Advice on giving appropriate oral feedback in communicative classrooms.

Giving adult students appropriate oral feedback in today's communicative classrooms is one of the greatest challenges teachers face: We are told not to interrupt the flow of conversations and group interactions in the name of fluency; saving feedback for later feels like throwing a wet blanket on a nicely burning fire even if a dwindling one; error correcting, the core purpose of feedback, is a minefield to the untrained. 

Is feedback necessary, say, after an open debate on the value of pre-marital cohabitation with a group of young adults? In the heat of the debate a lot of errors occur that wouldn't in a tamer situation. How do we choose the ones to treat? How can feedback be given without the 'wet blanket' effect mentioned above? More broadly, do the positives of feedback outweigh the negatives in terms of language acquisition?

If no proof exists that it does, why include it at all? I know plenty of teachers who opt out simply because it is too hard to do properly. Much is said and written about what to look out for – hence, the minefield effect – but little is said and written on how to do it. A step by step and gradual training on how to give feedback – which I personally believe to be more important than ever in the age of CLT – is sorely missing from today's discussions and training programs.
Christiane Oberli


Perhaps this question can best be addressed by looking at it from the point of view of the learners. They have taken part in an animated discussion on a relevant topic and have drawn on all their resources in English to do so. The teacher has set up the communicative activity and allowed it to flow, giving the learners the maximum opportunity to participate and to use their language skills to the full. The lesson ends without a feedback stage and the students leave the classroom. At this point they might reflect on what they have done. They have certainly practised speaking and, no doubt, practised listening. What, on the other hand, have they learnt? They may be left with the feeling that although they were practising using their English, they were making a lot of errors and that no-one was taking responsibility for dealing with these errors. How, they might reasonably ask, did this activity differ from an animated discussion between motivated students in English in the school cafeteria?

In terms of expectations, the learners will probably expect the teacher to do something with the language they have produced and failure to do anything at all can eventually lead to frustration and reluctance to participate in communicative activities. Comments like 'What’s the point in listening to my partner? I know he makes mistakes all the time.' can soon follow. The questioner describes giving feedback after the activity as 'throwing a wet blanket on a nicely burning fire'. This is a vivid image and no doubt it can be the effect of this type of feedback if every communicative activity is followed by the learners having to correct a list of twenty or so errors. An alternative approach to this might be for the teacher to note down persistent or interesting errors and then prioritize them before the next lesson, selecting a small number that will be of use to the class as a whole. It may even be possible to base a whole lesson around a teaching point that has emerged during the previous day’s discussion: for example, a number of errors in reporting questions might lead to a lesson that clarified the main rules in that area of the language.

Another approach is to record a section of the discussion on audio tape, make several copies of the tape and then divide the class into groups and ask each group to transcribe a short section (two or three minutes of the discussion). Having transcribed the section, the groups exchange papers and correct any errors they find. The process is repeated until they are satisfied that all the extracts are correct. The teacher can then check this in a feedback stage with the whole class.

Basing homework exercises on errors made during communicative activities can also help to give them a focus. For example, if there are persistent errors with prepositions, the teacher might devise a short gap-fill exercise using authentic examples from the discussion. This will hopefully have the effect both of dealing with the errors and reassuring the learners that the teacher has taken some action as a result of their discussion.

The 'test-teach-test' approach may be of some use here. The first 'test' stage is the discussion itself. The 'teach' stage consists of the action point or points the teacher identifies as a result of errors made during the discussion. The second 'test' stage could be a reworking or reformulation of the first discussion, paying particular attention to the areas of language dealt with during the 'teach' stage.

As far as the option of not giving feedback at all is concerned, what is the difference between this and the teacher leaving the classroom for the duration of the communicative activity? Learners expect the teacher to listen to them and the vast majority will welcome feedback and error correction, if such correction is constructive and comes at an appropriate point in the lesson. They expect their written work to be corrected so why not their spoken language?

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