Corrective feedback in writing

Yuck. I hate grading writing.  I love teaching it, but the grading is awful.  So many questions – do I correct all errors or just some?  Should I correct the error, or just mark it?  Should I just summarize a student’s mistakes at the bottom and have them find their own errors and correct them?  What if the grammar is terrible, but the essay structure is also wrong?  They’re going to have to rewrite the whole essay, so is it even worthwhile to mention the grammar mistakes?

And the biggest question of all: does any of it actually make any difference at all?  There are linguists who argue strongly against corrective feedback.  With all due respect to the linguists, that’s a really bad idea.  But one I’m inclined to agree with when I’m feeling lazy or my students have written particularly bad essays.

Here are my thoughts after a few years of teaching:

1. Students say they want feedback, but many ignore it.  Or how else can I explain the fact that they make the same mistakes over and over again?

2. Some students are afraid to make mistakes. I always explain that mistakes are okay because they show me that the student is learning.

3. Some students are not afraid to make mistakes. In other words, they pay no attention to what they write and make careless errors constantly.  I find this comes as a result of thinking “this is just an ESL class, not a real class.”  So, I make them write online or share what they write with their classmates.  It’s amazing how when their audience expands, they try a little harder.

4.  Students get easily overwhelmed, particularly at low levels.  So, I limit my corrective feedback at those levels to just what we’ve discussed in class or what I can reasonably expect them to know.

5.  Students get too cocky, especially at high levels.  I often teach students who feel that they don’t need my class; their writing is fine.  So, at high levels, I mark a lot of mistakes.  Maybe not everything (I don’t care if they don’t use the right preposition), but enough to let them know they still have a lot to learn and pay attention to.

6. I never correct their mistakes.  I use abbreviations instead: “wf” means “word form error,” “vt” means “verb tense error.”  They have to figure out how to make the corrections on their own.

7. I hold a LOT of conferences. I’ve found that I accomplish more in a 10-minute, one-on-one session with a student than I do in an hour of class time with 15 students.  I feel no guilt in canceling class for conferences.  They really seem to learn more, and they work harder.

8. Eventually, I stop marking the mistakes at all.  Especially for more advanced students, I feel that we reach a point where I have made them aware of their patterns of error.  They know their trouble spots, and I should be able to say “subject-verb agreement was a problem again,” without having to mark every subject-verb agreement error.

Today, I will be collecting the second draft of my students’ first essays.  We’ll see what they’ve learned so far.

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2 thoughts on “Corrective feedback in writing

  1. Last year my son’s second grade teacher jumped all over any mistake in form and he almost seemed to be antagonizing her sensitivity to such matters. This year in third grade I saw the following three samples suggesting a different approach from the new teacher. On the first spelling test, my son got all the words spelled right but the three holes were along the right hand side of the paper. The teacher marked 20 over 20 and 100 percent and a smiley face. On the second spelling test, my son got all the words spelled right but the page was upside down. The teacher wrote “excellent spelling” and 20 over 20 and 100 percent and a smiley face. On the third test, the three holes were along the left side where they belong and the paper was right side up, and all the words were again correct. The teacher wrote 20 over 20 and 100 percent. I believe that the real challenge in teaching a language and in teaching how to write English is in realizing when to intervene and when not to intervene. My personal preference is a focus on content and less concern with form; yet at a certain level form and content interact and overlap, so this must be dealt with in some way. Another key is to realize that not everything has to be directly taught and how to set up activities and opportunities for indirect learning to occur. Sounds easy but it’s not. I know that at one program I taught in they experimented with taped (today it would be recorded mp3 or something like that) stream of consciousness teacher comments as they went over a student’s paper. I believe this might be something to try.

    • I love the idea of taping the comments. I always feel that conferences work better than just plain written comments. Spoken feedback is so much more dynamic. Great suggestion.

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