In addition to teaching English online, online ESL tutors regularly provide learning assessments to students. We do it orally, through written comments, and through gestures. Our students look to us to see if they are saying something correctly and can continue with the lesson. They watch for clues in our body language, as well.

How can we be more effective and creative in the way we give feedback?

When considering learning assessment, there are two types of feedback to consider: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement. Positive Reinforcement means we encourage and applaud academic outcomes and desired behavior. Negative Reinforcement means we communicate, through discouraging words or gestures, that the student has not achieved the desired educational results or demonstrated proper classroom behavior. As online ESL tutors, we typically use Positive Reinforcement as a day-to-day formative assessment.

ESL teacher providing learning assessment

3 Most Common Forms of Feedback

• Nonverbal: Our body language plays a significant role in feedback and sometimes means more to a student who has a minimal vocabulary in English. We smile, nod our heads, give a thumbs up. Simple gestures like this go a long way in clarifying meaning, so the students understand what is expected of them.
• Oral: Oral feedback, like nonverbal feedback, is given in the moment as we teach the students. Congratulatory words of praise are used to encourage shy students to speak or students who are fearful of failure to take a risk. Oral feedback is also given to reinforce rules and expectations when student behavior needs redirection.
• Written: Providing a short written report after an online ESL class provides us with a way to tell our students where they excelled during class and where they need to improve. We give words of encouragement if the student is holding back, or praise a job well done. Behavior issues are also addressed in after-class reports.

Overcoming Empty Words of Praise

Everyday words of praise can be overused and vague. The student does not know what the tutor is praising if the tutor says, “Very good!” He may ask himself, “What was good? The verb conjugation? Sentence Structure? Pronunciation? Or, was the answer simply correct? Was the teacher complimenting my effort or the accuracy of my response?” If these everyday words are followed by specific explanations as to why the response/effort/behavior was “very good,” then it is clear to the student exactly what we are praising. It is meaningful because the student feels like we are listening to them and thinking about what they say and do. We aren’t just robotically repeating the same words over and over again. So, let’s combine the two in an example:

Everyday Word: Super! + Specific Explanation: You pronounced the word, immediately, correctly.
“Super job, Alex! You pronounced the word, ‘immediately,’ correctly.”

The tutor followed the word, “Super,” with an explanation as to why Alex did a super job. Now, Alex knows exactly what he did well.

Examples of Oral Feedback

Sample verbal ESL learning assessment

Many online tutors also have the opportunity to write brief comments about each student after each lesson. It is simple to apply the same formula to written feedback, as well, as seen in this chart of examples:

Examples of Written Feedback

Written ESL learning assessment

When writing a quick report after class, it’s also a good idea to keep it positive. This motivates and encourages students to make more of an effort. Lauren T., one of ALO7’s 2018 Teachers of the Year suggests first pointing out an area where the student excelled in class. Then, specify an area of improvement, and finally, end the comment on a positive note. Here is an example:

“You are speaking better than before because you are pronouncing the letter “r” correctly. I notice that you have been speaking when I call on another student. I like your enthusiasm. Just be sure to give your classmates an opportunity to speak as well. Keep sounding out the words because you are speaking more clearly as a result.”

Also, don’t use adjectives to describe how the student must feel. Stick to the facts by giving examples. For example, it is better to say “you frequently closed your eyes” rather than “you were tired.” We don’t know how the student felt, so we don’t want to make assumptions. Furthermore, there are times when we need to correct student behavior, either while in class or when we write comments. When doing so, the tone should be clear, direct and encouraging.

Examples of Oral Feedback to Correct Student Behavior

Oral Learning Assessment of Behavior
Examples of Written Feedback to Correct Student Behavior

Written feedback for behavior in online classroomFinal Note:

There are so many ways to give feedback. The following are ideas, tips and all around teaching strategies to help you provide useful feedback:
• Be sure to provide positive feedback when students make an effort. Even if they get the answer wrong, recognize it takes courage to try.
• When students go above and beyond what is required, be careful not to overcorrect, or they will lose the desire to form more complex sentences. Let them get their thoughts out and choose what is most relevant to correct.
• To feel accomplished, sometimes all the students need to do is simply converse with you.
• For younger students, use stuffed animals to deliver compliments. This tactic helps to build rapport, too.
• Correct students promptly so they know exactly where the mistake was made.
• Give students a chance to correct themselves. You can say a word or two to guide them to the correct answer.
• Relax. Laugh when a student tells a joke, and make eye contact and smile when conversing.

Feel free to share tips on how to give feedback in the comments below. We would love to hear what works for you.

Susan knew she liked people, traveling, learning about history, reading, studying languages and sharing what she had learned with others, but she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life until her English professor suggested teaching. She was inspired!

Susan earned a masters degree in Bicultural-Bilingual Studies with an emphasis in Teaching English as a Second Language. After teaching in Texas, she decided to move to Mexico to immerse herself in everything she loved: a new culture rich in history, and the opportunity to improve her Spanish. Susan has worked in a university as an adjunct professor of English and in various schools as an English teacher, academic administrator, and coordinator of the English department. Today she resides in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, with her husband, daughter and little dog. She is an ALO7 tutor and loves it!

3 Comments

  • Brandi T Graham says:

    Excellent and insightful article. One takeaway that I will use is working on making my positive feedback specific. I’ve done it in the past where I will praise for perfect pronunciation, but admittedly so it has not been a consistent practice for me. I also like to leave feedback beginning with two positives, and then write about what to improve on, and lastly end with another positive comment. I like the idea of allowing a stuffed animal to deliver compliments to younger students- I will use this one for sure! Thanks for all of the great ideas, I plan on implementing many of them!

  • James Devine says:

    Excellent article! I found Lauren’s advice to be spot on. Leaving more specific feedback is a wonderful opportunity for the students to be provided a more in-depth analysis of their performance. Feedback is a wonderful tool meant to assist in the students’ overall experience- inspiring growth and contemplation. Awesome article with wonderful insights. Thanks!!

  • Lela Chavers says:

    Such great advice, Susan! I really like the reminder to follow up your encouragement with what the student did well. I will definitely be using these tips for feedback!

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