Observing teachers (2): Oral feedback

Roger Hunt

Your approach to oral feedback will depend on the agenda you chose for this observation be that with appraisal or teacher development in mind, although it is probably true to say that both these aims or modes are present in all observations to one extent or another. However, one technique can serve for both: the questioning approach. This involves asking questions as to why the observed teacher did whatever s/he did and the outcomes for the students as a result.

Questions can be very revealing, but they can also be seen as thinly veiled criticism. For example: "Why did you decide to use this very long text?" would most likely be understood to mean the text was too long and took up too much class time that could have been better used in some other way. The question: "What would you change about this lesson?" is also likely to be taken negatively as it implies there should be changes. Contrast this with the question: "Would you change anything about this lesson now you've taught it?" which is more open and less likely to be taken as criticism.

Look at the following questions and decide which are most/least likely to be taken as criticisms:

  • Why did you teach them the present perfect?
  • Why did you not include any controlled pronunciation work?
  • Is a class in which nothing new is taught valid?
  • Do you use phonemic script much?
  • Why did you write everything on the board when they already had it all in the text you'd given them?
  • Why did you choose that particular text?
  • Do you think the students could have worked out the meaning of the vocabulary for themselves?
  • Why did you decide to adapt the coursebook material?
  • Don't you think 21 new vocabulary items is rather a lot?

You have probably decided that all these questions could be taken as criticisms, and you would be correct in thinking so. Contrast these with the following:

  • What did you like about the lesson?
  • What didn't you like about this lesson?
  • How do you feel the lesson went?
  • What did the students like about the lesson?
  • What issues arising from this lesson would you like to discuss?

I expect you will agree that in general these are less likely to be taken as criticism and more likely to result in open discussion rather than self-defence in the face of perceived criticism and confrontation.

As you will see from the above an innocent question might easily be misunderstood and cause a defensive reaction by the observee; for this reason it is a good idea to work out your questions in advance of the feedback discussion. If you agree that listening is a valuable step on the way to development, you might also agree that asking questions is a good way of prompting lots to listen to.

Reflection and reformulation

To ensure you have understood, and to show you are listening carefully, at points during the discussion you might like to briefly reformulate points made by the observed teacher. For example the teacher says:

"Well, I think the students got the idea of what I was trying to teach them; they understood the meaning and I think I clarified the form Ok. They also got some pronunciation practice, so er, I think that was Ok."

You might reformulate this to:

"Yes, so you think the language aims of the lesson were fully achieved? I agree."

A further example might be:

"I'm not too sure that all the students were saying it properly. I mean I tried to show some of them how to make the /ð/ sound, but lots of them were still struggling with it."

This might be reformulated as:

"So you think that some, but not all, managed this tricky phoneme? Perhaps you could dedicate more time to pronunciation in future lessons."

The purpose of such reformulation, as well as the points made above, is to help the observed teacher express what they want to say clearly and to identify points to be praised or to be put on an ‘action' list of things this teacher might work on further in future lessons. Also as stated above it shows the teacher you really are listening and value the teacher's point of view. Note in the above examples the observer has affirmed success in the first and gone some way towards establishing an action point in the second.

Note that reformulating involves putting what the teacher says into your own words, not simply repeating what he or she says – this does not indicate any understanding at all. Note also that such reformulations should be brief and infrequent.

Making notes

It is usually a good idea to make notes of your discussion with the observed teacher and go through these with her/him at the end of the feedback discussion to ensure you have noted all main points of the discussion and established action points for future development. Also include any materials or resources that you have promised to provide to aid in such development. These notes will form a nucleus of any written report you may wish to give to the teacher and file for your own purposes.

See also

Observing teachers (1): Agendas

Observing teachers (2): oral feedback

Observing teachers (3): written feedback

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