To correct or not to correct?
Different teachers have different views on this question, sometimes based on well thought out theories, or observation of learning in practice, and sometimes… Well, sometimes not.
Being corrected: how does it feel?
The thinking goes that learners, being delicate hothouse plants will wither if corrected, and no longer be able to bloom. Well, actually, in fact it is true that most of us have mixed feelings about being corrected. Nobody likes to think that they have made a mistake… after all, some of us grew up with parents and teachers etc. who penalised errors at every turn, so of course, we react badly when “we make a mistake”: it is an irrational emotional reaction to something that we learned was “bad” at a very deep level. On the other hand, most of us want to be able to improve whatever it is we are learning and to become more effective so in language learning this means knowing what those errors are and learning how the language works so that we can express ourselves as well as possible. These are all reasons why the usual approach for teachers is to correct “sensitively” as generations of teacher trainees have been told, and yet this often translates, particularly for new teachers who are unsure about so many areas of teaching (after all they are learning too ) into not correcting at all, with the justification of not “hurting students’ feelings”.
How can we get away from the idea that “errors” are BAD; BAD; BAD?
I would go slightly further than saying that we need to correct sensitively and say that we need a shift in perspective, where errors are seen as an interesting side effect of the language learning process. Once they are robbed of their explosive emotional charge, we can start to look at why they occur, and how they differ from the standard usage. If, for instance, a student chooses the word “side”, saying or writing “on the one side” when what they want to say is “on the one hand” it is interesting for that learner to be able to see how the target language differs from their L1, and by analysis and further experimentation using the “correct form” they will be able to integrate it into their own personal English lexicon. This is just one example of how error analysis can be of great value to learners, once the idea of the “terrible mistake” has been banished from the equation.
The question of when and how to correct of course is also important and there are various considerations for all of us as teachers to bear in mind: here are three of the fundamental ones, in my view:
1) What is the aim of the task the learners are doing?
2) What and How do you intend to correct?
3) Where will the learner go next?
So let’s look at each if these questions in turn:
1) What is the aim of the task the learners are doing?
This is the first thing to think of, in my view, because if your task focuses on fluency or is a warmer at the beginning of a lesson, then it may not be so appropriate to correct learners directly or even at all, and this is true whether we are thinking about written or oral production. We all know what happens when students are in the middle of a discussion and the teacher intervenes and says: “Go?.. In the past?” trying to elicit “went” or any of the other correction techniques we all use: the students, obviously, stop thinking about the ideas they were discussing and focus on accuracy. The underlying message here is that what is important is getting it right not exchanging or communicating your ideas. Of course, there is a time for accuracy. I’d be the first person to say this, but not when we are focusing on fluency.
This is why we have the idea of indirect correction too. You might choose to make a note of language points during a discussion, for later use in an accuracy slot, or you might
simply choose to have a space for expression and not correct at all. My own personal example of informal expression space for my learners is our learners’ Facebook page, where we often extend discussions that we have started in class, and it is an informal space where people post their ideas and “talk to each other”. This is made clear at the start of term, and the learners are happy because they can experiment there and they know at correction will be taken care of in other places. However, even here, if I see something of particular interest, or if I have noticed interesting language points in student homework or in class that I want to underline, I will post these points on the Facebook page with explanations, comments and space for experimentation. This is once again , with the idea of analysing language, drawing attention to things and building on their knowledge, rather than penalising them for something that is “wrong”. It is also helpful to point out good language use as well, things that you find particularly expressive from learners’ work as we can never have too much praise as long as it is genuine. What is also nice is that learners have naturally started asking for help in their Facebook posts too, for vocabulary etc. in a very natural way without feeling that they will be judged negatively for not knowing something.
I am very much in favour of accuracy slots in lessons, to deal with language areas that need work, and these, like everything else need to become part of the learning system. This leads us on to the second question.
2) What do you intend to correct?
When I first started teaching I was very enthusiastic and I intervened directly correcting pronunciation grammar, vocabulary choice etc. when clarifying models, and particularly when trying to provide learners with clear models to use. When my learners were doing group work I made copious notes of all their errors and then had accuracy slots where I wrote up their errors for them to correct, and did the occasional grammar auction as well as other activities. All of this, I am sure, was very helpful for my students, but looking back I think I did not really focus systematically on what I was correcting so I just wrote down the errors I heard. All this, I now think, may well have been too much input for my learners so I now try to focus on various themes. I may choose a particular pronunciation point that I hear repeated, or focus on collocations for vocabulary, or one or two particular grammar areas, such as misuse of the definite article for general plural nouns, etc. and then focus on this. I also try to find effective usage of the same points for learners to see as well. I tend to add an experimentation phase these days, after the cognitive work involved in correcting the errors too, as I am convinced that the more learners “use the language” the more they make it their own, and noticing an error, correcting it and then using the correct form is a step towards greater mastery.
How important is Language Awareness?
Of course, language awareness is only one of the skills that a teacher needs, but let’s face it we are teaching a language, and if we are not aware of how that language works it will be extremely difficult for us to help our learners to use it. If your driving instructor did not know what the mirrors were for you wouldn’t put a lot of faith in him/her, would you?
Being aware of language for teachers also means being aware not only of the errors being made, but being aware of the process of learning and the progress learners are making too. If a learner chooses the wrong verb in a collocation, such as “the writer gives importance to…”, they are still experimenting to use that phrase so teachers should, I think, be helping them to navigate these exciting waters of lexical discovery, not getting them to walk the plank for making a mistake. This is not so easy to do as it may seem, as what tends to hit us smack on the nose is the error, rather than the process of experimentation behind it. There are those who cling to accuracy at all costs, interfering at inappropriate times, such as when learners are working on fluency or even when they are trying to read or listen to something, since they perceive “correcting errors” or “explaining unknown words” as being the major role in their job. This is not, of course, something I am advocating as I feel that recognition of a learner’s interlanguage is crucial, and giving praise for effort is essential to encourage and motivate our students.
3) Where will the learner go next?
As I mentioned above, I believe that after recognising and correcting their errors learners need to be able to work with the “correct forms”. If the correction is done directly as part of the clarification of new language models then the students will presumably have the opportunity to experiment with these forms later in the lesson. If the errors come up in written language they can be dealt with in various ways. My students are all familiar with the correction code I use and our normal procedure is as follows:
1) a written task is set.
2) students post their written work on a noticeboard like linoit (Here is an example of some recent work we have been doing. Learners were asked to write descriptions of their favourite places which we were later going to publish on Tripadvisor.)
3) I correct their texts with Markin’ a great correction tool. and then publish these texts on our class blog. Scroll right down until you come to a section in the second term called Week Four “My Place” and under this you will see a word document called “My Place Word” and you will see what these texts look like.)
4) Students then come to my office hours to discuss their corrections.
5) The texts are reviewed and revised and finally published for global consumption on Tripadvisor.
Points 4) and 5) of this process are, in my view, perhaps the most interesting because the learners go back to their texts, having learned how to look more carefully at how the language works and they then publish those texts for a real reason. This is no longer an exercise in class but becomes a real communicative act in the big wide world. When other people then comment on their texts on tripadvisor the whole thing becomes even more exciting and brings it home to them that they are actually using English effectively. This is its own high!
This, of course, is merely one example of how to integrate correction in a positive way into the learning process.
So, I think, at the end of this little foray into language analysis we have come a long way really from the traditional idea of correction as being the righting of wrongs, and in fact it is more like a crystal sphere which learners can learn to benefit from, seeing how the language works and how to make their own expression more effective. So, let’s keep on helping our learners to improve their own English and to enjoy discovering new language and magical new ways of communicating with each other and the rest of the world.