Supportive Feedback for Non-Native Speakers of English

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Online graduate education presents a myriad of challenges for the student. For the non-native English speaker, these challenges may be exacerbated by language barriers. While English language learning students need to demonstrate a level of English proficiency as part of their application for admission, basic proficiency does not always mean that they have a comprehensive set of language tools to be successful (Albashtawi, 2019). Given that English language learning should be considered a life-long, ongoing process (Cummins, 2008), targeted faculty support is important. 

The language learning process often focuses on the acquisition of conversational skills for which proficiency can take up to three to five years (Hakuta, et al., 2000). Students with developed conversational skills are able to use the English language to communicate in every-day situations to share ideas, ask questions, and accomplish tasks. Students are typically able to develop conversational skills quickly because of the social and environmental context that complements everyday language use (Cummins, 1999).

In order to be successful academically, students also need to develop academic language proficiency. Academic language is the communication skills that students use to engage in the unique discourse used in classroom and other academic situations. Academic language is more difficult for students to master because of the complex, higher-order cognitive skills needed to participate in abstract discourse (Cummins, 2008).  

Faculty need to be cautioned that students who have well developed conversational skills may still be working towards the academic language proficiency needed to perform successfully in the online graduate setting. Underdeveloped academic proficiency may create challenges for learners as they strive to fully comprehend and internalize discourse presented in the online academic environment where contextual cues may be absent (Cummins, 2008). This may be especially true with regard to assignment feedback, which presents content as well as context challenges for the English language learner. Therefore, faculty may need to consider a broad range of communication techniques to support this group of students.

In online learning classrooms, faculty primarily rely on written assignment feedback. In some cases, audio feedback as an alternative is gaining popularity (Fiock & Garcia, 2019).  For many students, either format can provide the robust support that they need to improve their skills. For English language learners, however, the context needed to comprehend written or oral feedback alone may be inadequate. 

Given that academic English proficiency cannot be assumed based on a student’s conversational skills (Cummins, 2008), other cues may need to be identified. For my own English language learners, I suspect underdeveloped academic language proficiency when I observe feedback that is seemingly ignored. In most cases, the student is not purposefully ignoring the feedback; rather they do not understand what they need to do to improve. I have found that feedback drawing on two or more of the language acquisition proficiency requirements of reading, writing, listening, and speaking (Cambridge Michigan Language Assessments, 2015) can sometimes better support the student’s learning.  

I frequently address potential underdeveloped academic language skills by providing assignment feedback that combines reading and listening. First, I embed margin comments, track changes, and paragraph notes into a submitted document. Then, I add an additional feedback component using a screen sharing software program to create a short recording for the student to review. While sometimes redundant, the recording provides an additional layer of reinforcement. In the recording, I complement the more nuanced margin comments and track changes with additional context. Then, I summarize the most significant problem areas as well as point out examples of good work throughout the document. Then, I explicitly describe what their next steps should be.

Often, my English language learners describe this feedback process as being helpful and I see appropriate improvement in their work.  However, some students will need additional support. Students with continuing challenges related to their English language proficiency can be given further opportunities to increase their competency and thereby improve academically. Some strategies faculty may consider include:

  • Meet with students using a virtual synchronous platform such as Zoom. To better understand students’ challenges, ask the student to submit written questions prior to the meeting and use those questions as an agenda.  Incorporate a speaking focus by asking the student to summarize their next steps verbally. 

  • Ongoing vocabulary acquisition is a challenge for English language learners (Li, 2017). Familiarize yourself with Coxhead’s Academic Word List and check for understanding. Avoid jargon and colloquialisms in both written and verbal conversations.

  • Recognize that students may have accents that make it hard for you to understand them. Be patient and ask them to repeat themselves so that you are clear about what they need. 

  • Consider writing as a process rather than a product (Annamalai, 2018). Guide students strategically through the writing process through an iterative cycle of outlining, drafting, and editing. 

  • Provide explicit instruction using imperatives. We often try to soften our tone with learners by being less direct. For English language learners, a more direct, but kind approach can lead to greater success (Nurmukhamedov & Hyon Kim, 2010). 

  • Ensure that the students have multiple avenues of support including institutional writing and tutoring centers. Maintain regular contact with staff in these centers as well as academic advisors and other stakeholders. 


Laurie Bedford, PhD



Albashtawi, A.H. (2019) Improvement of EFL students’ academic reading achievement through the cognitive academic language learning approach (CALLA), Reading Psychology, 40(8), 679-704. https//10.1080/02702711.2019.1658669 

Annamalai, N. (2018). A case study of the online interactions among ESL students to complete their narrative writing task. Malaysian Online Journal of Educational Technology, 6(1). 

Cambridge Michigan Language Assessments. (2015). Examination for the certificate of proficiency in English.

Cummins, J. (1999). BICS and CALP: Clarifying the distinction (ED438551). ERIC.

Cummins, Jim. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of the distinction. In Van Deusen-Scholl, N. & Horberger, N. Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Springer, 209-226. https://10.1007/978-0-387-30424-3_36 

Fiock, H. & Garcia, H. (2019). How to give your students better feedback with technology. Chronicle of Higher Education, 66(11).  

Hakuta, K., Butler, Y.G., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency? University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Policy Report 2000-1. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California-Santa Barbara. 

Li, J., Cummins, J. & Deng, O. (2017) The effectiveness of texting to enhance academic vocabulary learning: English language learners’ perspective, Computer Assisted Language Learning, 30(8), 816-843. https://10.1080/09588221.2017.1366923 

Nurmukhamedov, U. & Hyon Kim, S. (2010). Would you perhaps consider …’: Hedged comments in ESL writing, ELT Journal, 64(3), 272–282

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