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.