I read through our assigned articles on feedback and tried really hard to make connections to what I do on a daily basis. It was hard, as I seem to be less and less capable of complex thought as spring break gets nearer and nearer. If I give students written feedback on their writing, it's actually in the context of a conversation. We talk back and forth about the work, and I consider anything I write down as "notes" that we can both return to later as we revise. Note that I say "we" revise. Few, if any, of my students know how to revise, much less revise independently. Really, all aspects of the writing process, from brainstorming to drafting to editing and revising are shared tasks. Of all the stages of writing, I work most on getting students independent at brainstorming and drafting, so revision is nearly always a "we" process.
But as I read Hyland's article on praise I suddenly had a lot more to think about. Praise, verbal or written, is a tricky thing. As teachers we learn the importance of specific praise as an effective feedback tool (instead of the generic "good job"), but then we hear/read about how praise can demotivate kids. Nothing is ever as it seems. Hyland's description of mitigating devices used in written feedback was particularly interesting. Paired acts (criticism + praise), hedges (words that tone down criticism), personal attribution (couching criticism as personal opinion) and questioning all seem like versions of our infamous Minnesota Nice, even though the article focused on teachers and students at a university in New Zealand. It all made me wonder...what is the purpose of giving students feedback on their writing? Do we want them to feel good about themselves as writers? Do we want them to learn more about the craft of writing? Do we want them to be more self-reflective of their skills as writers? I'm sure the answer is yes to all of those things, but we can't do all of those things at one time. And we can't do any of those things by deflecting our criticism by "sugaring the pill." As Hyland explains, the ELL students in the study had difficulty understanding mitigated comments. ELL students aren't the only ones confused by a combination of praise and backpedaling criticism. We don't want students to feel bad, but avoiding clear, constructive criticism leaves students floundering. Being direct in our comments and feedback is a skill that requires practice. Maybe not everyone needs to work at it, but I certainly do.