Making EFL Matter Pt. 2: Data and Feedback

imafiling cabinet


In the last few years, I’ve found myself increasingly reaching for books that are not on my SLA or Applied Linguistics shelves. Instead, books on general teaching methodology have engaged me more. It started a few years ago when I came across John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers, a book in which various approaches in education are ranked by their proven effectiveness in research. This led me to further explore formative assessment, one of the approaches that Hattie identifies as particularly effective, citing Yeh (2011). I was impressed and intrigued and began searching for more–and man is there a lot out there! Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment is great (leading to more blogging);  Laura Greenstein’s What Teachers Really Need to Know about Formative Assessment is very practical and comprehensive;  Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by Hattie and Yates has a solid  section; and Leaders of Their Own Learning by Ron Berger et al., the inspiration for this series of blog posts, places formative assessment at the heart of curricular organization. There is, as far as I know, nothing like this in TESOL/SLA. I’m not suggesting, I would like to emphasize, throwing out bathwater or babies, however. I see the content of these books as completely additive to good EFL pedagogy. So let’s go back to that for a moment.

One of my favorite lists in TESOL comes from a 2006 article by Kumaravadivelu in which he puts forth his list of macro-strategies, basic principles that should guide the micro-strategies of day-to-day language classroom teaching, as well as curriculum and syllabus design. This list never became the Pinterest-worthy ten commandments that I always thought it deserved to be. Aside from me and this teacher in Iran, it didn’t seem to catch on so much, though I’m sure you’ll agree it is a good, general set of directives. Hard to disagree with anything, right?

  1. Maximize learning opportunities
  2. Facilitate negotiated interaction
  3. Minimize perceptual mismatches
  4. Activate intuitive heuristics
  5. Foster language awareness
  6. Contextualize linguistic input
  7. Integrate language skills
  8. Promote learner autonomy
  9. Raise cultural awareness
  10. Ensure social relevance

But what is missing from the list (if we really want to take it up to 11) I can tell you now is Provide adequate formative feedback. One of the great failings of communicative language teaching (CLT) is that is has been so concerned with just getting students talking, that it has mostly ignored one of the fundamental aspects of human learning:  it is future-oriented. People want to know how to improve their work so that they can do better next time (Hattie and Yates, 2014). “For many students, classrooms are akin to video games without the feedback, without knowing what success looks like, or knowing when you attain success in key tasks” (pg. 67). Feedback helps when it shows students  what success looks like, when they can clearly see the gap between where they are now and where they need to be, and when the feedback provides actionable suggestions on what is being done right now and what learners should  do/change next to improve. It should be timely and actionable, and learners should be given ample time to incorporate it and try again (Wiliam, 2011; Greenstein, 2010).

One of the most conceptually difficult things to get used to in the world of formative feedback is the notion of data. We language teachers are not used to thinking of students’ utterances and performances as data, yet they are–data that can help us and them learn and improve. I mean, scores on certain norm-referenced tests can be seen as data, final test scores can be seen as data, and attendance can be seen as data, but we tend, I think, to look at what students do in our classes with a more communicative, qualitative, meaning-focused set of lenses. We may be comfortable giving immediate formative performance feedback on pronunciation, but for almost anything else, we hesitate and generalize with our feedback.  Ms. Greenstein, focusing on occasionally enigmatic 21st century skills, offers this:

“Formative assessment requires a systematic and planned approach that illuminates learning and displays what students know, understand, and do. It is used by both teachers and students to inform learning. Evidence is gathered through a variety of strategies throughout the instructional process, and teaching should be responsive to that evidence. There are numerous strategies for making use of evidence before, during, and after instruction” Greenstein, 2012, pg. 45).

Ms. Greenstein and others are teachers who look for data–evidence–of student learning, and look for ways involving learners in the process of seeing and acting on that data. Their point is we have a lot of data (and we can potentially collect more) and we should be using it with students as part of a system of formative feedback. Berger, Ruben & Woodfin, 2014) put it thus:

“The most powerful determinants of student growth are the mindsets and learning strategies that students themselves bring to their work–how much they care about working hard and learning, how convinced they are that hard work leads to growth, and how capably they have built strategies to focus, organize, remember, and navigate challenges. When students themselves identify, analyze, an use data from their learning, they become active agents in their own growth (Berger, Rugen & Woodfin, 2014, pg. 97).

They suggest, therefore, that students be trained to collect, analyze, and share their own learning data. This sounds rather radical, but it is only the logical extension of the rationale for having students track performance on regular tests, or making leader boards, or even giving students report cards.  It just does so more comprehensively. Of course, this will require training/scaffolding and time in class to do. The reasons for doing are worth that time and effort, they stress. Data has an authoritative power that a teacher’s “good job” or “try harder” just don’t. It is honest, unemotional, and specific, and therefore can have powerful effects. There are transformations in student mindsets, statistics literacy, and grading transparency, all of which help make students more responsible and accountable for their own learning. Among the practices they suggest that could be deployed in an EFL classroom are tracking weekly quiz results, standardized tests, or school exams, using error analysis forms for writing or speaking assignments, and using goal-setting worksheets for regular planning and reflection.

You can see the use of data for formative assessment in action in a 6th grade classroom here.

This post is part of a series considering ways to add more focus and learning to EFL classrooms by drawing on ideas and best practices from L1 classrooms.

Part 1 looked at the importance of goals.

Part 3 looks at the challenges and benefits of academic discussions



Yeh, S. S. (2011). The cost-effectiveness of 22 approaches for raising student achievement. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.