This area of teaching is, in the modern age, such a hot topic that it I do not believe we can cover it in just one blog article. So, I am going to use two. This one will be for verbal feedback and the second will be for written feedback.
The stimulus for this article came when I was doing research on internet resources and began to see just how much can be done online. Let me take the example of the website englishgrammarsecrets.com, which offers quizzes for scores of different pieces of grammar. It does this in lots of different ways. It tests both the structure and usage of grammar points and, if the student gets the answer, it gives the correct answer. The quizzes and the feedback functions are sophisticated enough for the student to know whether he/she has a problem forming the grammar or in using it correctly. For example, if the student is looking at the Present Perfect he/she will be able to determine if they have a problem with conjugating the irregular verbs or identifying the correct time-defined situation in which to use it.
The above description shows just how much we can do o line in 2014. It truly is frightening. A simple - albeit very well designed website - can do an awful lot of work that teachers used to do. However, there is a limit to what websites can do. I believe that one of those limitations is in giving feedback. A website can tell a student what he/she did wrong, but it struggles to make corrections as effectively and cannot check understanding the way a teacher can. Therefore, feedback is an area where a teacher can really add value to his/her role. Again, we must look at the idea of doing more. It is not just about telling a student they are right/wrong. Giving feedback is a far richer area of teaching technique than that. To analyse how a teacher can improve feedback skills let's look at one of the failings of online technology. Most websites and online learning systems will tell the student if they are right or wrong. It is also likely to give the correct answer as well. Some super sophisticated examples might also give a brief explanation as to why the answer was wrong. So, what more can the teacher add. Below are a few points I feel are key here:
Hot-Correction: The problem with a lot of online resources is that the correction comes after the fact. The students have to answer the question and make the mistake before they get the feedback. This is not so much the case when the student is with a teacher. If we look at communicative activities where the student is using language in conversation, the teacher can get the mistake before the student has even finished his/her sentence. It is a case of nipping a problem in the bud or prevention rather than cure. This gives the opportunity for the student to have another go at using the grammar without having to review the whole activity again. If the correction is made quickly and directly, the student might well be cured of the mistake quickly. However, if the student does not get the feedback until he/she has answered five or ten questions, that mistake is not cured so easily because he/she has made it many times without correction.
Self Correction: The teacher making corrections quickly is important in stopping mistakes before they become an issue. However, it also offers a great opportunity for the student to take an active role in the feedback process. The teacher being actively involved in the feedback gives the student an opportunity to correct himself/herself and to enjoy a far more dynamic learning experience. If the teacher points the mistake out as soon as it happens, the student has the chance to try again and give a better answer. This not only helps in allowing the student to keep speaking, but it also is great for the student's. Being able to fix a mistake is far better than being told what you did wrong.
Concept Checking: Often simply correcting a mistake is not enough. This is what poor quality teachers do and what many websites and apps can do. However, students need more. If a student makes a mistake, they will often need to know why. Have they used the wrong tense or the wrong piece of vocabulary. Obviously, giving that explanation is a function of the teacher. However, there is more to it than that. The teacher needs to know that the student has understood the correction. By asking concept check questions the teacher can see if the student really has understood.
Empathy: Nothing can be more dispiriting when learning a language than making mistakes. No-one likes to hear negative language or to see red ink across answers. However, this type of thing can often be mitigated by a teacher showing empathy and trying to help the students overcome their mistake. Apps and websites cannot do this. They simply show what is wrong.
In short, an app or a website can tell a student if they are correct or if they have made a mistake, but they cannot really give feedback. Offering feedback is a genuine opportunity for a teacher to show real worth in the classroom.