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Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.

(TESOL)

Revisiting Teacher Feedback in EFL Writing from Sociocultural Perspectives


Author(s): ICY LEE
Source: TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1 (MARCH 2014), pp. 201-213
Published by: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL)
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THE FORUM
TESOL Quarterly invit
TESOL profession. It al
remarks published here

Revisiting Teac
Sociocultural Pe
ICY LEE
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong

While research on teacher feedback has largely been influenced by


second language writing and second language acquisition
perspectives, little attention has been paid to the contextual and
sociocultural dimension of teachers' work. Overall, there is a dearth
of discussion on teacher feedback that is influenced by sociocultural
perspectives. Drawing on mediated learning experience (MLE)
theory, this article discusses the limitations of conventional feedback
approaches in English as a foreign language school contexts and
underscores the need to replace these approaches with more effective
practices typical for the process-oriented writing classroom, so that
feedback can mediate student learning. Informed by activity theory
(AT), the article further suggests that providing MLE as a new object
of the feedback system and introducing other innovations can lead to
more effective feedback and help students improve learning. The
article concludes with suggestions for research informed by MLE and
AT perspectives.
doi: 10.1 002/tesq. 1 53

■ Research on teacher feedback has largely been influenced by second


language (L2) writing and second language acquisition (SLA)
perspectives, with the bulk of the studies focusing on the impact of
different feedback strategies on the overall effectiveness of student
texts on the one hand, and learners' acquisition of specific target
structures on the other. Although feedback is delivered by different
teachers to different learners in different contexts, very little research

TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 48, No. 1, March 2014 201


© 2014 TESOL International Association

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has captured the contextual and sociocultural dimension of teachers'
work (see Goldstein, 2001, 2006; Hyland & Hyland, 2006). Overall,
there is a dearth of discussion on teacher feedback that is influenced
by sociocultural perspectives. The purpose of this article is to discuss
how a sociocultural lens informed by mediated learning experience
(MLE) and activity theory (AT) is able to shed new light on teacher
feedback in English as a foreign language (EFL) writing classrooms.
Using MLE, the article uncovers the limitations of conventional
feedback approaches in EFL school contexts (which are dominated by
a focus on errors in single-draft classrooms; Lee, 2011) and argues for
the need to replace these approaches with more effective practices
typical for the process-oriented writing classroom so that feedback can
mediate student learning. Informed by AT, the article further suggests
that providing MLE as a new object of the feedback system and
introducing other innovations can lead to more effective feedback and
help students improve learning. In the article, I mainly draw on my
experience as a teacher educator in Hong Kong, where I work with
teachers from the school context (Grades 1-12), as well as empirical
findings from some of my previous research.

PREVALENT FEEDBACK PRACTICES IN HONG KONG


(AND SIMILAR EFL CONTEXTS)

In my work as a teacher educator in Hong Kong, I constantly hear


English language teachers complain about their marking, noting
insufficient time to provide timely feedback to students; lack of
satisfaction; and, more important, ineffectiveness of their feedback
practices. Feedback is traditionally given to single drafts in the
product-oriented writing classroom, where writing topics are assigned,
followed by brief input on grammar and vocabulary, and then in-class
writing that takes place in relatively test-like conditions (Lo & Hyland,
2007). The predominant focus of teacher feedback is on errors (Lee,
2008b) as well as scores. Although teachers usually write some
comments on students' texts, students are not required to revise their
drafts for content and organization. After receiving teacher written
feedback, students are instructed to do "corrections" by copying out
sentences that contain errors. Teachers mark students' corrections,
and if further errors are spotted students do "re-corrections" by
repeating the same procedure. For errors where correct answers have
already been provided by the teacher (i.e., direct error feedback),
students can simply copy without thinking, whereas for errors that
receive coded feedback, it is not uncommon to find students make

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mistakes again in their corrections (some may even simply copy the
codes as they do not know the correct answers). Students primarily
play a passive role throughout the feedback process. After finishing
one piece of writing, the teacher assigns another topic not necessarily
related to the previous one, and the cycle of teacher feedback and
student corrections continues.
Despite the huge amount of time invested in error feedback, many
teachers feel that their efforts do not pay off. Students, on the othe
hand, are generally discouraged by teacher feedback, which is
inundated with red ink, and they tend to focus mainly on scores
Lower proficiency students in particular are overwhelmed by teachers
detailed error feedback (Lee, 2008a). Overall, feedback is a
problematic area that leads to a no-win situation for teachers
students (Lee, 2009). My own research has provided evidence o
unproductive written teacher feedback practices in Hong Kong (
2004, 2008b), and the study by Furneaux, Paran, and Fairfax (20
points to similar feedback practices of EFL teachers in Cyprus, Fra
South Korea, Spain, and Thailand. What is amiss in teacher feedba
How can we come to a clearer understanding of the conundrum?
what can be done to enhance the effectiveness of teacher feedback
practices in EFL contexts? To answer these questions, I first tu
the teacher-student interaction in feedback from MLE perspec
and suggest viable alternatives with a view to improving cur
feedback practices.

FEEDBACK AND MEDIATED LEARNING EXPERIENCE

Mediation, as a central Vygotskian sociocul turai constru


that our relationship with the world is mediated by too
and symbolic. Vygotsky's mediation theory, however,
elaborate on the "activities of human mediators beyond th
as vehicles of symbolic tools" (Kozulin, 2002, p. 69). Such
filled by Feuerstein and his colleagues (Feuerstein, 1990;
Rand, & Hoffman, 1979; Feuerstein, Rand, Hoffman, & Miller, 1980;
Feuerstein, Rand, & Rynders, 1988), who developed the theory of
MLE to explain the differences in children's cognitive development.
The premise of MLE is that human cognitive abilities are not fixed
but can be modified based on appropriate forms of interaction and
instruction (Presseisen, 1992). In education, MLE is an intervention
approach intended to improve learning; in L2 studies, its application
has recently been found in dynamic assessment (e.g., Anton, 2003;
Kozulin & Garb, 2002; Lantolf & Poehner, 2011; Peña & Gillam, 2000;
Poehner & Lantolf, 2005), which is derived from Vygotsky's theory of

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zone of proximal development and predicated on the dialectical
relationship between assessment and instruction.
Not every interaction among the learner, teacher, and learning
material qualifies as a mediated learning interaction. Three criteria
must be met (Feuerstein et al., 1988): (1) intentionality/ reciprocity,
(2) transcendence, and (3) meaning. Applied to feedback in writing,
intentionality refers to the teacher's deliberate effort to mediate
feedback for students, directing their attention to the strategies
needed to solve their problems in writing (e.g., deliberately
magnifying particular stimuli, sharpening certain focuses), as opposed
to the conventional unfocused or haphazard manner in which
feedback is delivered. Reciprocity refers to the teacher-student
interaction during which students are actively involved in the feedback
process rather than playing the role of passive recipients.
Transcendence refers to students' ability to transfer learning from one
feedback situation to another; through feedback, teachers achieve the
purpose of "teaching through and beyond" (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006,
p. 226). Finally, meaning refers to the significance of the interaction,
achieved by the teacher helping learners interpret the significance of
the task and what they have accomplished in writing, mediating a
sense of achievement. Feedback that provides meaningful learning
experience is, therefore, able to help students understand their
strengths and weaknesses in writing and what they can do to close the
gaps (i.e., improve the weaknesses) in their writing.
Because MLE stresses the interactive and collaborative nature of
learning, conventional feedback typical for the teacher-domin
product-oriented writing classroom in EFL contexts will inevitab
short. In conventional feedback approaches practiced in many
contexts (Furneaux et al., 2007; Yang, Badger, & Yu, 2006;
2010), there is little intentional interaction between teacher and
students during and after feedback. During feedback, teachers
respond to errors in an unfocused manner (i.e., without targeting for
specific error patterns) and tend to provide correct answers or use
error codes randomly. After teachers have delivered feedback to single
drafts, it is like "mission accomplished." Reciprocity is lacking because
students remain passive throughout; teacher-student conferences and
follow-up student self-reflection are seldom practiced. Without
opportunities for redrafting, transcendence is unlikely; students are
unable to transfer the lessons learned from feedback in one piece to
another piece of writing. Finally, such conventional feedback
approaches lack meaning in MLE terms because students lose sight of
the significance of feedback as a result of teachers' overemphasis on
students' weaknesses in writing (through detailed error feedback).
When students receive their papers awash in red ink, they are at a loss

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and do not know what to focus on and how to make sense of the
feedback. Feedback tools, such as error codes, may not be usef
they are not infused with meaning and purpose.
In order that feedback can provide MLE for students, tea
should leverage their role as mediators of learning by turnin
feedback situation from perfunctory to intentional. Instead of mar
each piece of student writing in a similar manner, with the s
attention given to all errors, teachers should respond to st
writing with a clear purpose and specific focuses and share
feedback policy with students explicitly. When responding
recount, for instance, teachers can give feedback on areas highl
in prewriting instruction, such as whether students have inclu
orientation, provided a chronological sequence of events, an
the past tense to describe the past events. To enhance reciprocit
important that students are provided with opportunities to in
with the teacher, for example, through negotiating the focus
error feedback or conferencing. To facilitate transfer (transce
in MLE terms), it is useful to ask students to set goals and ref
their learning based on teacher feedback, and through mu
drafting they can transfer what is learned from one feedback situ
to another. To render feedback meaningful, it is importan
teachers provide diagnostic feedback to let students know wha
have accomplished and what gaps there are in their writing (ins
merely marking all errors for students and ignoring other imp
dimensions of writing). The use of a process appr
complemented by task-specific feedback forms can make feed
more meaningful, because such forms outline the success crit
concrete terms and help evaluate student writing by indicating
they did well and less well with reference to the success criter
giving them a better idea about how they can close the gaps in
writing.
Overall, MLE theory has indicated that conventional feedback
practices in EFL contexts are ineffective due to the inadequate
amount of mediation they provide. Teachers' focused, purposeful
feedback that aligns with instruction (intentionality) , active student
involvement through dialogic interaction with the teacher
(reciprocity), multiple drafting (transcendence), and diagnostic
feedback (meaning) will be able to provide MLE for students.

1 It is noteworthy that though a process approach is advocated, in this post-process era


(see Atkinson, 2003) process pedagogy is not the only approach to help students write.

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THE TEACHER FEEDBACK ACTIVITY FROM ACTIVITY
THEORY PERSPECTIVES

Whereas MLE focuses on the role of the human mediator (i.e., the
teacher, the teacher-student interaction, and the active role of the
learner), AT emphasizes the sociocul turai influences of human
actions and practices (e.g., the provision of MLE through feedback)
as well as people's role as agents in transforming themselves and
social structures. Originating from the work of Vygotsky (1987), who
viewed knowledge as sociohistorically mediated, AT is increasingly
understood as having direct relevance to teaching and learning
(Leonťev, 1981), because human thinking and learning do not occur
in a social vacuum but are instead shaped by the activities in which
people participate. To better understand human actions, it is crucial
to know the context in which actions are embedded. Such actions
form a system of activity, which is defined as "a conscious
directed at a goal, and this conscious action includes context
people, history, and so forth" (Sam, 2012, p. 84). The noti
activity was expanded by Engeström (1987) to include ru
norms and conventions), community (i.e., participants), and
of labor (i.e., how roles are distributed horizontally withi
community as well as the vertical division of power and statu
education, although there has been a flourishing of research
informed by principles of sociocultural theory in the last two decades,
much less has been written about AT. Recent L2 studies that draw on
AT have focused on L2 teachers' writing practices (Nelson & Kim
2001), peer revision (Thorne, 2004), modes of engagement in foreign
language writing (Haneda, 2007), students' writing strategies (Lei
2008), and peer response stances (Zhu & Mitchell, 2012). The
potential of AT as a heuristic that supports innovation in educational
contexts has also been examined in recent educational research
(Bourke & McGee, 2012; Helstad 8c Lund, 2012; Smagorinsk
Jackson, Moore, 8c Fry, 2004).
As a mediated activity in sociocultural terms, the teache
providing feedback does not take place in a social and cultural
vacuum. Informed by Engeström's (1987, 2001, 2008a, 2008b) recent
work on AT (referred to as third-generation AT, different from
Vygotsky's first-generation and Leont'ev's second-generation AT), in
giving feedback, teachers are the "subjects" motivated toward the
"object" (the target or orientation of the activity), that is, giving
feedback to student writing, mediated by various instruments (also
known as mediating artifacts), such as coded feedback and written
commentary. These mediating artifacts tend to be influenced by

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teachers' beliefs, knowledge, and prior learning experience. In the
conventional feedback activity system, for example, EFL teachers
attach great importance to detailed error feedback and view feedback
within a summative assessment paradigm (and hence their emphasis
on scores). Such belief is reinforced within the institutional context,
which dictates impromptu timed writing to maximize practice for
examinations, a product approach that encourages single drafting,
and the need to observe the school policy, which comprises "rules"
within the activity system. Added to these are the expectations of key
stakeholders within the community, including parents and school
administrators, who tend to value quantity (over quality; hence the
more error feedback the better), scores, and examination
preparation. Teachers' practices are constrained by the power
relationship (division of labor) in schools, where teachers are redu
to marking machines in the accountability system (part of teach
appraisal is based on teacher feedback to student writing), havin
cater to school leaders, administrators, and parents (members of
community) and to meet their expectations (Lee, 2008b). Within
conventional feedback activity system in EFL contexts, more feed
means better (more hardworking and more responsible) teach
and this prevents teachers from adopting a more selective an
focused approach to error feedback in a process-oriented classro
Also, the long-existing policy (rule) that requires meticulous atten
to errors in writing makes it difficult for teachers to abandon
traditional error-focused practice, especially because all other teac
(community) are practicing this as a tried-and-trusted method.
need to provide timely feedback, as another rule, results in the g
the-job-done mentality among some teachers who have to burn
midnight oil to finish their marking, during which time quality
have to be compromised. For some teachers, although they m
endorse the value of alternative feedback approaches such as foc
error feedback in a process-oriented classroom, their beliefs com
into direct conflict with the policy stipulated by the school (rule),
they remain powerless to initiate change because of the hierarch
relationships in schools and their lack of autonomy (community
division of labor) to implement change (Lee, 2008b). AT, therefo
sheds light on the tensions and paradoxes that exist within th
conventional feedback activity system in EFL contexts.
In order for more effective feedback practices to take place, t
conventional feedback activity system needs to be transformed a
new teacher feedback activity system needs to be put in place. T
goal of AT, according to Thorne (2004), is "to define and analyze
given activity system, to diagnose possible problems, and to provi
framework for implementing innovations" (p. 65). Capitalizing on

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essence of AT, that is, "to take a situation or condition and transform
it in an effort to create something qualitatively new" (Lantolf &
Thorne, 2006, p. 210), teachers could transform conventional
feedback practices so as to improve student learning. To achieve this
goal, a number of innovations are in order.
First, it is necessary to transform the object of feedback. For
teachers, the object is not simply to correct errors for students but to
provide formative feedback to help students improve learning, to
motivate them, and to make them autonomous writers in the long run
(i.e., by providing mediated learning experience through feedback).
For students, the object is not simply to get high scores from teacher
feedback but to engage with, act on, and reflect on the feedback so as
to improve learning (i.e., intentionality/ reciprocity in MLE terms).
Fullan (2002) underlines the importance of clarity of purpose amid
the complexity of change.
Second, to achieve the new object, new mediating artifacts have to be
introduced to the conventional feedback activity system. Detailed error
feedback will have to be replaced by feedback that is more informative
and diagnostic, and error feedback that is more focused, to be delivered
within a process-oriented classroom where students are involved in the
feedback process through multiple drafting (which will enhance
intentionality/ reciprocity, transcendence and meaning in MLE terms).
Third, to ensure that the new mediating artifacts will work in the
new activity system, existing rules and division of labor need to be
changed, marshaling opportunities for learning for both teachers and
students: "Learning occurs whenever a novel practice, artifact, tool or
division of labor ... constitutes a new possibility for others" (Roth &
Lee, 2007, p. 205). For example, existing rules that mandate a product
approach to EFL writing have to be changed, so that new rules - like a
process approach that entails multiple drafting and a greater emphasis
on prewriting instruction and postwriting feedback reinforcement -
can be established. In the new feedback activity system, the teacher
and student roles have to be recast, so that students become active
agents in charge of their own learning, whereby they set goals, engage
in self and peer evaluation, act on teacher and/or peer feedback,
reflect on their learning, and set further goals for their own
development (i.e., more meaningful in MLE terms). Changing the
teacher and student roles in feedback essentially shifts the division of
labor and affords new opportunities for developing new perspectives
on writing and student learning. Specifically, division of labor also
needs to be widened to afford a greater distribution of leadership and
expertise. Teachers have to be allowed autonomy to create new rules
and develop ownership of their rules.

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Unfocused error feedback; direct /coded error feedback; scores
Focused error feedback; peer evaluation; self-reflection; conferencing; task-specific feedback form

Mediating artifacts
Providing feedback to student writing
Providing mediated learning experience through
feedback

Subject: / Object Outcome


EFL writing / ' Little student engagement with teacher
school teachers „ ,
^ feedback „ ,

/ ' Students understand own strengths


/ /'S. ' and weaknesses in writing
^ ^ Students know how to close their gaps
• • • * m writing
Rules Community Division of labor
Impromptu, timed writing Students, teacher, principal, Teachers dominate feedback process;
One-shot writing an(j parents students remain passive
Writing as a test Develop common vision Teachers lack autonomy and are
Primacy of written accuracy Teachers involving constrained by hierarchical relationships
Pre-writing instruction community members in Teacher sharing responsibility with
Multiple drafting process of change students
Post-writing feedback Students as active agents
reinforcement Teachers given autonomy to develop new
rules

FIGURE 1. The conventional feedback system in EEL writing classrooms and p


innovations.

Finally, to establish a new feedback activity system in the EFL


writing classroom, there is a need to widen the community, for
example, by teachers sharing feedback philosophy with parents and
involving school administrators in the process of change. Teachers
also need to form a community of practice with their colleagues, share
their goals and vision with regard to good feedback practices, and
distribute their expertise (division of labor) by engaging in
professional dialogue and teacher learning so that they can develop a
common vision about how feedback can best be used to improve
student learning.
To conclude, desired outcomes, as Thorne (2004) states, would
entail "certain changes in the rules, division of labor, and mediating
artifacts of the activity system to see their complete fruition" (p. 64).
Figure 1 gives a summary of the conventional feedback system in EFL
writing classrooms (in normal font style) and possible innovations (in
italics, indicating areas that are likely to improve with innovations
introduced to the conventional feedback system; see Thorne, 2004).

CONCLUSION

While current feedback research is vibrant and multifacet


insufficient attention to the sociocultural forces that influence

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teaching and learning. This article has argued that the theory of MLE
is able to yield new insights for EFL writing teachers regarding the
teachers' mediational role through giving purposeful, meaningful, and
effective feedback in the process-oriented writing classroom, as well as
the important role of the learners in teacher-student dialogic
mediation. As the components of the conventional feedback activity
system (e.g., rules, division of labor) in EFL contexts are not
compatible with the new object of providing MLE, the transformation
of the conventional feedback activity system is necessary. Using AT
perspectives, teachers can design innovations (including the provision
of MLE through feedback) to resolve contradictions within the
conventional feedback activity system and bring improvement to the
teaching and learning of writing in EFL contexts.
Future research could benefit from socioculturally based studies
that investigate teachers' feedback practices in their work contexts.
Research could be conducted to explore how teacher education
programs can prepare teachers for their mediational role - that is,
how they can enhance the effectiveness of their feedback practices by
putting MLE theory into practice. Further research can also investigate
feedback as an activity system and how teachers can bring innovation
to conventional feedback practices by using contradictions as an
impetus for change. Specifically, based on the problems identified in
the conventional feedback system in the preceding section, research
can draw on AT and investigate how EFL teachers (and students)
participate in transformational actions, what they actually do to bring
about change in conventional feedback practices, and how what they
do changes them in the process. The possible innovations proposed in
the article, informed by AT, can provide a conceptual framework to
guide future studies.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This article is based on a research project supported by a grant from th


Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Chin
448610).

THE AUTHOR

Icy Lee is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the Chinese Uni


Hong Kong. She has published in international journals including ELT
Journal of Second Language Writing , System , and Canadian Modern Lan
Her main research interests are second language writing and sec
teacher education.

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