believe that the majority of students are far more robust than we think. Telling them they’re wrong, or that they’ve made a mistake, is unlikely to cause tears or depression. Of course, the under-confident ones should be spotted and encouraged with highlighting positive feedback first. But if a student fails to do a task or make a mistake, we do need to tell them. How we do it, is a different kettle of fish and a good subject for a new post (here you can read my post on correcting students’ writing). It goes without saying, though, that students expect us to point out their errors and help them improve.

An important consideration is also to respond to the content, rather than just the language. All too often, we focus on correcting errors and fail to notice the story the student has just shared with us. take a look at an example of feedback I recently gave to my 1-1 IELTS student on a recording he sent me. The student has struggled with fluency, is quite daunted by the speaking part and lacks a bit in confidence. We’ve been having classes for 3 weeks, twice a week 90mins:

“A very good effort, Ery! I used to do a lot of swimming myself. Really good exercise 🙂 I might get back to it some time soon.
You structured your speech very well. You used good fillers to avoid pauses. You used some more complex sentences and there were a lot of error-free sentences. A good summary at the end as well. Keep up the good work and do more speaking, please. You’ve been improving, and it would be great if you could send me a recording like this at least every 2 or 3 days (it can even be more spontaneous if you don’t have time to rehearse.
Some suggestions:

  • at the end of sentences the intonation should go down/fall to indicate the sentence is finished
  • try to use substitution to avoid repeating go swimming or swimming so often, i.e. I do it/this sport/activity, I practise it/this sport

BTW, we say go swimming, not *go for swimming. Really looking forward to more recordings from you!”

I avoided using any extreme adjectives such as: fantastic or incredible, because his speaking was far from it. I commented on the content to let him know I actually listen to WHAT he says, not just how. There’s quite a lot of positive feedback, because he needs to know what he already does well. Otherwise, he might fall back into his bad habits.

On the other hand, I included some suggestions. I didn’t use the word error or mistake, because they have a negative overtone, while “suggestions” or “to improve” are neutral. But I think it would be wrong to overlook the errors and say: I was super impressed. You’re really fluent. You’re English is fantastic; because this is simply not true, and both me and the student know it.

To sum up, the key is a balanced feedback. Praise should be given when it’s due. And it should be adjusted to the student’s performance. We can’t be super impressed with everything all the time. It’s just not fair to the student in question, and to others who might be much better. And we definitely need to let the students know how they can improve and what the mistakes are. Otherwise we risk creating over-confident learners whose English is too impressive to continue working on it.

Correcting writing: 8 practical ideas

Correcting students’ writing is something we do on a very regular basis. And the feedback we give depends on many factors. For example, with more creative writing (e.g. compositions, reviews, stories, etc.) we will clearly want to demonstrate our interest in the content, apart from just using our red pen. Depending on the level and the assigned task, we might want to zoom in only on certain mistakes and ignore others (e.g. correct use of past simple). However, whichever method of correcting and marking we choose, learners need to be trained and eased into it step by step. 

Below I’ve listed some of the most popular correction techniques (I use error and mistake interchangeably here):

  1. Using symbols:

    Most teachers use correction codes which can be written either above the mistake or on the margins. They make correcting neater and more organised and might be less intimidating than random comments. They also give the students some guidance how to correct the mistakes, which is crucial if they’re ever going to improve and avoid these mistakes in the future (see point 8 for ideas how to further develop self-correcting skills). Different teachers use different symbols. So I’d love to see yours, especially if you think they might work better than the ones below, which are the ones I use:

    • W = Wrong Word, e.g. It depends of (W) the weather.
    • WF = Word Form, e.g. The film was very bored. (WF)
    • VF = Verb Form, e.g. She play (VF) the piano.
    • SP = Spelling, e.g. My speling (SP) is really bad.
    • P = Punctuation, e.g. However (P) we stayed home.
    • WO = Word Order, e.g. It’s a house beautiful (WO)
    • \?/ = A missing word, e.g. He went to \?/ pub.
  2. Marking criteria:

    You might feel it’s important to establish clear, fair and unambiguous marking criteria, especially if you need the grade as part of the continuous assessment (in many schools I worked for this was the case). They make your marking fairer and much quicker, once you’re in the swing of things. It is also easy for students to see which areas they did well on, and which they need to still improve. Obviously, when you have an exam prep course, you should use the same criteria as used on the exam. In my GE courses I use the same criteria as the one used for IELTS: TA (Task achievement), CC (Cohesion and Coherence) , LR (Lexical Resource) and GRA (Grammatical range and accuracy). Each is graded from 1 to 5 and gives 20 in total. 13 is usually the pass mark, i.e. 3 on our scale. The obvious disadvantage of using marking criteria in GE classes is that you might create a situation in which the students write for the grade, and not for pleasure or self-improvement. Some might also be discouraged if they fail. So if you don’t need to give grades for writing as part of the assessment, you’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons and decide whether using marking criteria would be appropriate for this particular group or individual.

  3. Reformulation: 

    T reformulates/rewrites student’s writing, keeping the main idea but upgrading the language. You should be careful not to go to far beyond the student’s level. S analyses the original and the reformulation, comparing the two, and notices and audits the differences in language, style, cohesion, etc. Then S queries the new language. Apart from aiding acquisition through noticing, it allows the teacher to go beyond word level into sentence and paragraph level (or at least this is the theory). In practice, my main problem with it is that you really need to train students in it to make it work. The whole noticing business can be a very tricky thing for most learners. And frankly, I haven’t really seen it work acquisition miracles. The last obvious disadvantage is that it involves a lot of work on the teacher’s part. But if you haven’t tried it, I recommend you give it a go, especially in a 1-1 setting. What’s your experience been like with reformulation?

  4. Peer correction:

    This can be done as part of the writing process (i.e. after the first draft). Peer correction raises group cohesion, encourages monitoring others and thus helps improve self–monitoring. Students might also be more motivated to respond to peer feedback. To build a positive vibe around peer correction, try first encouraging the students to give only positive comments, slowly easing them into the idea of correcting their partner’s mistakes. To make it more focused, consider using some categories or frames. Harmer (2007) suggests these: My immediate reactions to your writing are…, I like the part…, I’m not sure about…, The specific language errors I’ve noticed are…  

  5. Selective marking:

    As mentioned in the introduction, you might consider zooming in only on certain points (e.g. linking, lexis for reviewing films, etc.). It reduces your work load (YEY!!), decreases the number of mistakes (less intimidating/demotivating for students) and prompts the learners to pay special attention to the parts you will mark them on. You can tell them when you assign a writing that this time you will only focus on a specific language point, which you for example practised in class. Also consider only marking them on the point(s) which were identified as issues in their previous writing.

  6. Responding/commenting:

    We tell the student what we’ve liked and what needs to be improved (the goal). Students might find it more useful and less intimidating than a lot of correction symbols in red all over their work. It is especially useful if the student is going to do a rewrite. I usually write at least 3 positive and 3 negative comments below their work. I also try to react to the content of their work whenever possible, so that the student knows I appreciate their effort and care about what they wrote.

  7. Using colours:

    I tend to use green and red. With green I tick or underline the parts which are correct, particularly impressive or simply interesting. For example, you might underline correctly used linkers, which students were asked to use in their writing. Or some nice collocations or vocabulary items. Or the parts that are really well written, have interesting content, etc. This shows the student you appreciate their effort and also tells the student that there are many positive things about their work. The red is for mistakes. I use the same colours when giving comments, i.e. green for positive ones, and red for ‘to improve’. I know some teachers also use yellow/orange for mistakes (i.e. slips) and red for errors (i.e. things the student doesn’t know).

  8. Scaffolding self-correction:

    Ideally, we’d like our students to spot and correct the mistakes themselves. But this takes time and scaffolding. I usually first start with the symbols above the errors. This gives students quite a lot of guidance, as they know which word is wrong and what’s wrong with it, i.e. that the verb is in the incorrect form. Once they get better and are able to correct, I underline the mistakes, but write the symbols on the margin next to the line rather than above the words. The next step is to remove the symbols all together and only underline errors. Then, you only indicate which lines contain errors, and perhaps how many there are. Finally, you can ask your students to find, for example 5 grammar mistakes and X number of misspelled words, etc. Of course, you don’t always need to follow all the steps with all students. You’ll see how quickly they’re getting better at correcting and limit scaffolding accordingly. To improve students’ proofreading skills you might also consider using some of the 10 proofreading tips I wrote about previously.

    If you use any other correction techniques, please comment below. I’d love to hear your ideas.

    In one of the future posts I’m going to write about different activities which can be used in class deal with the mistakes students made in their writing.

    For now, you might find these books useful:

    • The Practice of English Language Teaching, Jeremy Harmer, Longman 2007 (Chapter 8) 
    • Writing, Tricia Hedge, OUP 2003
    • How to Teach Writing, Jeremy Harmer, Pearson 2004