Many years ago, as an L2 college student writer of English and French I often had doubts about the accuracy of what I wrote in my essays, especially when I was trying out a new and complex grammar structure or an idiom I had heard someone use. However, the busy and under-paid native-speaker university language assistants charged with correcting my essays rarely gave me useful feedback on those adventurous linguistic exploits of mine. They simply underlined or crossed out my mistakes and provided their correct alternative. As an inquisitive and demanding language learner I was not satisfied. I wanted more.
So, I decided to try out a different approach; in every essay of mine I asked my teachers questions about things I was not sure about, in annotations I would write in the margin of my essays (e.g. should I use ‘with’ or ‘by’ here?; should this be ‘whose’ or ‘which’?) eagerly awaiting their replies – which I regularly got. Knowing my teachers were busy I would focus only on five or six things I had particular issues with and only after looking through my books and dictionaries in search for clues as to whether I was right or wrong.
This process ‘forced’ my teachers to give me more feedback than I had been getting; consequently, not only I learnt more, but I also became more ‘adventurous’ and ‘daring’ in my writing. This strategy really helped me a lot.
Later on in life, when I became a foreign language teacher, I recycled this strategy with my students. I call it L.I.F.T (Learner Initiated Feedback Technique). Although I had been using it for a long time already, a few years ago I decided to put its effectiveness to the test by conducting a little experiment. I used L.I.F.T. with one of two groups of able 14 years old I was teaching, whilst I used traditional error correction with the other. The students were asked to underline anything they were not sure about and write a question on margin explaining briefly what their problem or doubt was about; one condition I put was that they had to research the issues they were asking me about using web-based resources (e.g the www.wordreference.com forums). I used exactly the same teaching materials and covered the same topics with both groups.
When I compared how the two groups evolved over the time of the ‘experiment’, what I found out was interesting: they both made more or less the same type and number of mistakes; however, the group I had tried L.I.F.T. with had generally written longer and more complex sentences using more ambitious grammar structures and idioms. Moreover, I found that the questions the students were asking in their annotations had become increasingly more complex; a sign that they were becoming more inquisitive, ambitious and risk-taking. Why?
One reason refers, I think, to the fact that learners, especially the less confident ones, usually tend to avoid structures or idioms they are not sure about. However, L.I.F.T counteracts this avoidance behavior as it encourages them to try new things out and take risks; knowing the teacher is encouraging and endorsing this kind of risk-taking by ‘pushing’ them to ask for feedback elicits the use of this technique even more.
Moreover, since I made clear to them that they had to try and solve the problems by themselves first and then write down their questions, my students reported doing more independent study than before, especially the less committed ones. I also felt that they became more inquisitive as a result of the process as they were asking themselves and me more questions about grammar and vocabulary usage that google had no answer for (not a straightforward and easy-to-find one, at least).
Finally, quite a few of them reported paying more attention to my corrective feedback than before as they had requested it in the first place!
Another benefit was that, as part of the process, giving feedback became more interesting and enjoyable for me because it felt like a real dialogue between the students and myself, especially with the more adventurous and ambitious linguists; not just a top-down approach totally directed and owned by the teacher. Also, because I felt that– most of the time, not always – they had indeed tried to answer the questions themselves, I put more effort into it.
Also, and more importantly, this process provided me access to some of my students’ thinking process and to the kind of hypotheses they formulated about how French worked.
Recently I discovered a study by Andrew Creswell (2000) who used a very similar approach with higher proficiency students than mine and reported very similar gains. His students reacted very favourably to the technique and he states that training learners in this technique created ‘a context in which students were able to work responsibly’.
I strongly recommend this technique not only for the benefits reported above, but also because if your students eventually do incorporate this technique into their learning strategies repertoire, they will acquire a powerful life-long metacognitive strategy that they might transfer to other domains of their learning and professional life.
More on this and on my appraoch to language teaching and learning in the book I co-authored with Steve Smith “The Language Teacher Toolkit’, available here