This is the first article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares her thoughts on how to give your students constructive feedback on their writing.
Although I’ve been working in ELT publishing for some 15 years, co-authoring Oxford EAP Advanced was the first time I’ve been involved in writing a whole coursebook. It was a very steep learning curve in all kinds of ways, but perhaps one of the most challenging parts of the whole experience was the process of having my writing edited. I’d spend long hours at my desk writing a unit, then I’d email my completed draft off to my editor and wait with trepidation for her feedback. When I opened up her reply, my heart would often sink at the sight of those tightly-packed comments squeezed down the margin of every page and the prospect of ploughing my way through them!
So when I finally got away from my desk and back into the classroom again last summer to teach on a pre-sessional EAP course, I approached giving feedback on my students’ own writing with a fresh perspective. But what lessons had I learnt?
Less is more
In an EAP context, writing is a key skill and as teachers, we have a tendency to want to give as much feedback on written work as possible. Our intentions are good – we want to help our students improve – but the effect can sometimes be the opposite. Students are so overwhelmed by all the feedback that they either get demotivated and lose confidence, or they skim through to find the grade or the final comment and then file away all our careful feedback, largely unread.
Having experienced how daunting masses of feedback can be for a writer, I was determined to make the process less scary and more productive for my students. I turned to publishing again for a way of breaking it down into more manageable steps:
- content editing – focus on what is written, rather than how
- copyediting – focus on style, voice, flow, etc.
- proofreading – tidying up surface errors
In this article, I’m going to talk about the first stage of the editing/feedback process:
Focus on content
For many students new to EAP, their experience of writing in English has been mostly of short, functional letters and emails, and if they have written essays, they’ll have been of the rather simple, formulaic kind which are designed essentially to practise or test the student’s language abilities. In an ELT context, the focus is often not really on what you write so much as the language you manage to display. A student can produce a fairly inane piece of writing, saying really very little of any substance, but if they show a range of vocabulary, reasonably accurate grammar and throw in a few nice discourse markers, they can get a good mark. This simply won’t cut it in an academic context where: “After all, we teach college students to write not because we expect them to become writers, but because writing is the evidence that they are mastering intellectual concepts.” (McBride, 2012).
So in the first few writing activities I did with my EAP students, I focused very much on content: on what they were expected to write. In my feedback, I ignored the surface language issues and commented only on how well they’d tackled the task. Had they answered the question? Had they put forward a clear argument and supporting evidence? Had they offered analysis and evaluation as well as simple description?
As we worked on some of these key principles of academic writing, I encouraged students to evaluate the content of their own writing, establishing routines and checklists they could use to edit their writing in the future. For example, the following criteria to check a main body paragraph of an essay:
- Have you stated the main argument clearly?
- Do supporting points flow logically?
- Are key concepts/terms clearly defined and/or explained?
- Does the evidence support the main argument?
- Have you included comment and/or evaluation to make your own stance clear?
(Adapted from Oxford EAP Advanced)
The initial reaction from some students was uneasy – surely it was my job to correct all their language errors, wasn’t it? It was important that I explained clearly what I was doing and why. I kept copies of students’ writing to use examples (anonymously) as part of other activities on specific language points. I also reassured them that I’d be giving feedback at a more micro-level on their individual writing as the course went on.
And did the approach work? Overall, I think it did. By concentrating first on what they were expected to write, it laid a solid base on which to build the details of how to write as the course went on.
In my next article, I’ll talk about copy-editing and feedback techniques for helping students achieve that all-important academic style.
de Chazal & Moore (2013) Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 (OUP)
McBride (2012) ‘Patchwriting’ is more common than plagiarism, just as dishonest https://www.poynter.org/latest-news/everyday-ethics/188789/patchwriting-is-more- common-than-plagiarism-just-as-dishonest/
This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.