Error correction – Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury

What are errors & how should we  deal with them in our classes?

– Scott Thornbury

When I first started teaching the answer to these two questions was clear and unproblematic. What are errors? They are any departure from standard English. How should we deal with them? We should correct them lest they become ‘bad habits’.

Subsequently, these two questions have become the most difficult, problematic and mysterious of all questions related to language teaching.

What are errors? We simply don’t know any more. Why? Because there is no agreed upon standard by which to measure learners’ output. For a start, there are so many varieties of native speaker English (both spoken and written) that it’s impossible to decide if a sentence like ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ is ‘wrong’ or not. On top of that, many learners are not interested in speaking ‘native speaker’ English anyway.

What should we do about errors? Research suggests that correcting errors has only an accidental effect on accuracy, and that many so-called errors (like failure to add –s to present simple third person singular verbs, as in she work) are an inevitable stage of language learning, and are extremely resistant to correction. On the other hand, if we don’t correct errors we may send out a message that accuracy doesn’t matter, which may threaten the long-term language development of our learners. Also, we need to be aware that excessive correction can be very de-motivating for many learners, while not to correct errors will make us look incompetent in the eyes of other learners.

In short, errors, and the way we handle them, are an enormous puzzle, and I would be fascinated to know how you deal with this puzzle yourself.


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Staying healthy and motivated – Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury

What Motivates You As A Teacher? 

— Scott Thornbury

It’s not the best of times to be a teacher. In Spain, where I live, and in response to the deteriorating economic situation, the government has just announced an increase in class numbers and an increase in teachers’ hours. Not only is this likely to reduce the quality of education, but it reinforces a perception that teachers are undervalued (there’s no concomitant increase in teachers’ salaries, of course) and it contributes very little to teachers’ self-esteem. Not very motivating!

It’s worth reminding ourselves, though, that – even if our governments don’t value us – our students do. Who, apart from their parents and siblings, has made the biggest impression on their lives, after all? Ask anyone to name a formative influence on their lives and chances are, they’ll name a teacher.

What do teachers do, then, to validate their role in education and to retrieve a measure of self-respect?

I decided to ask my Twitter followers. My question: What motivates you as a teacher?

These are some of the answers I got:

As I sifted through the responses, I found they fell into four main areas:

  1. Learner feedback/ results. For example: “I love when the light comes on in a student’s eyes and you know that they’ve ‘got it”
  2. External validation: “Appreciation also helps to raise motivation..whether from students or from your boss”
  3. Intrinsic drive: “Continuous professional development & using my new knowledge to help students”
  4. Peer support/community: “What keeps me going is the experience of knowing extraordinary people every year”

Each of these areas is within the teacher’s control. 1. You can get results, because you know what you’re doing, and you do it well; 2. Your students – and even your boss – will appreciate you if you do your job; 3. You can push yourself even further, because you’re always learning; and 4. You can become part of a community of teachers who you care for, and who care for you.

And (with regard to point 4) that’s why ITDi is such a great idea: it extends the notion of community to a global level.


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Breaking Rules – Scott

Scott Thornbury
Scott Thornbury
Academic Director

Rules Are Made To Be Broken  —  Scott Thornbury

The first rule that I broke as a new teacher was using translation in class. I can’t remember being told not to, but everything on my initial training was geared to a direct method, no mother-tongue, kind of methodology. Moreover, translation was considered an unreliable means of conveying meaning, given the differences between languages and cultures. One person’s clock is another person’s watch, so it’s better to use a picture of a watch than to say ‘watch’, lest the students think it is a clock, or vice versa. For these reasons, translation was considered to be a highly sophisticated skill, only to be tackled with the most advanced students.

“The use of the students’ mother tongue need not be a taboo, and that in fact it can be exploited as a very natural prompt for real communication”

But I did it with beginners. I was teaching in Egypt, and had to teach a lesson on basic description using there is…/there are…, adjectives, it’s got… it hasn’t got…, and so on, the theme  being towns and villages. The towns and villages in the coursebook did not look like the towns and villages the students were used to, so I had a problem. I wanted to base the lesson around the kinds of village that my students would visit when they went home for the weekend, villages with mosques, sugar factories, covered markets, and maybe the odd Pharaonic monument. I would have used a picture of one had I had one, but I didn’t. So I had this idea of asking the school receptionist, who I knew came from Upper Egypt, to describe her village onto a tape, and to do it in Arabic. I hardly spoke any Arabic and I used this to my advantage. I took the tape into the class and asked my beginners to help me make sense of it. More than information gap, there was a language gap, and they were eager to fill it. I played it line by line and they shouted a rough translation at me, using mainly words rather than structures: “Mosque!  Ferry!” and so on.   I would stop and reformulate what they were telling me onto the board. It went something like this: “My village is very nice, it’s very quiet, it’s on the Nile, there is a large mosque in the centre, there is a sugar factory, there’s a primary school but there isn’t a secondary school. There is no university either. There is a ferry across the Nile.” And so on. By the time we had translated it reformulated it and put it on the board we had all the structures we needed for describing a town or village. And for practice, of course, they described their own villages – not so very different from the school receptionist’s.

“I learned that rules are made to be broken, and even if the resulting experience is not as productive as my Egyptian village lesson, you can always learn something from experimenting”

What did I learn from that lesson? That the use of the students’ mother tongue need not be a taboo, and that in fact it can be exploited as a very natural prompt for real communication. Nor is translation necessarily a very sophisticated skill – as we now know, thanks to online translation tools. I also learned that rules are made to be broken, and even if the resulting experience is not as productive as my Egyptian village lesson, you can always learn something from experimenting.


Read more of Scott’s work on his groundbreaking An A to Z of ELT blog. Connect with Scott and other iTDi Associates, Mentors, and Faculty by joining iTDi Community. Sign Up For A Free iTDi Account to create your profile and get immediate access to our social forums and trial lessons from our English For Teachers and Teacher Development Courses.

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iTDi Research Issue – Scott

On Research and Taking it Forward

Scott Thornbury

I guess I’m a big picture kind of person. I like to see (and report on) major shifts and trends, and generalize these to the widest range of contexts. So I have some problems with the issue of research – not the idea, so much as the reality. It seems to me that it is difficult to reconcile the tension between wanting to prove something worthwhile, on the one hand, and, on the other, needing to train one’s lens as narrowly as possible, in order to eliminate extraneous ‘noise’, and to deliver results that will be even remotely credible.

Years ago, Peter Strevens warned that ‘perhaps the biggest single piece of self-discipline required of the individual who undertakes a programme of research is to limit his [sic] subject, to cut it down and prune it and cut it down again until it really is a single project capable of being completed in a reasonable time’. And he adds, ‘the almost universal tendency is to take on too large a subject and to become so embroiled that it is never completed, or else it becomes dangerously superficial’ (1968:27).

‘Dangerously superficial’ is my middle name! I would love, for example to demonstrate that you can learn a language in classrooms simply by using it. But to do that I will have to (1) define ‘using it’ in ways that are measurable; (2) conduct research with a wide range of learners in terms of age, nationality, first language, motivation, level, etc – and (3) for each combination have a control group that is evenly matched with the experimental classes in every particular, including the teacher. Impossible, frankly.

So, I am reduced to conducting a much smaller-scale study: for example, following just one group of learners over a relatively short period of time, and comparing the results of a post-test with a pre-test. Whatever results I get will be suggestive at best, unlikely to be significant, and easily refutable by anybody who doesn’t want to believe them.

Of course, there’s the ‘grain of sand’ argument, i.e. that a lot of small-scale studies like mine can add up to one big conclusion. This is the point of meta-analyses of the type that Norris and Ortega (2000) did, where they crunched together the results of lots of micro-studies to generate some fairly robust conclusions about the role of instructed learning. But to do a meta-analysis properly, you have to verify the tiniest details of every study, a tedious and possibly inconclusive process.

All this assumes that the point of research is to prove something. But, of course, research can be an end in itself. Like Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’, it may be that the destination is less important than the journey. What I learn along the way, either by changing some aspect of my practice, or by scrutinizing it more closely, can only serve me in good stead. In these terms, research is simply one stage of the larger reflective cycle, without which professional development is at risk of atrophying.

However, there are some issues I would really like to see investigated, not just for the sake of the journey, but for any results, however tentative, that the research might yield. Many of them relate to the way that language emerges, particularly through interaction. And many of them overflow into one another. For example,

  • What do learners learn from each other (e.g. in pair and group work) and how durable is this learning, compared to other possible sources?
  • Is there evidence that memorized whole phrases (or chunks) are re-analyzed into their constituents, and thereby ‘release’ their grammar, at some point?  If so, which kinds of phrases, and under what conditions?
  • By the same token, what are the conditions by which isolated elements (words, phrases) are chunked into larger units that are produced and interpreted holistically? That is to say, can grammar emerge out of a kind of bricolage process?
  • Is there any correlation between phase shifts (i.e. sudden leaps forward) in one system, e.g. grammar or pronunciation, and phase shifts in another (e.g. vocabulary)? And is the correlation a causal one, e.g. does the acquisition of a critical mass of vocabulary trigger changes in grammar? If so, can we put a number on it?
  • Just what do learners ‘appropriate’ (if anything) from their teachers in ‘scaffolded’ conversations? Again, what does it take before these externally-sourced items become internally-regulated? I.e. how does ownership occur, and how can the teacher facilitate the process?
  • How much incidental learning occurs in a language class? That is, how many words or expressions do learners pick up that weren’t necessarily targeted by the teacher? How durable is this learning, and what can be done to optimize it?

Any takers?



Norris, J.M. and Ortega, L. (2000) ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis’, Language Learning, 50, 417-528.

Strevens, P. (1968) ‘Linguistics and research in modern language teaching’, in Jalling, H. (ed.) Modern Language Teaching, London: Oxford University Press.

What I learned in 2012 – Scott

A Fairly Tech-y Year  

Scott Thornbury
Academic Director

What have I learned this year? What am I still learning?

It’s significant perhaps that most of my learning experiences this year have related to the uses of educational technology, not in the language classroom, but more as an aid to my day-job as teacher educator.  For example,

I learned how to write and design a complete MA TESOL module, and how to upload it onto a learning management system, without having to prevail upon our IT team back in New York. Previous courses I have written I simply handed over to them to put up. But, having learnt how to edit existing courses, I figured that it was not a major step to design and mount a whole course from scratch. I managed fine, and am proud of the fact that the course is multimodal, including text, videos, links to external material, and so on. The only thing I couldn’t master was pop-up answer windows. A learning objective for 2013?

I learned how to improve my webinar technique – I did three or four this year, including one with 700 online viewers and a Global Webinar for iTDi.  I’m still not happy with the way I handle interactivity in this medium, easier obviously, with smaller groups, but they lack of eyeball-to-eyeball contact, and the continuous chat stream, is a challenge I’m not yet comfortable with. I’m still learning that one.

I learned about the power of blogging, and that even when you stop blogging, the blog has a life of its own. My blog continues to get a fair few hits on a regular basis, even though I haven’t posted for six months. I also learned that it’s very useful to have an index on your blog, and the number of hits this gets is testimony to its usefulness for people looking for specific posts.

I also learned that adapting blog posts for e-book publication is more challenging than I had expected: trying to condense and summarize the comment threads and to incorporate these into the body of the text was an interesting exercise, while the more frozen form of an e-book – more like a book than a blog – requires a degree of concision and precision that blogging normally doesn’t. I’ll be interested to see how it turns out.

I already knew how useful YouTube is as a medium for broadcasting short video clips about matters relating to methodology and language, but this year I’ve learned how to incorporate text and graphics into video clips, such that they have become a substitute for blogging, perhaps.

I learned – through doing a Pecha Kucha on second language acquisition at an iTDi event following the JALT conference in Japan  – how much content can be packed into less than seven minutes:  it’s salutary to know that even big ideas can be delivered in small packages, especially when accompanied by some kind of mnemonic scaffolding – and I don’t mean a lot text! The value of concision, logical sequencing and simplicity was also something that I’ve been learning as I write and edit the lessons for the iTDi Teacher Development course.

I’ve learned the value of occasional Skype calls with my online students, both as an opportunity to touch base but also as a way of personalizing the somewhat faceless online learning environment.

Finally I’ve learned how to use Twitter for mainly public and professional purposes (announcing talks, forwarding interesting links, etc) and to use Facebook for the private and personal. But I’m not sure I haven’t got it the wrong way round!

So, all in all, it’s been a fairly tech-y year.  Maybe, as counterbalance, next year I need to get back in to real classrooms, low tech, and blackboards with a small b?