Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Writing feedback: how do you do it?

When it comes to student writing, we all know that feedback and error correction are important.  Sometimes it might just be a vague comment at the end:

Well done, Roberto. A very good piece of work, but next time don't forget to use more adjectives!

This is not very useful.  The student is likely to read the comment and instantly forget about it and wonder why they put all that effort into writing their piece in the first place.

To combat this vagueness, popular advice to teachers in recent years has focused on getting students to think about their own errors, for example by the teacher underlining them and asking the student to go away and work them out and re-correct them.  The problem with this is that it is highly time-consuming and very difficult for the student (if they knew their mistakes perhaps they wouldn't have made them in the first place).  Some teachers use a complicated set of abbreviations in order to point the student to what kind of error they made,

                sp. = spelling error
                lc = use lower case
                cap. = use capital letter
                v. = wrong verb
                adv. = wrong adverb
                ? = I don't understand

                                               ............ and so on.  The trouble with this is that you would have to do a lesson or two teaching them what all the symbols meant.  More importantly, how can you guarantee that the learners would actually bother to look at these pointers and correct the work?  Maybe a few conscientious ones will re-draft at home and hand it in again the following week, but the majority will probably file it away and forget about it.

Imagine if we corrected speaking this way (!), shouting out "VERB!" and "PRONUNCIATION!" as the poor student tried to articulate what he was trying to say.  The quickest way of correcting a speaking error is on the spot, by reformulating what the student said. A rather crude example:

                               -    Student: I go London last week
                               -   Teacher : You went to London last week?
                               -   Student: Yes, I went to London last week and....

The hope is that over time, and once the same errors have been corrected multiple times, the student will eventually assimilate the correct usage. There is no reason why this approach cannot be used for writing skills too.  Myers (1997) in an article for TESL-EJ, detailed how she used reformulation to correct and improve students' sentence-level syntax.  The student writes a first draft, the teacher corrects all the errors  (spelling, grammar etc.) and in addition suggests more 'natural' alternatives.  The student then looks at the corrected draft and re-writes it without the original errors, producing what Myers calls a "clean copy."  Myers then distributed the clean copies amongst the class so they could read each other's work without being impeded by errors, grammatical or otherwise.

Myers used this technique with ESL students in the US studying at university level.  I argue that this technique can be used at any level and for whatever kind of written text.  I have produced some notes explaining the basics:

Reformulation for ESL Writing: A Guide

The advantages:
- Although the text is corrected by the teacher, the 'voice' and meaning remain the student's.
- The student receives feedback that is 100% individualised.  No-one in the class is left out.
- It can be instantaneous, in the same class period (no waiting for the next class for feedback).

Further reading:

Reformulation Revisited (Kusuyama, 2003)

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Open Source Education

Killing Music

                                 By Nina Paley  http://www.mimiandeunice.com

New long post in 'Articles' section:

Thoughts on Open Source Education

This explores the current 'Don't ask, don't tell' culture when it comes to teachers and copyright (come on, we all photocopy sometimes, no?), followed by a look at the origins of copyright and ways how teachers can bypass this without "breakin' the law."

A wonderful example of 'open source' education this past year has been Jason Renshaw's English Raven blog. An experienced teacher and materials writer, he has shared some great ideas and practical tips for lessons.  The best thing about them?  The fact they are so simple and completely adaptable.  His Wizard English Grid, for example, consists of  blank squares.  And that's it.  Yet the number of different speaking activities you could do with it are endless.  More recently, he has challenged teachers to do the same: share adaptable materials with teacher's notes.  One teacher who has took him up on the challenge has started a new blog, Magpie Moments, to document how some of Jason's ideas are working in a different context and how she has adapted them. 

This is the future: collaborative and open, without the need for gatekeepers (i.e. publishers) to decide what is to be printed or not.  


Saturday, 19 February 2011


Speakeasy English class, Ashton-under-Lyne

Speakeasy ESOL class, Ashton-Under-Lyne. Photo by : St. Peter's Community News.

Providers of ESOL in the UK (including further education colleges, adult education centres, and charities) are facing massive cuts to their funding. Since 1997, most ESOL students in the UK have been able to access free ESOL classes in their local area (waiting lists not withstanding).

Some cuts were made in 2007 by the previous government which barred some asylum seekers and migrant workers from accessing free classes. However, the cuts announced by the new coalition government, will be much more wide-ranging. From September, the only people eligible for free ESOL will be those on Jobseekers Allowance, the UK's unemployment benefit. It is estimated by ESOL teaching organisation NATECLA that this will prevent about 70% of potential ESOL students being eligible for free classes since they are not in receipt of this benefit. They will instead be asked to pay up to £1000 a year in tuition fees.

I personally think that some ESOL students should be asked to pay, or at least contribute towards their education. However, there are many asylum seekers, refugees, foreign spouses of British nationals, and low-income migrant workers that simply cannot afford the £550-£1000 a year. ESOL classes represent their best chance of getting into employment and off state handouts in the long-term. The government's policies could end up costing them more in the long-run, given that without decent English skills, prospects for employment here are grim.

With the ESOL cuts and the new student visa rules that could affect private EFL courses too, it seems the government are intent on reducing English language education in the very country it originated!

For more information:

Action For ESOL, a campaign launched by NATECLA and the UCU


Service is Resumed

I started this blog about a year ago, but took a "break" in August 2010, with the usual excuse of being too busy to update it. Well, I've decided to refresh the site with a new design.

The old blog had a few posts which were perhaps too lengthy for a blog format. From now on, longer pieces will be published in PDF format and accessible by clicking the "Articles" tab at the top of the page. I intend that the posts here will be of a briefer, more topical and more practical nature than what appeared previously, with more detailed and philosophical musings published in the "Articles" section.

I've also added tabs for ELT resources and research. Some of the resources will be original, but I will also link to other resources that I think are useful. My intention for the "Research" section is to be a repository of categorised links of publicly available research in English language teaching or second language acquisition in general. I've come across lots of interesting papers on the web and I think it would be nice to have some of them in one place. These sections are sparse at the moment, but should fill up over the coming weeks.

I've deleted the old posts. Some of them may appear in the "Articles" section, however. If there is an old post that you would like to see again, e-mail me and I can forward it on to you: