Our students make mistakes while learning a new language, and we as teachers have to deal with those mistakes every day. How should we do that so that learners keep learning instead of getting demotivated? In this issue, Chris Mares, Marc Jones, and John Pfordresher share their ideas on the vital matter of error correction.
The term “error correction” is problematical as the word “error” has a negative connotation, when, in fact, “errors” are a necessary part of learning and language acquisition process. Without testing hypotheses and getting meaningful feedback on “errors”, learners would not be able to master language.
However, teachers need to provide meaningful and constructive feedback at appropriate times. Naturally the issues to consider are firstly, what constitutes meaningful feedback, secondly, how we give it constructively, and thirdly, when is an appropriate time.
Knowing about languages helps
I often get asked if a teacher needs to speak the students’ first language in order to teach them. I say, “No,” but it helps. More importantly, it is helpful to know about the students’ first language. If you know something about Japanese, you will know that articles and prepositions will be an issue. If you know something about Chinese, you will know that verb tenses will be an issue. And if you know something about Spanish, you will know that word order will be an issue in general and sentence length will be an issue in the written form.
Two general points to consider are whether “correction” is necessary at a particular time and whether it will achieve anything. Consider the adage “telling is not teaching”. Telling a student that she has made an error does not necessarily result in a benefit for the learner. However, training students to notice their own language will help them. It’s worth remembering that students don’t need to focus on all the errors they make and correcting all errors will be demoralizing and counterproductive.
In small classes
In small classes it is reasonable to give regular feedback to both spoken and written errors, and to have a sense of who knows what and who needs what. The trick is to maintain the pace of the lesson and the energy of the class while providing useful feedback to all learners.
In large classes
In large classes it is difficult to provide meaningful, regular, and individual feedback to either spoken or written output. However, it is possible to monitor the class as a whole, look for common errors, and give feedback in a more general sense at strategic points in the class, or in review sessions.
Feedback on spoken errors
Echoing works. For example, a student makes an error such as, “Yesterday, I go shopping,” and the teacher simply echoes the preferred response, “went”. Over time and with regular echoing, students will begin to notice and correct their own errors. The teacher must be principled in terms of deciding what items to echo. This will depend on the level of the student and the type of error being made. If the error is minor and doesn’t impinge on the clarity of the message, then consider ignoring it. However, if the error leads to a lack of clarity in the message or the teacher regards it as significant, then that would be the time to echo.
Feedback on written errors
I recently attended a presentation by a young Saudi teacher on burning the midnight oil. I very much enjoyed it and whole-heartedly agreed. Essentially the message was – don’t burn the midnight oil. You don’t have to. Correcting all errors in a piece of writing will achieve little except demoralize the student. Focus on particular types of error only. Vary the focus. If the assignment is a long one, focus on one error type for the whole assignment and then choose three lines, highlight them, and correct all the errors. This will give students a snapshot of the type of errors they make and have made throughout the assignment.
Students need feedback and students need correction. However, they don’t need all errors to be corrected all the time. The art of teaching includes deciding which errors to correct, when and how to correct them.
Individual learners need feedback that is particular to their own learning curve, while groups of learners need feedback that is relevant to the group as a whole.
Learning when to give feedback and how best to give it takes time. Observe yourself. Reflect. Ask yourself what you choose to correct, when, and why. Over time you will arrive at a framework that works best for you in the context you teach.
As with other teaching and classroom management techniques, I find error correction to be an iterative process of experimentation. By keeping records of (1) the methods I use, (2) student progress, (3) student engagement, and (4) recognition of any contextual scenarios surrounding successes and failures, I gain a clearer picture of the effectiveness of whichever mixture of the formula I try. These records, along with student feedback, help me adjust my methodology with direction and purpose.
As each classroom audience is highly specific to the context of the course, I have developed some variables that might be considered useful to formulating your own formula.
Routine – I have found that, when working with error correction (as with much else), routine helps students to focus on the accuracy of their language rather than the specific process of error correction.
The Individual and the Whole – When considering which errors to correct and how to do so, I take into account whether the error is unique to the individual or is common amongst other students in the class. Observing production through this prism helps me to develop clear, effective, and pointed notes as to the progress of the class as a whole as well as each individual within it.
Common Errors – The longer I teach a course the better I get at preemptively addressing common errors. But there are plenty of times in which a subset of the class will develop an error in production that was unanticipated. To deal with these common errors, I provide instruction to the class as a whole. Following a short-burst of instruction, I have classmates pair or team up to work on some activity directly addressing the error in question.
1 to 1 – Finding ways of providing individual support for students and their unique progress and struggles does a number of positive things for the teacher-student relationship. It also communicates to the student my interest and personal stake in their learning and growth.
Keep It SMART –
As with creating my own goals and objectives for class, students need SMART goals and objectives for their learning. I take the responsibility for directing their implicit understanding of their goals and objectives towards concrete, clear, and explicit SMART goals. I like working in tandem with students whenever possible as I find it provides for student agency. Additionally, being concrete and explicit helps students to fine-tune their attention when producing language.
Touching Base – Touching base here means routinely connecting with learners and inquiring about the progress they’re making towards their SMART goals. Making specific inquiries as to each individual’s goals is further reinforcement of the fact that I am invested in their progress.
Oftentimes, learners are graded on their progress towards the curricular goals of the course. Having hard evidence of student progress is important when justifying final assessments of learning. Even without grades and the like, having evidence of student progress as well as their continued struggles is vital to assisting students in intelligently moving forward in their learning journeys.
Written production easily provides for the collection of evidence of student progress. In fact, it often tends to provide so much evidence that it turns out to be overwhelming. Finding solutions that allow for the exploitation of this evidence is crucial to productively utilizing student production in the efforts to increase their accuracy. If students do not feel supported or see the point of their productive efforts, their motivation can easily be adversely affected.
As opposed to written productive evidence, spoken productive evidence can be very hard to come by. Teachers will often utilize projects or presentations to record students’ production for later use as evidence of meeting curricular goals. This practice, however useful, can only provide a few, high-stakes examples of spoken production.
Personally, I find observation notes an indispensible resource when gathering evidence of student progress towards spoken production goals, but this method too has its limitations. One option here is the use of technology, which can provide the tools to document and develop an error correction strategy for speaking. Using almost any phone available today, students can record themselves responding to a specific prompt or while in conversation with their classmates. The production occurs and is recorded. Afterwards, students can work with the recording either individually or in teams to transcribe their output to the best of their abilities. Then, both teacher and students will have a concrete, tangible snapshot of class-wide and individualized speaking abilities. Going further, a student could email transcript and recording to the teacher. This would provide for efficient and personalized guidance on improving accuracy through an email exchange. Students might see errors they never realized before. Many times, such email exchanges have provided much more honest and open feedback from students than similar exchanges had in person or in a classroom atmosphere.
There are, indeed, all sorts of methods that may prove successful in assisting learners with their productive accuracy. As the title of this post suggests, I am constantly reevaluating and adjusting the ways and methods in which I correct errors. There is no “one size fits all” solution to error correction.
When I’m listening to learners, I take notes. I bet you do, too. I’m listening to things they say and don’t say. Things that sound normal and things that sound too normal to be normal, if you get what I mean. Sometimes, when I treat my learners’ errors, I’m not just feeding correct vocabulary and grammar, the meat and potatoes of language teaching. There’s more to life than meat and potatoes, though they may be staples. In this post I’m going to show you some of the things I do, allow you a glance at my cookbook, if you like.
Pronunciation being massively under-taught in my context, I hear incorrect vowel sounds every now and then. One of the things that works best for me is just to have my learners open or close their mouths more while voicing a vowel, then rounding or spreading their lips to find the vowel in question as necessary. When they get there, I give the OK, elicit the word that was mispronounced, drill the correct pronunciation, and then get it in a short utterance.
If your learners are too formal or too casual with you or other learners, it looks like they have a pragmatics problem to solve. Often learners know the language they need but just don’t know how and when to use it. A simple, “say that more formally” or “say that more casually” can do the trick, but you might need to stop, give a few reformulations at different registers, have learners rank them by level of formality or distance, and give situations they might be used in.
Topics and Comments
“I went to Hawaii. It was hot. It was beautiful. It had a lot of beautiful beaches. It had a lot of…”
Learners don’t mean to sound boring. Some could be telling one of the most thrilling battles against cyborgs hired to kill the Illuminati and still sound uninteresting because they can’t sort out their topics and comments. Often, in stories, we organise our sentences by a majority pattern of “TOPIC (A) – COMMENT (B). TOPIC (B) – COMMENT (C). TOPIC (C) – COMMENT (D),” and so on. This might need painstaking teacher listening and you might often not be able to catch it in large classes, but it is something that learners definitely struggle with. Something like “I went to Hawaii. It was beautiful and hot. What was most beautiful were the beaches. There were also…” is more natural and you get to stretch your learners to give output beyond one or two basic grammar points.
These three areas of correction really paid off for me in seeing learner improvement. It’s not that grammar or vocabulary errors need to be ignored: they don’t, and your learners will probably get annoyed if you stop correcting these. The problem is that these other kinds of errors are hardly ever looked at in teaching materials, and so hardly ever get looked at by teachers, because unless you’re really looking for them, or unless the errors are jarring, you might miss them. By being aware you might just lead your learners to a wider range of linguistic foods to build their skills. Bring on the broccoli and artichokes in cranberry roulade!