Giving feedback on language

Hero Image

IH London teachers Melissa and Richard stress the importance of listening to learners as their language develops in order to provide useful feedback.

What’s your starting point in a lesson? Fluency or accuracy? If you begin with fluency, then this provides opportunities to give learners feedback on how they have completed a task and on how they could do it better; thus upgrading their current linguistic abilities.

This kind of language is often called ‘emergent language,' but for our purposes we'll be using the 'ing form' of the word, as we feel it embodies the dynamic nature of how language ‘emerges’ in class.   

  • What is emerging language?

Emerging language that is unplanned and emerges in a lesson due to the learners need for linguistic input in order to communicate an idea.

  • What is reformulation?

Reformulation is when a more knowledgeable other (teacher or peer) remodels what the learner is trying to say into a more natural form. This could be dependent on, a gap in lexical knowledge, grammatical accuracy, pragmatic appropriacy or generally moving the learner on in terms of their development.

  • What is the process the learner goes through in order to develop their linguistic knowledge and abilities?

Noticing: The learner becomes aware of the difference in their own language use and the natural features of the Target Language. Input becomes intake - moving from explicit knowledge to implicit knowledge.

Implications for Class

  • Training learners in ‘noticing’ language and what features to concentrate on
  • The teacher's duty is to focus on meaning and re-encode the message by making salient the appropriate form
  • Giving learners what they need at their point of need
  • There are 2 main areas of exploration with emerging language: horizontal (syntagmatic/structure or pattern) and vertical (paradigmatic: meaning)
  • Drawing attention to Form from function (syntagmatic exploration)

Hearing learner language

This is an important skill to develop, particularly because it’s easy to grab at something the learner says and reformulate it inaccurately, not conveying the essence of the learners meaning.

Here are some strategies to help with this:

  1. Practise noting down learner language. Focus on the key messages the learner is trying to put across word for word and whether this communication is successful or not
  2. Look at this after class and write down what you would say. Where you are not sure what the learner is trying to say, cross it out
  3. When you become practiced at this, while monitoring or in open class feedback, you can practise ‘recasting’. If you’re not sure what the learner is trying to say, negotiate meaning before you recast
  4. When you feel comfortable with this, start boarding your ‘recasts’ and focus the learners on the reformulated chunk
  5. Once you’ve got this down, try some of the below

Reformulated leaner language

Instead of focusing purely on errors, ask yourself how natural the student’s utterance is and what exactly they’re trying to say.

It’s key to really negotiate what the learner means and provide them with a more target like form.

Here are some examples from an intermediate class and a pre advanced class. See if you can tell which is which.

Giving feedback on language 1

Focusing on emerging language

So, what do we focus on exactly?

Giving feedback on language 2

Recording Language on the board

As you are monitoring you can select language for the feedback stage. In some ways this language is going to ‘feedforward’ to another task or for learners to take with them.

Here are some choices that you have to focus on at this stage:

These are options which focus on form and provide a way of introducing, correcting or reformulating language. You can select what you will put on your board when monitoring.

Remember that you still have to be systematic when dealing with language, and learners need appropriate information with sufficient depth in terms of meaning (e.g. questioning), highlighting form and phonology (connected speech, prominence etc.).

You should also be selective about the language you highlight in response to learner needs.

Further ideas for focusing on, consolidating and recycling emerging language:

  • Delayed or on the spot (delayed avoids interrupting learners on task - on the spot is more immediately important)
  • Say something similar (teacher reads out 2 sentences and asks the learners to spot what is different)
  • Count the words you hear (focus on recognition and phonology)
  • Progressive deletion
  • Create a poster summarising/categorising what you have learnt
  • Create a dialogue, tutor reformulates and learners compare to their original text
  • Silent drilling and shadow repetition
  • Which would you say? Which would I say? (comparing on cards). Listen to the learners on task and write up what they said on cards and what you would say on other cards. The learners match them up and then you look at features of the language
  • Students select the phrases they feel are useful and design a practice activity for other students or visa versa (mini whiteboards)
  • Recycling cards and recall activities (see Nick Bilbrough's book Memory Activities published by CUP for more ideas on this)
  • Task repetition
  • Flash the chunk up for a few seconds and then learners write what they remember
  • Number the sentences and the learners throw dice. The leaner who throws the dice needs to recall the sentence and then the group need to put it into a meaningful context. The teacher checks and reformulates individually or delayed
  • Dictionary/corpus work to find other patterns and collocations

What are your thoughts on these activities? Are there any of these you’d like to know more about?

10 Reasons for focusing on emerging language

  1. The learner - Psychological validity (Johnson 1988 in Thornbury 1997): Learners are more predisposed to notice features relevant to the task they have performed
  2. Theory of learning: 'Matching' (Klein 1986 in Thornbury 1997) or rather 'noticing the gap' in their current stage of interlanguage. Ellis (1995 in Thornbury 1997 ) uses the term 'cognitive comparison', as learners compare what is similar to the target form as well as what is different 
  3. Teaching and the learners needs: responsive as more immediate in terms of linguistic need
  4. Avoids the hit-and-miss nature of prescriptive and traditional instructional methods, e.g. PPP
  5. The focus is on encoding a message and has relevance to the real world
  6. Encouraging learners to notice fosters learner autonomy
  7. It takes the individual into consideration and their needs
  8. Reformulation provides a model for more natural behaviour in the language (lexical, grammatical use, discoursal)
  9. Metagcognitive awareness: learners can develop strategies to become better language learners
  10. Allows for exploration of language using metalinguistic means (good learner training) - it provides a way to talk about language in the classroom and for students to investigate language

What are your views? How do you deal with this language in class?

Further reading

See Scott Thornbury’s article on this subject:

Thornbury, S. 1997 Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote ‘noticing’ ELTJ 51/4 OUP


At IH London we have training courses for English and European language teaching and career development.


Richard Chinn

Richard Chinn

February 1, 2016 02:32

Hi Richard

Great article. Probably not the best platform to contact you on. cut a long story short, I'm the National Coordinator for NATECLA (membership body for ESOL teachers). I was at the Brasshouse Conference last summer and saw your excellent workshop on listening. Would you like to deliver a similar session at our conference? (8-9 July 2016, University of Nottingham)).

Please contact me directly if you are interested.

View all comments by Richard Chinn

Amy B

Amy B

February 19, 2015 07:45

Thank you for your reply! I used the silent drilling right away in my class this afternoon, it worked a treat. I added some clicks (like a metronome) whilst they silently practiced the TL:
What did you do? Where did you go? What did you see? What was it like?
It really helped them get the rhythm and the prominence.
Thank you!

View all comments by Amy B

Richard Chinn

Richard Chinn

February 19, 2015 12:49

Hi AB,

Here is what I mean by Shadow Repetition and Silent Drilling.

1. Shadowing: after the learners have had their attention drawn to the language you wish them to notice you can get them to mouth the words along as you read/model the chunk, as this can help consolidate recognition of the language you are focusing on.

This is an alternative to initial choral drilling. The idea is that it can help learners make the connection between the sound and Articulation.

2. Silent drilling: This is when the teacher models the language as in a drill, but instead of the learners repeating, they close their eyes and hear the chunk echo in their head. I normally repeat this about three times. Then you can ask learners to tell you where the prominent words are.

This can help draw careful attention to the form/phonology of the language you are looking at. It could also be the first stage in reconstructing the chunk on the board and practicing it, e.g.

- prominent word
-board it
-what words go to the left and the right of it
-highlight phonological features
-oral practise

Hope that helps. I find a variety of techniques are used in conjunction.

View all comments by Richard Chinn



February 10, 2015 10:15

Hi, only just discovered this and wondering if the offer of clarification is still open! Could you explain the silent drilling and shadow repetition please?
Great article, thank you!

View all comments by AB



December 24, 2014 12:31

Love it.Nice work.

View all comments by Konrad



October 21, 2014 06:22

Thanks Danny. That was an idea from Emma Mead-Flynn.

View all comments by Richard



October 21, 2014 06:22

Thanks Danny. That was an idea from Emma Mead-Flynn.

View all comments by Richard

August 6, 2014 11:29

Loved the 'what they said/what i would say' cards too. I showed them to my new trainees today and we did a couple of examples and they thought they'd be really useable.

Really good post thanks.

View all comments by Danny Norrington-Davies

August 2, 2014 11:12

Excellent article, full of practical ideas. Particularly like the 'which would you say, which would I say' cards idea and am going to steal it for using with CELTA trainees to help develop their skill of listening to students' output and feeding back on it. Thanks for sharing! Hope you're well Melissa.

View all comments by Catherine McFarlane

August 1, 2014 03:23

Excellent article, thanks for sharing guys. Completely agree on the importance of properly listening to students' output and feeding forward, and being able to do so is what separates effective teachers from those just 'getting through' the lesson.

Anyway, lots of really useful, practical tips here, and I'm Saussure I'll be sharing them with teachers here, so thanks :)

View all comments by Damian

Richard Chinn

Richard Chinn

August 4, 2014 09:27

Thanks Damien.

We wrote this as there has been a lot of talk about emergent/emerging language, but we find teachers really want to know simple ways of how to physically do address it in class.

As a result, we examined our practice and that of our collages to come up with these ideas.

Please ask if you want clarification on any of the further ideas, anyone.

View all comments by Richard Chinn