There are lots of ways to learn IELTS and lots of ways to teach IELTS, but there’s no getting away from one important fact: feedback is essential. In today’s article, I’ll explain why it is so important to give IELTS students feedback and how to do it in a constructive way.
Why is Feedback Necessary for IELTS?
Students who are learning IELTS need feedback just like any other language student. Sure, there are areas where they can do with simple instruction, or even just learn by themselves, but in some areas of study it is imperative that they get feedback from an expert.
The most obvious parts of the IELTS exam in which students need feedback are speaking and writing. This is because in the other areas, they can more or less work from instruction and then do individual practice, referring to an answer book. I’ll come back to that later.
In training for the writing exam, it is extremely hard for students to identify their own mistakes. Even a few marked essays, with careful and considerate feedback, can prove valuable because these let students know what their most common mistakes are.
The same is largely true with speaking. A student who gets little or no feedback from a teacher will be unaware that she pronounces certain words wrong, or has certain odd speech patterns. A little feedback can go a long way.
How Can a Teacher Give Useful Feedback?
The answers to this question are myriad, so I will just give a few ideas.
Giving feedback on IELTS work is of course going to depend upon the area of IELTS that a student is studying. You would go about giving feedback very differently for listening and writing, for example.
In general, though, it is important to give consistent, fair, and constructive criticism. Don’t be too harsh on your students or they will lose motivation. However, be honest and tell them what they need to improve.
If you are tutoring an individual student, it is quite easy to give speaking feedback. You will of course be speaking with your student one-on-one and you can give them consistent feedback. At its most basic, you should be reformulating for them – that means if they make an error, you change the error into the correct form:
Student: I like to hang in with my friends on the weekend.
Teacher: What sort of things do you do when you hang out with your friends?
This is fairly indirect, and students often pick up on the subtle correction.
You can also make notes as a student speaks, and then run through their errors. I do this a lot with my band 6.5-7.0 students, and they find it useful. I’ll keep a scrap of notepaper in front of me and collect common or notable mistakes. After the student has come to a natural finish, I will read back their mistake and let them correct it.
Of course, if a student is making lots of mistakes, you need to pick and choose. Don’t call out every little error. Instead, look for the big ones and the common ones. My Chinese students, for example, often say “should to”, and I’ll pick up on that quickly. Letting them know this helps them to eradicate it from their speech.
Giving feedback on IELTS writing seems difficult, and indeed it can be. Take, for example, a band 4.0 student. How can you give appropriate feedback for an essay that will have so many errors? Well, you don’t have to correct everything! In fact, it is really best to concentrate on common or major errors. If you are teaching a student in a regular curriculum, you may want to focus only on mistakes relating to recent lessons. For example, if you have been discussing paragraphing, you will ignore grammar and only comment on how well the student has structured his essay.
As with speaking, I like to have my students correct themselves when possible. If I am individually tutoring someone, I will mark their essay and return it to them. Then we will discuss the essay together and I will point to various mistakes, asking what he should have written instead. I feel that this helps them to internalize the corrections rather than simple looking at a list of changes.
The big problem with correcting writing is that often you have a large stack of essays and you have to correct these at home during unpaid hours. I wrote a post earlier this year about dealing with heavy workloads. The gist of it is this: feedback is really, really important in writing and you need to find ways to get it done effectively without completely exhausting yourself.
One last point is this: don’t neglect any part of the marking rubric. Get to know what IELTS examiners are looking for, and give your students a full range of criticism. Again, don’t be too eager with the red pen, but take the chance to catch all kinds of mistakes.
Reading and Listening
I’m going to lump these two together because they’re similar. As I mentioned above, you don’t need to spend so much time giving feedback on these two sections. Theoretically, a student could read a good textbook and do lots of practice by herself, and then get a band 8.0. I’ve known lots of students who have excelled with almost no feedback in reading or listening.
However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. While a student can check answers by himself, he won’t necessarily know why an answer is wrong. And that is key to giving feedback for listening and reading.
Put it this way: A student is doing a practice listening test. She chooses (a) as the answer, but the book says (c) is correct. Perhaps she immediately intuits why this is the case, but more than likely she won’t. You can repeat the section of the recording for her, and that may help, but ultimately it is useful for a teacher to explain. You can break down the question and the dialogue in order to uncover the answer.
Reading goes much the same way. A student may be able to find the right section of a text and take a guess at the answer, but it is always useful to have a teacher explain why something is right or wrong.
In both parts of the exam you can also assess the students’ general strengths and weaknesses and give advice on how they can improve.
How to Get Better at Giving Feedback
Giving feedback to students used to make me uncomfortable. As a young person, I hated getting criticism from others, and as an adult I try to avoid giving it. In the real world, there is little use in saying to someone, “You should’ve watched where you were going!” It is almost insulting. But as a teacher it is your job to identify students’ mistakes and correct them so that they don’t repeat them.
Doing this requires not just being able to spot mistakes, but having the tact to gracefully correct them without embarrassing anyone. In a one-on-one class this is pretty easy. In a large group of students, it requires some delicate handling. But, as with learning IELTS, practice makes perfect.