“I don’t understand your writing feedback and correction.” Oh, the horror.

Imagine the horror: a few days ago, with three weeks left before the end of the course and the Cambridge First Certificate exam, I found myself sitting across from a student who told me that she did not understand my writing correction system.

“What do you mean?” I said. She had submitted her FCE writing task – a report – as a Google Doc and she was looking at the marked version on her phone as we waited for the other students to arrive.

“The colors. The green stuff. The red stuff. The orange stuff. What does that mean again?”

My blood ran cold.

No, I’ve never actually written or typed or even said that egregiously clichéd sentence before but that’s just what happened: My blood ran cold.

I explained what the colors meant. Then we went on talking about the goods and the bads of her report and did a bit of brush-up work on her use of comparative forms. But the whole time there’s a sort of ringing in my ears and a pit in my stomach and suddenly I am the guy in the movie who’s just got the message in the Sex Pistols font that there’s a bomb in the building and I’ve got to keep it together and keep everybody blissfully unaware until I can calmly slip out and defuse it before the whole thing blows up and kills us all.

After class I found myself repeating the student’s question. What does that mean again? What does it mean that she said she didn’t understand the marking system? That she’s never read any of the corrections and comments I’ve given? That she had, but had no idea what I was trying to say?

Like some character from Dostoevsky, ill-prepared for the weather, I skulked home, umbrella-less in the cold rain, feverishly gripped by a sort of existential fear that nothing I had done as a teacher that year had any meaning whatsoever.

But thankfully that part of my mind that was as far as could be from Russian existentialism, the part that had been trained and brained in my years in all-American sales, shouted one thing to me loud and clear: Action Cures Fear (and yes, there’s an inspirational poster for that).

So on Saturday morning I stormed into my other First Certificate class. They had wanted a review of the Writing Paper (which I’ll explain in the next post), but first I wanted to get one thing clear.

I improvised a sort of Likert-scale questionnaire with never/sometimes/often/always:


1. I read the corrections you make on my writing (in the writing file)

2. I understand the corrections you make

3. I ask if I don’t understand the corrections

4. I read other students’ writing on the writing file

5. I take action to avoid making the same mistakes again next time I write

Just to clarify, the “writing file” is a shared, scrolling Google Doc where all writing homework is posted, and “public” for the rest of the class to view. I often make cross-referential comments. So if there’s a common problem, e.g. excessive use of “a lot” in formal writing, I explain the problem on the first piece of writing, offer alternatives, and then tell any other students with the same problem: See what I wrote on Cristina’s about a lot. I do the same with positive things as well: Elisabetta used a lot of good formal alternatives. I’ve highlighted them in blue. Read hers for some other ideas.

They discussed the statements in small groups. And then I added a sixth item:

6. What could Kyle do to improve the corrections? (Give me some ideas!)


I collected their answers to the survey, and their suggestions for part 6.

Unlike a lot of the feedback I ask for, this time I wanted names. I sorted them into two groups: frequent writers and infrequent writers. Because there are a couple in the group who never do the writing homework, and their feedback obviously has less weight than the ones who actually use the system. (Why some students never do the writing homework is a useful line of inquiry, but I don’t think it applies to trying to find out if the feedback system is functioning – unless, of course, you posit that the feedback system itself is to blame for their entire lack of writing, but I’m not willing to go there right now.)

Out of 10 students:

8 students said they always read the feedback, with only 2 (very) infrequent writers saying they sometimes did.

7 students said they always understood the feedback, with 2 frequent writers saying they often did and 1 (very) infrequent writer saying they sometimes did.

3 frequent writers said they only sometimes asked if they didn’t understand the corrections, along with 3 infrequent writers.

2 frequent writers said they always read other students’ writing, vs. 1 sometimes and 1 often. The infrequent writers mostly reported they sometimes did.

2 frequent writers and 3 infrequent writers said they always take action to try to avoid making mistakes the next time, whereas 2 frequent writers and 2 infrequent writers said they often did.

What does that mean again?

While it was quickly thrown together and, like all surveys, limited in scope, in many ways the survey calmed me down a bit. Between it and the discussion that followed I understood that the system was comprehensible to those who use it most.

And, most importantly, the students have shown vast improvement in their writing. Lovely paragraphs. Clearly linked ideas both within the sentence and across the text. Great awareness and application of the conventions of the different genres.

From an FCE writing-product perspective, they – and particularly the frequent writers – are producing some great stuff that is light years from where they started.

And yet…

At the same time, the fact that two frequent writers said they often – but not always – understood my corrections and only sometimes asked me about it means there’s another problem to be addressed.

Writing and writing correction is done via Google Docs. But should I take time in class to go through the corrections with students face to face?

One group suggested as a response to question 6 that there should be social interaction on the writing file in the form of questions and comments. It’s a lovely idea that I’ve never managed to make work. Is it the platform (Google Docs, vs. something more social like Facebook Groups)? Is it just my expectations? (The one student who made this suggestion is the only one who regularly emails me about grammar questions.)

I usually do the corrections the night before class – but often students don’t have or take the time to read them before the next morning. Is it a time-management problem?

These and other questions to be pondered in a further post.


What’s your writing feedback/correction system like?

Leave a comment and a link if you’ve blogged about it elsewhere. I’d love to read what you’ve written.


Author: Kyle Dugan

EFL teacher based in Italy. I blog on ELT at dynamiteelt.wordpress.com and tweet @kyletdugan

11 thoughts on ““I don’t understand your writing feedback and correction.” Oh, the horror.”

  1. Hi, Kyle,

    It’s always good for teachers to share their classroom experiences, and this made for an interesting read.

    Regarding feeding back on your feedback, you could mark the work digitally (e.g comments in word) and allow the students some time to read and respond (using the resolve or reply functions) before remarking (if necessary) and returning their work to them?

    I find this works best if work can be shared via a platform like Onedrive.


    1. Hi Robert,

      Everything is electronic, on Google Docs or, if I have to, email, because I’m an expert at losing anything handed in handwritten. Because they turn the homework at the last minute, it gets marked/corrected at the last minute, and they usually don’t read it before class.

      I’ve never tried the “suggest” function with them, i.e. where you don’t actually make changes but merely make comments, etc. or cross things out without deleting them (or resolve and reply). Maybe it would make things more interactive. Part of me half-dreads an eternal back and forth about particular issues. But it’s worth a shot.

      I do tend to give a lot of feedback, comments, suggestions, explanations, but maybe it’s worth spending more time in class, especially early on, to make sure they’re getting it.

      Let me know if you’ve written/write anything developed about your writing/feedback process!



      1. Hi Kyle,
        I’m so glad for oyu that you did this little survey and got some of your confidence back in your correction procedure! It’s so easy, isn’t it, to think that one student’s comment is representative of all of our students, and then the worries just spiral out of control!

        One thing you could try is to allow a short portion of lesson time for pairwork / small groups, so they look at your feedback together and help each other understand what needs to be changed. That might also ease the back and forth…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I do the colour-coding scheme, much it like it sounds you do. I provide a legend on early pieces of their writing, then reiterate it briefly in a class announcement every time after that. Aside from those colours (usually representing grammatical, spelling/typos, academic style or referencing, and general formatting issues), I leave brief positive, and more detailed critical feedback in comments on the side of their work. One reason for colour-coding for me is to draw attention to an error they likely could have fixed themselves had they thought about it a bit more before proofreading. Another though is to encourage attendance in my office hours to go over some of these f2f, which works some of the time. A related frustration to yours, however, is that I’ve noticed that when I upload a Word doc with comments to Google docs (we share with students), the comments no longer appear in preview until opened as a Google doc or downloaded. I’ve said this explicitly to students and still have one or two that come to office hours weeks later and wonder what issues they had because they hadn’t seen any comments. Arrrggggh. Their fault!


    1. Hi Tyson,
      I’ve got a legend, but it probably pays to keep pointing it out and reiterating what it means, as you say you do. I don’t have the same face to face time you do with individual students so I need to build in other ways to make sure we’re checking the work. I used to have the Word docs issue too, in addition to other students not seeing comments on Docs, so now my praise and criticism is all intertextual. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, the tech goes and changes!
      I think the big issues though are what you and Robert mentioned: Whatever the system is, do they understand? Do you check that? Often? Do they see your corrections? Do they understand them? How do you know? Are the corrections helping them to improve? How do you know? I have to work out how to better answer some of these questions.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Robert,

    thanks for sharing your experience! Have you checked how much your students’ works improved after they have revised their works based on your comments? I’m asking because what I’ve discovered is that often students’ revision is often superficial. Do you have some special ways of addressing this problem?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting. In the past I used to actually ask for a rewrite. Now I don’t — but maybe I should rethink this. I have this long scrolling doc that lets me and them publicly see notes, comments, correction, which allows me to look back and tell them to go back to previous work (or the work of others) if I see that they’re making the same types of errors. So the improvement is visible to all – and I do my best to remark on it publicly. But I don’t do peer-revision — at least, I haven’t been able to make this work yet. But I think checklists are a step in the right direction which I’m going to try. I think we have to get away from expecting Ss to do peer grammar correction and more to focus on the big/obvious things like content, organization, paragraph formatting, style, etc. If they can get that right, in my experience that’s much of the battle right there.


      1. Thanks for your reply. I’m really interested in peer-feedback and related issues. My MA is devoted to the issues in peer feedback in different environments. I used three: MS Word w email, a blog and a wiki. It worked really well in the context of my research, but it’s been more difficult to get similar results in the context of my regular classes. A common explanation Ss give when asked about peer feedback is that they trust me but do not trust their peers. Actually, it’s a common situation with peer-feedback. However, I’m still convinced it should be included in the learning process, but something should be done to make the Ss see the benefits of it.


  4. It’s been a really long time since I have had an exam prep class and this really made me think about how we can do feedback on written work. You brought up a really valid point about not assuming our feedback is always clear- it may be to us but not necessarily to each and every learner in the room. V interesting. Thank you for sharing! Annie


  5. Hi Kyle,

    I am for rewrites. Not always, not for all pieces of writing, but when it comes to exam preparation, then I find rewrites useful. AND, revealing , too. Unfortunately, not in a very positive way. For example, I have noticed many a time, that students copy their writings without giving it much thought. They copy their lines and my corrections in a way that makes no sense, so I see their work has been purely mechanical. BUT, I don’t think this is a reason for giving the whole practice up. It rather shows me what’s going on, and what areas I should be helping them in. For example, how to work efficiently, so that there really is an improvement.

    I also enjoy (if time permits!) to leave more personal comments here and there, so that there’s a sort of conversation happening.



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