What are children’s perceptions of written feedback in helping them to improve their writing?

Rebecca O’Reilly is a part-time teacher in a Year 3 inner-London Primary school and carried out this research in her own class in 2014. As a busy teacher, and mother to a toddler, Rebecca wanted the time consuming process of ‘next step marking’ to have as much impact on learning gains as possible, and therefore researched this within her own practice. The research trialled a success and improvement next step marking strategy in Literacy for a class of Year 3 children. The children’s perceptions of current and trialled next step marking comments were examined through questionnaires and videoed group interviews. Themes from the children’s responses were explored including perceptions of approval and disapproval, self-efficacy, ability and goal orientation.


teacher with student

Library photo (C) Institute of Education 2015

The school in which I worked to carry out this research was a three form entry primary school, that served a diverse community, with those eligible for free school meals above the national average. The percentage of pupils with English not as a first language was above the national and the local authority average. After spending far too much time on next step marking comments for my Year 3 class in Literacy, I realised that I did not know whether the children found what I wrote helpful, or even what kind of impact it had on the children’s learning gains. I decided to find out what the children thought about comments in their Literacy books. I wanted to research the children’s perceptions, as it seemed as though their voice was missing from this process, and furthermore it was something that I felt was missing from my own understanding of my practice. I felt doubtful that the feedback that I was giving was having much impact on learning gains and that a more structured approach was needed.

What did I do?

I planned to trial a new form of giving feedback to support writing next-step comments. I used Clarke’s (2003) ‘success and improvement strategy for marking’. This method had four steps, and Steps 1- 3 were in sync with what was currently in place in the school. However, Step 3 gave further detail on how to give quality feedback for making the improvement (which is exactly what I found difficult); ‘reminder prompt’, ‘scaffolded prompt’ and an ‘example prompt’ (Clarke, 2003: 83). It was these frames for improvement that I wanted to trial as part of my feedback to give guidance and structure to the feedback I provided.

What was my research method?

TPupil writing[833]his was an action research project into my own feedback in my own class.  I used questionnaires and videoed group interviews to obtain my data. The questionnaires were of limited use, but the group interviews became a rich resource of information that developed the research. Furthermore, I analysed the comments that the children already had in their books into categories according to Tunstall and Gipps (1996) ‘Typology of teacher feedback’ to assess what type of comments children received, and possibly link their perceptions to the categories found. Nearly all of the categories set out by Tunstall and Gipps (1996) were identified in the children’s books, including negative evaluative comments.

Feedback: what did I find?

My analysis of current feedback showed that although improvement feedback was provided, most of the feedback was not clear enough for the child to make an improvement after reading it, and sometimes it contained conflicting comments. Analysing the feedback in this way highlighted the gaps in the improvement feedback and identified the need for change. Using Clarke’s (2003) ‘success and improvement strategy for marking’ allowed me to address this issue.

The different types of feedback which I trialled (such as a reminder, an example or ‘scaffolded feedback’) were found to be differentially helpful: higher attaining children found reminders more helpful than lower attaining children. Differentiated feedback, therefore, could help to provide a guide to what children might find helpful and this did help me in choosing feedback to give to different children (in deciding, for example, whether to offer a reminder prompt or scaffolded feedback). However, ability and attainment is not fixed and I sensed that something else was still needed to tailor feedback. I found that a sensitivity to a child’s level of self-efficacy was also helpful in differentiating feedback—a child with low self-efficacy may benefit from more structured feedback with an example prompt.

Feedback linked to quantity and presentation was not found to be helpful. Also, some negative self-evaluations were found in the pupils’ perceptions which could be linked to ‘approval or disapproval’ feedback which was found in their books (e.g. in response to happy or unhappy faces). During the research, a child was identified who received lots of negative evaluative feedback in their books; during the group interview the child struggled to find any feedback that had helped when prompted, despite there being evidence of improvement feedback provided for them in their books. This draws attention to the unintended consequences of feedback which inadvertently refers to aspects of the self and away from the task and its lasting impact. This finding was prominent and I felt it demonstrated the harm some feedback can do in preventing children moving forward.

Through this research, and through reading the current literature,  I have concluded that ability, self-efficacy and knowledge of the child all have a part to play in choosing what feedback to give. It is then a dialogue with the child that then becomes paramount.  Overall, there was no specific comment that was found most helpful, which supports Shute’s view that

‘there is no “best” type of formative feedback for all learners and learning outcomes’ (2008: 182).

photo 1 (2)-RNíRIt is the classroom culture, the self-efficacy and goal-orientation of the children, that are the high level factors in the impact of the feedback, as well as the feedback itself. Managing this in the classroom then becomes just as important as getting the feedback just right. It is this ‘multi-dimensional view of feedback’ (Shute, 2008: 176) that becomes salient along with the feedback itself. It is the teacher’s role, and their contributions to a development of learning and improvement, that will then impact on the writing of the feedback and hence how it is then received. I concluded that it was the teacher’s role within this cycle that could not be ignored, with a need to be reflective and consider some of the unintended consequences of feedback which may do more harm than good.


Rebecca’s full dissertation can be read here: Rebecca O’Reilly Dissertation


Clarke, S. (2003) Enriching Feedback in the Primary Classroom. London: Hodder Education

Shute, V. (2008) Focus on Formative Feedback. Review of Educational Research. 78.1 pp 153-189.

Tunstall, P and Gipps, C. (1996) How does your teacher help you to make your work better? Children’s Understanding of Formative Assessment. The Curriculum Journal, 7.2 pp 185-203.


One thought on “What are children’s perceptions of written feedback in helping them to improve their writing?

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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