Giving effective feedback on students’ writing work is as important as the writing activity itself. Apart from guiding and motivating the students in the writing process, teachers usually have to respond and correct their learners’ compositions and writing assignments and return them later. The dilemma is that most of the students throw returned writing tasks away and rarely focus on the teachers’ comments or corrections. Many students don’t bother to read through their writing again. However, we can turn this feedback stage into a student-centered learning experience by involving students in correcting and reformulating their own compositions.
What to focus on?
When responding to students’ writing work, teachers could focus on one or all three categories: language, content, and form. Grammar and lexis relate to language; task completion and organization relate to content; whereas, layout and punctuation relate to form. Students need to know which area the teacher is focusing on to give it a special emphasis when writing. A successful composition comprises good language, smooth transition from one idea to another, and features of the target layout and correct use of punctuation.
What to correct or highlight?
It is a good idea for teachers to be selective when correcting their students’ mistakes. That depends on the students’ level and previously taught language area and semantic lexis. For example, if the students have written about their last holiday, teachers could logically focus on past tense verbs and vocabulary used in the topic of holiday. It is best if teachers discuss what to focus on with the students beforehand. Other times, the teacher might ask the students to focus on the organization of the ideas and punctuation, for instance. In order not to demotivate students, teachers should also praise the good language and ideas students have produced in writing, and there is no need to correct mistakes beyond their level. For instance, a teacher could write or say “I like the bit about your being able to read at an early age, but I don't understand what you mean by with my family”. Or “I love your story and the superb use of comparative adjectives. However, you still need to watch out for verb tenses a bit more”.
Feedback on Language:
I mentioned in a previous post about teaching writing that students can respond to and give feedback on their classmates’ compositions as a way of peer-editing and support. But if the teacher gives feedback, she can do it in different ways. The teacher could simply cross out the mistakes and write the correct versions above them. But this technique proves to be teacher-centered and not involving students in any cognitive work. A better way to provide feedback and involve students is to use correction symbols. To make their lives easier when they get the feedback, students should get a copy of the correction symbols with some training on how to use them. The teacher writes the correction codes above the mistakes and asks students to identify mistakes and correct them themselves. This technique urges students to think about the mistakes they have made and try to correct them by referring to a grammar or vocabulary section in their coursebook, for instance. Once students are familiar with this technique, the teacher can make the feedback more challenging by only underlining the mistakes without referring to the type of mistakes or write the number of mistakes at the end of each line. It is the students’ responsibility to identify or find the mistakes and correct them before they hand in the final draft.
Feedback on content:
As I mentioned above, task completion and organization are features of content. I’m inclined to believe that task completion is the most important part/component of a successful piece of writing. Imagine that a student has written a composition using complex structures with sophisticated language but she failed to understand the task. In this case, she would lose most of the points awarded for the task. Teachers should stress the importance of reading and understanding the task first and foremost. Next comes the organization of ideas. Some students tend to write lists of sentences with no connection or apparent coherence. Students need to focus on examples and details that support each sub-idea and connect them logically with one another. Elaborating on ideas and writing adequate details improves the content of the writing. With regard to feedback on content, an effective approach is to write overall comments at the bottom of the paper or at the margins and discuss the feedback with each student face to face if possible.
Feedback on Form:
Form accounts for layout and punctuation. Layout is dealt with by referring students to the models and examples of the genre they are writing within. If they are writing an informal email to a friend and deviate from the layout, you get them to look at an email they have in their coursebook, or show them one to correct any shortcomings with the layout. Write some general comments, eg: be careful with the opening and ending of an informal email. Check the one we studied the lesson before. Or remember to start the email with Dear X,.
Dealing with punctuation mistakes can be added to the language category above. A correction symbol (p) that indicates punctuation error is enough for students to consider and check the correct use of punctuation.