10 tips to help you give feedback on writing

There have been a lot of pendulum swings in our profession since the early 90s, but the teaching of writing seems to be a bit of an exception.

Compared to, for example, the sibling rivalry between PPP vs. task-based learning, the half-hearted nod of approval translation’s finally starting to get or, say, the recent comeback of formulaic language, the principles underlying the teaching of writing have remained relatively unscathed from ELT’s constant quest for the latest craze.

We owe this, to a certain extent at least, to Ron White’s and Valerie Arndt’s Process Writing, published in 1991.

Process Writing was one of the first ELT books I read from cover to cover. Sound, well-researched and easy to read, it completely changed the way I taught writing way back then and continues to shape a lot of what I do as (1) an author (i.e., ensure there’s enough pre-writing work, for example) and (2) as a teacher (i.e., provide feedback that’s truly helpful.) This post is concerned primarily with (2), which I believe is what we often take for granted.

Since Process Writing came along, the how-to-teach-writing orthodoxy hasn’t changed much: Multiple drafts (at least two), analysis of task and audience (rather than only models), language feedback that encourages self-editing, peer feedback and so on and so forth. And, honestly, there’s no reason why it should. The fact that today’s students are naturally inclined – for obvious reasons – to convey their thoughts in 140 characters or fewer doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to strive for depth, length, coherence, cohesion, accuracy and complexity. And this, I believe, depends more on the quality of the feedback we provide than on the amount of pre-writing work that we happen to engage students in.

So here are ten things I’ve learned over the years that I’d like to share with you.

1. Focus on content and task achievement first. When you start reading a piece of writing, resist the urge to correct the very first mistake you spot. Read the text, from start to finish, and ask yourself: In real life, would this piece of writing do what it’s intended to? You need to be able to see the forest before you zoom into the trees.

2. In an ideal world, you’d be able to devote the first draft in its entirety to content and only focus on language in later drafts. But that might end up generating endless drafts, which students wouldn’t always have time to write – and you to mark. So, depending on the time constraints you work under, try to strike a balance between content and form right in the first draft. This, however, can create further problems. Let me explain.

3. When you ask students to eliminate, change or expand on their original ideas, some of the mistakes they made in the first draft will disappear and others will surface. This is only natural. So, in the first draft, avoid correcting mistakes that you feel will not carry over to the second draft. For example, if your student wrote “I live here for two years” and you told him that this piece of information was not relevant and should be deleted from the second draft, then it’s no use correcting the verb tense there.

4. When you give feedback on content, avoid general, one-size-fits-all comments such as “Add a few more details” or “The description is not vivid enough.” Ask questions that will show them exactly how their text impacted the reader: “Your dad is such an important part of the story that I’d like to know more about him. How old is he? What does he do for a living? What does he look like?”

5. Another strategy to stop students from writing vague, non-descriptive sentences is to ask them to rewrite parts of the original story (assuming you’re dealing with narratives, of course) as if you (the teacher) were a movie director (and the student the script writer). Tell them that every line in their writing should show you exactly how to shoot the scene. Once they get used to this, all you need to do is write “MD” (movie director) next to the excerpts that need more “color.”

6. It may be possible to correct language through feedback on content at times. So, for example, if a students says “My parents born in 1966”, you could write something like: “Ok, you told me when your parents were born. But where were they born? And what can you say about this place?” Over the years, I have had a success rate of approximately 50% with this sort of “written recast”, which is probably more effective than its much maligned oral counterpart.

7. Do use correction codes, since they do a pretty good job of encouraging students to self-correct. If you feel, however, that a student won’t be able to spot the mistake and fix it, just provide the correction yourself. It’s no use trying to elicit structures / words / chunks that are way above students’ developmental level.

8. Some mistakes are, for lack of a better word, “genuine” while others might stem from poor editing skills or carelessness. If an A1 student writes “yesterday I go to school”, this is probably a mistake that you should attack by writing “VT” next to the verb, for example. If, however, a B1 student makes the same mistake, then maybe you should approach it differently, by, for example, simply writing an X at the right margin. This is how I might correct a narrative written by an intermediate student:

writing feedback

9. Students can fix certain mistakes if they know how to use a monolingual dictionary. So whenever I underline a word and write “D”next to it, the students know that they’re supposed to look up the key word in their English-English dictionary, read the examples carefully (which usually illustrate the right structure) and correct their own work. For example:

Mistake: I did a lot of effort to lose weight.
Comment: D – effort

This technique can also help you stretch students’ interlanguage at more advanced levels:

Simple sentence: There are more boys than girls in my class.
Comment: D – outnumber

By reading the examples carefully, students will be able to come up with “Boys outnumber girls”. Using a dictionary as an encoding (rather than merely decoding) device does require, of course, a fair amount of ongoing learner training, which may not always be easy to pull off with the 140-character generation. But who said any part of our job was easy?

10. If you have students who tend to write either very long or very short sentences, try asking them to skip a line after every sentence. If students are able to actually see the length of their sentences on a piece of paper, they might be better able to self-edit before they even submit their writing tasks. This technique has always worked wonders with my students, especially at pre-intermediate onwards.

Final thought: When all is said and done, I believe it’s the feedback (rather than the input) that will really help students become better writers. One day, there might be an app for that. Until then, the ball is on our court.

Thanks for reading.

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Luis Otávio Barros

Luiz Otávio Barros (MA in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best, and series editor of Access.

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