Feedback and Language Learners

*Khem Raj Joshi

Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur

In this brief blog entry, I have made an attempt to highlight the significance of feedback for language learning. This article presents with the feedback from the theoretical aspects, followed by different types of feedback such as negative feedback, negation and recasts and concludes with awareness for language learning.

Feedback

It is self-evident that language learning is not possible without input or evidence. In the literature on language learning, this evidence is discussed in terms of two categories: positive evidence and negative evidence. Positive evidence refers to “the input and basically comprises the set of well formed sentences to which learners are exposed” (Gass, 2003:225). In other words, well- formed sentences that provide learners with the input are called positive evidence. These sentences are made available to learners from spoken and/or written language. Such sentences provide learners with what is possible in the target language and they are also called models. But positive evidence cannot be a sufficient condition for language learning.

Learners should also be made aware of what is not possible in the target language as well. In other words, they need negative evidence in the form of feedback. Feedback comes as a result of interaction. When the learners come up with L2 output, we can see what sort of feedback they need. This interactional feedback is a very important source of knowledge for learners because it provides them with information about what further rules they need to learn. Feedback could be explicit or implicit.

Now I would like to briefly present some sorts of feedback that play an important role in L2 teaching learning process.

Negative evidence

Negative evidence is some kind of input that lets the learner know that his or her utterance is deviant and is unacceptable in the target language. It refers to “the type of information that is provided to learners concerning the incorrectness of an utterance” (Gass, 2003:225). Negative evidence can be explicit in the form of direct correction (e.g., ‘That’s not right’; No, we say……). It can also be implicit (e.g. ‘What did you say?’) in the form of indirect question. On the basis of when negative evidence is provided to the learners, it is of two types: pre-emptive (that occurs before an actual error) or reactive (that occurs after the error has been committed).

Negotiation

It is also a way of providing learners with feedback. When learners face communicative difficulties, they struggle to overcome them. It is the joint effort made by the interlocutors. It is defined as “those instances in conversation when participants need to interrupt the flow of the conversation in order for both parties to understand what the conversation is about” (Gass and Selinker, 2009:318). Since the teacher and the students negotiate to understand what is not understood, this is also known as conversational adjustment. In other words, learners come across several difficulties due to their limited L2 knowledge. In this case, the teacher provides them with the scaffolded help to make them understand the L2. The teacher provides them with feedback. This feedback obtained through negotiation serves a corrective function. As negotiation specially focuses on incorrect forms, it is said to serve as a catalyst for language learning, which facilitates L2 development.  Negotiation requires both attentiveness and involvement. In other words, for successful language learning, a learner should actively be involved in the negotiation process and s/he should also be attending to the incorrect forms.

Recast

A recast is another form of feedback. Mackey (1999) says that recasts are the responses to non-target non-native speaker utterances that provide a target like way of expressing the original meaning. It is the reformulation of a learner’s incorrect utterance without losing the original meaning. In other words, it is such instance in which an interlocutor rephrases an incorrect utterance with a corrected version, while maintaining the integrity of the original meaning.” (Gass, 2003:239). It is an implicit feedback. Philp (1999:92) gives an example of recast:

Non native speaker: what doctor say?

Native speaker: what is the doctor saying?

In the above example, the native speaker is correcting the non-native speaker implicitly by adding the auxiliary.

There arise some challenges while discussing the types of feedback mentioned above.  For example, if the negative evidence is provided implicitly, the learner may not understand that he or she has committed an error and the feedback is intended as a correction. When the teacher tries to correct the learner’s error implicitly by repeating his or her utterance along with correction, the learner may even think that the teacher really did not hear what was said. As a result, the correction may not be accepted and incorporated in the subsequent utterances. Here I would like to cite an example from a class I recently observed in which the teacher was trying to provide the students with feedback in the form of recast but it was not noticed by the students:

S: I used to play marbles in the past but now I use to play videogame.

T: Now you play videogame.

S: Yes, I use to play videogame.

So, in many contexts, explicit feedback is relatively more helpful to raise learners’ awareness of what they have done. Similarly, many teachers prefer to provide feedback in the form of negative evidence before an actual error is committed by the learner. This is probably due to their wish to prevent the learners from committing the possible errors. But until and unless learners take part in interaction and commit the actual errors, it cannot be a pertinent feedback. Once the learners’ output exhibits some deviant forms, the teacher comes to know what feedback is relevant in such contexts. So, in my opinion, reactive feedback could be more helpful than pre-emptive feedback.

Raising learners’ awareness

Interactional feedback certainly focuses on learners’ attention on those parts of their language that deviate from the target language norms. It helps them notice the mismatches between the correct target language forms and the forms produced by them. Schmidt (1994) argues that attention is essential to learning. He distinguishes the attention into two types: i) Noticing– It refers to the process of bringing some stimulus into focal attention. For example, when one notices the odd spelling of a new vocabulary item and ii) understanding and awareness– It refers to explicit knowledge: awareness of a rule or generalization (p.18).

Through feedback, teachers can help learners be attentive. And through this attention, the learners notice a gap between the target language forms and their own inter-language system. For this reason, language teaching methodologies earlier engaged learners in consciousness raising activities provide direct and explicit means of making learners aware of L2 forms. In other words, feedback makes learners aware of the incorrect forms they have produced. They modify their output on the basis of feedback they receive during interaction. The more learners are made aware of their unacceptable speech, the greater the opportunity  for them to make appropriate modifications. Learners’ awareness on any aspect of language (e.g. phonology, morphosyntax, lexicon) could be raised.

To conclude, I argue that second language is not simply learned from positive evidence alone. Learners should also be provided with negative evidence which provides them with information about what is not possible in the target language system. Raising the learners’ awareness on different aspects of language leads to better language teaching learning process.

*Mr. Joshi teaches at the Department of English Education, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal. He is an executive member of NELTA Central Committee.

References

Gass, S.M. (2003). Input and interaction. In Doughty, C.J. and M. H. Long (eds). The handbook of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Gass, S. M. & L. Selinker. (2009). Second language acquisition: An introductory Course. New York: Routledge.

Joshi, K. R. (2012). English Language Teacher Development. Kathmandu: Intellectual’s Book Palace.

Mackey, A. (1999). Input, interaction and second language development. Studies in second language acquisition. 21:557-581.

Philp, I. (1999). Interaction, noticing and second language acquisition: An examination of learners’ noticing of recasts in task based interaction. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Tasmania.

Schmidt, R. (1994). Implicit learning and the cognitive consciousness: of artificial grammars and SLA. In N. Ellis (ed). Implicit and explicit learning of languages. London: Academic Press.

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