EEF Blog: Maximising the impact of feedback in literacy

Assistant headteacher and EEF literacy specialist, Caroline Bilton, explains how the principles of effective feedback from our latest guidance report can be integrated into literacy teaching. 

Feedback plays a fascinating role in supporting every child to succeed. Despite decades of research, it remains very challenging to assert exactly which kinds of feedback should be delivered in different contexts. As a school leader and primary class teacher, it was a real privilege to be asked to be part of the panel that discussed this contested evidence and analysed it to provide actionable recommendations based on what we can say.

The recommendations in Teacher feedback to improve pupil learning aim to support the in-the-moment decisions a teacher makes when giving feedback, focusing on the principles of effective feedback rather than the method of delivery. The ultimate goal, of course, is maximising the impact of feedback, and ensuring that it moves children’s learning forward.

Sharing learning intentions

Recommendation 1,‘Lay the foundations for effective feedback’, highlights the importance of high-quality instruction, which involves clearly establishing learning intentions, and assessing pupil’s learning gaps.

Saïd, a year 6 teacher, reflects on why, after much thought and careful preparation, his feedback just doesn’t seem to be paying off. He asks himself crucial questions, particularly: did the pupils have a strong enough understanding of the knowledge, skills and concepts to begin with? He reflects that the children may not have been clear about how to structure the short story he asked them to write. They may also have lacked the knowledge and confidence to include the punctuation he had hoped to see in their work. Before focusing on feedback, he realises that he first needs to get his initial instruction right.

One element of this is establishing clear learning intentions to provide the teacher and pupil with a shared understanding of what they are aiming for. Feedback can then be used to move pupils towards this concept.  

Whilst teaching my own Year 6 class in English lessons, I’ve used a variety of techniques to set and share learning intentions. For instance, we use a specific technique outlined in the report: model work. I share, and we read, examples of high-quality short stories, and use these to collectively discuss what makes a good structure. Working together, we co-construct a rubric for successful work. This rubric becomes part of the toolkit the children use when writing their own short story. Then, as I monitor and feedback during the writing process, we have a shared language from which to build success, and the feedback directs pupils back to this rubric, towards this shared understanding of the learning intention.

For me, these moments of electrifying shared purpose, and drive to reach this shared intention, are some of the most rewarding in teaching.

The role of ‘trust’ in feedback

Teachers know that trusting relationships with their pupils are crucial to their practice. Recommendation 3 of the guidance report, ‘Plan for how pupils will receive and use feedback’, emphasises the importance of these relationships in the specific context of delivering effective feedback: ‘If pupils do not trust their teacher, they may be unlikely to use the feedback provided. If they do not think their teacher is acting in good faith, they may believe that suggestions for improvement are unfair criticisms and reject them’.

Developing this trust is a crucial and often unique process for every child. The guidance report offers some suggested strategies, such as discussing the purpose of feedback with a class, clarifying that it isn’t given to criticise their work- rather, it is given because the teacher believes in them, and knows they can succeed.

However, in my experience, it isn’t only about the child, but about investing in the whole family too. I have learned, while working in schools across the Northeast, that investment in those relationships help to build collective trust, and ensure that a child will welcome and believe in my feedback.

The report gives a more general message to teachers and school leaders about trust too. A message about trusting teachers to make the crucial decisions which will maximise the opportunities that feedback can provide. While a school feedback policy may specify the principles of effective feedback (provided in Recommendations 1-3), some of the key decisions on how to deliver feedback, such as when it is timed and what method is used, should be left to the expertise of the classroom teacher.

Trust plays a central role in effective feedback- both in ensuring children will use it, and in providing teachers with the space and autonomy to effectively deliver it. What timelier and more important message could there be than this?