Repeat After Me: It’s the Feedback


The other day I observed a few lessons by a very good Japanese English teacher at a junior high school. At one point in the lesson, while the students were reading the textbook passage out loud, she walked around the classroom with two pads of post-it sticky notes, one green and one pink. As she listened to the students, she gave them pink notes for parts they did especially well, and green notes for parts they were having trouble pronouncing. On each note she wrote a specific phrase, word, or part of the word the students were either doing well or needed to improve. And at the end of the class, she made some general comments  and engaged the students in a little extra practice of specific pronunciation errors that many students were making. Each student who received a green note, however, was responsible for coming up to the teacher after class and demonstrating that they could produce the sound correctly.

I was deeply impressed for a couple of reasons. First, because this is the first time in three years and dozens of observed EFL lessons that I have seen a teacher do this. It was great to see a class that dealt with pronunciation at all; and it was especially impressive to see a Japanese teacher deal with pronunciation in this manner. Too many JTEs ignore that fact that English, like any language, is first and foremost a system of sounds. The written form dominates language lessons in Japan, where learning English has traditionally meant essentially learning to read English. Listening activities usually consist of listening to the blocks of audio that just verbalize the text content. And I think it’s fair to say that most JTEs won’t go near pronunciation in a class without an ALT or a CD ready to model the “correct” pronunciation. It takes confidence, and it takes an acceptance of the view that a JTE is a valid example of language use in the classroom–language as sounds, language as culture, language as a means of communication, all of which the teacher displayed nicely. And second, this teacher demonstrated something that is incredibly important in pronunciation learning (and indeed in all of language learning): formative feedback.

For any type of learning, it is essential that people can see what they need to do (a model), can give it a try (practice), receive feedback on their performance or learning (formative feedback), and then get a chance to do it again to correct problems. Of particular importance is the feedback loop of performing a skill or demonstrating knowledge and then receiving quick, actionable, formative feedback that can immediately be used to make improvements. Yet this simple procedure seems to be a rare thing many  language classrooms, even when the subject is as clear a skill as pronunciation. That it is effective seems to be beyond question. Hattie (2012) stresses the importance of feedback, particularly disconfirmation feedback (Hey, you’re doing that wrong!), and Wiliam (2011) makes the case for embedded formative assessment that I found so compelling I did a series of posts on the book last year. Both of these authors are concerned with general learning and teaching. In the last year or so, however, I have increasingly come across papers and books that make the case for feedback in language learning, like this one from Derwing and Munro in Pronunciation Myths:

“Ample studies have shown that improved pronunciation can be achieved through classroom instruction…However, it is becoming increasingly clear that a key factor in the success of instruction is the provision of explicit corrective feedback (pg. 47).”

Not only is explicit formative assessment important, the claim is made that it is essential. Without it, that is under conditions of exposure alone, learning (improvement of pronunciation) does not seem to happen at all! Derwing and Munro  mention two studies to back this up. The first is Saito and Lyster (2012) who managed to get Japanese students to improve with only four hours of training with the dreaded /r/ and /l/ sounds. The other is Dlaska and Krekeler (2013) who found that explicit instruction feedback was much more effective than just providing models. After years of don’t-disturb-the-learners-while-they’re-engaged directions, it seems that the role of explicit correction is finally being recognized.

You might argue that what the teacher I observed was doing was not that efficient or important. In cases, like EFL courses in Japan, where time is so limited, it may seem unreasonable to spend time on pronunciation, especially with the high importance of entrance exams and other high-stakes tests. Indeed many teachers argue that pronunciation is something they just don’t have time for. But actually, the teacher wasn’t spending much time on it at all. Most of the correction happened while the students were doing a reading fluency task (reading the text content multiple times). The teacher’s general comments and whole-class feedback/practice, took less than two minutes. Several years of similar feedback will undoubtedly have a positive effect on student pronunciation, student confidence, and student attitudes toward the importance of making the sounds of English reasonably accurately. In addition to the teacher’s feedback, student to student (peer) feedback could also be put to use. That will also help with sound discrimination training and meta-linguistic skill training.


Dlaska, A. &  Krekeler, C.  (2013). The short-term effects of individual corrective feedback on L2 pronunciation. System, 41, 25-37.

Saito, K. & Lyster, R. (2012). Effects of form-focused instruction and corrective feedback on L2 pronunciation development: the case of English /r/ by Japanese learners of English. Language Learning, 62, 595-633.



Formative Assessment Pt. 1: Learning Intentions

This the first post of a series on considering embedded formative assessment in EFL  classes at high schools in Japan. In previous posts (here and here), I mentioned some of the potentially powerful reasons for making use of this type of formative assessment. Dylan Wiliam, a teacher/administrator/researcher/teacher training from the UK believes that the single most effective (and cost-effective!) way of improving learning is for teachers (and learners) to provide assessment for learning, not assessment of learning. This requires a rethinking of the purposes, timing, and techniques of assessment. In Japanese EFL classes, it will likely involve more than this…In this series, I will look at the possible application of Dylan Wiliam’s stages of formative assessment here in Japan. To learn more about Dylan Wiliam, you can visit his website, or read this article from The Guardian, or read his latest book about why and how to make greater use of formative assessment, Embedded Formative Assessment. A BBC documentary of his initiatives called The Classroom Experiment is also available on YouTube (Part 1 and Part 2). But before we go on, it is important to clear one thing up: assessment for learning is perhaps not the assessment you are thinking of if you are thinking about grading. It has very little to do with grading and everything to do with informing the teacher and the students (and possibly others, including peers and parents) about how to learn. So the topic of testing for grading will not be addressed here.

Where are we going? Or more precisely, where am I going? This is the question that should be on the minds of all learners as they select a course or arrive for the first lesson. It is a question that needs to be kept in mind as learners proceed through courses as active monitors and agents in their own learning. But often in institutionalized settings, it is not. Instead, the learners do not voice any expectations they may have and just flip through the textbook for a hint of the things they will learn. It’s frustrating for some, but years of similar starts to courses have made it unquestionably normal.

Too often in high schools in Japan, the teachers actually have a fairly similar experience. They flip through the textbook to see what it is they are going to teach in the upcoming year. That is, many schools fail to create a curriculum with specific skill targets for each year and instead they let the textbooks (OK, Ministry-approved so they must be appropriate, no?) decide what they are going to teach. It is the content of the textbook that becomes the de facto syllabus for the course. Having students learn–usually meaning “memorize”–the content of the textbook becomes everyone’s purpose. And it is at the point of this decision to not make a syllabus with specific skill targets and instead just teach the textbook from start to however far we get, that the first obstacle to deploying embedded formative assessment  emerges. For once the textbook becomes the object of learning, it changes the course content into a body of knowledge or information. It shifts the goals of the course from the learner’s skills and ability to something outside the learner. The starting and ending point of learning is no longer the learner, but the percentage of the textbook that the learner can “master.”

That is not to say that the textbook content cannot be a good part of a syllabus for a course. Used flexibly, by a dedicated teacher, a good textbook contains enough interesting activities and content that it can provide structure for a course and facilitate learning. But there’s an expression in English that we need to keep in mind: when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. For HS teachers in Japan, the textbook becomes the hammer with which they address the needs of every unique learner in the class. It is not the most effective way to teach and it doesn’t have to be this way. With clear skill targets, the teacher and the learners get a way of talking about learning. The teacher gets something she can show, demonstrate, and measure the progress of. The learners get a model and a yardstick. Of course all language courses feature a combination of knowledge content, skill content. But a greater emphasis on skills by everyone in the classroom is necessary to prevent the course from focusing completely on knowledge and understanding, things that will not actually matter that much when learners try to make use of the target language in the real world.

“It is important that students know where they are going in their learning and what counts as quality work, but there cannot be a simple formula for doing this,” says Mr. Wiliam. Look at that first part again: “know where they are going in their learning and what counts as quality work.” The learners need to have a better idea of what they can do now and and what they will be expected to be able to do and know by the end. They need to see it. They need to see themselves, the target, and the gap. This is, at present, not a common way that schools, English departments, or individual teachers approach the kids who come to them to learn. The focus of Mr. Wiliam’s book and  assessment for learning (AFL) is entirely the classroom and the learners in it. He does not spend any time discussing placement tests or proficiency tests. Instead, the learners are asked to consider learning intentions for every unit, topic, or module the class will encounter.  And he provides several concrete suggestions as examples for how this can be done. Many of them are collaborative in nature. I went through them and pulled out the ones that I thought could be adapted for use in English language classes in Japan. In most cases, the actual example is described as how I would imagine using the technique in HS English classes. If you want the complete list of original examples, you’ll just have to get the book, something I recommend anyway.

First up is passing out 4-5 examples of student work from the previous year. In the book it is done with lab reports, but it could be done with any kind of student writing (or if you have recorded examples of presentations or student speaking, that would work, too). In groups, the learners rank the works and report on how they assessed them. This lets the criteria for better performance become salient through comparison and discussion. Teachers may want to provide some topics or questions to guide the learners’ attention to specific aspects.

A variation of the  above involves the work of the present class. After the writing assignment is completed, the teacher collects them all and reads them, selecting what he thinks are the three best examples of student writing. No other feedback is on the paper at this point–no grade and no comments. The teacher hands out copies of the best student writing. The learners are asked to read them for homework and then discuss why the teacher thought these were the best. Then–and here’s the important step–all the students (including the authors of the best papers) get their papers back and are given time to redraft their writing. They then, finally, submit them for a grade.

In “Choose-Swap-Choose” learners choose a good example of their own work from several they have made (a short recorded speech, for example). They then submit these to a partner who then chooses the one he/she thinks is best. The two students discuss their choices if there is disagreement.

One good idea of reading aloud or pronunciation classes has learners in groups practicing the recitation of a short passage in the target language. Each group then chooses the learner who they think has the best accent and the whole class listens in turn to the representatives of each group. The teacher comments on the strengths and weaknesses of each one.

And finally, have the learners try to design their own test or test items for mid-term or end-of-term tests. Of course, this should be done while there is still time to make use of the feedback that emerges from this activity. But in making test items, students clearly show what they think they have learned and what they think is important.

The main thing to point out from all of the above techniques is that they provide feedback to both the learners and the teacher. The learners can use that information to make adjustments to their learning. And the teacher can use it to see what has been learned and how well in order to make adjustments to teaching. All of these techniques promote meta-cognitive skills. They also contribute to the creation of a community of learners. According to Mr. Wiliam, they also definitely lead to better learning. But would this approach work at high schools in Japan? The answer is a great big “it depends.” It depends on the levels of motivation and trust in the classroom. It depends on whether the teacher can afford the time it takes to allow learners to examine and discuss the work of others. And it depends on the mindset of the teachers. They need to be willing to try out a more learner-centered approach to teaching and learning, one with a greater emphasis on skills. Many–too many–teachers prefer to teach content at the students and leave the learning up to them. Too many have their syllabus strapped to the ankles of the syllabuses of the other teachers teaching the course in a given year. There is nothing to do but move along in lockstep. But I think that some of these ideas could be put into practice in almost any school in the prefecture where I work.

In the next post, we’ll look at what Dylan Wiliam says about how to elicit evidence of learning. Part 2: Eliciting evidence.




English Central: Practice with Video

English Central. You choose a video, listen, and then record your voice. The system then gives you a pronunciation score and detailed feedback about your weaknesses and how you can improve them. This is a great tool for intensive listening and pronunciation work. I really recommend that you take a look at the demo at the site. The site allows both student and teacher registration. Teachers can manage and track their students using the tools at the site. Registration is free for the time being.