“Stella doesn’t seem to be learning from her mistakes. She keeps making the same errors over and over again, no matter how many times I tell her.”
This all too familiar remark reverberates constantly amongst parents and educators, particularly those supporting learners with dyslexia. We generally expect them to be able to self-correct after having been told or reminded as and when their errors are spotted. However, learners with dyslexia often do not retain these occasional reminders and if they do, not for a long period of time. Challenges in phonological processing that are further compounded by weaknesses in executive function impact automaticity in information processing, ability to sustain focus and working memory. These are commonly demonstrated in poor reading, spelling and writing performance, difficulties applying grammatical rules consistently, remembering sequence of events, as well as acquiring study and organisation skills (Nicolson & Fawcett, 2001).
In our preoccupation with teaching concepts and strategies essential for reading and writing, the ability to demonstrate accuracy and consistency in application of phonogram concepts in literacy tasks would be a demonstration of learning we would want to observe. Sadler (2007) highlighted three conditions that should be satisfied before learning is said to have taken place:
- students ‘.. must be able to do, on demand, something they could not do before,
- students must be able to do it independently of particular others, those others being primarily the teacher and members of a learning group (if any) and,
- students ‘must be able to do it well’ where they would be able to apply ‘..routinised knowledge,….with a modicum of tentative or experimental knowledge, so as to ‘do’ previously unseen tasks’.
In other words, they need to be able to apply the same skills and integrate them in aspects of learning in various other disciplines and contexts. (pp. 390-391)
Should the above behaviours not be observed, verbal feedback in the form of prompts, reminders, questions, suggestions or the explicit teaching of additional strategies would be given in the hope that these could lead to better performance in subsequent tasks. However, experience tells us that this is far from evincible. Many teachers and therapists resort to re-teaching concepts and engaging students in countless practice as studies deem this necessary to develop greater automaticity. Yet, once they are out of remediation classes, away from the watchful eyes and guidance of their therapists and several new concepts later, teachers find themselves reiterating the same mantra all over again. What seems to be the problem here? Is there something we are not paying particular attention to?
Theories in educational assessment have identified feedback as a key factor that drives learning and instruction. Feedback that we receive from learners as a result of our teaching comes in the form of their verbal and written response in the activities we design in every lesson. It provides us with information about ‘..how and why the child understands and misunderstands, and what directions the student must take to improve’ (Hattie, 1999, p.9) It also helps us understand if there are areas we can improve on and how we can make the learning experience a better one for them in future. Feedback we provide to learners in response to their work or questions enable them to reflect on what they have learnt and identify areas where they have not fully understood or need more time to process. Depending on how it is articulated, feedback certainly provides more specific and meaningful information on what and where exactly their learning gaps are and how they can improve, much more than what grades and performance bands can deliver.
In our pursuit to equip dyslexic learners with the necessary literacy skills such as decoding, fluency, reading comprehension and writing, have we also thought about the ways in which our learners perceive and process feedback? Have we ever questioned ourselves what the expectations are, of our role as teachers and their role as learners with the feedback that we provide? Are we fully capitalising on the feedback we receive from our students in ways that would help them improve? Are our learners processing feedback we have been providing them the way we want them to? These are certainly pertinent questions worth pondering over.
Conceptualised as ‘information provided by an agent (eg. teacher, peer, book, parent, self, experience) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding’ (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 81), the main purpose of feedback is to close the gaps between current understandings and performance and goals (p. 86). Feedback which can come in the form of a verbal, written or gestural response, has a significant effect on student learning and has been described as ‘..the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement’ (Hattie, 1999, p.9) by helping learners develop capabilities to monitor, evaluate and regulate their own learning (Nicol, 2010; Ferguson, 2011; Ahea, 2016). These, no doubt are executive function skills, which we acknowledge to be additional learning challenges faced by learners with dyslexia. What this suggests is that it is not sufficient to equip them with a whole array of literacy skills, it is just as important that they acquire a range of other skills ‘…needed for successful learning’ such as ‘…executive skills that underpin learning’ (Nicolson & Fawcett, 2018, pp. 260-261). Feedback content may actually comprise discussions on specific concepts, techniques, strategies, procedures or other aspects of the quality of student’s work that may not be restricted to academic knowledge. It could focus on skills, values, attitudes or task completion strategy. Feedback literacy has been recognised to ‘..play an important part in shaping learning futures’ (Eraut, 2006), the goals and objectives of which are seen to assist in developing the ‘whole-child’, supporting ‘..both academic and non-academic aspects’ of the child’s growth, encompassing learning attitudes and dispositions (Tan & Wong, 2018, p. 126).
Feedback literacy therefore, entails learners attempting to listen to, understand and internalise information they receive from various sources and using it to enhance their work or learning strategies’ (Carless & Boud, 2018). As with the process of acquiring basic literacy skills, the cognitive resources and processes harnessed in the learning of new concepts would also have to be utilised in the processing of feedback. Research suggests that learners with dyslexia benefit from instruction and the teaching of skills that align with the Orton Gillingham (OG) principles of being diagnostic and prescriptive, highly structured, sequential and cumulative, other than adopting a multi-sensory and emotionally-sound approach. We can therefore hypothesise that feedback practices that align with these principles may likely facilitate enhanced learning for students with dyslexia.
This sounds like what teachers have been doing all along, doesn’t it? If so, what is it about our current feedback practice that needs to be improved?
While the well-researched OG principles have been effective in equipping dyslexic learners with the skills and strategies to cope with school demands, words such as ‘diagnostic’ and ‘prescriptive’ tend to encapsulate learners as passive recipients of knowledge and information. It has been argued that for feedback processes to be effective, students need to play a more agentic role beyond just receiving feedback. As therapists, we need to facilitate their journey from first attempting to make sense out of feedback received, to understanding its purpose, responding to it in productive ways and then ultimately empowering them with the skills to actively make evaluative judgments and generate their own feedback about their own performance and that of others (Carless and Boud, 2018). This then entails a mindset shift in the appreciation of the roles of teachers and learners involved in the feedback process. Much like their typically developing peers, dyslexic learners need to see themselves as capable of taking charge of and navigating their own learning.
Feedback that is effective in supporting and enhancing students’ learning takes place in the form of a dialogic engagement between teachers and students, in the form of a two-way feedback loop – teacher giving feedback to and getting feedback from learners (Tan & Wong, 2018). Dialogic feedback provides a useful platform for learners and teachers to reconcile or clarify differences. Productive interactions taking place during dialogic feedback processes are said to have the potential to nurture capabilities in students to reflect, self-regulate and make independent judgments about their own areas of strength and those they would need further guidance in (Yang & Carless, 2013).
Studies have identified three kinds of feedback questions : “feed-up,” “feed back,” and “feed-forward.” Feed-up (“where am I going?”) aims at providing information about “the attainment of learning goals related to the task or performance” (Hattie and Timperley, 2007, p. 88). Feed-back (“how am I going?”) aims at providing information “relative to a task/performance goal, often in relation to some expected standards, to prior performance, and/or to success or failure on a specific part of the task” (p. 88). The third notion, feed-forward (“where to next?”), aims to provide information on the strategies a student can adopt or processes he or she could go through that can facilitate in achievement of the learning goals. Feeding forward is effective when the information provided “leads to greater possibilities in learning” (p. 90).
As therapists, we could generally agree that we have been doing the ‘feed-up’ and ‘feed-back’ processes. Some of us would also have done the ‘feed-forward’ to some extent, but this could be where the process reaches a standstill. Some of us tend to make the assumption that learners would use the feedback given to improve their learning without checking if they have actually used it or continue to use it to help them improve (Crisp, 2007; Sadler, 2010a). There seems to be a general lack of follow-up action on the part of teachers and therapists alike on learners’ productive, continued and consistent use of feedback. With no consequence or incentive (if some students need it), learners are not placed in a position where they are obliged to use feedback unless they really WANT to. Most of us tend to focus our efforts on giving feedback at task level, with no further efforts made to see them through to the self regulation level that facilitates deep processing and mastery (Tan & Wong, 2018).
Sadler (1989) further argues that opportunities for learners to utilise feedback meaningfully cannot simply be left to chance or random occurrence. Feedback is only deemed to have achieved its objective with intentional, meaningful and consistent follow-up action taken by students (Yang & Carless, 2013; Boud, 2000).
So how can we make feedback more efficacious for students with dyslexia? The following are some suggestions on how feedback practices can be better implemented to encourage a more meaningful uptake.
- EACH student and make it PERSONAL & TIMELY
It should begin with teachers having good knowledge of the learners’ individual skills, competencies and struggles and one way for them to obtain this insight is to proactively interact with them and take the time to review their work (Ratnam-Lim & Tan, 2015). Feedback should be given immediately after showing proof of learning so that learners will have opportunities to connect it with the relevant learning experience and respond appropriately. At this point, emphasis should also be placed on developing learners’ awareness of the purpose of feedback given and self-awareness of their strengths and areas requiring development. Learners with dyslexia may not be aware of what they do or do not understand, what they have done wrong or where they have done right, except when their teacher tells them so. Often, learning does not go beyond this point and they will more than likely be making the same errors all over again in the next task. Learners may also be externally motivated to correct their errors or modify their behaviours purely to meet teachers’ expectations. In such situations, it will be helpful for learners if they are shown clear examples of work satisfying desired criteria or that which adheres to specific spelling rules taught. This can form the basis for the identification and evaluation of areas of challenge they need to work on, which can then be followed by the teaching of specific strategies and formulation of learning goals, customised according to their learning needs and preferences, eventually leading to a resolution of those errors or learning gaps (Shute, 2008). It is equally important that these processes are carried out in the form of a two way dialogue, rather than the teacher or therapist ‘..providing feedback as information’ (Tan & Wong, 2018, p.134). Lipnevich, Berg and Smith (2017) also stress the importance of considering the current ability of individual learners when planning and designing materials for use in the feedback dialogue. Feedback will likely continue to remain as just information to learners unless it is directed towards a specific need and intentional and sustained efforts are made to address it. By collaborating on a system to monitor the achievement of these goals, these could possibly lead to further milestones.
- What learners have done right and what MUST be done to make other things right
Hattie and Timperley (2007) cautioned that types and delivery of feedback can be ‘differentially effective’ (p. 81) across circumstances, situations and context. This suggests that feedback may not necessarily contribute to positive learning experiences and outcomes. The manner in which feedback is given affects the way it is received. The impact of teachers’ feedback can go both ways, that is, positive or negative. Considering that dyslexic learners might have had less than desirable experiences with feedback, it will be more emotionally sound to first highlight areas where students have done well, ‘…rather than incorrect response… (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 85).
To reduce cognitive overload, teachers and therapist need to be selective about the areas they want to highlight to learners, maybe one or two important areas, out of many others that learners can do something about. For example, out of the many grammatical errors made in the learner’s writing (e.g. punctuation, tenses, vocabulary, transition words), they may choose to focus on resolving basic conventions first such as punctuation marks. Thereafter, work on a plan together with learners on what they ‘MUST’ do rather than “can” or “should” do. What learners MUST do with feedback should be planned and designed in measurable terms, what they are capable of achieving. For example, having taught the learner when and where to put full stops and commas in sentences, teacher and learner can work on designing strategies and formulating goals within an agreed timeframe, to monitor his or her application of these punctuation marks each time he or she is given a writing task. This allows for the transfer of feedback and learning accountability from the teacher to the learner. Highlighting a few areas at a time make it more manageable for learners, sufficient to motivate and sustain effort towards achieving identified goals.
Explicit and clear articulation and demonstration of performance expectations leading to the formulation of goals
Feedback will have little effect on performance if students lack understanding on the material studied (Kulhavy, 1997). Assessment and evaluation of learners’ work or performance in any given task would provide critical information about their level of understanding and ability to apply learnt concepts. For dyslexic learners, teachers and therapists need to establish if errors made are due to a lack of conceptual understanding, a lack of guiding strategies to apply learnt concepts or a lack of monitoring skills. Teachers will need to have a good understanding of this before they can plan for an agreed and appropriate plan of action with the learners to address the gaps.
For feedback to be effective, Sadler (1989) emphasised that:
- students must understand what the expectations of a desired performance are and looks like (i.e., the student must have an awareness of a desired quality or criteria being aimed for).
- students must understand how current performance relates to desired performance (for this, the students are able to observe and compare current and desired performance).
- students understand how to act to close the gap between current and desired performance. Teachers and therapists could perhaps work on formulating workable strategies to help students achieve the agreed desired levels of performance.
In addition, since feedback information may come in different forms and from different sources, Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick (2006) stress the importance of making feedback language consistent and ‘…simple enough for students to understand’ (p. 206). If feedback given is ‘…too lengthy or too complicated, many learners will not pay attention to it, rendering it useless” (Shute, 2008, p. 159).
Empower learners with good self-monitoring & self-checking skills, tools and strategies
For students with dyslexia, feedback practices should be encouraged to go beyond just fulfilling corrective and reinforcement functions. Owing to dyslexia being a lifelong condition, it is recommended that feedback practices should be structured to explicitly develop students’ capacity to self-regulate learning (Beaumont, O’Doherty, & Shannon, L. (2011). Students should be taught strategies that they can utilise to help them proceed to subsequent steps, across learning domains and various situations, an example of which is information chunking. Such practical skills will enable dyslexic learners to better appreciate the value of feedback and its processes and motivate them to continue using the strategies shared during the dialogic feedback process.
Develop self-confidence and motivation through emotionally-sound and sustainable practices
- Reframe mindsets
Sustainable dialogic feedback practices for students with dyslexia should focus on strengthening emotional well-being in order to develop positive views of their learning differences and stimulate a more active and pro-active involvement, where valued feedback is constantly sought for the purpose of continued self-improvement. They should be encouraged to capitalise on their learning differences towards building capacities for themselves that would make future learning more productive and effective. This requires a reframing of the mindsets of both teachers and students away from the view of dyslexia to be a type of ‘disability’ or a ‘deficit’ to a strength or learning difference.
Narrowly defining dyslexia as a deficit limits the support and educational experiences teachers would want to provide. A deficit view of dyslexia tends to define learners in terms of ‘perceived deficiencies’ and ‘requiring specialised forms of support’, which then emphasise weaknesses rather than strengths. Such views also tend to conjure up assumptions of incompetence, thus limiting remedial action to focus on narrowly constructed goals. These views need to be constantly challenged because if we continue to define our learners by their deficits, we would undermine their capacity to be successful (Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Boucher & Evans, 2018).
In the long run, teachers and students with such deficit thinking beliefs will continue to see the latter as passive recipients of feedback and remain in that comfortable zone of being overly-reliant on teachers to ‘correct’ them. Tan and Wong (2018) believe that all learners are ‘…capable of using feedback for their learning if they are properly trained and are given the opportunities to use it’ (Tan & Wong, 2018, p. 130)
- Sustainable feedback practices
Building on what was mentioned earlier, feedback practices that could possibly encourage greater uptake from learners with dyslexia are those that align with the OG principles of being emotionally-sound. Other than emphasising on the recognition of ‘…correct, rather than incorrect response’, feedback that ‘…builds on changes from previous trails’ (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 85) will more than likely facilitate better retention, owing to its incremental and cumulative feature. In the classroom, learners could develop self-monitoring skills if teachers and therapists cultivate a culture of self and peer assessment, where learners would have opportunities to be drivers of their own learning, be their own teachers and for others through deciding what learning strategies to use for themselves and sharing them with their peers. Learners who have developed a good awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses can be activated as a source of knowledge for their peers. Self- and peer assessment practices allow learners to take better ownership of their own learning and be able to tell themselves what strategies are not working and actively explore alternatives to help themselves.
Focus on the attainment of goals would also more likely be sustained when students and teachers share a commitment to attain them. Teachers and parents often assume that students share a commitment to academic goals but in reality, developing this shared commitment needs to be nurtured and built over time and through trusting relationships.
Effective feedback consists of information about progress and when appropriately structured, has the potential to help students maximize their learning by raising awareness of their individual strengths and/or areas of improvement, identify the actions necessary to address areas they can improve on and how to proceed to the next level or stage of learning.
For feedback processes to be effective, learners need to be actively involved in the processing, responding to and generating feedback information. One-way teacher-transmitted approach to feedback approaches are unlikely to result in improved student learning and performance. Teachers and therapists need to go beyond correcting or highlighting mistakes and students’ weaknesses, prompting, providing scaffolding techniques, re-teaching concepts, giving students suggestions on improvements and giving students praise where deserved. They need to consciously monitor whether students had understood or had benefited from the feedback given and in so doing, develop their skills to monitor their own learning and progress to go beyond current levels. In order to do so, teachers and therapists need to be mindful of their perceptions of students’ abilities and its proclivity to shape their own perceptions of feedback, how they deliver feedback and expectations of how their students use it.
The benefits of feedback literacy go far beyond instilling self-awareness and recognition of individual strengths and weaknesses. Its utility is best observed when learners who used to require close guidance in attempting tasks are seen to be able to pro-actively and independently make decisions about their own learning, in collaboration with their teachers and be able to be the learning resources for their peers. It offers valuable learning opportunities we should no longer ignore and deprive our learners of.
Siti Asjamiah Binte Asmuri
Lead Educational Therapist / Associate Lecturer
Associate Fellow (RETA), Tampines Learning Centre / DAS Academy