I’m an online teacher. I teach English as a second language to students via the internet. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are one, too. And if you’re like me, you want to give your students the richest language environment possible in the short time you spend with them. You want to provide them with good, constructive, encouraging feedback.

online teacher graphic

Feedback that is genuine

I once attended a workshop on motivation given by some fellow teachers. They conducted a memorable role play with this dialogue:

Teacher: How are you today?
Student: I sad.Teacher: You forgot the “am”! I am sad.”
Student: I am sad.
Teacher: That’s better.
Student: My dog is die.
Teacher: How many times have I told you to use the past tense? “My dog died.”
Student: (sobbing) My dog died.
Teacher: Very good.

Recognizing myself in this dialogue, I both laughed and cried. The teacher in the dialogue was so intent on eliciting correct responses, she forgot to react to what the student was saying. Although this performance demonstrated an extreme case that likely wouldn’t happen in real life, we know that teachers are sometimes guilty of being error correction machines rather than genuine listeners.

Feedback that reflects real conversation

Feedback should be both positive and logical. In real life, if you give your opinion on something, it is unlikely that you’ll hear “Very Good!” from the person listening to you; however, that is what we teachers tend to do –reacting to the correctness of what is said rather than the meaning.

Teacher: Do you like English?
Student
: No. I don’t like English at all.
Teacher: Very good!

Here, the teacher gives praise for the student’s sentence structure, correct use of the negative, pronunciation, etc. Yet, if your student is telling you that he doesn’t like English, a more appropriate answer might be, “Oh! Why not?” As long as the student can communicate an idea, it might be best to react honestly to what they are saying and not just the form.

“Very Good” closes the dialogue.

Another tricky thing about responses such as “Very Good” is that they signal the end of a conversation.

Teacher: What did you do today?
Student: I studied Math
Teacher: Very good. Now let’s look at today’s lesson.

If the student wanted to talk about some other things she did that day, the “Very Good” was the signal that the discussion had closed. This may not be a bad thing since you do need to get on with the lesson. However, if the student wanted to share more about her day, the feedback did not encourage her to do so.

Parroting

ESL teachers sometimes parrot or echo students.

Teacher: What’s your favorite color?
Student: Green.
Teacher: Green!

In real life conversation, you would not usually expect someone to echo your answers unless they were incredulous. (“I slept all day.” “All day!?”) However, when we parrot our students, we set them up for unreal expectations in real situations. Here is another option:

Teacher: What’s your favorite color?
Student: Pink.
Teacher: Oh, I like pink too.

In the second dialogue, the teacher acknowledges the information and is not just judging the answer’s correctness. This is positive feedback in its own right since it lets the student know that they can communicate information effectively.

Other types of responses

Even with beginners, we can use responses that are more genuine than “Great Job!” When a student expresses a like or dislike, you can say things like,
“That’s interesting!”
I like blue. / Me too!
I like basketball / Oh, I don’t.
I like ice cream / What flavor of ice cream do you like?

With more advanced students, it’s much easier to follow up with “Wh” questions, particularly “Why?”, which is a response they can expect in real life and academic situations.

“Very Good” is not bad.

You don’t need to avoid saying “Very good!” altogether. Students need to feel confident about their abilities, and when you offer positive phrases, you definitely reinforce good emotions. However, if we only serve our students as error correctors and not communicators, we are depriving them of valuable practice at authentic interaction. We need to allow our students to experience genuine communication and not just vocabulary drills.

So, don’t stop giving lots of positive feedback to your students. They crave it and need it. But try varying a bit now and then and let your exchanges be more authentic. You will be preparing your students for real-life English conversations and learning more about your students’ thoughts, ideas, and lives.

Guest post by Esther Ventura (Teacher Elaine)

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