Language feedback in action

Tip: Here are some examples of language feedback. First I show the language that I heard students use, then I say how I dealt with it at the board after the activity (which might have been a discussion, task or role play).


I have taken the phrases in italics below fairly randomly from my feedback sheets over the course of one full teaching day. The phrase used by the student that I heard and wrote down is given in orange in italics. Then the way I dealt with it is given below. But please note: there is no single correct way to reformulate student output – on another occasion I may deal with the same phrases in a completely different way. What I’ve shown is just what I actually did, in real life in real time in a real classroom.

I’d like to say a few words to my person.

I pointed to the words ‘to my person’ and a student said ‘about myself’. I saw by the students’ body language that everyone realized the error and I simply crossed out the wrong words, wrote up the correct words, and moved on.

I am living in Frankfurt since two years.

I was aware that students know the correct forms in theory at this level, but can’t produce them actively. For this reason they were exactly the kind of errors worth focusing on in feedback. I said ‘I am living in Frankfurt’ with a questioning tone in my voice, and one student tentatively offered ‘I have lived’. I didn’t make any comment, but said to the group: ‘Is it just a temporary activity in progress right now, or is it looking back at your life up to now?’ They said that it was the latter, and I said ‘yes, good’ and wrote up ‘I have lived’ while acknowledging the student who had indeed made this suggestion. I decided not to mention the fact that ‘I have been living’ is also fine here, as this would require a major lesson focus that was inappropriate for a feedback slot. Then I pointed to ‘since’. I said: ‘Is it a point in time or a period of time?’. After a short pause several students called out ‘for’ and I wrote up the correct form and moved on.

It’s a step on the career ladder.

I put a large tick on the board before this phrase, and congratulated by name the student who said it. I said that it was an excellent phrase, typical of business English. I drew a very quick sketch of a ladder and mimed taking a step, just in case there was anyone who didn’t understand.

The sales people have to talk about the important things of the product that the customers want.

After five seconds’ silence I said: ‘There is nothing really wrong with this, but there’s a much better, more businessy word for the important things of the product’. Then I gave another five seconds’ silence. No-one volunteered anything, so I crossed out ‘important things’ and wrote up the first letter ‘f’. Still no-one volunteered so I wrote up ‘fea’. Still no-one volunteered so I wrote up ‘features’ and moved on. I made a mental note that if time permitted at the end of the feedback slot I might return to the question of features vs benefits.

On the one hand …, but on the other hand …

I put a large tick on the board before this phrase, and congratulated by name the student who said it. I said that it was an excellent phrase for balancing two contrasting arguments. I then said: ‘Another good phrase for balancing two different arguments is In general … although …’ and I wrote this up. I asked one student by name to think of an example sentence using one of the phrases, with a context of taking about their typical customers. They gave an example. Then I asked another student for an example using the other phrase and with the same context. They gave one and I moved on.

We empty the containers at our distribution centre.

I said that there was nothing wrong with this phrase, but there was another, more specific verb for ‘empty’ in this context. Several students called out ‘unload’ and I wrote it up. The student who said the phrase worked in the logistics area, so I asked him what other verbs he uses with ‘containers’. He suggested load/ship/fill/store/transport, all of which I wrote to the left of a vertical line with ‘containers’ on the right of the line. He then said: ‘oh yes, send them back empty – because they arrive in Germany full but there aren’t enough products to send back to China.’ I added ‘send back’ to the list and made a mental note to ask him to talk more about this after the break.

For how long time does a project usually take?

After five seconds’ silence no-one wanted to suggest anything. I said: ‘Two words are not necessary here – which are they?’ One student said the new phrase How long does a project usually take? and I crossed out the words ‘for’ and ‘time’. Then I said: ‘There is another way to say this’ and I wrote up How …… time at the start of the phrase. Several students called out ‘much’ and I wrote it up and moved on.

We can’t do it good as that every time.

No-one could suggest anything here, so I said: ‘There is one word missing’. Still no-one suggested anything so I wrote in the ‘as’ before ‘good’. Then I wrote up underneath (not) as … as … and I asked students to think of sentences comparing their own company with a competitor. After hearing a few with different adjectives I moved on.

It’s a very hierarchy organization.

After five seconds I pointed to the word ‘hierarchy’ and looked around the room. One student said: ‘hierarchy, it’s wrong’. I said: ‘Yes, it should be hierarchic …?’ and several said ‘hierarchical’. I said: ‘yes, hierarchical, it’s the adjective you need here’ and I wrote it up. I asked for a sentence with ‘hierarchy’, which a student gave, and I moved on.

We make the service personal to the client.

One student said: ‘personally’, and I said ‘no’. Another said ‘customer’, and I said ‘Usually both words are okay, but client is good if it’s a personalized service, so that’s okay’. Then the students looked blank, so I rewrote below We offer/provide a …….. service. I asked them to think of a word for the gap. One said ‘personalized’ which I wrote in, and another said ‘customized’ which I also wrote in. Then below those two I wrote ______-____ and I asked ‘what is the name of the person who makes a suit by hand?’ No-one suggested anything so I wrote in the first letters t and m. One student called out ‘tailor-made’ and I said ‘good’ and wrote it up. I asked the group: ‘which of you offer a tailor-made service?’ and they all said they did. I made a mental note to ask the students to prepare for homework a short presentation on ‘How We Customize Our Services’. Then I moved on.

Tell it again, please.

I said: ‘Okay, the other person will understand if you say this, but I’m sure you can improve it’. Underneath I wrote Can you …………………………., please? One student called out ‘Can you say it again, please?’ and I said: ‘fine, but try that in place of it’ and I filled in the words Can you say that again, please? I said this was a good phrase if you don’t understand something in a meeting. I asked what other phrases were useful for communication problems in a discussion. One student called out ‘Can you give me an example?’, which I wrote up, and another called out ‘Can you be more precise?’ I wrote up Can you be more sp……… ? I looked around, waiting for someone to complete it. No-one could. I said (with one more syllable added): ‘Can you be more spec………? and one student called out ‘specific’. I wrote up the phrase and moved on.

The turnover was less than half of the budget.

I said to the students: ‘What is the meaning of turnover?’. One said ‘money coming in to a company’, and I said ‘yes, and can you think of another word with the same meaning?’ and another student said ‘revenue’, which I wrote above ‘turnover’. Then I said: ‘And what is the meaning of budget?’. One student said ‘the money they give you for a project’ and I said ‘Yes, so is that the best word here?’ There was a silence as students looked at the board. I said: ‘The word you want is the turnover that you aim for – your objective’ and I mimed setting a particular level on a vertical scale. One student called out ‘target’ and I said ‘good’, and wrote it up in place of ‘budget’. Another student then asked ‘what’s the difference between objective and target?’. I said: ‘actually there are four similar words, aim and objective are perhaps a little more general, and target and goal are more specific – they always come with a number. For things like turnover and sales we usually say target’. I wrote them all up and moved on.

May I suggest something?

I put a large tick on the board before this phrase, and congratulated by name the student who said it. I made a mental note to return to the difference between suggest and propose if time allowed, but decided not to focus on it at that point. Underneath I wrote up May I ………………………? and asked if anyone could think of other phrases beginning with these words that are useful in a meeting. Someone said: ‘May I interrupt?’ and I said: ‘Okay, but probably in this case you’d add a few more words as well’, and I wrote up May I interrupt for a moment? I then drew an arrow between I and interrupt and asked what common small word could go here to make the phrase even softer. Several called out just and I wrote it in and moved on.

It’s difficult to find good-educated staff.

After five seconds’ silence one student said: ‘I think the problem is with good’. I said: ‘Yes, it should be …?’ and one student said ‘well’. I crossed out good and wrote in well. I asked the group if they knew any other adjectives beginning well-. One student said ‘well-known’ and another said ‘well-paid’ and I wrote them both up and moved on.

First you have a look on the procedures.

I underlined ‘look on’. I said: ‘You can use look with different prepositions, can you give me some examples?’ One student said: ‘look after the children’ and another said: ‘look for something in your bag’. I said ‘yes’ and wrote them up. Then I said: ‘If a customer calls you to complain, and you need time to investigate the issue, you can tell them I’ll look … it and call you back’, making a ‘mmm’ noise for the gap. One student called out ‘into’ and I said yes and wrote it up. Then I directed the students’ attention back to the original phrase on the board and crossed out on. I said: ‘And what about this one?’. One student called out ‘at’ and I wrote it up and moved on.

(pronunciation) agenda   analyze/analysis   freight   neutral   crisis

I wrote on the board the words above – in my notes I had written pron before each one (eg agenda had been said with a hard g, analysis with the wrong stress, and crisis said as crise). I didn’t refer to the mispronunciations, but just immediately drilled them. Each time I said the word clearly a couple of times as a model, then indicated with a sweep of my hand (back of hand towards students) that I wanted choral repetition. After a couple of turns of choral repetition I picked out a few individual students to say the word. If a student mispronounced a word I didn’t say anything but asked another student to say the word and then returned to give the first student another chance.

Finally, I returned to a few other words and phrases already on the board (including all the functional phrases), and drilled them in the same way. In the examples above I returned to:

I’d like to say a few words about myself.


How long does the project usually take?

hierarchy   hierarchical

Can you say that again, please?

Can you be more specific?

turnover   target

May I just interrupt for a moment?

I’ll look into it and call you back.

agenda   analyze   analysis   freight   neutral   crisis

(Note: this post is Appendix 3 of the ROLO article in the Articles section. I thought it was worth posting in its own right.)