Feedback Essentials for English Learners During Academic Interactions

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For English learners to make vital second-language strides, they must participate daily in a range of supported academic interactions with their peers and teachers. Merely providing opportunities to “turn and talk” or “think, pair, share” will not ensure development of English language understandings and skills. When assigned interactive tasks without relevant language support and clearly established objectives, English learners tend to focus more on “friendly discourse” than on producing conceptually competent responses with linguistic accuracy, according to this study. Unless English learners spend some dedicated class time consciously applying precise vocabulary and appropriate grammatical forms, they are likely to stall in a linguistic limbo.

Like all young scholars, English learners benefit from planned, intentional, and interactive language instruction aligned with anchor standards and lesson objectives. However, research shows that by flexing their academic language muscles during lesson interactions without timely and suitable feedback, English learners risk “practicing their mistakes into permanence."

Common sense and research make it abundantly clear that second-language learners require informed feedback to enhance their performance and achievement. After decades of research analysis, John Hattie highlights the unparalleled role of high-quality feedback in academic achievement in his 2008 book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. But offering appropriate feedback to a neophyte English speaker who is bravely hazarding a discussion contribution requires careful timing, sensitivity, and mindful verbal delivery. Recent lesson observations and coaching sessions have made me acutely aware of the struggles fellow K–12 educators experience when attempting to listen attentively and provide feedback as they field contributions from a range of students including English learners.

A Common ELD Class Discussion Scenario

A memorable lesson observation illustrates common misconceptions and challenges that characterize provision of English learner feedback. In this eighth-grade English language development (ELD) lesson for long-term English learners, the teacher had planned a highly interactive prereading discussion to build background knowledge and language skills. The assigned short story by Toni Cade Bambara, “Raymond’s Run,” focuses on the ways youths obtain respect from peers such as classmates and siblings by actually demonstrating respect.

The give one • get one schema-building lesson discussion ensued as follows. Students were first instructed to write a quick list of ways they try to gain respect from peers after having received verbal—but not visually displayed—examples such as excelling at a sport or taking the blame for a friend. Once students had brainstormed a few examples, they were directed to stand up, approach a classmate, exchange names and examples, and record their partner’s responses. Some students merely copied an example without interacting, while others shared brief phrases like “good grades.” Having interacted with two or more classmates, students returned to their desks for the next lesson phase.

At this juncture, the ELD teacher announced that they would each report an example they had obtained from a partner, using a citation verb. He directed their attention to a poster that listed reporting verbs, with encouragement to utilize more interesting and sophisticated verbs instead of said and told. The poster included an array of selections: said, told me, shared with me, pointed out, emphasized, indicated. The teacher modeled verbally—but again, not in writing—using an example obtained during an exchange with a student: “[Name] emphasized that she gains respect by having her friend’s back, and what she means by that is that she stands up for her friend.” He then invited the focal student to share an example she had obtained from a classmate, and the selected classmate proceeded to report an example gleaned from another classmate. This selection and reporting process continued until about 10 examples had been compiled.

This structured give one • get one discussion successfully engaged every student in producing and listening to relevant lesson content. However, the cohort of long-term intermediate English learners struggled to replicate the teacher’s adept verbal responses. Their preparation lacked clearly stated objectives and adequate linguistic guidance for the two distinct speaking and listening tasks: (1) discussing and recording ways to obtain respect using a complete sentence, and (2) reporting a classmate’s example using a complete sentence starting with a formal past-tense citation verb.

The students would have benefited from a sentence frame and highlighted grammatical targets for this advanced reporting task, complemented by a visibly displayed and explained modeled response such as those included in the table below. In the absence of a visual scaffold, students relied on their auditory processing to deconstruct the modeled response and reconstruct an appropriate utterance. Despite the teacher’s affirmations and attempts to intervene with appropriate phrasing, students continued to report briefly, opting for the conversational citation verbs said and told. Students also persisted in employing incorrect grammar, oblivious to the teacher’s covert corrections. Although they completed the activity with a list of examples they could include in their subsequent writing assignment, they had not developed linguistic tools to compose their paragraphs in academic register.

Explicit linguistic tools like those included in the give one • get one note-taking guide (see the table below) would have promoted more confident and competent interaction and better positioned the students to transport language learning and conceptual understandings to their subsequent formal writing task. This proactive guidance on correct grammatical forms and precise word choices would have also set the stage for the teacher to coach accurate language usage during the partner exchanges and whole-class reporting.

It is difficult to provide form-focused and qualitative feedback when students are all over the proverbial map in terms of their error production and no focused language instruction has preceded the lesson interaction. Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada emphasize that instruction that helps English learners take careful notice of specific linguistic elements in lesson content increases the likelihood they will acquire them. Pointing out the grammatical targets in the response frames and precise word-choice options for exchanging and reporting ideas are exemplars of the focused grammatical and lexical precision that advance English learner contributions.

Conventional Wisdom on Error Feedback Versus Second Language Research

I witness the preceding lesson scenario frequently, not occasionally, and I feel considerable anxiety and empathy for the teacher and students alike. It does call into serious question the conventional wisdom provided to aspiring educators of English learners. In K–12 teacher credentialing programs and English learner certification coursework throughout the U.S., candidates are likely to receive limited or questionable guidance on how to provide effective feedback to English learners, particularly with regard to verbal production errors.

The most predictable counsel developing teachers of English learners receive is some version of the following: “Verbal production errors are a natural occurrence in the process of learning a second language. The optimal way to deal with verbal errors is to unceremoniously restate what a student said using correct pronunciation, word choices, and grammar. By conscientiously ‘mirroring’ back correct language usage, a second-language teacher lowers student performance anxiety and does not inhibit normal language acquisition.”

While this pervasive guidance holds intuitive appeal, research shows that indirect correction practice is not widely supported by second-language acquisition studies on the effects of feedback on form-focused errors like those long-term English learners experienced in their give one • get one lesson interactions. The technical term for an implicit lesson correction is a recast. The teacher does not preface the indirect correction by pointing out that the student has actually made an error. Instead, the teacher subtly rearticulates or echoes what the student was trying to say with an utterance that includes needed corrections on one or more errors evident in the student’s original utterance.

The full version of this article originally appeared in Language Magazine in September 2019. Read the remainder of the article here.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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