Error feedback, scaffolding and second language learning

How can teacher feedback be utilized to promote foreign language learning?

Here are some points to consider on the role of conversational repair and the negotiation of meaning in the foreign language classroom.

    Aljaafreh and Lantolf (1994:469) refer to the notion of scaffolding as “the idea of offering just enough assistance to encourage and guide the learner to participate in the activities” and to “ assume increased responsibility for arriving at the appropriate performance”. As long as it is done by keeping in mind our lessons’ primary aims and does not contradict with our classroom’s communicative goals, commenting on our learners’ written or oral production can prove to be very beneficial for their interlanguage development. The teacher’s comments and scaffolding, i.e. the extra help given to the students to direct their attention towards specific language structures and patterns in the TL, can be either explicit or implicit depending on what the teacher wants to achieve and on the learners’ level and linguistic development.

  • From ‘implicit’ to ‘explicit’ scaffolding

Aljaafreh and Lantolf (1994) developed a “Regulatory scale” illustrating how the teachers’ interventions could be ranged on a continuum from implicit to explicit correction.

Aljaafreh and Lantolf’s Regulatory Scale: Implicit (strategic) to explicit (1994)

Aljaafreh, A., & Lantolf, J. P. (1994). Negative feedback as regulation and second language learning in the zone of proximal development. Modern Language Journal, 78(4), 465–483.

This scale can be very useful especially to teachers who are new to the profession as it can be used as a guideline in terms of the level of intervention from their part and their comments on their learners’ output.

    Below is another useful table found in Penny Ur’s book A course in English language teaching on the most common types of feedback given by the teachers in a language classroom ranging from ‘metalinguistic feedback’ (i.e. commenting on the linguistic structure, talking about the language) to ‘elicitation techniques’ where teachers try to make learners discover the usage of the TL structure or the correct form by themselves, using their previous knowledge or contextual clues.

  •  The importance of noticing

     The concept of noticing as key to successful language learning has been highlighted by many linguists and SLA researchers (Skehan, Long, Harmer, Thornbury). There seems to be a general consensus among them that some form of attention to input is necessary for effective learning to take place. Noticing is considered to be successful when it leads to language acquisition, when our learners’ attention is shifted towards a TL structure, which is then acquired, internalized and eventually becomes part of their TL output.

    The key is not just to make our students notice linguistic patterns in the TL. Something that has ‘grasped’ our attention could easily be forgotten after a while. Our goal as teachers is to create the appropriate circumstances in order to raise our learners’ consciousness, to help them successfully acquire this new knowledge and to begin to actively use it by turning input into intake and then into successful TL output.

    Noticing mainly has to do with our learners being able to understand and grasp the meaning from the input they receive in terms of a newly introduced structure or grammar point. Successful learning will take place when they notice this ‘gap’ between the target language and their interlanguage and will actively try to incorporate the new structures in their TL output.


  • Different strategies to serve different purposes

    Moving from explicit teaching to implicit learning can prove to be very beneficial for our learners. Teachers do not give out the rules, they make no attempt to highlight the TL forms, but simply guide their learners towards the discovery of certain patterns. This makes our students more actively involved in the learning process and fosters language acquisition.

Listening/reading tasks

    ‘Noticing’ can be achieved through the use of a listening/reading task in which learners have to first answer some comprehension questions and then listen/read again in order to focus on a grammar point (verb forms for example). They can first learn to discover certain patterns for themselves and then we can guide them towards effective practice and production.

Using concept questions

    Concept questions can play a vital role in helping learners grasp the meaning that underlies a grammatical structure in the TL or even a tricky vocabulary item. They raise our learners’ consciousness as they help to clarify certain key points for them. Our learners become more aware of the grammar structures and the rules that underlie them.

Error correction

     Directing our learners’ attention towards the errors they frequently make can also promote ‘noticing’ as long as we make sure that they have understood where the problem lies and they have successfully tried to find ways in order to fix this. Revisiting errors can be of great help here as it acts as a reminder that something needs to be fixed.

  • The role of peer scaffolding

    Encouraging peer to peer feedback can prove to be very beneficial for our EFL learners. It is an extremely useful consciousness raising task that will boost active involvement and help them learn from each other.

    In many cases our EFL learners have limited exposure to the TL outside the classroom and therefore they do not have many opportunities to practise the language. In order to foster their language development we must create the appropriate environment to help them do this during the lesson. We must help them develop communicative skills that will eventually promote language acquisition. By encouraging interaction among the students through collaborative writing or speaking tasks, STT (student talking time) is increased and our learners gradually begin to develop language fluency and learn from one another.

  • Making feedback personalized and consistent

    Oral or written feedback should not necessarily mean correcting our learners’ errors. It is important to view it as a commentary on our student’s work. These comments play an important role on the learning process. It is important to remember to focus on all aspects of our learners’ output. Sometimes we pay too much attention on fluency/accuracy and the proper use of lexis and grammar that we forget to comment on how our students approached a specific topic, on their viewpoints and on the overall content of their work. Monitoring our learners individually and providing a consistent and personalized feedback to each and every one of them is extremely valuable and crucial for their language development.

  • Giving hints – promoting active involvement

    In order for our feedback to be constructive and to boost the learning process, we must first of all make sure that our learners notice our comments, understand them and work in order to fix their errors or adjust their spoken and written output in the TL. To do this, we could first of all give them hints instead of directly providing them with corrections. For example, when evaluating a writing task, we could just write down ‘check the verb tense’ instead of correcting the verb form for them. Our learners need to be actively involved in this process and to learn to notice and discover for themselves what they need to change and adapt in their TL output.

  • Offering tips and alternatives

    Our comments on our learners’ work should be constructive in a way that will foster language learning. We must always try to turn all the negative commentary into positive suggestions. It will be extremely beneficial to our learners if we suggest to them what they could have done differently by offering helpful tips and advice that will make them notice their strengths and weaknesses and will encourage them to improve themselves.

  • Respecting our students’ personalities and learning styles

    When commenting on our students’ work, it is important to consider the feedback preferences of our EFL learners with respect to their personalities and learning styles. Some students may feel embarrassed if we correct them in front of the whole class. Criticism can harm the learning process and demotivate our learners. We therefore need to be careful as to how we approach the students and how we comment on their performance.


Aljaafreh, A., & Lantolf, J. P. (1994). Negative feedback as regulation and second language learning in the zone of proximal development. Modern Language Journal, 78(4), 465–483.

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Mitchell, R. & F. Myles (1998). Second Language Learning Theories. London: Arnold

Richards, C.J. & Schmidt, R. (2002). “Dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics: New York: Pearson Education”.

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Best Ed Lessons

The Best Free Educational Lessons for Homeschool, Primary, Middle and High School Students and Teachers - we are non-profit, no fees, no ads

Caroline Hynds, Freelance Editor

Content editor and copy editor based in Brighton & Hove. Professional Member CIEP, Avallain Author accredited.

Dewisant's Blog

Smile! You’re at the best site ever

Secret ESL Teacher

Diary of an ESL Teacher

Matthew Kutter

Instructional Design - ESL & TESOL Education


Archive of seminars for educators scheduled weekly at


Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Henry Ford

All about ELT

Expect the unexpected


TESOL International Association advances the quality of English language teaching worldwide

ELT Connect

FREE resources and networking platform

Teachers Together

Helping new English Language Teachers in their profession


“The mind is like a sponge, soaking up endless drops of knowledge." - Robert M. Hensel

Unite ELT

Unite English Language Teachers Branch

ELT for beginners

Tips and resources to help you succeed

Transformations of an EFL teacher

Reflections of an English as a foreign language teacher..

English-Language Thoughts

English-Language Thoughts

TEFL Planet

All things TEFL and beautiful!

%d bloggers like this: