Not good enough

Because language is an integral part of a person’s identity, language learning is often emotional.  As such, critical language feedback is neither easy to deliver or to take. Depending on how it is given, it can either be helpful or hurtful, motivating or demotivating. It can bridge gaps in learning or hinder progress completely. As a language learner, I’ve found feedback that provides clear guidance on what needs improvement and offers me the opportunity to try again, while being exact and objective to be the most helpful.

My language learning: a truly hot mess

From the moment I moved to Switzerland, my identity started changing and, as time passed, I was no longer sure who I was. The time away and the separation from things I was familiar with was difficult, but it was my inability to hear or speak the words around me that broke me. Learning German was my attempt to patch myself up. German would become the mask I wore to fit in. It was not just a subject I was learning, it was what I was trying to become.

Throughout the years, my German ebbed, flowed, and then finally, got stuck. I reached a point where I was understood, where I could get by in most of my daily to-dos,but, fossilized mistakes plagued my sentences. My sufficient, but limited vocabulary, hindered my expression. Additionally, my accent served as constant reminder that I didn’t really belong.

I figured the best way to improve my language skills was to enroll in an exam preparation course. The exam would be my ticket out of mediocre and into belonging.

I contacted my language school, took the required placement test to register for the exam preparation and handed it back with pride. I felt ready to move on. But when the school called back and told me that “my German was not good enough” to enroll into the exam course, my heart sank. (And, yes, those were their exact words. Not. Good. Enough.)

My total score, written in large letters on the top of my proficiency exam paper was clear. It read “Ungenügend (Insufficient):13p” and then had negative signs near the words Grammatik (Grammar) and Schreiben (Writing). However, the exact reasons for this score, or any clear indication of what was wrong and how I could improve, were unclear. Because I could not understand the rationale behind my grade, this feedback made me defensive and later despondent.

I was being overly emotional. The test givers were not really my teachers and were just doing what they thought was efficient – giving me a proficiency test. However, as an educator, I wanted to ensure that when I gave my students test feedback it would be helpful. I made a list of things that would have made the delivery of this critical feedback more effective for me. Here’s what I noted:

1.      Clear grading guidelines help take subjectivity (and therefore emotions) out of grading scores

In my proficiency test, the writing section gave me clear instructions of what to write but did not provide any indication what was being tested and how it would be graded. I did not know if the examiners would focus on lexis, syntax, content, or even spelling. In my case, I was surprised that most of the feedback given was for orthographic errors, yet,there was very little comment on anything else like vocabulary usage, overall structure, or content.

I also had no idea how the assessor came up with the total my writing score of 5/10. Mostly spelling errors were corrected; but was spelling really worth half of the essay? What else I was missing and where could I improve? Had I been given a clear guideline of what was being tested and how it would be graded (in perhaps a grading rubric), the score would have seemed less subjective and would have helped me understand what I missed and where I needed to improve.

A grading rubric might look something like this:

2.      For more open ended questions, a clear indication of what is wrong can help students

I know there is a push for enabling students to discover their own errors but as a student, I find that self-discovery isn’t always helpful. When I am left to figure out errors, without any clear guidance of what I need to find, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Obviously, there are questions (like multiple choice or true/ false), where a simple ‘x’ may be enough. However, the more open-ended the question, the more direction I need.

In my proficiency test’s grammar section, for example, I was given a paragraph and told to identify and to correct. Honestly, and this is my fault for not having understood the test enough, I was unsure what type of grammar error I should be looking for (e.g. word usage, sentence structure, preposition use, collocations). Because of this ambiguity, it would have been helpful to get more specific feedback (e.g. This sentence has the verb in the incorrect tense) so that I could have better understood what I missed.

3.      Providing “Need to…” statements helps students see where they need to go

Instead of having a total grade of Ungenügend (Insufficient) I would have been very grateful to have some sort of ‘Need to’ statements to instead summarize my grade. This would have been much more effective because it would have helped me understand what exactly I would need to do to improve. For example, the school could have written:

Dear Ms. Siravo,

In order to get into your desired exam course you need to be able to:

  • apply the correct sentence structure in subordinate clauses
  • correctly spell higher frequency words (especially those using ei/ie formations)
  • use common collocations and phrasal verbs in sentences.

Having this would have taken all the emotions out of the delivery. Instead of being labeled as “Insufficient,” I would have had a clearer path to getting where I needed to go. As a teacher, I like writing “Need to” statements because these verbs are generally easier to measure and clearer to understand.

4.      Giving students the opportunity to redo is what learning is all about

As a teacher, I sometimes feel too busy, think I have too much to cover, and therefore tend to rush through feedback without giving my students any chance to try again. However, as a student, I would have loved the chance to re-take this test. This would have given me the opportunity to reflect on, to work through, and hopefully to correct some of my previous mistakes. Isn’t this what learning is all about anyway?

Language learning is emotional and so giving feedback can be tricky. While there is no need to sugarcoat feedback –or worse, not give it at all– with objective grading rubrics, clear guidance on what was wrong (especially for more subjective questions), the use of “Need To” statements to summarize grades, and, if possible, the chance to retake the test, feedback can become less emotional and more effective.


Author’s Biography:

Emilia Siravo is a freelance ESL teacher in Zurich, Switzerland. In addition to the CELTA, DELTA I, DELTA III and SVEB certifications and Emilia received her Master’s in TESOL from The New School University. Emilia loves teaching and finds that second language learning enables students to open new doors, to discover new cultures and to explore new perspectives. Follow Emilia online on Twitter: @esiravo or read her blog at: Her previous post on Uncharted TESOL, “Chronicles of a Language Learner,” can be found here.