Cecilia Lemos

iTDi Research Issue – Cecilia

Correct Me If I’m WrongCeciliaLemos

Penny Ur (1991) warns us of the two distinguished components of feedback: assessment (“informing the learner how well or badly he or she has performed”) and correction (“giving the learner specific information – through explanation, provision of better alternatives or elicitation of those from the learner”). This post focuses on correction; both recent research on the topic and my own take on the effectiveness or applicability of theories and approaches in the real language classroom.

Due to my more active take on professional development in recent years, I have started to experiment with correction in the classroom. This may be a result of a post-graduate course I took on assessment with the University of Maryland in 2011, or of my reading for the Delta certificate, or of my participation in conferences and ELT-related discussions and reading. I used to teach in the way I was taught to teach, using the “Communicative Approach” to teaching – or someone’s understanding of it, at least. That meant we should avoid direct correction (to prevent students raising their affective filter) and do a lot of recasting (or reformulation).

The first thing that I let go was the ‘automatic praise’. I was taught to respond audibly positively when a student gave me a correct answer. “Excellent”, “Perfect” and “Very good” became my best friends, and I repeated them over and over. And then I questioned doing that. There is some evidence that the regular use of ‘Very Good’ delivered in a particular tone and/or package may be inhibiting learning opportunities at least in form-focused context.  (Wong & Waring, 2009). At IATEFL 2012 in Glasgow I was also touched by Jim Scrivener’s mention (in his talk about ‘Demand High ELT’) of “empty praise” – or saying those ready-made words/ phrases so often it stopped having any effect on students. It also relates to a reference about students being unimpressed by praise or criticism if they didn’t get the reasons for it (Williams & Burden 1999).

So I started, very consciously and thinking about it, to avoid giving that ‘empty praise’. Instead, I just moved on and started correcting the student whose answer prevented intelligibility. At this point I have to say I also relied on Reigel (2008) saying that positive feedback,( including responses such as head nods  – and ‘ok’ hand signs, I hope) is more likely to have an impact on the language learner than forced or contingent praise. I also relied on Willis & Willis (2008) about praising learners for good words or phrases, making them more likely to take risks and experiment with other new words and more complex utterances. I also made a point to praise questions and critical thinking in class.

I started to challenge recasting in my teaching, because I had made it my main form of correction and didn’t think it was very effective as such. I always had the feeling the students had no idea they were being corrected. More than anything, I became a ‘direct corrector’. Going against everything I had learned about the communicative approach, I started correcting my students, many times, by saying “That is not how you say it” or “Are you talking about last weekend? Because you used the verbs in the present…”

The effect this change in my teaching had on the students was noticeable. As far as I can see, it has been working better than before. The students have a much bigger sense of accomplishment and learning. They say they can objectively see what they are doing wrong (as opposed to recasting where most of them did not realize they were being corrected) and then they pay closer attention to it. They register it. Some of them may even write it down on their notebooks (as notes such as “We don’t say `I HAVE 26 years old` but rather `I AM 26 years old`.) More than anything, the students work harder at not making the same mistakes. The teacher (me!) feels better about correcting students on the spot (keeping in mind the “intelligibility” main mast) and being careful about tone and rapport. When I mention rapport I mean some extremely insecure and shy students prefer (and respond better) to more individual, after-class feedback… an individual look is still essential.

At the end of the semester I explained to my A1 CEFR students (the second semester studying English) what recasting was, and how I had done it differently with them (by clearly pointing out mistakes and correcting pronunciation that prevented understanding). And they thanked me (they even threw a party for me!), because they said they had felt their own learning.

Bottom-line: should I correct my learners in a direct way and making sure they know they’re being corrected? Using the right tone, and knowing each learner, my experiment has told me “YES” with positive echoes among my students.

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Cecilia Lemos

Cecilia Lemos has been an English teacher in her hometown of Recife in Brazil, for 17 years. She is passionate about teaching for its power of transforming people and their future. She’s also an enthusiast about sharing and learning with other teachers around the world, especially through the use of social media. She loves books and languages.

9 thoughts on “iTDi Research Issue – Cecilia”

  1. Dear Cecilia,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post and thanks for sharing your own classroom experience.

    I also learned about recasting and reformulating when I started teaching at an initial TTcourse and also during the Celta. On the other hand, classroom experience has proved, at least to me, that we should challenge students and demand more, as you mentioned Scrivener’s talk at the Iatefl last year.

    Last week, with a group of CEFR A1 group, I explained that ‘Yes, I do.’, as suggested by the book, was a correct answer to the question ‘Do you agree…?’. But after listening to their answers, I went further and wrote on the board that they could also say: ‘Sure. / Definitely. / Absolutely.’ Ss wrote down these other possibilities, not present in the course book – probably because they would see those expressions on the A2 , B1 course book.

    Going back to the issue of research x classroom practice, I believe both should go together, but we should never let theory alone blur our beliefs and our experience. We should rather question how these theories fit in our context and our personal experience.

    Thank you again for your post!

    Eduardo Santos

    1. Hi Eduardo!

      I completely agree with you on the “that we should challenge students and demand more”. The situation you described in your class is something I always do in my groups, eliciting and giving them alternatives to saying something. A classic example is that my groups know that in my classes we don’t accept “I’m fine, thank you” as a response to my initial “Hello, how are you today?” in the beginning of each class, as they settle down. It’s a good answer and a usual one as well, but they have to give me alternatives. So they give me (and sometimes I scaffold) others, and I write them on the board. They’re used to it by now, and they are always trying to bring new ones to class. I think it’s our job not only to challenge them to go beyond what the books give, but more importantly make it true to them and their realities – not to mention making them aware of what they may hear when THEY are the ones asking the question.

      Regarding research, I also see eye to eye with you on that. I think those of us like you and me (and so many others) who are in the classroom, teaching, should make an effort to bridge the gap that exists between research and practice. We should challenge and think critically when we come upon research. But yes, we should also use research to our advantage and experiment with it in our teaching, test it and honestly assess whether it is applicable and realistic in our every day and contexts.


  2. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful and inspiring post Cecilia.

    When I moved towards a learner-centered approach, I started seeing teaching from another point of view and therefore it was hard not to investigate reality in a way that I had to put to the test what I read/studied. I also realized that the reality was much more complex and demmanded much more thinking and knowledge than I would have thought when I first started teaching. Once in, I never thought of anything else I could be doing, so there is not another option than doing it the best I can. And that includes learning to investigate my own classroom and teaching practice.

    I have been wondering about I correct students myself and your post gave me some food for thought. Thank YOU. 🙂


    1. Hi Rose,

      What you said really resonates with my own take on research, practice and eventual (?!) discrepancies between the two. But it’s when teachers are not threatened or limited by research and what is written and said that makes a difference. And you seem to be in that group of teachers 🙂 I loved what you said: “And that includes learning to investigate my own classroom and teaching practice”.

      We should all be continuously doing that, to not settle, to adjust to our own teaching realities and contexts, and also to accompany the ever-changing way our students learn.

      I’m happy the post gave you food for thought. That’s ALWAYS a great thing – and it was my intention as well.


  3. Cecilia,

    Thank you so much for your post and your research into correction.

    Correction is one of the important aspects of teaching so often neglected though. However, for some students it’s the cornerstone of teaching and learning: they believe that the primary duty of a teacher is to explain the rules and correct mistakes, and if they aren’t corrected they aren’t learning. This point of view might seem extreme, but your considerable experience and research into correction clearly show that correction does play an important role in learning helping learners become more aware of their mistakes.

    In this respect, Jim Scrivener’s presentation on Demand High Approach, I was lucky to attend last June in Moscow, became an eye-opener to me showing how much damage can be done to learners with overexaggerated exclamation remarks teachers make every time and then. I realized then that it’s time to revise this “empty praise” approach and it’s time for teachers to resume their mentor’s position in the classroom and provide students with explicit correction and explanation what is right and wrong.

    And I should admit, Ceci, that when I made the first feeble step towards Demand High Approach in my teaching and started correcting learners more explicitly, I was surprised with how naturally and positively my students reacted to it as if they’d always expected that from me.

    So, the morale here is that we shouldn’t be afraid to be confident teachers and to give our students the things they need, the correction being one of them.

    Thank you, Ceci, for bringing this issue to light again.

    1. Hi Sasha!

      We appear to see eye to eye and to be in very similar moments as far as oral correction and our classroom practices regarding correction. I do think its important to stress that (as I know you know and do too) balance is the key. Knowing when to correct and how to address the different types mistakes, moments of the class and students is essential.

      But my whole point is making sure teachers realize its ok to correct… Not only i’ts ok, but necessary and helpful in the learning process. The feeling I get here in Brazil is that teachers are very afraid of correcting mistakes when students are speaking, that correcting the students’ oral performance is “always” a bad, counterproductive idea.

      In any case, at least many of us are reflecting and discussing the issue, no that’s positive already!

      Thanks for stopping by and I’m sorry it took me so long to reply!


  4. Dear Ceci,

    What a great mix of research, reflections and practical tips!

    Jim Scrivener’s call for “interventionist teaching” last year in Glasgow did strike a chord in me too and I do agree that by making students aware of the ‘why’ rather than just the ‘what’ when they make a mistake, it will eventually make a difference.

    Looking forward to more of your reflections soon. 🙂



  5. Hey D,

    So sorry it took me so long to reply to your comment!

    Yes, it seems Jim’s talk last year in Glasgow struck a cord in many of us in the audience. Of course each of us has a different teaching reality and different students… But stopping to reflect and possibly reassess the way we do / are doing things in the classroom, without fear… To be able to question the way we were taught to teach, to question beliefs that were passed on to us regarding ELT and language acquisition, that alone makes a difference I think.

    I believe I am a more effective teacher now. I’m certainly more confident about why and how I do things the way I do 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by and giving your feedback.


  6. Hi Cecilia, I have just now read your post after joining this facebook page. Firstly I wanted to congratulate you on your recent webinar via BELTA last week. This is the second time that I have had the opportunity to listen to your views on correction feedback and on each occasion I have found myself not only agreeing with you more, but also there are questions forming in my head! I am a fairly late addition to the TEFL teaching community and have only worked for four years as a teacher. I am now studying for a TESOL Diploma. I find it hard, challening but extremely rewarding as I am gaining knowledge at a tremendous pace! The reason that I mention my continuing development as a teacher is that I believe that this ties in with both error correction and the increasingly popular ideas put forth by the Demand High principles. It is only recently that I have actually had the confidence to explicitly correct my students. Like you, I was taught that recasting and encouragement are the norm in the communicative language classroom. But, deep down inside myself I always felt that there were times when explicit correction was necessary and yet I found myself sometimes holding back because I was almost afraid of the questions that might follow from the student – particularly pertaining to grammar! As my language awareness is improving through my own personal development journey, I find that I am more confident to deal head on with the intricacies of grammatical errors that my students experience. Therefore do you think that there would be any mileage in the suggestion that less experienced teachers are more likely to use feedback techniques that, although they are supposed to help the students, are actually just a way for the teacher to shy away from having to deal with the questions that might arise? I have to do my IR project shortly and am tentatively thinking of trying to research if confidence and experience might have an influence on how some teachers ‘ignore errors’ not because it impedes the flow of communication, but simply because they can’t correct in a meaningful way. I would love to know your thoughts on this and only hope that I haven’t offended any new teachers in the progress!

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