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									The Effect of Teacher Attitudes to Individual Students on the
                             Written Feedback Given

                                         Liu Yinghong

               Northwest University of Political Science and Law

                                          Liu Yingzhe

                                  Xi’an Fanyi University

                                       Zhang Xiaoyan

                        Xi’an International Studies University

      This study investigates the relationship between writing teachers’ personal conceptions of
students and the amount and type of written feedback they offer. Using an analytic model for
teacher feedback, the study examined the teacher feedback given to three case study participants
during a writing course at a legal university. They were identified respectively as being a ‘strong’,
‘average’ or ‘weak’ writer. Overall findings on the variations in the quality and quantity of teacher
feedback across student ability levels were discussed. Some implications for practicing writing
teachers giving feedback were also given.

     Providing written feedback to students is one of EFL writing teachers’ most
important tasks. As teachers, we know experientially that our students grapple not
only with a written code but also with a linguistic code that is still being acquired,
thus they place value on teacher written feedback; also we hope that our students
could benefit from our feedback in their future writing. Based on these considerations,
we designed the present study to investigate this controversial area in second language
writing instruction: teacher written feedback. The immediate impetus for this study
comes from Hyland’s (1998) finding that teachers were usually aware of the
individual students and their possible responses to feedback when they gave
comments and they tailored their feedback according to this awareness. This finding
actually is in conformity with our experience as writing teachers. In Chinese culture,

one doctrine is highly influential in education, i.e. teach your students in accordance
with their aptitude. This doctrine, together with the western learner-centered notion of
education influences us writing teachers when writing feedback. However, so far in
China no research on L2 feedback has examined closely the effect of teacher attitudes
to individual students on the feedback given, a highly significant factor in writing
development. To address this gap, and to prepare for further study on the effect of
such tailored feedback on individual students, we designed the present study. The
purpose of this study is to investigate the relationship between teachers’ personal
conceptions of students and the amount and type of feedback they offer.

            A Survey of the Literature on ESL/EFL Written Feedback
     Studies on teacher feedback have sought to identify what aspects of writing
concern L2 teachers the most when they are responding to student writing (Zamel,
1985; Atari and Triki, 2000), to investigate, in turn, how students perceive teacher
response norms (Leki, 1991; Ferris 1995; Hedgcock and Lefkowitz, 1996), and
further to examine the effects of written feedback on actual revisions made by
students (Ferris, 1997; Hyland, 1998).
     Teachers have been urged to alter their feedback practice to focus more on
meaning issues and the process of writing (Zamel, 1985). Atari and Triki (2000)
acknowledged the value of adopting the “message-related” type of feedback, and went
further to identify and justify the specific tool required for implementing this type of
feedback among Arab EFL students. In light of empirical research findings on the
major area of difficulty for most Arab EFL learners, they recommended a
discourse-based approach to EFL writing revision. Their work indicates that teacher
written feedback is helpful only when it meets the needs of L2 students.
     Leki’s (1991) research on L2 students’ preferences regarding teacher feedback
showed that having error-free work was a major concern for the ESL students at a
university, and they wished to have their errors corrected by their teacher. Also
interview conducted with ESL students by Hedgcock and Lefkowitz (1996) revealed
that they did value form-focused feedback and expected to improve their writing and
learn more when their teachers highlighted their grammatical errors. A survey of ESL
tertiary students by Ferris (1995) also found that students were interested in receiving
comments on both grammar and content. These findings highlight the point that L2
student writers are significantly different from native speakers in their linguistic and
pragmatic knowledge.
     Researchers have also tried to look carefully at teacher responding behaviors.
Teachers often have to weigh their choice of comments to accomplish a range of
informational, pedagogic, and interpersonal goals simultaneously. Hyland (2001)
examined the use of praise in written feedback given by two teachers to their ESL
students and noted that praise often was used to soften criticism. However, Hyland
questioned whether this indirectness might cause miscommunication between students
and teacher. Ferris, Pezone, Tade, and Tinti (1997) designed an original analytic
model to describe in more precise terms how the teacher responded. This model
allows the examination of different features of each marginal and end comment,
including comment length, comment type, the use of hedges and being text-specific or
general. Their model was developed through the “constant comparative method” of
analysis, which according to Lockhart and Ng is “an inductive approach that produces
theory grounded in data” (1995: 614). Both the method and the model are heuristic for
future relevant studies on the classification of written teacher feedback.
     A particular important line of research on teacher feedback to L2 students has
investigated the contribution of teacher feedback to students’ development. Ferris’s
study (1997) revealed that most revisions that could be linked to written feedback
resulted in text improvement. Her results also suggested that notes in the margin,
requests for clarification and comments on grammar led to the most substantive
revision. However, her study did not consider the impact of student differences in
terms of ability, personality or culture. Hyland (1998) conducted a longitudinal
research incorporating case study methodology in an attempt to consider the effects of
feedback within the total context of teaching. This research investigated six ESL
writers’ reactions to, and uses of, teacher written feedback in two courses at a New
Zealand university. Hyland used a variety of data sources including observation notes,
tapes of interviews and teacher think-aloud protocols, and written texts. The findings
showed that students tried to incorporate most of the usable teacher feedback when
revising their drafts, but that this varied greatly according to their individual needs,
prior experiences and approaches to writing. More interestingly, the protocols
suggested that teachers gave feedback to individual students, not texts and brought
with them an awareness of the student’s likely reactions to the feedback.

                          Summary and Research Purpose
     To sum up, despite the diversity and the large quantities of prior research on the
topic of teacher written feedback to student writing, little information was found that
was either relevant to the teaching of EFL writing in China or which, within the
context of China’s EFL writing instruction, provided insights into the relationship
between teachers’ personal conceptions of students and the amount and type of
feedback they offer. Hyland’s ethnographic study (1998) only indicates that teacher
written feedback is personalized. Ferris, Pezone, Tade and Tinti (1997) noted that the
teacher responded somewhat differently to students of varying ability levels, but they
admitted their analytic study could not address this point specifically. The present
study was designed to have a closer examination of the effect of teacher attitudes to
individual students on the feedback given. Using a case study approach, it attempted
to describe the teacher’s personal conceptions of individual students, and the
characteristics (e.g. amount and type) of teacher feedback in relation to such


                                 Research Questions
     This study is guided by the following questions:
     1. Is there evidence of variation in the quality and quantity of teacher feedback
across individual students and if so, what are the differences?
     2. What might account for this?

         This study involved a non-native writing teacher, with a master’s degree in
English language teaching and two years of teaching experience.
         Three English majors of varying ability levels were selected to participate in the
case study. They are in their third year study, first term. This means that they have
already received one-year formal instruction in English writing on mechanics,
effective           sentences,   effective   paragraphs,   ways   of   developing   paragraphs
(development by time, process, space, example and generalization, comparison and
contrast, cause and effect, classification, and definition) and note writing. Besides, all
of them have taken part in the national TEST FOR ENGLISH MAJORS -GRADE
FOUR- (general proficiency test including writing, listening and reading, grammar
and vocabulary) by the end of second-year study.             Based upon the test results, they
were selected and identified respectively as being a “Strong”, “Average” or “Weak”

                                  The Writing Course and Sample
        The context selected for this study is a writing course for third-year English
majors in a Legal University in China, and the research was targeted at the first term
of the course. According to China’s National English Language Curriculum for
English Majors in Tertiary Educational Institutes (2000 edition), writing is a
compulsory course intended for English majors doing their second- and third-year
study. In this Legal University, writing course in the first term of third year focuses on
the instruction of essay writing. The textbook used in the course is A Handbook of
Writing (¶¬£ÀµùÍ¡          1994); students meet their teacher once a week for one and a half
hours. They are given eight major essay assignments of four different types
(narrative/descriptive/expository/persuasive). Students are required to write one draft
for each assignment. While designing the study, one element was considered to be
favorable for this study. That is, teaching of writing in this university involves a
two-year cycle; a writing teacher is supposed to teach his/her students through these

two years. So it is fair to say that by the time students start their third year study, the
teacher has considerable understanding of students’ language development, learning
styles, successes, failures, attitudes, and motivation. But unexpectedly when this study
was carried out, a new writing teacher took over the third year writing course because
the former teacher went abroad. To adjust itself to changes in the research context,
this study collected papers written in mid term and late term. Copies of participants’
drafts of three assignments and the related feedback were collected. It was hoped that
this adjustment could leave the teacher eight to nine weeks’ time to interact with her
students, and get to know their writing abilities and personalities.

                                    Data Collection
     The study employs data from the following sources:
            Researchers’ participant knowledge as a teacher of earlier course          One
            of the researchers has previously taught writing in this university and thus
            has an insider’s view of the course from a teacher’s perspective.
            National proficiency test results
            Pre- and while-course interview with the teacher           Pre-course interview
            transcripts provide a source of information about the teacher’s perceptions
            on what constitutes useful feedback (e.g. the purpose, the focus, the way
            of presenting it); while-course interviews provide information on her
            conceptions of case study participants and on the context within which
            feedback is given.
            Analysis of teacher feedback        We established a file for each case study
            participant to document the amount of 'feedback point' on each draft, their
            type and percentage of each comment type.
     All the feedback offered was generated by the course rather than designed
specifically for this study, and no interventions were made by the researchers.

     Teacher feedback to case study participants was coded, categorized and analyzed.
The classification for written feedback is based on a slightly modified model
developed by Ferris (1995).
                                                Figure 1

                                Analytic Model for Teacher Feedback

A. Comment Length (Number of Words)
   1 Short (1-5 words)
   2 Average (6-15 words)
   3 Long (16-25 words)
   4 Very Long (26 or more words)
B. Comment Types
    1   Ask for information/question
        Example: What do you really want to express?

    2   Make a request/question
        Example: Can you give me an example here?

    3   Make a request/statement
        Example: I hope you can make some of your sentences short.

    4   Make a request/imperative
        Example: Add a conclusion that restates the thesis.

    5   Give information/question
        Example: How can you be so sure that many people can live happily on it?

    6   Give information/statement
        Example: It doesn’t make sense here.

    7   Make a positive comment/statement or exclamation
        Example: It is a beautiful prose full of imagination and strong feelings.

    8  Make a grammar/diction comment/question, statement or imperative
                           Principal or principle?
                           You may read more English compositions so as to make your
                           expressions idiomatic.
                           Pay attention to the consistency of tense.
C. Use of Hedges
   0 No hedge included
   1 Hedge included
            Lexical hedges (e.g., please, maybe)

              Syntactic hedges (e.g., Can you reorganize this sentence?)
              Positive softeners (e.g. It is good in terms of organization, however ….)
D. Text-Specific Comment
   0     Generic comment (could have been written on any paper)
         Example: Language is natural and ideas are clear.
   1     Text-specific comment
         Example: In the body section you not only exposed the weakness of public school, but
         also uncovered the strength of private school. This makes your essay more persuasive.

       This model allowed the examination of several different features of each
marginal and end comment, including their length (in number of words), their type
(pragmatic intent and syntactic form), the use of hedges (e.g. please, maybe), and
whether the comment was text based or general.
       Both verbal comments and corrections (frequently found in the grammar and
diction category) were considered in the analysis. As two independent raters read
through the marked drafts of participants, they counted and analyzed each marginal
and end comment on the paper separately and then coded it for analysis as shown in
figure 1. The raters were the author and an EFL writing instructor, both of whom had
an MA in English Language Teaching.

       This study covered the first term (17 weeks) of the course. It consisted of two
major phases.
       Interviewed the teacher. Selected three students to participate in case study.
Explained this study to these students and sought their permission to photocopy their
writing and the related feedback.
       Interviewed the teacher to get information about each assignment.
       Collected students’ drafts and the feedback they received.
       Analyzed written feedback.

     Asked the teacher for her clarification and explanation of the intent of some

                           RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

          Characteristics of Teacher Feedback to Case Study Participants
     Tables 1-3 show characteristics of teacher feedback to each participant. Each
table includes the number of and percentage for each comment type. Examination of
different features of marginal comments demonstrated that the vast majority (88% in
table 1, 91% in table 2, and 94% in table 3) of marginal comments were rated short.
                                               Table 1

                       Characteristics of Teacher Feedback to the Strong Writer

                                               Marginal comments                  End comments
  Characteristic                               No.          %                     No.      %

  Short                                         14            88
  Average                                        2            12                  2        40
  Long                                                                            2        40
  Very long                                                                       1        20
  Ask for information/question                      1           6
  Make a request/question
  Make a request/statement                                                        2        40
  Make a request/imperative
  Give information/question
  Give information/statement
  Make a positive comment/statement
                                                                                  3        60
     or exclamation
  Make a grammar/diction comment/               15              94
     question, statement, or imperative
Use of hedges
  No                                            16            100                 3        60
  Yes                                                                             2        40
Text-specific comment
  No                                             1               6
  Yes                                           15              94                5       100
Total comments                                  16                                5

                                              Table 2

                      Characteristics of Teacher Feedback to the Average Writer

                                               Marginal comments                  End comments
  Characteristic                               No.          %                     No.      %

  Short                                        32             91
  Average                                       2              6                  3       100
  Long                                          1              3
  Very long
  Ask for information/question                  3              9
  Make a request/question
  Make a request/statement                      1              3
  Make a request/imperative                                                       1        33
  Give information/question
  Give information/statement                    2              6                  1        33
  Make a positive comment/statement
                                                                                  1        33
     or exclamation
  Make a grammar/diction comment/              29              83
     question, statement, or imperative
Use of hedges
  No                                           34              97                 1        33
  Yes                                           1               3                 2        67
Text-specific comment
  No                                            4              11                 2        67
  Yes                                          31              89                 1        33
Total comments                                 35                                 3

This is closely related to the nature of the type of marginal comment
(grammar/diction) that takes dominant proportion in the teacher feedback. Also it
largely reflects the fact that the teacher had less space in which to write them. The
teacher included few hedges (the highest is 3% in table 2) in marginal comments and
most of the marginal comments were text based. This is because the teacher paid more
attention to the correctness and appropriateness of language use, and preferred to
directly correct errors in grammar and diction while giving feedback in the hope that
this would help students learn more and improve their writing. As tables 1-3 show, the
dominant type among the marginal comments was make a grammatical/diction
comment (94% in table 1, 83% in table 2, and 91% in table 3), with few other
comments being spread rather sparsely across the other types. Consequently, the
student with relative high writing ability received less marginal comments (16) than
the average (35) and the weak ones (33).

                                               Table 3

                        Characteristics of Teacher Feedback to the Weak Writer

                                               Marginal comments                 End comments
  Characteristic                               No.          %                    No.      %

  Short                                         31            94                 1        33
  Average                                        2             6                 2        67
  Very long
  Ask for information/question                   3             9
  Make a request/question
  Make a request/statement
  Make a request/imperative                                                      3       100
  Give information/question
  Give information/statement
  Make a positive comment/statement
     or exclamation
  Make a grammar/diction comment/               30             91
     question, statement, or imperative
Use of hedges
  No                                            33            100                3       100
Text-specific comment
  No                                             3              9                3       100
  Yes                                           30             91
Total comments                                  33                               3

                Feedback Differences Across Student Ability Levels

                                               Table 4

     Remarkable Differences in Comment Length, Types and Forms Across Student Ability levels

                                                         Student        type

          Variable                      Strong                 Average          Weak

                                          %                         %            %

      End                                40                        100           67
Long                                     40
Very long
Make request/statement
      End                                40
Make request/imperative                                            33           100
Give information/statement
Make positive comment/statement
      End                                 60                       33
Use of Hedges
      End                                60                        33           100
                                          40                       67
Text-specific comment
                                                                   67           100
      End                               100                        33

     Feedback differences across student ability levels were analyzed by examining
the distribution of comments across participants. Remarkable differences were found
in end comments. Table 4 demonstrates the following trends:
     First, 60% of end comments given to the strong student are long or very long,
whereas 100% of end comments given to the average writer and 67% for the weak
writer tend to be average or short. Taking into account of the summative nature of end
comments, differences in comment length across student ability levels suggest that the
teacher tends to offer more to the strong writer than to the weak and the average.
     Secondly, the percentage for positive end comments decreased from 60% for the
strong to 33% for the average and zero for the weak. In contrast, the percentage for
request in imperative form increased from zero for the strong to 33% for the average
and 100% for the weak. Requests made to the strong writer were given in the
statement form. Moreover, by comparison, more end comments given to the strong
and the average employed hedges (40% for the strong, 67% for the average). These
trends suggest that the teacher takes a more collegial, less directive stance when
giving feedback to the strong writer.
     Thirdly, the strong writer received the most text-based end comments (100%)
whereas the weak writer was given the fewest (zero). At least 67% of end comments
for the average and the weak were rated general, i.e. comments could have appeared
on any student paper. Among these general end comments, the overwhelming
category is grammar and diction, for example, ‘Read more compositions so that you
can make your expressions idiomatic’, ‘Pay attention to tense’. Interviews with the
teacher show that she believes ideas and organization of a piece of writing should be
more important than grammatical errors. However, in practice she found the weak
writer and the average writer, duo to their lower language proficiency, often made
errors in grammar and couldn’t express their ideas idiomatically. She had to put great
efforts in highlighting and correcting those accuracy-related problems, leaving no
time and energy for ideas- or content-related problems.
     In this study what the teacher encountered in her practice is not uncommon for
EFL writing teachers in China. As EFL learners, Chinese students have to grapple not
only with a written code but also with a linguistic code that is still being acquired.
Naturally having the error-free work is a main concern for both students and writing
teachers. However the concern for accuracy-related problems shouldn’t be prioritized
at the cost of global content and organization of ideas. As teachers, we know the goal
of writing is to communicate the writer’s intent clearly to the reader. Overall in this
study there were few occurrences of comments that tend to spur the student to further
thought, or which imply that the student is expected to somehow act upon the
information. To the weak writer and the average writer, the teacher offered little
information about how she or the reader perceived the writing’s ideas and
organization, focusing merely on the correctness and naturalness of language use.
These are certainly no good for the development of their writing abilities. The analytic
model employed in this study could be used to help writing teachers evaluate their
own feedback and develop their schema and skills for giving effective feedback.
     Giving feedback to students offers the kind of individualized attention that is
otherwise rarely possible under normal classroom conditions. It is a form of two-way
communication, and like any form of human interaction, it will vary according to the
personalities and abilities of the participants (Ferris & Pezone, 1997). Owing to the
limitations of conditions, i.e. the new writing teacher had less knowledge of her
students’ personalities and relatively less in-person interaction with them, the study
only investigated the feedback differences across one variable¡ª student ability level.
Presumably, the student’s personalities and special needs in learning writing would
also affect the nature and tone of the teacher’s written feedback. Further studies on the
effect of teacher ‘tailored’ feedback on the development of individual students are
highly significant because they can provide implications for writing teachers to give
effective feedback.

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