ELT Concept #4 – Written Corrective Feedback

ELT Concept #4 – Written Corrective Feedback

Written Corrective Feedback

Amelyn Thompson

What is it?

Written corrective feedback (WCF) refer to responses teachers give to students’ written work. It can be either comprehensive (every mistake is corrected) or selective (only important mistakes are corrected. Comprehensive feedback is unfocused and may be more helpful to advanced learners.

WCF can also be direct or indirect. Direct feedback means the teacher provides the correction, while indirect feedback involves highlighting the mistake for the student to correct. Generally, direct feedback helps lower-level learners more, while indirect feedback provides more cognitive engagement but should only be applied to treatable, rule-based errors. Choosing the right kind of WCF depends on the level of the learners, the task type, and the error type.

Why is it important?

Feedback is important to help learners notice the gap between their acquisition and the targeted areas of L2. Feedback should pertain to areas that learners deem important, be clear, and have a multi-faceted impact on learners (affectively, cognitively, behaviourally, and socially). There should also be a balance between praise and criticism.

WCF in particular has been well-researched but under-applied; teachers may face pressure from the school, parents, or students themselves to spot every error (Lee, 2013). However, this may be counter-productive and become an editing exercise for the teacher instead.


My practice has always been to require students to do corrections after receiving feedback on their writing, which I will return within the week. This is important as timely feedback is best. I give two types of feedback – direct for anything they have not learnt or idiosyncratic mistakes such as word choice – and indirect for things they have learnt about. At the top of the page, I write two to three points each regarding what they have done well, and what they can improve. As they are doing corrections, I sit with them to give face-to-face feedback and answer any questions they have. This is effective according to research.

However, in the beginning, for indirect feedback, I practised comprehensive WCF with a ten-item error code. It was tiring although I felt accomplished. More importantly, students were generally defeated upon seeing all the error codes.

Even though I tried to emphasise what they had done well, they seemed to feel that improving in all these numerous areas was an insurmountable task. This could be due to the negativity bias, exacerbated by the sheer amount of red marks on their paper. Even worse, they often made the same mistakes in the next writing assignment.

After a while, I decided to do away with error codes and practised selective WCF. For instance, I would circle certain errors (to do with punctuation or spelling) and underline others (to do with grammar or sentence structure). For consistent errors made by individual students, especially with non-salient features, I would highlight them in one colour and reassure students that this was one big (frequent) treatable error. Once treated, I emphasised that a large part of their essay would be improved. This seems to have helped students engage in deeper processing and improve in selected areas from one essay to the next.

It is good to know that my WCF practice has been largely backed by research findings. I still struggle with the (self-imposed) need to find every single non-rule-governed error and provide direct feedback, though reading up and learning about WCF has helped me to commit to systematic selective WCF.

In the future, I would like to explore peer-editing as well. I believe this will give students the chance to take responsibility, more so as it affects a classmate and not only themselves, and apply what they have learnt, hopefully leading to better and more long-lasting outcomes.

In addition, research has shown feedback from teachers and peers plays different roles (Yu & Lee, 2016), so it would be interesting to explore what kind of WCF to provide in light of this when multiple sources of feedback are allowed in a class.


Lee, I. (2013). Research into practice: Written corrective feedback. Language Teaching, 46(1), 108-119.

Yu, S., & Lee, I. (2016). Peer feedback in second language writing (2005–2014). Language Teaching, 49(4), 461-493.

ELT Concept #3 – Focus on Form

For a more comprehensive treatment on the topic, click on the link below.

Feedback in L2 Writing Classes

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