I was reading Ken Wilson’s post on his second German lesson on a crowded Tokyo train on my way home, like most of his readers, I found it difficult to contain my chuckles. I cannot emphasise how useful it is for a language teacher to be learning a language in a classroom. One can gain so much practical insight about teaching by being a proper learner.
What really caught my attention was his comment about feedback. He was not so happy that he did not get any whole class feedback after the pair work. I immediately think of my own classrooms. When I first started with my twice-weekly adult class (7 learners, pre-intermediate), I clearly remember how nervous I felt whenever I did a round of feedback after any pair or group work. I would often worry that it would go on for too long as I tried to give all the learners an equal chance to report. Some of my learner’s feedback has confirmed my suspicion that it could indeed be too time-consuming and make them feel they are being deprived of practice time as they listen to their peer’s reports. On the other hand, some of my learners have said that they found this reporting and feedback slot to be extremely useful. For one thing, summarising is not an easy skill to master.
This really made me think and I finally realised that what I needed to do is to change the way the feedback was done and to make sure my learners understand why this reporting and feedback slot is important and how it can help with their learning. I need to be better at starting the aim of the exercise, something I’ve always struggled with, i.e., how explicit and on the plate does it have to be? My conclusion is one can never be too explicit.
What I started to do was to make sure I spread my time equally among the different groups/pairs to give timely feedback as they are doing the task, so when they change partners, the learners would get a chance to use the new lexis they just got from me. At the end of the task, I would ask only a few students to do a class report, usually those who have come up with some interesting lexis. After the report, I would deal with the language most people were struggling with during the task. This is particularly important with large classes. Often it would be more advantageous that such whole class feedback is given in the middle of the task if there were some very common errors. To raise the learner’s awareness of the importance of the activity, I had a chat with them about the purpose of the reporting and feedback stage. Now I feel much more comfortable including this stage in my lessons.
I was doing a level check the other day, the potential student strongly hoped to get into a small class so he could get enough attention and personal feedback from his teacher. He also emphasised the importance of having real conversations with his teacher but showed a clear dislike of chatting with his peers. He seemed to think that it’s rather pointless. It’s very dangerous for a learner to think that chatting with other learners are not beneficial to their own learning. For my own Japanese studies, I found that being able to help my fellow classmate during a task gives me an insight on the source of common errors as well as making myself more aware of what I know and don’t know. Like Ken, I’m learning while I’m helping.
From this, it shows that it is possible for both the teacher and the learners to underestimate or not fully understand the importance of a feedback stage, especially for those learners who didn’t get that far with the task (as in Ken’s case) and were not able to get any of the teacher’s time during the task. So of course, feedback should always be there. Just don’t forget to make sure your learners know why.