Providing Meaningful Feedback to ELLs

As teachers, we know that providing students with feedback in a timely manner is best practice. In fact, we’ve even started to see timely feedback creeping into teacher evaluation systems. While ensuring that our feedback is timely is important, I think there are two equally important attributes of teacher feedback that are often overlooked in the rush to ensure that our feedback is “timely”: feedback also needs to be meaningful and specific.

I’ve noticed that students often get feedback that doesn’t really tell them much- “needs improvement” or “great job!” are common examples. Even worse, sometimes the only real feedback they get is an arbitrary letter grade. This sort of feedback is superficial and really doesn’t tell the student anything about their performance.

In order for feedback to be helpful to the student, it needs to be specific. According to Heritage (2008), there are three guiding questions that meaningful feedback helps to answer for the student:
  • ·      Where am I now?
  • ·      Where do I need to go?
  • ·      How do I bridge the gap?

When I read this for the first time, it was really a “wow” moment. On the surface, it seems so simple- but how often do we really consider these three questions when giving our students feedback? If we as educators begin to provide feedback like this for our students, it not only helps them understand their performance better, but it allows them to take some control of their own learning as well. So, how can we ensure that the feedback we are giving our students is specific and meaningful in terms of helping tem understand their performance and set new learning goals?

As a teacher of ELLs, this means several important things for my practice. First, my students need to understand exactly where they are on the English language development continuum. Sure, they might know that they’re a level 3 or an intermediate English learner- but do they know what that means? Secondly, I need to ensure that my students understand that they need to move beyond their current level to the next. Finally, I have to help them figure out exactly what they need to learn to help them move from their current proficiency level to the next. The last point is particularly important for ELLs, since two level three ELLs may need to focus on entirely different aspects of language learning to help them progress to the next level.

In order to help my students understand the criteria for each level of English language development, I need to provide explicit instruction to them on what each level of proficiency and development looks like. I can do this by providing concrete examples of writing and speaking samples at each language level. We can discuss what listening and reading skills look like at each language level. I can provide them with rubrics and performance definitions in kid-friendly language.

Another step I can take to helping my students understand where they are and where they need to go is to incorporate peer and self-assessment into my instruction. Giving students the opportunity to assess and reflect on their own work and the work of classmates builds their capacity to understand the criteria and learn how to bridge the gap.

In addition, I need to deepen my own analysis of student work, truly honing in on strengths and weaknesses. Rather than simply scoring a student’s work and giving them a score based on the language proficiency rubric, I need to give them specific feedback about why they scored at a specific level on specific criteria on this assignment. Rather than superficial comments, I need to provide suggestions about how they can improve their work to move to the next proficiency level.

Below is a sample of a feedback tool I started using when assessing student work samples. Since I am in a WIDA state, it is set up to help students understand their performance based on the WIDA performance criteria. Using this tool helped me to ensure that my feedback was specific and meaningful in helping students get a clear picture of their performance. It can easily be adapted to your state’s ELD standards and criteria!

Linguistic Complexity
Language Forms and Conventions
Level on this assignment



Take it to the next level

I urge you to take a few minutes to reflect on your own feedback practices. Ask yourself:
·      Is my feedback specific?
o   Does it help students understand where they are?
o   Does it help students understand where they need to go?
·      Is my feedback meaningful?
o   Does it help students understand how they can bridge the gap between where they are currently and the next level of proficiency?

If you aren’t able to answer “yes” to every one of these questions, then it’s time to review and revamp your feedback practices!

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