Writing class: Easy, focused, POSITVE feedback on essays.


“Good style!”

Many instructors want to not only point out errors on students’ papers but also encourage them with positive comments about what they did well.  Unfortunately, it can take a lot of time writing out these comments with clear handwriting, and it involves mental energy trying to formulate what to say in a way that students can understand.

There is a method for indicating specifically what the student did well on any writing task, which takes little time on the part of the instructor and results in improved writing in the future.

Imagine that you are a student who just received his essay with this positive feedback from the instructor at the end of the essay:

This was a good essay.  Your ideas were interesting.  You used advanced sentence styles.  And some of your examples helped me understand your main points.

Will these comments actually help you, as a student, apply what you did to future writing tasks?  Which specific ideas were interesting?  Which specific sentences were the instructor referring to as advanced and which examples were helpful?

A time-consuming alternative that some instructors turn to is to write the comments in the margin next to specific place in the essay that they want to comment on.  The drawback with this is that it is time consuming, there is little space to write them, and the handwriting needs to be clear.  Also, one wonders whether students will actually read the comments.

Before describing an easy, efficient and effective method for giving focused positive feedback, it’s important to understand why we want to give positive feedback and what we want to give it for.  What we are trying to do is to encourage them to continue to use writing techniques which have made their writing assignments coherent, cohesive and interesting.

This means we’d like to point out where they have effectively used…

  • subordinators (e.g., after, although, when, where, who, if, since) which can show relationship between ideas;
  • conjunctions (e.g., and, but, so, or) which can show reasons and contrasts, and connect ideas;
  • examples and good vocabulary, which can make their ideas more clear and interesting.
  • good examples with enough details to clearly illustrate their ideas.

One easy, efficient and effective method for doing this is to use a colored pen or marker to underline or highlight specific words, sentences, examples and ideas.  For example, the instructor can tell the students that “green” means good.  As the instructors read the students’ papers, they merely underline those parts.  Or perhaps to emphasis especially good vocabulary words or expressions or a good use of a subordinator or conjunction, they could draw a green box around them.  And it takes very little mental energy on the instructor’s part to decide what to green and very little time to do it.

These green positive forms of feedback are noticed by students.  I once overheard a student comment on another student’s essay, “Wow!  Look at all that green!”

Another student who hadn’t produced a paper up to his usual standard asked me half-jokingly, “What happened?  Did you run out of green ink?”

It’s also easy to customize the “green” according to the needs of specific students.  For example, I once had a lower-level student who was struggling with her verb tenses on writing tasks.  On her paragraph assignment, I marked in green the verbs that had the correct verb tense.

Here is an example of “greens” on the second paragraph of a lower-level student’s paper about her roommate:  (Notice: the underlines would be in green color.)

First, Lily always gives me useful advice. She is a quiet girl, so she doesn’t talk too much.  However, if you need some help, she will give you a hand as soon as possible. For example, two years ago, I got a bad grade on an important exam, and I was very sad.  As my roommate and best friend, Lily sat next to me, and she didn’t say anything.  After two hours, I started to become calm.  Lily held my hand and told me I deserved to have a second chance.  During that nice conversation, she gave me a lot of useful advice, and she helped me pass my next important test.

Here is an example of “greens” on a paragraph in the body of a higher-level student’s paper in which he is explaining the Vietnamese word :

Most people assume that and “stressed” are similar in some ways.  In fact, they both describe a feeling of stalemate because of much pressure.  However, “stressed” tends to illustrate serious situations from studying, work, or family difficulties, whereas doesn’t necessarily express identical things.  Let’s imagine that a group of teenagers are playing pool.  During a player’s turn, if he can’t find a way to shoot his ball as it was blocked, we may hear him say, “I was so .”  In this case, although it’s an entertaining game with no tension, we can still use In contrast, it appears that “stressed” would be an inappropriate word.  To sum up, and “stressed” have a few general characteristics in common, but they are also distinguishable in some details.

In a future posting, I’ll describe an effective technique for indicating grammar mistakes on students’ papers, which actually becomes a puzzle for students to solve.

David Kehe

One thought on “Writing class: Easy, focused, POSITVE feedback on essays.

  1. Pingback: List of Common Sense Teaching ESL Posts | Common Sense Teaching ESL

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