Feedback on Written Work

In a standard course the learners receive feedback on their performance in a variety of ways, ranging from oral feedback on a whole class-level, through individualised comments on a one-to-one basis, to lengthy prose on their written work.pen_madamepsychosis

While it is easy for feedback to backfire in general, it is all too easy for written comments to backfire horrendously or even be completely ignored.

Imagine you are a language learner, you get your written work back and it is covered in red marks – every line has at least two errors highlighted. How would you feel? Do the words ‘deflated’ or ‘demotivated’ come quickly to mind?

What is the best way to give feedback on written work which is both informative and constructive yet not overwhelming?

First of all, try to avoid using red ink when marking work: the colour is all too often associated with failure – think of the red F’s students receive in American TV programmes.

Learners who produce a plethora of mistakes clearly lack a certain degree of linguistic competence in a vast range of areas. However, no one is capable of improving on all of these simultaneously, not even the most enthusiastic and determined of learners, which is why it is best to focus on only a few common, recurring errors rather than all the errors.

For example, if the learner consistently misuses articles or fails to employ the past perfect where necessary. By giving the learner some concrete areas to focus on, they will not only avoid feeling overwhelmed and deflated but will have received insightful feedback on errors which they will be able to realistically work on.

Furthermore, do not simply correct these errors, rather highlight them and get the learner to try to self-correct – this will involve the learner more in the cognitive process of acquiring the language. Only after they have tried to self-correct should the teacher then provide the final solution.

Feedback should not be limited to linguistic errors but should include areas of success both in terms of language and content. This could range from a small comment on the content of the writing, for example ‘you provide a nice solution in your letter of complaint’ to something much heartier, such as a lengthy response on the development of a story: what was good about it and how it could be improved further.

Staging is also very important when giving feedback. Lessons are staged so that they can be more manageable and more effective – the same applies to feedback:

  1. To avoid demotivating the learner right from the word go, begin with something really positive: what the learner did well. Even in the worst piece of written work there is always room to find something positive, even if it is the ideas and the content.
  2. To provide insightful and informative feedback, bullet point what the few areas which the learner really need to work on – three is the absolute maximum.
  3. To keep your learners smiling, end on a high note: this could be another positive thing they did or simply a positive comment, such as “Well done, I really enjoyed reading this!” or “Keep up the good work!”

Last but not least, when setting a writing task, the teacher should set out learning aims so that the learners have clear parameters to work against while producing their work. For example, if the task is to produce a story, you might request the following:

  • Use at last five adverbs of time
  • Use a mixture of past tenses
  • Make sure the story has a clear beginning, middle and end

These criteria could be anything, depending on what you have covered in the lesson. With more advanced classes, these aims could be even more; for example: to use cohesive devices on a sentence and whole-text level. The other advantage is that when you mark, then you will generally mark against these criteria.


*Photo courtesy of Chiara Reali: 

14 thoughts on “Feedback on Written Work

  1. Good advice and reminder for all. However, I do use red ink pen, but I don’t use it just when correcting student work, so hopefully there is no bad connotations, In fact I like to vary the colours I use from purple and pink to green and orange, any bright colour really.

    My personal problem is to decide how to give a score for the student’s work? I try to avoid it as much as possible but some students’ whole purpose is not to learn but to get a high they are not pleased…

    I try to start from 100 points for a short paragraph and reduce them according the number and severity of mistakes, two points usually being maximum for a severe grammar mistake… I used to think that giving 100 starting points for five sentences was plenty but even taking only 2 points maximum per mistake, some students end up with 0, or more if I went into negative numbers. That happens a lot because students pass automatically to the next level whether they know anything or not. They may even start from pre-intermediate or intermediate level so they can be in the same class with their friends.

    I wonder how unfair it would be to those students who have got higher scores, if I ignore a vast amount of the mistakes of weak students?


    1. Dear Nika,

      Thank you for your comment – I really appreciate it; you pose some interesting questions. In all honesty, your school should have a grading system which is utilised across courses and teaching staff. It sounds like it doesn’t.

      Generally speaking, you shouldn’t be deducting marks for every mistake. What was the communicative and linguistic aim of the writing? If the writing task was simply to write something, well that’s not very focused. If it the writing was to write a letter of complaint in which the learners should:

      (1) Complain about XYZ and explain what they want done about it
      (2) Use a variety of past tenses
      (3) Use at least two conditional sentences
      (4) Lay the letter out in the correct style

      Then you should be marking against this criteria. If the learner does all of these and does them well, then they should receive a high grade. If, however, they use a mixture of past tenses, then you should highlight this, correct and deduct points. Mistakes related to other tenses can be overlooked as they do not form part of the assessment criteria for this writing task.


      1. It’s good to be reminded of these points. On a slightly different note: my students struggle to read/understand/respond to (I’m not sure which it is) assessment criteria and I think your above suggestion (giving a more focused task and marking those points only) would also be a good way of helping students respond to a task fully. I’ll give it a go next term and see what happens.


        1. Hi Sarah!

          Thank you for the comment. I am glad to read you like the idea and very pleased you are considering trying it out next term. I hope it works out. Either way, it would be good to hear from you about how it went 🙂


          1. Hi,

            I tried giving students ‘targeted’ feedback on their written assessment, as I said I would, but I also tried it with presentation practice. It was a bit of a mixed bag, partly because I had quite an interesting group! Students who were motivated really benefited from it. I think it’s because they could concentrate on one aspect and then build up on it.
            I’m teaching Listening next term. It’ll be interesting to see if I can do something similar.



  2. I agree with the comments. Some learen I think it’s useful for learners to try to assess their own work in terms of content, not just on language. For example, if they written a letter of complaint, they can be asked questions such as ‘Does the letter begin and end in an appropriate way?’, ‘Have you given details of the complaint?’ ‘Is it clear what action is to be taken?’ etc. This could also be done as peer assessment.


  3. Sir I have forty studexts ix frade 4,Is it possible 4 me to ckeck all their gome work,class work n a proper way? As for as students r concerned, they could be entertained by telling their favourite stories & jokes


    1. To correct every mistake of every student would be too much work and not productive for the students – you should correct their most common errors so they can work on them and improve 🙂


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