Focus on the Positive: Give Speaking Feedback on the Good Stuff Students Say

We now know a lot more about the way our memory works these days, the way it makes associations to strengthen connections in the brain. For example, the more times you hear and understand (and also use) a phrase, let’s say ‘focus on the positive’, the stronger the connection in your brain between the meaning of that phrase and the form of the language that expresses it. So if someone said ‘focus in the positive’, it would sound a bit strange to you, even if you couldn’t really explain why. But what would happen if you spent a long time looking at ‘focus in the positive’, or hearing other people say it? Eventually it would begin to sound correct, as you would have been exposed to it more frequently and for longer than the correct version – your associative memory would have begun to connect its meaning with the incorrect form.


Now why am I going on about this? Well, think for a second the last time you gave a class some feedback on their speaking and spoken English. If you had them trying to correct the errors you’d heard, even as a student-centred pairwork activity, and then went through the corrections in feedback afterwards, you probably exposed your students to the incorrect forms for much longer than they focused on each correct one – so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if that were the ones they remembered.

This is of course an oversimplification, and there are good reasons for giving explicit negative feedback on errors, but what if in feedback on speaking we instead focused on the good language students used, to strengthen that in their memories? This is what Rebecca Vane (2020) recommends in Modern English Teacher earlier this year, and here I offer my own contribution to the discussion. These suggestions for the physical and online classrooms, which require no preparation, are intended to be picked from, adapted, ignored, or even used as the basis for an entire follow-up class.


1) Who said it? Why did they say it?

Monitor the interesting, meaningful, personalised speaking activity you’ve chosen. Prepare to write up on the board the good student utterances you want to focus on, making sure they are anonymous. In feedback, or at the start of the next class, pairs of students have to discuss them to guess which classmate said them and why / in what context. In feedback on this, encourage speculation from students, before the student who said it explains.

Note: When doing error correction, some students are afraid to lose face if their errors are made public, but as this is positive, it can be used to build confidence, as well as showing students their contributions are valued, and helping the group dynamic by learning about each other. So don’t just use utterances from the strongest student – if needs be you could reformulate weaker students’ utterances so they are correct, but don’t draw attention to this.

Twist: Why not dictate the correct student utterances, so they process them more deeply using different skills? They could then check in pairs and, in feedback, dictate them back to you as you write them on the board.


2) Ranking

Individual students rank the utterances according to some criterion you specify, e.g. which they like most. Put students into pairs/small groups to justify their order, or even try to reach an agreement.

Note: Consider not giving the utterances letters or numbers on the board so students have to actually say them, thereby strengthening them in their memory even more. Insist on this when students are giving you their order in feedback. This also allows another opportunity to focus on pronunciation.

Twist: Add variety by using different criteria for the ranking, e.g. which was most interesting / funniest / which they are most / least likely to say themselves etc.

3) What have we learnt?

Pairs of students identify as many features of grammar or vocab as they can in the utterances, So, for example, if we take ‘Focus on the positive’, they can identify the imperative (focus) dependent prepositions (focus on), definite article (the), uncountable noun (the positive).

Note: This is a very useful consolidation exercise, which is often overlooked in favour of rushing ahead with the next ‘new language’. It helps tie lots of language areas together, and give students the chance to assimilate lots of different language they’ve studied. It also appeals to very analytical learners.

Twist: Consider turning this into a competition, with more points awarded for the best analysis in feedback or the higher level language items.


4) Traffic Lights

Students highlight the utterances in red, orange or green to show how confident they are at using the language items identified above, e.g. red = I don’t ever use it / don’t use it accurately, orange = I sometimes use it, but sometimes with errors, green = I am very confident with this language.

Note: There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this, but it’s useful to engage students by making it personal, and the attached emotion may make the language more memorable.

Twist: Take this a step further, by then removing / covering the utterances for students to write down from memory. Afterwards, they discuss how accurate they were and if their traffic lights were right.


5) Language Research

These days many of our students are online or have devices they can use to research language on great websites and very accessible corpus linguistics tools (more on those in another blog post!). Pairs of students identify useful vocab and research its use and collocations in order to ‘be the teachers’ and give a mini-presentation to teach it to the class. Online, students could make powerpoint / google slide presentations, or in the classroom, physical posters.

Note: Try different sites yourself to see which you like for your class and their level. This takes a little learner training but it’s definitely worth it, not least to give students more control over their learning. Check out these great sites to explore different words’ collocations e.g.

Twist: If you have a monolingual class, you could use some translation corpus linguistic sites like


6) Let’s go again!

Research (Lynch et al 2000, Hawkes 2012) shows task repetition is a great way to increase accuracy, fluency and complexity, so repeat the original speaking task, but change the groups so students have different partners and therefore genuine communication. The task could be changed slightly but make sure it generates use of the same language you have been looking at in this class.

Note: Giving pairs of students chance to prepare together before this speaking activity will encourage them to experiment with all the language, but then separate the pairs to do the speaking activity with new people who haven’t already heard their ideas.

Twist: If students tend not to use new language in freer tasks, make it part of the task itself, e.g. use the notes on the board as a ‘checklist’ that students must include (as in ‘pushed output’). Or turn it into a competition to see which group can use most of these language items naturally.

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