Giving Feedback in an English Writing Class

Giving Feedback in an English Writing Class

What’s your approach to giving feedback in an English writing class? When I started teaching English in 2015, I used to spend endless hours spotting, underlining, and even correcting language mistakes in my students’ writing. I have seen many teachers in staffrooms doing the same. 

However, giving formative feedback on students’ papers is what some ESL teachers dislike the most about teaching writing

“You could get your students to write a short story,” one of my colleagues once suggested after I asked her for help with my lesson plan. “But then you’ll have to mark them,” she then added with raised eyebrows as if to say “Do you really want to do that to yourself!?” 

Giving feedback on writing continues to be a time-consuming chore for many ESL teachers. What can we do about it? How can we give effective formative feedback in an English writing class without wearing ourselves out?

Here are three suggested solutions.

Giving Feedback in an English Writing Class: Make It a Process 

Instead of having students complete a writing task in one go and then marking their papers, you can encourage them to see writing for what it really is: a process. In other words, you can adopt a process writing approach to teaching (and assessing) writing skills. 

Typically, these are the phases that make up the process:

  • Planning: the teacher helps students generate and organise their ideas for writing.
  • Drafting: students make their first attempt and write a draft focusing on content, not form.
  • Revising: students review their work based on teacher (or peer) feedback, paying attention to overall cohesion.
  • Editing: students check their text, this time focusing on form (grammar, spelling, word choice, punctuation, and so on).
  • Publishing: ideally, students share what they wrote with the class, the school, or the world.

So, instead of simultaneously responding, evaluating, and editing your students’ first draft (like I used to do), you can give your students continuous, focused feedback throughout the process, and encourage them to review and improve their work step by step.

There’s plenty of evidence that process writing works well in helping students develop strong writing skills.There’s also evidence that students have positive perceptions of process writing. 

Self-editing and Sharing Responsibility

Dozens of research papers show the benefits of training students to self-edit their own written work. 

Checklists work well for self-editing. You can create one and give it to your students so they can review and improve their texts. Here are some questions you could include in it: 

  • Did you make any grammar mistakes that you can correct by yourself?
  • Did you use verb tenses correctly?
  • Are there any gaps in your argument?
  • Are there any sentences that are too long to digest?
  • Can you rearrange any of your sentences to make your point of view clearer? 
  • Do you find you keep repeating the same words?
  • Are all adjectives spelled correctly?

But does this mean that giving feedback in an English writing class will no longer be one of your responsibilities? Does this mean you won’t support your students because “they need to improve their writing, not me!”.

No, that would not be a useful way to look at this. Training students to self-edit and self-assess their work does not mean you’re abdicating responsibility. It means you’re sharing it with them so they can rely less on you and become more critical and autonomous writers.

If you’d like to learn more on the topic of self-editing and giving effective feedback on student’s writing, you may want to read the work of Professor Dana Ferris from the University Writing Program.

Giving Feedback in an English Writing Class: Make it Focused 

There’s so much you could look at in a text: clarity, cohesion, grammar, vocabulary, content, punctuation, style, register, organisation, layout, spelling. 

This is why giving comprehensive feedback on every single aspect of your students' writing may not only be impractical but also overwhelming for both you and your learners. 

Narrowing down the focus of your feedback may be a useful formative assessment strategy. 

You can, for example, let your students know in advance that you’re only going to look at:

  • One specific grammar point or error.
  • The most urgent area they need to improve.
  • A particular stylistic feature the class has recently studied.
  • The relevance and quality of the ideas they included.
  • A specific aspect of cohesion (e.g. the use of pronouns to avoid repetition).

You could also involve your students in the pre-selection and ask them to indicate what exactly they would like you to give them feedback on. 

A little digression: I wouldn’t expect my students to know what my written feedback should address if I’ve never asked them to take part in such a decision. They may reply, “Erm, we don’t know, you’re the teacher!” 

Always keep in mind that becoming an autonomous learner is more of a gradual process than an overnight transformation. 

Too much choice too soon may result in blank stares.

Concluding Thought 

In 1982, Nancy Sommers, a prize-winning writer and teacher who led the Harvard College Writing Program for twenty years, wrote an essay titled “Responding to Student Writing”. She noted that “most teachers spend at least 20 to 40 minutes to comment on an individual student paper, and those 20 to 40 minutes times 20 students per class, times 8 papers, more or less, during the course of a semester add up to an enormous amount of time.” 

What Sommers wrote in the 80s may still be true for many ESL teachers today. If that’s the case for you, which of the strategies I mentioned in this post might help you reduce your workload? 

Can any of these improve your approach to giving feedback in an English writing class?


About the author:

Fabio Cerpelloni is a non-native English teacher and a writer. His credentials include a Cambridge CELTA and a Delta, and he is currently working on his MA thesis in Language Education.

Beyond the classroom, Fabio is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and podcaster. Currently based in Cogliate, Italy, Fabio is also the author of the book 'Any Language You Want,' which is heading towards a second edition.

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