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On_ Feedback_ and _ Error_ Correction _ Part _ Two
On Feedback and Error Correction (Part Two)
Consuela Popa, Romania
Also published in "The Teacher Magazine", Poland
Consuela Popa is a high school English teacher. In the past she used to teach English and French. She has been collaborating with Humanizing Language Teaching Magazine, Pilgrims Language Courses, UK, and she is interested in language acquisition, foreign languages, foreign language methodology, as well as interdisciplinary fields related to pedagogy and language learning. Meeting outstanding professionals such as Mario Rinvolucri, author and Editor of Humanizing Language Teaching, UK, and Hanna Kryszewska, the actual Editor of HLT, has pushed her towards realizing that passionate language research and writing can become a constant preoccupation. She is looking for research opportunities and practice abroad.
Teaching approach, feedback, rapport
Within the first part of my article, I have stressed the fact that feedback on language accuracy is a very delicate aspect, especially when we are in the realm of fluency. Feedback on language accuracy becomes no longer a more or less isolated issue, but it gathers a global dimension, since language is an integrated system. Language mastery comes with the successful integration of all skills, therefore, feedback as a vital methodological aspect must be seen not as an isolated or sequential factor, but as an integrative one.
We must integrate all skills in order to achieve language mastery or competence. Hence, the often acclaimed language “competence” or language “competencies”, if we refer to the multitude of language abilities and aptitudes that shape together successful language proficiency. The way we respond to each and every one of these language teaching and learning instances, as educators, and overall, the way we respond and integrate all our responses, makes up successful or unsuccessful feedback.
The circumstances, the types of skills that we enhance, the level, whether it is more advanced or less advanced, the multitude of techniques and strategies that we deploy, or simply the general manner in which we understand to respond to our learners` needs, all these, determine the needed type of feedback that we must provide for our learners. On a more abstract, theoretical, level, I must admit that, as a teacher and methodologist, I perceive the notion of feedback as making up, also, besides the multitude of responses that we give to our learners, also the multitude of techniques and strategies that we develop and employ throughout our instructional series, throughout our teaching and evaluation processes altogether.
Our overall methodological approach, if you wish, is characterized by the way we use these techniques and strategies within our instructional program, and the way we use all these and we feed back and forward from these techniques and strategies determines the general kind of feedback that we give or have during the teaching and learning process. Whether we give good or bad feedback illustrates how we integrate all our methods and responses within the frames of our teaching approach.
Feedback represents success, the success that we have as educators towards our teaching goals. If the feedback is good, we do not only achieve success in our teaching program, but we are also connected with our learners and with their actions throughout the teaching learning process, we establish rapport. We produce or “reap” good “fruits”, fruits that mirror the healthy relationships that we build throughout the pedagogical process. Feedback and success are not just about some “final” results, visible achievements. Feedback and success are also about the way we approach our teaching and about the numerous links and relationships that prove that, as teachers and learners, we are all unique, but at the same time we must work together as a community of language professionals and adepts and we must perceive ourselves as a body, as a whole. Language is about communication, with different meanings, purposes, values, feelings and spirits conveyed, so in communication there is not just one side. We must think of “involvement” and “integration”, of co-opting others as key words into that.
Skills Practice, Evaluation and Assessment, Testing Skills
However, when speaking about the integration of all skills, we should not neglect mentioning that, although the language instructional programs should be focused upon the successful integration of all skills, as stated before, as within an obviously systemic phenomenon, the due attention and emergency to each language skill (without discrimination, as much as possible), is also a valid requirement. This above statement is not a contradiction. We should draw our attention and focus towards each language skill through specific activities and language skill training instances. In other words, while it is absolutely true that, as skilled teachers, we are to build and join together all four skills judiciously, the way in which we treat the training of our learners in each skill, in a specific manner for each respective skill, is also a matter of vital importance. Listening, speaking, reading and writing, have each of them, their specificities and we should discriminate well when we set a certain language skill lesson in focus, so that our learners should acquire these specificities in the best way.
We must draw attention towards the right methods and techniques when teaching listening, for instance, or when we wish to encourage our learners to delve into their listening practice more and more throughout the teaching sessions. Knowing how the teaching of each of these skills goes in terms of teaching advice, pace, further tasks, etc, makes the difference between professionalism and amateurism. I have mentioned “listening”, above, but the same dedication should be applied to all the other skills. Whenever we wish to stress the importance of a certain skill, be it listening, speaking, reading or writing, we should be aware of the fact that, individually, if we do not master the right and specific techniques, strategies and procedures needed in order to develop an activity of that kind with the enhancement of a certain skill in view, we fail to build all bridges needed for successful results. Of course, nobody is perfect and time does not always allow us to reach our goals in an ideal manner, although we can always be the best of whatever we are, and even more if we only wish to.
One direct link from the skills practice issue becomes that of evaluation, assessment or testing. There are different types of testing, depending upon the teaching instances that we have been involved with, and upon the instructional period of time of the specific language program. Not forgetting about the important balance between formative testing and summative testing, we are therefore sent onto the delicate realm of skills testing. If we aim at assessing everything about language level and mastery, we must bear in mind the systemic and integrative character of language teaching and learning, as mentioned before. We can have discrete point testing or integrative testing. We can have direct testing and indirect testing, and we can have subjective and objective type (more or less), of testing.
However, we can still notice another paradox within the subjective versus objective type of testing. When, for instance, we have writing as a skill in view, we can notice a twofold purpose for testing writing: when we test writing in terms of literary and academic skills, creativity, etc, in composition shape, and when we test writing as English in use.
Of course, writing tested through what we generically know as English in use, does not mean only some spelling evaluation. It means a broad assessment of linguistic abilities and performance, far above what we can call just some acceptable fluency level; that is, grammar, mastery of linguistic structures at the text level and far beyond the text level, discourse level, both properly/literally and figuratively; we need to understand far beyond what we could call some “lexical chunks”, in order to gain comprehension and performance level in English; English in use testing is therefore meant to give us a broader picture on truths that lie deeper than some spelling surface for a medium level of English. Also, what is harder, when the level increases, English in use is meant to discover the learners` ability for analyze and synthesis, in the extended scope of our textual situation, from the linguistic as well as contextual (i.e, the subject that is being treated in the text), cultural, point of view. English in use testing is supposed to be as objective as possible, and if the marking scheme, the detailed marking scheme can insure that we have reduced the possibility for errors in scoring as much as possible, then our English in use testing is reliable.
As many teachers probably already know, the main requirements for a test are reliability and validity. Validity refers to the content/thematic/subject validity that the specific assessment is supposed to embrace. That is, we cannot possibly have a valid test if we ask our learners to give linguistic solutions based upon a text that presupposes specialized knowledge in a scientific or other area that learners do not have knowledge of. Similarly, test reliability as a feature designates the situation when the thematic requirements of the test, along with the formulation of the test questions, and the detailed marking scheme conception and items, are aligned together in a healthy relationship that makes the whole structure of our test function well. Thus, objectifying our testing/assessment marking scheme becomes an essential goal. There is nothing more harmful and poisonous for an objective type of test, especially, than an erroneous detailed marking scheme.
Of course, on the other hand, we know that subjective testing, which is represented by the way we test productive (writing in particular) skills, should be made as language friendly as possible through some special means of “objectifying” its subjectivity or “subjective” feature, so that again, our testing should be as reliable as possible. Within this scope, that of what methodologists have branded as being “subjective”, in terms of evaluation type, lies, in my opinion, a more subtle language acquisition angle. Below, I shall try to explain what, in my opinion, from the wider scope of language acquisition, language fluency and mastery would have to mean.
Assessment criteria, productive and receptive skills, devising assessment scales
First, generally speaking, there is a reasonable, generally expected level of language mastery or fluency that can be noticed or perceived at someone`s speech level and that contains some criteria that can be broken down in subsequent elements through which we are able, as auditors, testers, etc, to grasp reliable information about our students` level, pronunciation level, discourse structure mastery, grammar level, vocabulary knowledge and choice, cultural level, context adaptability, previous schemata on the subject; we can also obtain paralinguistic and extralinguistic clues from our students.
Then, there is another situation. This situation comes when we can no longer appreciate or assess someone`s speaking level based upon the previously mentioned grasping of the generally expected language fluency level. We must therefore, in order to categorize different forms of speaking, really understand the importance of devising assessment scales or performance descriptors, in order to feel confident about our specific evaluation method. Speaking as a performance skill can be broken down into some indicator components. These indicator components are, as we see in specialty treaties, pronunciation, intonation, fluency, accuracy, pitch, tone. The order of these is not meant to reflect their importance, and as everything progresses, we are able, until the end of the discourse, to make an idea about the value of the speech, about the overall effect that everything that has been said has had upon us, about the way in which it was rendered.
Breaking down evaluation descriptors is not meant to abide by some old fashioned and one sided views: for instance, it is already known in methodology that proficient language speakers can still pronounce some words in their own manner, that is, with some (more or less), bearing of their mother tongue accent. Each mother tongue has its own specificities, and different accents, strength, tonalities, can be perceived from underneath the target language flowing and expression.
Speaking, along with writing, are productive skills. However, each of these skills has got their own features. Both of them reflect the learners` own individuality, their spirit, voice, personality traits, approach, views, perception. Speaking and writing also come along in the shape of different ranges or registers, types of discourse, styles, etc. Speaking and writing have got, somehow, a rather odd character from the point of view of their subjectivity. We tend to always assess them in a more or less subjective manner, since however objective our devising scales might be, when we think about our measures in order to objectify our subjective assessment scales, there will still be certain aspects quite difficult to ignore: production as speaking or writing will always reflect some unique, original voice and patterns that cannot be properly appreciated and respected unless we try, as listeners and as readers, of the conveyed messages, and ultimately, as testers, evaluators, to transpose ourselves into the person and world of the learners that convey those messages. This way, our testing method, assessment scales, criteria, will overlap the message features of the sender, in either its written or spoken form. It will fit into our aim towards gaining a view over our learners` competencies and our own teaching objectives.
A marking scale for the speaking skill would have to balance the following elements: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, coherence, fluency. Normally, a grammar knowledge gap is not to be penalized twice, just like vocabulary gap, or a pronunciation issue. Fluency is a very important feature and it is also directly linked to coherence.
In my opinion, an acceptable level of fluency also implies a considerable vocabulary amount, as well as grammar in use ability also on a reasonable level. That is why, when devising and marking such a marking scale, we should pay attention not to set the balance of fluency against grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, in an unfair way.
In other words, we need to be able to weigh these elements very well, since once we have noticed a reasonable fluency level, in our learners, we need to pay attention to the way we perceive their slips or errors throughout the speaking session. Once we have noticed their fluency during their speech, we should not mark grammar or vocabulary, for instance, or even pronunciation, by having as a benchmark a certain criteria or image in mind about how a paper with grammar and vocabulary in focus should look like in terms of accuracy. This would disturb or disadjust the elements to be weighed on the whole, and create disequilibrium and contradiction with respect to our previously agreed scoring of fluency and coherence on the whole (general impression). What happens if we try to reformulate this? What would it mean? If you think about the fact that this means that the teacher should be as humane or humanistic, if you wish, as possible, you might be just right! For me, this is not just a feature of being “humane”. It means being professional in assessing and in scoring, it means being able to feel all about the general level of one learner, it means using our linguistic charisma, if you wish, and intuition, in order to serve our learners, the benefits of evaluation. I strongly argue that, once we have weighed, based upon our intuition and experience as a teacher, in a masterful or crafty way, the overall fluency and coherence issue, we have already included the other elements, like grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, into our (wise) consideration, and therefore, when we move on to score them, we should only penalize the candidate speakers within the wider frame or context of the whole discourse flowing, that is, in a positive way. From the point of view of language acquisition, we need to weigh and consider general fluency first, and discourse flowing, and only afterwards, detect and analyze in a more detailed way whatever lies behind the surface of our learners` speech, what their strengths and weaknesses are, in terms of different aspects of English in use, in terms of grammatical structure perception, in terms of vocabulary level or pronunciation. We always need to act as healers, as good doctors, as artists, casting a professional eye and lending a good ear to our learners, to their performance. The only thing we are prohibited to do is act as butchers. The word, manifested in its heard or written form, has got tremendous power, and whenever we listen to certain messages, of any kind, we uncover human spirit and its development and anamnesis.
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