The ABC of ELT

“Your accent is terrible” – Destructive feedback

I have a new one to one student. She is hard working and eager as well. Perfect!

She learnt English at university some 10 years ago and recently spent three weeks having incentive classes in England and staying with some friends. As you might expect she’s a pretty good student. Not amazing level yet but very motivated, with a lot of background knowledge floating around and she can hold down a conversation well.

She was awarded a B1 certificate from the school she was at and she wants to pass her B2 FCE in the summer, I haven’t seen her writing yet and she does make some grammar mistakes when talking but I think it is possible for her.

She isn’t so sure.

You might be wondering about the title…well that’s what her teacher in England told her during her studies. She insists that her accent is terrible and she needs to work on it. She is also very worried about over using commas (from her writing I haven’t seen too many commas and when she did use commas it was more in line with traditional, journalistic writing standards….but she is worried about it.

As she talked about these comments I knew there was no point “correcting her view” though I did try to mention that of course she had a Spanish accent and some words she miss pronounced but she was understandable and it didn’t stop her expressing herself or convey a different meaning (as incorrect pronunciation can).

Destructive feedback

I think the statement at the top is a perfect example of Destructive feedback as opposed to constructive feedback.

The statement has really reduced her confidence and created a strong sense of self doubt. She seems to be a fairly self-critical person anyway and this statement probably hit every insecurity she has about language learning.

No there is nothing wrong with demanding more (or higher) from students and the complete opposite case where we constantly praising the smallest achievement and not acknowledging any problems is also bad but that doesn’t make destructive feedback right. Imagine the simple difference from “your accent is terrible” to “you need to work on your pronunciation, especially these sounds.” Instead of just being a criticism there is actually a course of action to take

Constructive feedback

Feedback is a bit of a touchy subject, error corrections is always a fan favourite (though there is little evidence it actually stops the error) then there is the questions of the difference between feedback and advice and how often “feedback” is actually advice masquerading as something it’s not.

Giving good feedback to students is very important but..

What makes feedback good?

(I’m not even going to attempt to answer this one. This time it’s all down to you!)


About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

13 Replies

  1. Wow, that seems a really uncalled for comment. The least helpful kind of feedback-negative, evaluative rather than descriptive, non-specific and without any indication of how to improve. Of course, it is always possible that her teacher didn’t actually say this, but that this was what the (self-critical) student inferred…

  2. Kevin Stein

    I’m just glad your student has found her way to your classroom, Chris. Things will certainly be up from here. I like Rachel’s (non-imposing) ideas of good feedback: descriptive, specific, and with a clear road-map for improvement. I’d add one more. There should be enough time and space, if possible to allow a student to correct the mistake themselves. This is pretty easily done with pron work by playing with sounds and having different students say the same word until a class converges on an comprehensible pronunciation. For writing, I like to correct the first third with detailed notes, highlight the second third with no notes, and leave the last third up to the student to correct themselves. (I got this idea from a friend who heard it at a conference and would love an actual reference to where it came from). Anyway, I still struggle with how to give feedback daily, so looking forward to what other people have to say.

    1. I really like the writing feedback idea! I think I may nick that! I guess you need to tell the student what you are doing (so they don’t just conclude that it was all good!)
      Have you thought about doing the second part with just highlights and no corrections? That way they would have to correct it and can’t use an excuse of not seeing any mistakes? I’m contemplating unleashing it on my teens.

  3. Eduardo Santos

    Hi Chris, that’s a very good question.

    I believe good feedback is when the teacher identifies the error/issue and tells the student how that error will interfere in general communication. Then, the teacher suggests ways in which the student might be able to overcome that issue so as to promote noticing next time the student is speaking English. And finally, the teacher must give the student follow-up feedback on that same issue in order to make sure the student has succeeded.

    1. Some great points, especially “…how that error will interfere in general communication.” just saying “that’s not right” doesn’t really help the student understand why or what the listener/reader will understand.

  4. Chris,

    Whatever feedback this learner has had, it seems to have stuck in her head. Sounds like you will not be very successful in changing that opinion, at least for now. It doesn’t actually matter!

    “Accent” is not an assessment criteria in any Cambridge main suite exam. So, regardless of how this person regards their “accent”, it will not work against her. All candidates are assessed on what they CAN do, rather than what they can’t, or the ‘mistakes’ etc they may have produced by way of answering the tasks…Candidates are given time to express themselves, and in the paired adult speaking tests ample opportunity to show what they can do interacting with a partner. That, and managing/organising their language content/variety count for every bit as much as pronunciation.

    After that, the speaking test is only one of five FCE papers.

    Commas? Will only impact in the writing paper. If it is a systematic ‘error’, it will be marked as such – once. (I’m not a writing examiner, btw, but this is the way I understand that assessment). Format then content, with audience in mind = success there.

    Practical self-esteem for your student? I’d show her clips of various Englishes which are very hard to understand. I’m English, and I find Geordies, Glaswegians, Eastenders – just about every accent beyond my hometown – difficult. Americans can’t cope with Aussies, nobody gets Newfoundlanders etc. But we are all native speakers. Most people will find an Indian person in full flow hard to follow – but there are more Indians speaking English as their first tongue than Brits…so whose ‘accent’ is ‘wrong’!?

    Stick with “can do” – much sunnier way of looking at language learning.

    Useful link here:

    1. Thanks Jim. especially for the exam specific details. I like the idea of showing native speakers in full flow and how difficult their accents are to understand.

  5. Another alternative to showing natives with ‘difficult’ accents in full flow would be to show a well-known Spanish celebrity speaking English (Penelope Cruz springs to mind) to emphasise that speaking a foreign language with your native accent is not really a bad thing.

    As for feedback, written is always easier than spoken. I like to get the students into groups with a sample paragraph made from common errors (obviously, I do this a day or two after they have done the writing) and have them collectively correct it. Once we have agreed on a class version, I get them to go back to their own work and see if they can identify and correct similar errors. Apart from that, I put a lot of emphasis on developing good habits like reading through what they have written (most of my students never do this when they are new in my classes!), reading aloud, checking for something specific like verb tenses, etc.

    For spoken feedback, I find the best thing is to make notes of errors (and also good examples of language use) and then to review the most pertinent ones (on the board with a full class or verbally one-to-one), again encouraging the students to make the changes.

    But all of those examples are actually about error correciton, aren’t they? I also strive to fit in real feedback like praising elements of their writing style or creative lanague use. Avoiding the trap of just pointing out grammar mistakes is always a tough one though…

    1. Thanks for comment Dave. I like the idea of Penelope Cruz as an example. I actually taught the student again today and she didn’t seem to be as worried about her accent today.

      I do like the sample paragraphs, especially after tests. Have you ever tried getting students to “bid” on answers. If they get the answer right they double it, if they get it wrong they lose it! Great fun with teens and some corporate groups,

      I really like feedback that is positive praising good use of English. The danger I’ve noticed is that not every teen wants to stand out as being good!

      Thanks Dave.

  6. great comments here! as well as thought provoking post! been thinking of using peer feedback in my classes, wonder if anyone has experience in that?

    1. Never done it in an English class (only in Youthwork) getting students to write annonmous comments about other classmates praising them for good things. It’s amazing what people can pick up on. Not sure how it would work in the ELT classroom but it’s an interesting idea for feedback.

      Peer correction can be strange. in my experience students don’t like to correct other students and some wait for the teacher to come round anyway. I don’t think I’ve seen any student get upset at being corrected but I always tell them well in advance so they aren’t surprised or upset.

  7. Chris: Could you provide us with a bit more information about the situation, please? The comment was certainly gratuitously mean, uncalled for and beyond unproductive, but might there be more factors at play in this situation (i.e. learner attitude, age) that might help us offer more concrete solutions towards making the feedback effective and helping the student feel better about processing feedback.)

    1. She was older than the other students so that might have been a factor. So far she really seems like the perfect student but as I say she is a new student so we’ll see.

      I think I am inclined to agree with Rachel that she probably read something into a comment that wasn’t intended and has been extra critical of herself because of it.
      Still it makes you realise how sometimes even little things you say may get taken the wrong way with a student.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting.

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